In Conversation with Danilo Pérez

By Tomas Peña

                            Danilo Pérez by Jos. L. Knaepen

Danilo Pérez was born in Panama in 1966. He began his musical career at the age of three under the tutelage of his father, a professional bandleader and vocalist. By the age of ten, he was studying the European classical piano repertoire at the National Conservatory in Panama, eventually transferring to the Berklee College of Music to study jazz. He has performed and/or recorded with a wide range of great musicians: Jon Hendricks, Terence Blanchard, Paquito D' Rivera, Wayne Shorter, Steve Lacy, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Tito Puente, Wynton Marsalis, Billy Cobham, John Patitucci, Tom Harrell, Gary Burton, and Roy Haynes, among them. A resident of Boston, Pérez is currently on the faculties of the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Pérez spoke with us about the making of his recent album on the Verve label, Across the Crystal Sea—a collaboration with the renowned arranger/conductor Claus Ogerman. In addition, Danilo spoke about the Panama Jazz Festival, and his feelings about the power of music.

Congratulations on the release of Across the Crystal Sea. It’s an exquisite recording.

Thank you very much.

I did a double take when I first heard it. It’s really different from anything you've done before. Now that the project is behind you and the album's been released, what are your thoughts?

I'm still reeling from the fact that everything went so fast; we [his trio] recorded everything in a day and a half!

I understand that it was producer Tommy LiPuma's idea to pair you with arranger/conductor Claus Ogerman for this orchestral project. Apparently, LiPuma was inspired by Symbiosis, the 1965 collaboration between Ogerman and Bill Evans.

Claus is familiar with my past work, but it was Tommy who recommended me for the project. It’s wonderful to have had the opportunity to work with such a great master. For me, it has been a dream come true.

The recording was a bi-coastal project. Your trio recorded in New York, and the orchestra was recorded later, in Los Angeles.

Exactly. The challenge for (the trio) was to imagine the music without an orchestra.

Obviously, Claus had a very clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish.

I felt like we were on a baseball team … I was the pitcher and Claus was the coach!

As part of Wayne Shorter’s group, you're accustomed to playing 'in the moment.' But working with Claus was an entirely new experience for you. Were you in or out of your comfort zone?

If anything, playing with Wayne has taught me not to be in a comfort zone. Initially I had some concerns, because I didn’t see the music until a few days before the sessions. But playing with Wayne has given me all the tools I need.

Many of Claus’s themes are based on classical compositions: 'If I Forget You' came from a Rachmaninoff piece; 'The Purple Condor' from Manuel de Falla; and 'Saga of Rita Joe' from Massenet. No doubt each tune represented its own unique set of challenges. Let’s begin with 'If I Forget You.'

I found it very challenging to create a feeling of rubato in the introduction. Also, there is another segment that's straight ahead, which was really problematic for the trio [w/ drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Christian McBride].

How about 'The Purple Condor'?

That was perhaps the most challenging tune of all, simply because I had to pull off 100 bars of variations and improvisation with no guidelines to speak of. It was completely free form. I could have done anything I wanted to, but somehow we succeeded in recording the tune in just one take. It just happened!

Last but not least, the 'Saga of Rita Joe.'

That’s a very interesting composition, because it didn’t contain the normal inversions you find in a straight ahead situation. Also, the way the harmony moved was very deceiving, so I had to play in-between the lines, and travel around the colors and harmonies without overstepping my boundaries, or taking too much control. Claus’s music contains a lot of 'colors,' so the challenge is to find a way to become part of his landscape.

How difficult was it for the trio as a whole?

We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse. But looking back, I think it was part of Claus’s master plan for us to react to the music without overplaying. Christian McBride and Lewis Nash are tremendous professionals and I really enjoy working with them. They instinctively know what to do. They are great in the studio, and they have an amazing attitude. Percussionist Luisito Quintero added a very unique flavor to the recording, as well. The challenge for him was not to overplay, and he did an amazing job.

Vocalist Cassandra Wilson brings a lot to the table, also. I understand that she recorded her tunes in one take.

Yes, with the exception of a few minor changes. Cassandra’s voice has such depth and resonance. She reminds me of Shirley Horn, and she sings like an actress.

Some critics feel that Across the Crystal Sea is the best 'jazz and strings' recording ever made. Others feel that the trio was overpowered by the orchestra, and that the arrangements do not leave ample room for improvisation.

If I were able to do things differently, I would have recorded with the orchestra. But that doesn’t take away from the beautiful solos; the interplay between the members of the rhythm section; the percussion, and the outward presentation of the orchestra. In order to appreciate it, you have to listen to it more than once. Most people miss the nuances on the first listen.

True. It took me three or four listens before I really heard it.

One of the things I noticed about this recording, is that it received an artistic reaction—meaning that some people really like it, and others trashed it in a really negative way. But I love that. It would have been worse if there had been no reaction at all. I believe that music should not have an 'immigration office,' and that it should be in a constant state of evolution and change. Part of my process is putting myself in situations that are very challenging. It’s how I learn things that I have never done before. I believe that a true improviser is someone who puts himself (or herself) in an uncomfortable situation where you are forced to react.

John Coltrane constantly put himself in situations where he was forced to react. He received a lot of criticism for it, but he never stopped searching.

Maybe ten years ago I would have reacted differently, but nowadays when someone says 'I don’t get it,' or 'I had to listen to it three or four times before I got it,' I appreciate it.

Is there a tour in the works?

We talked about it, but Claus does not like to travel.

Let’s switch gears, and talk about a subject that is very near and dear to your heart: the Panama Jazz Festival, which you founded and direct. Tell me about the festival’s beginnings, and where it stands today.

I created the Panama Jazz Festival with the idea of bringing education to Panama. In addition, two years ago I started a foundation to follow up on my ideas, and expand the festival’s possibilities. Today, the festival is a fundraising event for the foundation, and an educational convention. The profits from the fundraiser pay for scholarships, instruments, and a variety of programs. Through the foundation, we have been able to bring in the Berklee College of Music, the New England Conservatory, and the Conservatory of Puerto Rico. Today, I am happy to tell you that we have three children studying music at the Conservatory of Puerto Rico, two at the New England Conservatory, and three at the Berklee College of Music. The festival is also a cultural center for kids in need. We are using music as tool to change society.

How long has the festival been in existence?

Six years.

Congratulations. You should be very proud of the work you have done thus far.

I am happy to announce that pianist Chucho Valdes will be participating in the festival this year. I am blessed to have received so much support from fellow musicians such as John Patitucci, Brian Blades and many others, who teach master classes free of charge. This year we are even introducing yoga classes.

It’s more than just music and education; there is a spiritual element as well.

It's about reforming society through music—by teaching values like teamwork, discipline, compromise, responsibility, and respect. We're using music to create social change, to teach, and to give opportunities to kids who really need help. Another beautiful thing is the synergy between the government agencies, private entities, and the volunteers. I have people coming from as far away as Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, and Costa Rica to help out.

What kind of music you listen to when you're not 'on the job?'

Right now, I am listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s Things to Come, and a Norwegian vocalist called Sidsel Endresen; her sound just kills me. Also, a wonderful Italian classical pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; African music; Cuban music; and music from my country. I have a flamenco project coming up, so I have been listening to a bunch of flamenco artists as well. I am pretty open to all kinds of music.

That’s fairly obvious!

(Laughs) One of the things I always tell people about Panama, is that the level of diversity is astounding. Part of it has to do with our history, but I also remember growing up listening to the radio. You would hear Vladimir Horowitz, followed by Arsenio Rodriguez, Papo Lucca, Marvin Gaye, and Weather Report. It was astounding!

It was like that in New York in the '70s and 80s. The late Frank Crocker used to play Coltrane, Eddie Palmieri, Marvin Gaye, and everything in between. Unlike today, it was about good music; there was no particular format.

We should continue that conversation, because controlling and dividing music by separating it into categories raises a lot of questions …

It does, indeed. Do you have any closing thoughts or is there anything that you would like to add?

Yes, I want to talk about the power of music in our society. As you can see, the world is walking on a very fragile path. I believe that it is up to us to commit ourselves to communicating our values and send positive messages through our music. These are very exciting times. I invite my fellow musicians to join me in delivering the message.

This has certainly been an interesting and enlightening conversation. Thank you for speaking with and good luck with your new project and upcoming tour.

Thank you, Tomas.


Danilo Pérez Big Band – Panama Suite (ArtistShare)
Danilo Pérez Trio – Live at the Jazz Showcase (ArtistShare)
Danilo Pérez - Panamonk (Impulse!)

December 28, 2008 · 1 comment


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Dick Katz

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 pianist Dick Katz.

by arnold jay smith

             Dick Katz, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When my wife, singer/percussionist Fran McIntyre, was recording her debut CD, Lucky in Love, she was short a couple of tracks. She asked me what I thought might fit. I replied, without blinking: duets with Dick Katz.

Dick has maintained a fairly low profile over the years, yet he has a sparkling track record. He was the favorite pianist of Benny Carter, JJ Johnson & Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins, as well as vocalists Carmen McRae and Helen Merrill. Born in 1924, the Baltimore native is still among the outstanding piano accompanists of all time—and not too shabby a soloist, either. Our conversation took place at his apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. It covered a wide range of subjects, from baseball (specifically, the Cal Ripken-era Orioles: “I don’t pay much attention [to them] these days”) to his life as a jazz pianist.

Dick's first big gig was in 1958 with clarinetist Tony Scott at Minton’s. (Seems Scott was very important in introducing unheard talent to the public. N.B.: OctoJAZZarians© Toots Thielemans.) “He was the first guy to put me on the map,” Dick said. “He was high energy. I went to hear him at Minton’s, and the next thing I knew I was on the bandstand with Philly Joe Jones and Milt Hinton. It was quite an experience.”

But that wasn’t Dick’s first foray into New York City. Earlier, he'd attended the Manhattan School of Music, and after serving in the Navy, he married a New Yorker and began playing small joints in Greenwich Village. That's where he met Scott, in 1952.

That same year, Dick was involved in panels at the Music Inn in the Berkshires, with the pioneering jazz scholar Marshall Stearns. “Berklee [School of Music] grew out of those lectures,” Dick explained. “There were roundtable discussions at the Music Inn, which was down the road from Tanglewood.” [For more on that, check out the documentary, Music Inn, co-produced by George Schuller.] “Stephanie Barber, who always dressed like a young girl with her then hippie pigtails, was the director [of the discussions],” Dick remembers. "Randy Weston was a dishwasher, would you believe, down the road at another resort. He would come over. She would invite people from Boston and NYC. People like Willis Conover, John Mehegan, Bill Coss—and those were just the talking heads. The musicians were an unbelievable cross section: Wilber deParis, [Charles] Mingus, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, Max Roach asking questions of Baby Dodds. There was never anything like this before, trying to make jazz academic for the first time—having an exchange of musicians with each other and the public.”

Katz singled out The Lion. “Seems that every time there was a gathering like this, Lion felt compelled to be ‘on.’ So he was a show unto himself, what with his derby hat and cigar. ‘You guys are talking about modern, I’ll show you modern,’ he’d say. Then he walked across the room and played all his stuff. It was wild.” Afterward there were jams in the lounge. “You could hear [people like] Tony [Scott] arguing with the old guys, and Rex Stewart playing with the [traditional, New Orleans-style] players.”

Katz and his wife lived in two rooms on Sullivan St. in the Village. “Downstairs there was a small club,” Dick related. “It was called ‘The Little Casino.’ He had six singers down there, one of whom was Sylvia Syms. They’d go damn near all night. I was upstairs waiting for my union card and going to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill, which paid for everything: tuition, books, records, meals, even spending money. The first guy I befriended was ‘motor mouth’ Ram Ramirez. I really liked him. He would come upstairs between sets.” Ramirez, who was born in Puerto Rico but moved to Harlem as a child, composed “Lover Man.” Dick remembers him as a masterful accompanist, much like Ellis Larkins. Dick would sit in, and somewhere along the way he met Scott.

“He would dominate you,” Dick said with emphasis. “I spent six months at Minton’s with Tony. Amazing experience!” It was 1953 and jazz was about to experience its second coming. Monday night was jam session night at Minton's, and it seemed like every musician living in—or even visiting—the Apple would come. Katz remembers one Monday night he “was bumped off the stool by Bud Powell, who sat down and played 40 choruses of 'Crazy Rhythm' and never once played the bridge. Another Monday night it would be a tap dance challenge with Baby Laurence, Bill Bailey and others. Today, that would be like having Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis together. We played stop time for them. Baby just washed them away.”

The regular girl singer at Minton’s was Carmen McRae. Dick was McRae’s first accompanist, after herself. Johnny Mandel (not yet the Johnny Mandel) visited Minton’s and recorded some sets on a professional recording device—a Concord open reel deck. He sold the tapes to producer Bob Thiele, who was then with the Brunswick label. “I’d been on some record dates before,” Dick continued. “But this was the first one that made any sense.” As he said this, he went to his library and pulled out some 10-inch LPs. “After that first live date, we went into the studio and recorded.” Dick noted that Percy Heath, already a bebop star, was on one of those recordings. “We did some charts for dances, and recorded with Osie Johnson and Earl May. I cut my teeth on that stuff. The writing [in 1953-4] was a really important experience for me.”

Then came 1955, and the JJ Johnson/Kai Winding two trombone quintet “experiment,” as the trombonists once called it. Dick Katz was about to be thrust into the public eye. The group, two ‘bones plus rhythm, was a hallmark of the ‘50s jazz resurgence. The trombone had been the butt of jokes since the tailgate era, but Johnson made it a bebop instrument, and Kai helped create the sound of the Stan Kenton band. “I made six albums with them,” Dick said proudly.

(His comping created an avenue for my junior high and high school club date bands; no one I knew played that way. I became an iconoclastic keyboardist to my friends. Thank you, Dick Katz!)

Jay & Kai, as they were known, played clubs and concerts, and recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Mosaic has combined the band's two Columbia LPs on one CD. My personal favorite is still Jay & Kai Plus Six: eight ‘bones and a rhythm section, plus Candido on Latin percussion.

For Katz there were other combos with such players as Al Cohn and Freddie Green. After Jay & Kai, he was well recognizable. “I don’t remember how I got the job, but Oscar Pettiford hired me for the [now legendary] Café Bohemia gig,” Katz remembered. “That place was run by gangsters … Pettiford would argue with the owner all the time until he finally got thrown out. Talk about on-the-job-training: the drummer was Kenny Clarke, and the front line had Gigi Gryce, or Donald Byrd, or Miles Davis. All the greats came in. And we were the house rhythm section, so I got to play with them all.” (Dr. Billy Taylor tells a similar tale of his time at Birdland in his OctoJAZZarians©.) “But it was playing with Kenny and Oscar that really developed my chops. There’s [hardly] anyone around [today] who drops those 'bombs' or handles the brushes as he did," although "Kenny Washington does a great job.”

Pettiford also played the cello, out of necessity. Dick related that when Pettiford was with the Woody Herman band, there was a big band softball league. It was during one of those games that Pettiford broke his arm. He taught himself to play the cello until his arm healed. “He was one of my major influences,” says Dick.

Pettiford fronted a 13-piece big band that included two French horns—David Amram and Julius Watkins—two tenors, an alto, a baritone, two trumpets, a trombone, harp, and rhythm. The band played Birdland regularly, with some sets broadcast on AM radio. The instrumentation was such that Katz needed to rehearse the rhythm section parts. He took the charts home with him on the subway. Or so he thought. “I get off the train, walked up the stairs; no bag. This was Friday, and we opened Saturday. I related this over dinner that night to John Lewis and a friend, who both proceeded to torture me for the rest of the night. ‘This is Oscar Pettiford. He might punch you out. (Pettiford had that reputation.) You’d better find that music.’ Torture like that. But they also suggested that I go to the end of the [subway] line because stuff is turned in there. Seems that some lady had told the clerk that she found a bag, but took it home with her … and here’s her address. She lived one block from me.” A bottle of Champagne later, he had his music back. The gig, and perhaps a life, saved.

Dick also worked with Roy Eldridge. “I played with Roy for years,” Katz began. One performance of which Dick is particularly proud was a part of the long-running Highlights in Jazz series in New York City. He played a duet with Lee Konitz, among other things. “It was quite a concert,” he said. “That was about the time I was playing with Roy at Ryan’s [a trad jazz joint on West 54th St. in NYC]. We were there for six or seven years. The bass player was Major Holley, the drummer Eddie Locke, front liners were Joe Maranyi and Bobby Pratt. We were supposed to play New Orleans-style warhorses, but Roy was never into that so we wound up modernizing all the time.”

On the subject of melodic-versus-harmonic improvising, Katz noted, “What people overlook most about Roy was that he was a rhythmic improviser. Whether or not a solo reaches you depends, like speech, on the spaces. Bebop’s harmonic improvising is not what threw all those swing players. People like Coleman Hawkins gobbled that up. What threw them was the rhythmic language, the irregularity. They were used to a romantic musical language, sameness of tempo. In all advances in music there’s a rhythmic thing going on. Roy’s sense of swing is what turned Dizzy [Gillespie] around. It’s evolution, not revolution. Louis Armstrong knew nothing about harmonies, but he could hear the harmonies change and make the melodies fit.”

Katz believes that rhythm is the road less-traveled. “The first to do that was Lester Young,” he said. He demonstrated by humming something from Prez’s “Lester Leaps In.” “The point is, that melodic and harmonic improvising are not the only improvising alternatives. Rhythm is that third element.” Hey, are we talking hip-hop here?

Then there are the lyrics. There’s that apocryphal story of the saxophone player who stopped mid-chorus and proclaimed that he had to pause because he forgot the lyrics. Katz demurs. “Lee Konitz teaches by telling his students to sing, but not necessarily the lyrics. Musicians want to interpret [the song] sometimes by changing the tempo. [Konitz’s one time leader Lennie] Tristano threw out the song and recreated a new melody. Charlie Parker never referred to the melody at all in 'Quasimodo,' for example. Ben Webster played 'Embraceable You' [the harmonic structure for 'Quasimodo'] thinking, ‘now how can I make this melody better and make people feel this song.’ Coleman Hawkins never played the melody on his 'Body and Soul' recording, but it remains 'Body and Soul' nonetheless. I never pay too much attention to the lyrics; neither did John Lewis. Someone said Sarah Vaughan could sing the telephone book [and it would still be beautiful.]” Dick played with Hawkins on many occasions including at Newport, but the most memorable was on Benny Carter’s Further Definitions. “Benny was very supportive. At one point during the famous arrangement of 'Honeysuckle Rose,' producer [Bob] Thiele clicked on his mic from the booth and said ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like some Count Basie in that space.’ Benny quietly replied, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like some Dick Katz in that space.’”

Dick related that at particular moments during the session drummer, Jo Jones would “get frustrated not because he couldn’t play something, but he might not have been able to understand and articulate his problem. Jo could get nasty and agitated in those moments. Benny handled him as though he were a diplomat at the U.N.”

On the sensitive topic of racial politics in music, Dick, a Jew, sometimes found there were different attitudes when black musicians spoke to black musicians and when they spoke to white musicians. “It was almost like the blacks didn’t want the whites to know what they were thinking. After all those sessions [and socializing] I got to know the difference, except for Benny. He seemed to be on the [same] level all the time. Only two other musicians I knew were like that: Pettiford & Eldridge. What you saw and heard is what you got.”

Another memorable recording session took place at Jazz the Vineyard, a short-lived series on East 15th St. hosted by cornetist Dick Sudhalter and presented by a winery. “I went down to hear Doc Cheatham, who was playing with Johnny Guarneri [a scion of the Italian instrument maker]. I had been on vacation and hadn’t touched the piano in weeks. Sudhalter came over to tell me that Johnny was sick and it didn’t look like he was going to make it through the night. Would I sit in? I said sure, but I might be all thumbs. Sure enough, Guarneri didn’t make it out for the second set. Johnny Guarneri went home that night and died. As they were due to record that night, I later played duets with Doc, and the record was released.”

Katz was friends with John Lewis since their days at Manhattan School of Music days. Their friendship continued to blossom later, when Dick was playing on the bar at the Metropole Café on Broadway. It reached full flower when Dick played and recorded with the Lewis/Gary Giddins (and later Loren Schoenberg-managed) American Jazz Orchestra (N.B.: Benny Carter’s Central City Sketches, MusicMasters). Katz told a story about happening upon Lewis on a Village street in 1953. Lewis asked Katz: “Would you sub for me at Birdland with Bird?” There was a pause, and Katz said, “No, I’m not ready for that, here,” and pointed to his head. Dick explains, “The only people playing piano for Bird were John, Al Haig, Duke Jordan and Walter Bishop, Jr. I didn’t feel I was on their level yet. I was still a student.”

Katz turned down another notable gig in 1959. “I always wanted to play the Apollo. I came off the road with Carmen McRae, and she had a gig at there. I was tired and didn’t want anymore of that. I should have done it.” Dave Frishberg took his place. He’s proud of his recordings with McRae, including her first on Decca; Billy Strayhorn guested on the album.

With funds borrowed from his brother-in-law (now that's living dangerously!), Dick and Orrin Keepnews started the Milestone record label. It was during one of those valleys in the record business (1966), but “we made many records, including a few good ones with Joe Henderson, Wynton Kelly. Some great stuff.” It was during this period that Katz began an important affiliation with singer Helen Merrill.

“The first one we did together, The Feeling is Mutual, was already in the can. I was trying to get someone to put it out. One record company owner was rumored to have said, ‘I don’t record white singers.’ I don’t know that to be true; it was hearsay.” Keepnews stepped up to the plate and they put it out on Milestone. All the sidemen worked, “for the love of the project” and went onto greatness: Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Pete LaRoca (now Peter Sims, esq.). George Avakian, “the guy in the booth,” contributed $200. “A five-star record [in Down Beat magazine], and it didn’t sell … of course. As I said before, the record business was in the tank.” The second recording, The Feeling is Mutual, featured Katz, Carter, Jones and Hall plus Gary Bartz, Hubert Laws, and Richard Davis. “Those things I did with Helen remain among my favorites.” (Mosaic has combined the two LPs on one CD.)

REGRETS: “I didn’t stay with Carmen for that Apollo gig.” Dick also narrowly missed a chance to work with Gene Krupa. “He had a trio and he heard me at the Metropole [Krupa and Cozy Cole had a drum school upstairs]. Eddie Wasserman, the trio’s saxophonist, told me that Teddy Napoleon was leaving and that I probably could get the gig. I heard he was paying a lot of money, so when Gene asked me how much I wanted, I told him the same as Napoleon: $400 a month. He later called me and told me that was more than he had in mind. [Looking back] my mistake was not compromising; I didn’t like the music he was playing and where he was playing it, like Las Vegas. Pride got in the way. Loren Schoenberg would have been on that piano bench in a minute.

“I worked with Stan Getz, with whom I got along well, but he was looking for more adventuresome rhythm sections so our recordings never got out,” said Katz. “I would like to have those. He had a photographic musical mind. I would have liked to have played with Don Byas. I would have liked to have gotten closer to Dizzy Gillespie, to get [bebop] from the horse’s mouth, like Mike Longo did.”

One more: “You know,” he said regretfully, “I never played with Billy Higgins.”

UNFINISHED: Dick teaches at Jazz @ Lincoln Center and MSM. “Justin DiCiocco, the jazz director [at MSM] is doing a great job bringing [things like] Dizzy’s music to the band. There’s no teaching like what you learn on the bandstand on a gig,” he said emphatically. “[I’d like to] keep teaching, writing more articles and liner notes. I don’t play as much, but that’s my fault. I could get out more.”

Loren Schoenberg: Having started his musical life as a pianist, tenor saxist/bandleader Schoenberg first met Dick Katz when Katz was with Lee Konitz. “I was recommended to him not as a teacher in the classic sense, but more as a mentor, someone to hang around with,” Schoenberg began. “As I look back on it now, the time he gave me and patience he showed me [are of incalculable value]. Now that I'm 50, I can understand what it’s like to have a younger friend. [laughter].”

There was a symbiosis. Loren met John Lewis when he was a student at Manhattan School of Music. The mere mention of Dick Katz’s name was the beginning of a life-long friendship with Lewis, which would flourish later with the Lewis-led, piano-by-Katz, Schoenberg-managed American Jazz Orchestra.

“One of the other things I admired about Dick Katz was his prose writing. I was introduced to [Rutgers Jazz Institute curator] Dan Morgenstern when I was 13. By then, Dick had written about Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and others. I always wished that he had written more. He wrote not just anecdotal, but from the musical standpoint.

“Since Dick agreed to be in my band—I didn’t hire him; he agreed to play— some 20 years ago, we’ve been together in many different circumstances: duo, trio, quartet. He’s a real improviser. That’s why he and Konitz got along so well. There’s no difference between Dick Katz the musician and Dick Katz the person. People’s personalities manifest themselves in different situations, but Dick is one-of-kind.”

Helen Merrill: “The whole project was so unusual that producer George Avakian said that it was too good; ‘it will never sell,’” said Helen Merrill, remembering her initial recording with Dick Katz. “All of those sidemen became big stars. About a century ago, he had this trio in Greenwich Village, and we just got together for fun. Dick’s music was never straight ahead. He used to say that I had ‘radar ears.’ His playing can be deceptively simple, but it’s really complicated. Doesn’t sound that way, but it is.”

Helen knows whereof she speaks, having sung with many avant-garde-ists worldwide—including famously with Gil Evans and George Russell. “It’s always challenging; you have to be quick to respond. After all, I’m a jazz singer. What we do is sometimes copied without credit. As Quincy Jones once told me, ‘they copy, but without soul.’ It’s all about the phrasing. Dick told me after that first session not to do any more pop singing; it’s damaging. I didn’t listen, but thanks to Dick, I did some interesting things with [European] classical composers.”

Helen is not so much a singer as she is a musician who uses her voice, which is why she and Katz are simpatico. “I like to work as part of a group, not as a singer with accompaniment,” she said. “After those sessions it was difficult to take that music on the road. The [brilliant] musicianship that Dick put together for the recording wasn’t there with me. What it did was put me on the map with other musicians; they thought better of me after that.

“With Dick you don’t have to think too much; he just lays it down for you. Others may play so many notes that you have to remember where you were.”

Despite the fact that that both Helen and Dick were deflated by Avakian’s initial response, they all remain close friends—proof that the project was, indeed, a labor of love; it shows.

December 22, 2008 · 4 comments


In Conversation With Dave Holland

By Ted Panken

                   Dave Holland, by Jos L. Knaepen

On Pass It On, recorded in 2006, Dave Holland offers his first suite of compositions incorporating the piano. It’s the latest iteration of Holland’s exploration of what he calls “the harmonic context,” one that he launched in the mid-1980s, when guitarist Kevin Eubanks joined his groundbreaking ensemble with M-BASE rhythmetricians Robin Eubanks, Steve Coleman, and Marvin Smitty Smith.

Holland made several recordings with that band, presenting some of most compelling speculative music of that decade. By then, the master bassist already could look back upon one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz, demonstrating inspired musicianship across an enormously varied range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles Davis’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. For the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with Anthony Braxton, and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a book of music for solo bass and cello. With Gateway, a collective trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. Not inconsequentially, he also demonstrated bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and in groups led by such hardcore jazz royalty as Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Hank Jones.

As the ‘90s progressed, Holland drew upon all those experiences in creating “closed form music with an open form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing,” first for his sui generis quintet, now in its eleventh year, and then for his thirteen-piece big band, most recently represented on Overtime [Dare2]. The quintet and big band music is chock-a-block with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, call-and-response, loads of polyphony, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, ringing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland said at the time. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.”

During the second week of October, Holland supported Pass It On with a four-night engagement at New York’s Birdland, and joined me at WKCR to talk about it and other matters.

This group is your first with a piano. Can you describe the progression by which you assembled it?

I’ve really been following the musical directions I’ve been inspired to go in. My first working band was around ‘82. We had at that time a three-horn front line with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, and Julian Priester, respectively, on trumpet, alto saxophone, and trombone. That group lasted until about ‘87, when I started a quartet that featured Kevin Eubanks on guitar—I wanted to write some music that needed that chordal context, but I didn’t want a chordal instrument that overly defined the harmonic context of the music. The guitar still left an openness to it. Following that group, I started a band that involved Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibraphonist who lives in the New York area. Steve and I have been playing together for about fifteen years, and we are still working together in the quintet that I have with Chris Potter on saxophone, Robin Eubanks on trombone, and Nate Smith on drums.

You’ve had that group as such for about a decade.

Actually, eleven years now. So the music has been going in the direction of including a harmony instrument like vibes or piano. Now, Steve’s style of playing the vibes is unique and I love what he brings to the music. But again, there is a sparseness to the instrument. It mostly works, at maximum, with four mallets, so you have a certain limitation with how dense the chords are.

For the last couple of years, I’d been thinking about another sound to the group, and wanted to start a new opportunity. In a way, it started with thinking about the rhythm section, two people I’d played with very briefly, but wanted to do a lot more with. One was Mulgrew Miller; the other was Eric Harland. I was starting to think about what music would suit that band, and the three-horn front line would give me some other compositional instrumentation opportunities. So that was the genesis of this group.

As a young guy, before you came to the United States, you were house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s club in London …

Amongst other things, yes.

Amongst other things. You were playing in the traditional jazz rhythm section behind the acts coming through, with I guess the pianist Pat Smythe ...

He was one of the pianists. Gordon Beck was another. There were several people. But I worked a lot with Pat Smythe, a wonderful English piano player. In England I also played with a couple of groups that didn’t use piano. I had a trio that was put together by John Surman, the great baritone player, and Alan Jackson was the drummer—the bass had a great chance to influence not only the rhythm, but the harmony of the group, and it led to playing in a very free harmonic context. At that time, in the ‘60s, I was being influenced by Ornette Coleman’s music, Albert Ayler, and many of the things that were going on. I was in another group with John Stevens, the English drummer, with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey, and we were exploring open improvisation contexts. After I was in the States, in the ‘70s, I worked with Sam Rivers, a trio, and with Anthony Braxton, in a quartet with Kenny Wheeler and then George Lewis. These also were an instrumentation that didn’t have a chordal instrument. So when I started my first group, I naturally leaned towards that, and wanted to keep that area of the music very open-ended.

But as the music evolved, I started to feel that I wanted to use more closed-form music. In other words, instead of more open-ended songs, I started writing things where the form had some influence as well on the playing. As that started to evolve, I was writing more chordal music again, and I thought I should bring in a chordal instrument, which I did, from guitar to the vibraphone to the piano.

Speak a bit about your simpatico, your chemistry with Mulgrew Miller and Eric Harland—what it was that you heard in their sounds that inspired you to bring them into your orbit.

                   Dave Holland, by Jos L. Knaepen

I always feel that the person behind the music—their feeling about life and working with other people, their generosity, and all these kinds of things—is what comes through in any great musician. I’ve found both Mulgrew and Eric to be really wonderful people, and through that, their music is very embracing and inclusive and communally minded. How people work together becomes a very important aspect for me—not just as strong individuals, but how they work together as a team and how open they are to what’s going on in the band.

More specifically, for me, Mulgrew embodies the tradition of the piano, going back to early influences. It’s all there in his playing. But he’s managed to create a very individual, personal, and contemporary way of using those influences. He is also a consummate accompanist. It’s a thrill to hear what he’s playing behind the soloist; not only soloing on piano, but what he does within the rhythm section.

To me, Eric is a unique drummer. Again, he’s a great listener. He’s very supportive. He’s totally in touch with the musical moment that we’re involved in as we play, and he’s always pushing to create a new rhythmic context for the group and finding new ways to approach the pieces that we’ve been playing. There’s a very nice balance between a sort of free approach and a formal approach to the music, so it covers a lot of ground for me. Of course, the feel of what he does is wonderful, too.

And just as in 1985, you’re using three horns in the front line and lots of polyphony, which gives you ample opportunity to use a lot of different configurations within the flow of any musical performance.

Yes, I went back to that front line of trumpet, alto saxophone, and trombone, because it gives you so much possibility for creating a context for the music—you get a different sound and other compositional possibilities. It gives you all the harmonic possibilities you can think of in voicing, and it’s a wonderful challenge to figure out how to utilize the instruments to their full potential. You can almost have it sound like a big band, you can have counterpoint, supportive background figures for soloists, and all these kinds of things, which aren’t quite as easy to do with two horns. I think once you’ve learned to write for three horns, you can then go on to write for many other things.

The presence of those sounds and possibilities in your mind’s ear goes back, if I’m not mistaken, to your early years in England when you played in New Orleans style bands and heard that emphasis on polyphony close-up.

The early gigs I got as a jazz player in London were in pubs playing New Orleans style music. I loved the independence of the front line and the celebratory feeling when the ensemble all played together, the counterpoint and so on. It was employed, of course, by many other musicians. Ellington, Charles Mingus, many people who have sort of...

You’ve just mentioned two of the best.

Well, where do you want me to start!? I have to give you the ideals that stand out to me. Those are. They had ways of combining written parts with written parts, and ensemble improvisation, and all these kind of things that I’m still interested in finding different ways to present.

During the ‘70s, because you were playing so much as a sideman with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton, whatever compositional ideas that you had—which were expressed on an album that remains one of my favorites, Conference of the Birds, with both Braxton and Sam Rivers in ’72—were subsumed in a certain way. You did some solo recordings and so on, but not ensemble albums. When you started band-leading, did you already have a big backlog of work?

No, not particularly.

That development was precipitated by an illness, I think.

                   Dave Holland, by Jos L. Knaepen

We’ve got a lot of things to talk about there. First of all, I’ve always felt that there is an apprenticeship involved—as it applies to me, anyway—to being a musician. Of course, it’s a lifelong learning process. Now, when I made Conference of the Birds in ‘72, I was 25. I still felt I had a lot of things to learn about being a bandleader, about what it was that I wanted to do. I was trying to focus in on what were important elements in the music that I wanted to pursue in my own work, and I was quite happy to be still working as a sideman during the ‘70s. Sam’s band used his compositions, in the case of the big band or a couple of the other larger ensembles that he did. But in the small group that I mostly played with, we never used any written music. It was all open improvisation. After seven or eight years of playing together, it sounded like it was written, but it was in fact improvised, and it was a wonderful opportunity to start every night with a blank page in front of you and just fill it in with whatever happened to be on your mind that evening. Braxton was quite the opposite. He was a very detailed composer—a structuralist—who composed very demanding music … [it] required a lot of attention and concentration and interpretation. That was almost a counter-balance to what I did with Sam. Those two things were very interestingly placed in my life. I didn’t write for that either; that was all Anthony’s music.

The groups I did write for were Gateway Trio, and some solo work. By the time ‘82 came around, I’d decided it was time. I was reluctantly being pushed by myself to start a group. I said, ‘Ok, enough of this sitting on the fence; what is it I really want to do?’ There was some music I wanted to play that I wasn’t finding a place for in any of the contexts I was already in. As I was preparing for that, I contracted a very serious illness called endocarditis, which is a bacterial infection of the heart valve, and I ended up taking a year out, having to have surgery and various other things. It ended up in a very positive way—I had a new lease on life, no medications or anything like that. I had a very close call. I was very lucky. But as a result of that close call, as I think probably many people will tell you who have been in similar situations, I felt a renewed appreciation for what I did have, and a renewed commitment to making a full-blown effort to put out there the music that I was really wanting to play. That resulted in the first quintet, with Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Julian Priester, and Smitty Smith.

That band was an interesting incubator for a lot of ideas that were subsequently expressed and developed more fully on the broader scene.

There were a lot of great influences coming into the group. Conceptually, we were all coming from somewhat varied backgrounds, but there were connecting points. Julian Priester already had an incredible career by the time he came to my group—he’d been with Max Roach’s band particularly, as well as the sextet that Herbie started after he left Miles, and he brought all that experience with him. Julian told me that he’d played the Newport Festival with Max in the ‘50s, and they were presenting tunes in 5/4, which was very unusual then. Of course, Max made a groundbreaking record in ‘56 called Jazz in 3/4 Time, which was a huge deal at that point, because nobody in the music played in 3/4 time.

Of course, Kenny was an old friend from England. I had extreme respect for him as a composer, and he had been a very important influence on my writing—I had always wanted to do more with him. He had played with Braxton, and so I wanted to continue that relationship.

I met Steve Coleman through Sam Rivers. He was one of the alto players in Sam’s big band. When I met him, I didn’t really know his background in music, where he was coming from and what he was doing. I just liked his playing. I liked his sound. I liked the seriousness of his approach. I thought he was working on something unique. I’d heard him with Abbey Lincoln at a festival in Austria, and asked him, “Steve, would you be interested in this group I’m starting?” So he became involved.

The first drummer we had was Steve Ellington, who had also been with Sam Rivers’ trio. Steve lived in Atlanta, and it made it difficult for us to arrange rehearsals and so on. I met Smitty Smith at a jam session, Smitty just blew me away, and I asked him to join the band.

So, all these influences were brought together. Steve had been playing with Doug Hammond, a very interesting drummer who was living in New York at the time. They had been working on some interesting concepts which Steve had been developing himself, and Smitty was hungry for something to get his teeth into and work on. All these things kind of came together compositionally and in the improvisational realm to create a very wide range of influences. I think we all kind of learned from each other. Earlier than that, I had written some music which had used some different time signatures, but I hadn’t really gone deep into it. I’d also worked with John McLaughlin, the guitarist, who had done this. But that area became an area of great interest to the group, and we started to move towards consideration of what kinds of forms we could write that would influence the music in different ways, and that evolved over a period of time. I have to say that it was a very important period in my life for realigning my direction in music—as I said, writing closed form music and eventually moving towards including a chordal instrument into what I was doing.

You also, in your own personal investigations, had been involved in researching North African music, Indian music, pygmy music, music from different cultures in the world.


Which also dates back to your earlier investigations in England, and those spurred later work.

There was a big Indian community in London, and some really astounding musicians, like Vilad Khan and some of the great vina [an Indian string instrument, also spelled veena ] players, would come through London and do concerts. The concerts were interesting, because the Indian audience seemed to have such a great knowledge of what was going on. They would be so involved in the whole development of the music, and would make exclamations during the performance when things would happen and so on. So it was a very engaging kind of audience that was happening.

I also got interested in African music, and the UNESCO series of records—the Ba-Benzele Pygmies from Central Africa in particular, and also records from the Central African Republic and Nigerian Hausa music—that were put out during that time were a great source of information. I also got interested in Tibetan Buddhist music, partly because of Coltrane's influence. I’ve always been interested in a lot of different music. I’ve always been a music fan as well as a musician. I love finding new things to listen to, finding new ways to put music together. As a musician is you go through your life collecting things. You find something that’s interesting to you, explore it, and perhaps find a way to integrate it into the things you’re already working on. For me, it’s a matter of keeping the movement of learning and exploring new ideas, and bringing new ideas into your music.

Have your investigations with the new sextet had any impact on what you do with the quintet, which by now is such a well-established entity?

The quintet has a concept of its own, I think. After playing together eleven years, we’ve made some strong connections musically and personally. We have a large book of music that we refer to when we do concerts, and we’re still adding music to that book. So it’s still evolving. As I like to do—and I think also the other composers involved—I like to write for the people in the band. So I see the music I present in these two different contexts as more or less different. I’m not trying to cross over the two.

I don’t know if it’s being influenced by the sextet. I’m being influenced by it, so I suppose it could be! As we perform these pieces, new approaches come out. But I can’t really say whether they are going to find their way into the quintet. In the end, everything is sort of in a big pot of ideas that I’m working on.

Indeed, you’ve embraced a 360-degree range of ideas and strategies over the last 45 years.

I’m trying to just follow the musical ideas that seem relevant to me at the different times I’m playing, and to do things that interest me, that feed the fire of my creative ideas that hopefully will inspire me to create some new things. Just the other day, I was reflecting that I seem to have been building up a circle of people since I started my own projects. That circle is expanding. They are people who I am learning how to play with, they’re learning about the music I’m presenting, and so on. It’s a sort of large work in progress, and there are different aspects to it. All three horn players in this group have been part of the big band, and the concepts we’ve developed there influence how we’ve approached the sextet music, I’m sure. A certain understanding builds up amongst your associates, about how things get approached, the musical language that’s being used, and so on. I see that continuing. A lot of time has gone by, so those projects have expanded and morphed into other things. Some people are in two or three different projects, some are just in one. I’m happy to be so fortunate to have associations with such wonderful, generous musicians who are so dedicated to excellence, to playing music, and to giving everything they’ve got, the full essence of who they are in their music.

That generosity may have something to do with your comportment as a bandleader as well. Did you draw on anyone’s examples in evolving your approach?

The underlying principle for me is respect—respecting another person on a lot of levels. Respecting them creatively for what they do, and giving as much creative space as you can in the music to their ideas and what they do. I basically work on the principle of trying to treat people as I like to be treated. When I’m in a band, it’s nice to have some direction, to have some idea of where we’re going with the music and what’s intended. But it’s also nice to have a lot of freedom within that—to make decisions, to figure out for yourself what’s required, and not have the bandleader tell everybody what to do in that way. My theory is: if you’ve got the right people in the band, you don’t have to say a whole lot. Robin said in one piece, ‘Dave just likes to wind up the band and let it go.’ I thought that was an interesting way to put it. If you’ve got the right people, it’s possible to do that. Then you try to figure out some music that hopefully will inspire them and give them a feeling of being able to express themselves.

Who do I have as examples? I’ll go back to Ellington and the way he kept his group together. I don’t know what the inner workings were. I know there were a lot of stormy moments in that band. I’m speaking more about how he approached it creatively, and how he thought about the other musicians. Miles is a great example to me for how to do more with less, not to overly instruct the musicians, and even sometimes under-instruct them and make them think, “Well, what is it I’m supposed to do?” I remember reading that Coltrane spent the first period with the band asking Miles, “What is it you want me to do?” and Miles just ignored him until Coltrane finally realized that he had to figure that out for himself. Examples like that have hopefully instructed me on how to give just enough leadership to the group without smothering the creative talents of the people involved in it.

You don’t do much sideman work any more, but you did spend the past summer on a massive caravan with Herbie Hancock, all around the world, playing a lot of electric bass.

Yes, I think more than half of the music we played on the concerts was on electric bass.

What was that like? You haven’t played electric bass for a minute or two.

Quite. More than a minute. Actually, the last time I was playing it on gigs (and, in fact, that was an acoustic bass guitar, which is a different type of instrument) was in the mid ‘90s, and that was actually with Herbie, also. We did a record called The New Standard, and on several tracks on that I used this acoustic bass guitar. It’s a great instrument. We took it out on tour, and I used it on there. Prior to that, I think it was 1990 when I last played the solid body electric, and that was on the Parallel Realities tour we did then with Jack DeJohnette and Herbie and Pat Metheny.

So it had been a long time, and it took me by surprise, because Herbie didn’t tell me ‘til about two days before the rehearsals. We had a chat on the phone, and he said, ‘I just want to run down the set to you, and I was thinking about trying these tunes’—and he started naming the tunes. Of course, some were from the new album, The River: The Joni Letters, but there were also several things from his earlier days. In fact, the tour ended up being somewhat of a review of Herbie’s career, going back to tunes like “Actual Proof” that the Headhunters did, and “Chameleon.”

There would be long encores.

We had some long encores! I think the longest concert we did was nearly three hours, and certainly an hour of that was encore. But it was great fun. Any time I’m with Herbie, there’s a lot of fun involved in playing the music with him.

But getting back to the bass guitar, it was a surprise to me. Even though both are bass instruments, they are quite different in the touch and concept. We had a few days of rehearsals, and I was trying to come to terms with it. Then we went out on the road and started working. I have to say that I was still struggling with it for the first week-and-a-half or so—not very enthusiastic about it at the beginning, I have to admit. But the music kind of took over, and playing with Herbie and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums ... Vinnie is an extraordinary drummer, whom I’d only played with on the record we’d done with Herbie, The River. I knew he was a great musician, but boy, he showed me so much stuff in his playing! So those things were very inspiring to me, and as time went by I got into the bass guitar again and had a lot of fun with it.

But we’re not going to see it in your own musical production.

I’m going to reserve that comment to see what happens. I certainly enjoyed it. Who knows?

What is forthcoming is an octet project—something you’ve worked on and presented publicly here and there, but not approached systematically.

It’s a five-horn octet. It’s based a little bit on the model of the small Ellington band. I loved that front line he had with trumpet, trombone, and three saxophones, alto, tenor and baritone, and I wanted to model something after that sound that Ellington produced. The horn players all have played in the big band, of course. A couple of pieces are reduced octet versions of the big band pieces that we’ve played, but a fair amount of the music was written exclusively for the octet. We’ve done it as an adjunct project. We launched it, I believe, in 2000 (we took it to England for an Arts Council tour), and we’ve featured it on a few concerts, but as you say, we haven’t done anything with it in the recording realm.

I’ve been looking at this record company as a way to document some different projects, and the quintet has been well-documented on a lot of CDs. One of the last three records on Dare2 has been with the quintet, but I wanted to keep going on and do some other projects, and the octet seemed worth doing. We did a concert earlier this year, and some people in the audience yelled out, ‘Hey, when are you going to record it?’ I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to record the octet.’ That will be done in January.

There was a time when your recorded output always seemed to be about three years behind the fact, just because you had so much going on. Will this change with ownership of your own label?

I did my last few records for ECM very independently, in the sense that I scheduled the recording session and financed it all myself, and then, after we’d done, presented it to ECM as a finished product, and asked if they were interested in putting it out, which they did. That’s been the case since the middle ‘90s. So in that sense, my scheduling of the project is the same. I do have a bit more control about release times, but of course, we still do have to follow the conventions in terms of when is a good time for records to come out, that you don’t step on the last record that you did too early.

I think the biggest change is the fact that the masters now belong to us, to the company, and we have some controlling interest in terms of how it’s promoted and presented—we decide the cover art and all these kinds of things. The covers of the last three records were all done by a good friend of mine, Niklaus Troxler, who does the Willisau Jazz Festival. He’s a very acclaimed graphic artist, and I’ve always appreciated his work, so I wanted him on board to do the covers for me.

Talk to any musician these days, and they’ll say that travel is much more difficult than it used to be. You’ll go on the road next week, and even as you enter your sixties you continue to be quite the road warrior. You travel a lot, which is no easy thing for bassists and drummers because of the difficulties of transporting the instrument. Describe what you’ve been using for the last couple of years.

Prior to that, I’d been traveling with my regular instrument all my life. The weight of that instrument, plus the case it travels in, is about 100 pounds, which up to a few years ago was no problem. You either had a very friendly check-in person who said, ‘Fine,’ or you paid $50, $100, a couple of hundred dollars, depending on your flight, and you checked it in. Starting 3 or 4 years ago (well, even before that), after all the security was ramped up and new requirements were made, things got extremely difficult with flying. But in recent years, they’ve created a weight limit, both because of the economics of the airlines, but also that the baggage handlers union have limited what weight they’re willing to pick up. If you’re a baggage handler, that’s completely reasonable—you don’t want to have pick up 150 pounds and load it onto a plane. The limit now is 70 pounds for checked baggage. Sometimes you’re allowed 50 pounds before you pay the extra weight. But if it’s over 70 pounds, they are entitled to refuse you access to the flight with your baggage. So I found increasingly that I was having more and more problems checking the bass on. Even on a round-trip flight to California, for instance, on an airline that I use all the time, and have the cards for frequent flying and so on, they wouldn’t take it. They flew me to California but wouldn’t fly me back to New York. I had to spend an hour-and-a-half talking to supervisors, and all this kind of thing.

It just got to be too much. Too much stress, too much doubt as to whether you were going to make the gig, if you have to find another flight. I was hearing stories about bass players stranded in Europe and having to wait two days to get another flight. It just became too much, and I didn’t want to have that kind of stress.

A few years ago, a bass player, Ira Coleman, approached a bass repairer and maker, David Gage, here in New York, with an idea for creating a slightly modified version of a double bass that would reduce the weight and reduce the case size. As a result, that instrument weighs around 50-52 pounds, and so it’s well within the range of acceptable baggage. I’ve been playing that instrument when I tour for about 2½ years now. It’s a new instrument, and of course, it doesn’t have the complexity perhaps of the older instrument, but in most situations where we’re performing, we’re dealing with sound systems, P.A. systems, playing through speakers, and with the right technician at the board .... Luckily, I’m able to travel with my own sound technician now, so we have good control over what happens in that area. So we’ve been able to find a solution to this problem.

I have to say I do resent the situation. I think it’s absolutely terrible that airlines have created a situation where musicians can’t travel with their own instrument. One solution is that bass players borrow an instrument at every gig, which to me is very unsatisfactory because every instrument is so unique, and every aspect of the instrument—the string settings and the type of strings—is different each night. I would much prefer to have an instrument that I can use consistently every time I perform. So this has actually solved a lot of problems. It’s called a Czech-Ease bass, and to me, it’s a very good solution to the whole problem we’re dealing with. Many bass players I know are using it now. I think David Gage has made a real contribution for us bass players to have designed this instrument and made it possible to at least travel with a good instrument.

Another forthcoming project that you mentioned is a collaboration with some flamenco artists, which I suppose dovetails with your interest in ... Is there another phrase besides “odd meters” that we can use to discuss 7/4, 9/4, and 5/4 time signatures? Do you go for ‘odd meters?’

I don’t know what you would call it. To me, if you speak to a Turkish musician, seven is not odd. So I think ‘odd meters’ is not a very good term. I say that I like playing in different time signatures.

Anyway, you’ll be playing in the flamenco world.

And what a world that is. A couple of years ago I was approached by a man in Spain, Mario Campo, who was a representative of ECM in Spain, but also has his own small label that he started several years ago, with the goal of doing very good-quality recordings of flamenco music, which unfortunately had not happened in the flamenco world. He had the idea that I might be interested in a project with a flamenco artist, and after we talked about a couple of people, we finally found a musician, Pepe Habichuela, who is from a very distinguished family of Spanish gypsy musicians and bullfighters and singers. I think he’s a fifth-generation guitarist. So I had a meeting with Pepe. My Spanish is extremely limited and his English is extremely limited, but we managed to communicate a respect for each other, I think, which was a very nice start to the whole relationship. A year ago last May, I went to Spain and did some concerts and spent several days rehearsing with him and some members of his entourage, some of whom are family members, and some associates that he’s played with. The group that we’ve landed on is a three-guitar group with 2 cajons (the traditional box drum that’s actually from South America, but it’s been included in flamenco music in recent years) and bass—so it’s a six-piece group.

My idea for doing it was really to enter into the flamenco world. Finding a meeting place is very hard sometimes for two different traditions. I’ve been involved with a great Arabic musician, Anouar Brahem, a player of the oud, and really, when we play together, I am very much entering into Anouar’s world. That’s the way it works. The kind of music I’m doing, for instance, with this sextet would be not appropriate for that situation, and the same for the flamenco music. I really wanted to treat the flamenco music with respect and not take away from the great stature of that music. I made that clear to Pepe, and I said to him, ‘Please, would you teach me your music?’ He’d written a lot of things, and we started working through some songs and different dance forms. A lot of the music is based on dance forms like the fandango and the seguria and the buleria, and many others. I found I’d actually underestimated, if that’s possible, the beauty of flamenco music. I hadn’t realized quite the depth and intricacy of it all. Of course, a lot of it had to be learned, memorized—and very complex forms.

So we started working on it, and we did a series of concerts. We went back this year, did some more concerts, some more rehearsals, and I’ve proposed now we’re going to do a record of this music in March. It will be out on my label, Dare2, and we’re going to try to document some of this music. There will be a couple of originals of mine on the record also. But in large part, it’s going to be Pepe’s music and performed by that group.

So, the two forthcoming recording projects are this flamenco project and the octet?

Yes. I’m not yet sure in what order we’ll release them. Really, I’m more interested in recording them and getting them documented at the time it’s appropriate, and then we’ll see what makes the most sense as far as releases are concerned.

So, both will be released on Dare2 records, which are available through your website,

Well, you’ll get the information there. That website doesn’t have the facility to download from at the moment. But we’re starting a new website that will be, which will be a full-service website where you’ll be able to download not only tracks from the records, but also live performances. We’ve recorded a lot of live performances over the last four or five years, of various projects I’ve been doing, and we’ll eventually make those available on the website eventually.

For the last four-five years, you’ve been in the ranks of musician-entrepreneurs.

A lot of people are bemoaning the record industry, and certainly it’s going through some problems at the moment, as are most businesses. But there are also some new opportunities, and I think that musicians, as they have in the past, need to look at the situation creatively and decide what they can do to make the most of what’s available. The internet has created a great window to the world for musicians to be able to communicate with their public and to get communication back from them, and also to let people know what they’re doing and to make their music available. One of the things I like about it is that it’s released us from the constraints of albums. We can actually release one or two tracks of a project, and not have to think about a complete album’s worth of material necessarily at once.

Sometimes less is better than more.

I think the choices are what counts—the fact that the consumer has a choice of downloading a track, or two tracks, or whatever. Mostly I’m interested in putting the music in the hands and the ears of the people who would like to take advantage of and maximize the possibilities.

Interviewed October 9th, 2008 at WKCR, New York, NY.

December 16, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Cedric Dent of Take 6

By Tomas Peña

Cedric Dent

Who would have thought that by focusing on the narrow, seemingly out-of-vogue a cappella singing style, a group like Take 6 would someday emerge and break down the barriers between jazz, gospel, and soul? In so doing, the group has become one of the most popular and in-demand vocal groups in the world. Thus far, the group has garnered 10 Grammy awards, one Soul Train award, and two NAACP Image Award nominations. Moreover, they’ve collaborated with Whitney Houston, Don Henley, Ray Charles, Queen Latifah, Joe Sample, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Roy Hargrove, Jon Hendricks, Quincy Jones, Marcus Miller, Brian McKnight and others. Thanks to the efforts of Mike Wilpizeski, Vice President of Jazz Publicity at Telarc/Heads Up International, I was able to catch up with baritone Cedric Dent, who travels and performs with Take 6 when he’s not teaching at Middle Tennessee State University.

Congratulations on the release of The Standard, Take 6’s ‘jazziest’ recording to date.

We made a concerted effort to do some covers of jazz and a few R & B things that we loved down through the years. Also, it was something that the record label was interested in doing.

I understand the group is currently on tour in Europe. You remained behind because of a teaching commitment.

Yeah, I am a full time professor now at Middle Tennessee State University, which is right outside of Nashville.

So you join the group when you are not teaching?

During the fall and spring semesters I have a guy who ‘subs’ for me. During the summer months, I’m with the group full-time.

You are one busy guy!

Trying to juggle both of these things is quite a balancing act!

Let’s introduce the members of the group and describe the role each of them plays.

Claude McKnight is on top most of the time, we call him one of the first tenors. Mark Kibble is directly under him; he’s another first tenor.

Mark is also the primary arranger, correct?

Take 6

Yes, Mark is our primary arranger, somebody I am still learning from after twenty years. Then there’s David Thomas. I call him sort of a first/second tenor; he’s the third man down from the top. Then there’s Joel Kibble, who’s a second tenor. I am a baritone under him, and then there’s our bass, Alvin Chea.

The group started out as a quartet twenty-eight years ago (1980) at Oakland College in Huntsville, Alabama. The original name was Alliance, which then became the Gentlemen’s Quartet.

Actually, it’s the other way around. The original name was the Gentlemen’s Quartet and the name was changed to Alliance.

As I understand it, the group used to rehearse in the men’s room at Oakland College because of the acoustics.

In fact, they would find various places around campus where the acoustics were very reverberant, and practice. There was a particular public bathroom in the basement underneath one of the auditoriums where student performances happened all the time … they were warming up in the bathroom, waiting for their turn to go on to stage to perform. This is part of the famous story where Mark Kibble came in and joined them before they were about to perform.

He overheard the group rehearsing?

It’s not like that was place where they always rehearsed. It was right before a performance, and it was conveniently located beneath the auditorium where they were about to perform one evening.

Mark eventually became a member of the group and the primary arranger. He was responsible for bringing Mervyn Warren into the fold.

Right, you know the story better than me!

Thank you, and thank God for YouTube, it’s a great resource. Your music is firmly rooted in the Gospel tradition, but it also contains elements of Jazz and R & B. Over the years the group has come under some criticism from the religious community for not adhering to strict, conservative standards. How do you reconcile the religious side of things with the group’s commercial appeal?

After doing this for awhile, we finally came to the conclusion that we really have to do what we are passionate about and what we feel spiritually led to do, and then just let the chips fall where they may. For years, when we would be in gospel music settings we would be looked at as outsiders. Then we would be in jazz and other secular settings, and we would be looked at as outsiders there! So we decided to do the best we can, to be excellent at what we do. And that simplified things for us, because then we were not trying to chase a genre, or a style, or a mode that someone else wanted us to be. An older musician once told me, ‘When you try to do what other people want you to do, that’s a moving target.’

If you had done what other people wanted you to do, you probably wouldn’t be as popular as you are today. You are spreading ‘the gospel’ all over the world. The group’s tour schedule is astounding!

Yeah, we are all over the map, aren’t we?

How does Take 6’s music go over internationally? Do people ‘get’ your message?

Our audiences all over the world are enthusiastic, although I would say that there are some cultural differences in the way they express that enthusiasm. American audiences are really good at talking back to you during a performance. Japanese audiences are a lot more courteous during the performance, but they get real exuberant at the end. Jazz audiences tend to fall in between those two categories. If you are new to international travel, it might throw you a little bit, because the responses are culturally different. But once you understand that, you can appreciate their enthusiasm in the way that they express it.

What about getting your message across to people who do not speak the language?

We were with Warner Brothers for many years, and they did a great thing with helping us develop an audience in Japan, in particular. Every CD that we did here was released there, with an extra insert that had all the lyrics of our songs translated to Japanese. So when we performed there, they knew what the songs meant, and that was helpful for us. In Europe, people are multilingual and they understand the words. That was a really good thing for us, because it helped us develop a rapport with a Japanese audience. For a long time, Japan was our largest market outside of the U.S. And in some ways it still is.

To the best of your knowledge, does Japan have an a cappella tradition?

They have a few, but I don’t know that it’s widespread. But again, because of the marketing efforts early on, we began touring there every year. There has not been a year in the last fifteen years that we have not performed in Japan. We even have some commercial endorsements there [that aren't seen in the U.S.].

I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but you have quite a fan base in Cuba.

I didn’t know that.

There’s a female vocal group in Cuba called Sexto Sentido (Sixth Sense) who draw their inspiration from your music. Furthermore, Cuba has a strong vocal tradition that goes way back.

Wow, that is flattering!

The group is not copying your style per se, but stylistically, you can hear the influence of Take 6.

I did know that we have a strong audience in South America, because we've toured there quite a bit. Countries like Argentina and Brazil have always been very supportive, but I didn’t know about Cuba.

Let’s talk about The Standard. This is your eleventh album, correct?

I think this is our 13th album … I am not sure.

The repertoire runs the gamut from Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘A Tisket a Tasket,’ to Miles Davis’s ‘Seven Steps to Heaven.’ Perhaps the oddest and most fun tune is ‘Being Green.’ I particularly like the quip at the end, which speaks about the possibility of a ‘President of color!’

We didn’t know what was going to happen when we did that recording, we just found it interesting that … to be honest with you, I never thought I would see a person of color become President in my lifetime. I certainly thought it was on the horizon but I didn’t think it would happen this soon.

Neither did I! Getting back to the music, how did you choose the repertoire? Is it a democratic process?

We just started compiling a list of songs; we had a master list, and we would just all sort of throw songs onto the list. We had friends who made suggestions of songs, and then every once in awhile we would all go, “Ooh, this is a really great one, we really should do this one.” And then, Mark Kibble, the primary arranger, started digging into them. He is also the producer for the record, so he made the final pick from the list that we all put together. We thought he did a great job.

What about the guests, like Aaron Neville, Al Jarreau, Roy Hargrove, Jon Hendricks, and others?

These were all people that we had worked with before in various capacities. [We] decided, since we have done things with and for them, maybe it’s time to call in some favors (laughs). I teach a seminar on the music industry, and one of the things I say to my students all the time in this class is very apropos to how we got these guest artists on our record. I tell them, 'You have heard it said that it’s not what you know but who you know. Well, that’s not really true. It’s actually what you know and who you know!'

My point is that networking is a really big part of any field that you go into. You really have to develop strong relationships that will help you. And the relationships should be reciprocal, so you can help them as well. That’s really how most of these collaborations came about. These were all people that we’ve known through the years with whom we've performed and recorded before.

Speaking of special guests, I can’t get over how much George Benson sounds like Nat King Cole on the tune, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right.’ Was he purposely imitating Nat King Cole? It’s uncanny!

Yeah! Well, we found that he at one point had been doing a tribute to Nat King Cole, so that turned out to be very fortuitous for us, to have him come in and sing a Nat King Cole tune. He does a great job of channeling Nat.

Thanks to the marvels of technology, you even managed to include Ella Fitzgerald. Who came up with that idea?

I can’t remember who exactly came up with it, but it was a unanimous decision to do it. Ella is one of the greatest singers ever. The things that she did live in terms of accuracy and intonation—people [today] use all kinds of recording techniques and gadgetry to try to sound that much in-tune, and still don’t do it as well. She is just one of the best in any genre at what she did. So it was one of those things where we just had to do something with Ella. Timing wise, we didn’t get a chance to do it while she was alive, so this was our way paying tribute to her, and still sort of getting a chance to perform with her vicariously.

Is there a male vocalist who meets those standards?

One of my favorites is Bobby McFerrin. I don’t know if you have ever seen him live, but what he does is just mind boggling.

Yes, I have seen him and I agree, though it’s been awhile since he has released a recording.

And he has such depth of in terms of what he can do, stylistically. You can hear his understanding of the classical music genre as well as jazz. He does both with equal aplomb. Again, he is just an inspiration.

Bobby’s a renaissance man. The last I heard he was conducting a classical orchestra. What is he doing now?

I haven’t heard recently what he is doing. We run into him all the time in Europe, doing performances. I know that he is still touring but from what I understand he does a lot conducting for symphony orchestras. He is still very active.

I don’t think I have ever heard a vocal group that is as technically proficient as Take 6. Part of it obviously has to do with the gift—the voices that God has given you—but how do you rise to that level? You guys have taken the vocal tradition to an entirely new level, and raised the bar so high.

Well, I have to say it doesn’t come without some sacrifice. By that I mean, most artists would probably have twice as many recordings as we do. In other words, it takes us quite awhile to really put together the work that we do, much to the chagrin of the record labels, who are always telling us to have a new record out every nine months.

You know what’s on their minds!

Of course! The other thing, too, is we are self-produced. When we are touring nothing is happening in the studio. It’s not like a pop artist who has a producer who is collecting songs and putting tracks together while the artist is out touring and when they come back they can just go right into the studio and start recording. It’s a very methodical, systematic approach that we take to what we do. So that’s part of it, right there.

In a past interview Mark Kibble said that it takes about a year for the group to put an album together.

I tell people all the time, Take 6 is Take 6 because we are strong in three areas. First is the arranging. We have arrangements on a level that most groups have a hard time grasping. Number two, we have very strong lead singers. The guys in our group do things outside of Take 6. They are constantly called because they are great lead singers. Number three, the collective range of the group has always been our strength. Our bass singer is one of the lowest bass singers that you will hear, and he’s getting lower as he gets older. He does things that still boggle my mind, because his voice is still dropping. But we also have had really good first tenors too. So those three things combined I think really make Take 6 quite unique.

I remember when Boyz II Men came out, and they used to say that we influenced them a lot. We were flattered by that, and people would ask, how do they compare to you? And I would say these guys are a collection of incredible lead singers, but they don’t do the group singing like we do and that’s a major distinction. People who do not have the ‘ears’ to hear that may not understand that. When you listen to what they do as a group, it’s just OK. But what they do as lead singers, I think, is what made them as strong as they were—and still are, because they are still performing. And we could make those kinds of comparisons with other groups. I am actually a big fan of Boyz II Men, but that’s what makes Take 6 stand out. We have a unique combination of gifts.

I don’t know how many Grammy nominations/awards and other awards the group has received to date—mainly, because I lost count. But looking back on the time that you’ve spent with the group, what comes to mind?

The first thing that always comes to my mind is that I never thought we would still be doing it after all these years. It boggles my mind that we have been able to stay together as a group. This is an interesting story: I had a pastor who I used to work with before I joined Take 6. After we signed our record deal he called and said, ‘You guys won’t last very long.’ From his pastoral perspective, we weren’t being spiritual enough in our approach. Over the years I moved away, and every couple of years I would get a call from him; it would start off with, ‘You guys still together?’ And I would say, ‘Yeah man, God is still blessing us!’ (laughs) and he would say, ‘It’s not going to last.’ One of his things was, ‘Only what you do for Christ will last.’ After we hit the ten-year mark he called and asked, ‘Are you guys still together?’ When I told him that we were still together he said, ‘You know, the Beatles were together for ten years and they broke up!’ I just had to laugh, even though it was intended as an insult. That was really funny to me.

Does the pastor still call? And if so, what is he saying now?

Eventually he stopped calling.

He is probably owns every recording the group has made and is one of your biggest fans!


A closet Take 6 fan … that’s a great story. With any luck he will stumble onto this interview!

(Laughter) I really think, in all seriousness, that we were all providentially called to be in this group, and that’s why we have been together as long as we have. Another aspect of it is, there are a lot of artists that we have seen come and go. Especially groups. It’s perhaps easier to go for quite awhile when you are a solo artist. When you are a group, you have to deal with egos and differences of opinions. If we just did this for ourselves, it probably would have ended long ago, but we have always seen this as a ministry.

A higher calling …

A higher calling that also keeps the egos in check. And that’s probably the most amazing part of all of this, for me.

Your music is hip and beautiful, but it’s the spiritual component that really makes it special.

Thank you.

And what better way to end this conversation than on that note? Please give my regards to the members of the group. I hope to see you perform live the next time Take 6 performs in New York. Keep spreading the gospel and good luck with The Standard.

Visit Take 6:

Take 6 (1990)
Take 6 - Greatest Hits (2007)
Take 6 – We Wish You a Merry Christmas/Carol of the Bells (1999)

December 11, 2008 · 5 comments


In Conversation with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin

By Ted Panken

For Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi, partners in marriage and art for close to forty years, “We could make such beautiful music together” is a phrase that transcends cliche.

         Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

They have made this music on 22 recordings by the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra Featuring Lew Tabackin. Since 1973, when the couple formed a 16-piece orchestra in Los Angeles, Akiyoshi has deployed Tabackin as her primary soloist, in presenting a corpus of music as formidable as that of any composer on the jazz timeline. She has incorporated highbrow modernist harmony, forceful rhythms, traditional Japanese music, and a tonal palette inspired by Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, both hands-on mentors during her early thirties.

Most of these albums are long out of print, but five—Kogun, Long Yellow Road, Tales Of A Courtesan, Insights and March Of The Tadpoles, recorded between 1974 and 1976—comprise the 2008 compilation Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band (Mosaic Select, 033).

It’s fascinating that a man and a woman born a decade apart, on opposite sides of the globe, could generate such creative sparks within each other, and feed the fire for such a sustained length of time. Akiyoshi’s well-documented life (see the 1984 documentary Jazz Is My Native Language or her 1996 autobiography Life With Jazz) began in Liaoyang, Manchuria, in 1929. Displaced and impoverished by World War II, she settled with her family in Beppu, where she learned jazz under the circumstances she describes below. Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Tabackin trained formally at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music, and quickly became a fixture on New York’s still thriving studio scene during the latter ‘60s, playing his jazz as an evening moonlighter.

Over Independence Day weekend this year, Akiyoshi and Tabackin joined me at WKCR to publicize a Birdland engagement with a quartet comprising bassist Peter Washington and drummer Mark Taylor. Along with Tabackin’s new self-released trio date, Live in Paris, with bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Mark Taylor (, they brought along a 2006 quartet album—with George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—recorded in Japan. As the copy in the jacket notes was exclusively in Japanese, it was necessary for Tabackin to translate the title before we could proceed.

The title of your new recording on the Japanese label, TOC, roughly translated, is “Fiftieth Anniversary.” Correct?

LT: Good enough. “Fiftieth Anniversary”...

TA: In America.

LT: Of Toshiko’s Fiftieth Anniversary in America. That’s quite a title. A little long.

You’ve been married for many years, and played together almost as long in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band with Lew Tabackin as featured tenor saxophonist and flautist. How much small ensemble playing have you done?

LT: We do it occasionally. We could do it more, I’m sure, but the problem is that Toshiko has her trio, I have my trio. People will be happy with the quartet because it’s probably more saleable—in America at least. But if we did that, our identities get into the Siamese Twin area, as used to happen. We play together quite well. But we have different approaches and we each want to pursue our own individual thing. If we do too many quartet gigs, it will cut into her trios and my trios, and etcetera.

How long have you been together?

LT: Since ‘69.

39 years. How did you meet?

LT: Do you want the whole story?

The radio version.

LT: We met at the Half Note. I was playing in Clark Terry’s band, and Toshiko was filling in for Don Friedman. She needed a tenor player for a concert, because Joe Farrell copped out. Anyway, she heard me play (I was pretty new in town), and she liked what she heard. So she called a contractor, who was Bill Berry, and hired me. To make a very long story shorter, I took the gig, then I cancelled. I went to California with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis for two weeks.

You gave her notice?

LT: I gave her notice. Eddie Daniels was around, so I figured it would be cool. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a good replacement. That’s how we met, and she didn’t hate me.

A very romantic beginning.

LT: Yeah, exactly. Then she hired me for a small group gig in Connecticut, I think it was.

TA: The first job was the Hartford Jazz Society. I didn’t know him that well, and I just heard him as a tenor player. When we got there, he played a long solo, like he always did—he always played great. For me, it was interesting, because we’re talking about quite a long time ago, and there was no younger tenor player who had that Coleman Hawkins-Lucky Thompson family tree of the sound. Lew was still in his mid-twenties, and heavily influenced by a cross between Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, which was an interesting combination. Anyway, on the second tune, he pulled out the flute, and I said, “Oh my God, he’s going to play terrible flute”—most of the great saxophone players played lousy flute. That was my introduction to his flute playing.

And how was the flute playing?

LT: Terrible.

TA: [loud laugh]

LT: Didn’t disappoint. But loud.

TA: I was really extremely surprised.

From that, a marriage was born.

LT: Right. Out of all that confusion. Actually, Jake Hanna, the drummer, was the driver for that gig. He didn’t do the gig, but he drove us to Connecticut. I still can’t quite understand why he didn’t do the gig. If he was going to drive us to Connecticut, he could have done the gig. I should ask him.

TA: But actually, I didn’t know he would do that. At the last minute, he offered us a drive.

LT: Oh, he volunteered.

So in 1969, when you met...

LT: We met in ‘67.

You received a lot of press when you came to the States in 1956. People not only were impressed by your style and musicianship, but were intrigued at the background and gender of this accomplished young virtuoso. How did things play out for you in the 1960s, after that first burst of publicity? What happened in your own career during that decade?

TA: I came to this country on a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music. In those days, it was a small school, with about 340 students. Now, in 1953 Norman Granz recorded me at the suggestion of Oscar Peterson. I think everybody knows that. It came out in 1954. So basically, the school was looking for a way to advertise itself, and I was the one. I wanted to come to the States, because it came to the point in Japan where I was the biggest fish in a small, small pond. Jazz is a social art. If you play with a better player, you become a better player, and I wanted to have opportunities to play with all these players that I’d been listening to on record.

As you said, there was a lot of publicity, and so on. Now, when I came, I thought when I finished school I’d go back to Japan and show my fellow musicians what I’d learned. But when I finally finished three-and-a-half years later, I realized that I didn’t really learn anything. What did I accomplish? I thought, “Well, I can’t go back now.” So I moved to New York, and at that point, I became just like any other jazz musician who doesn’t have a name, barely surviving, paying the rent. From that point on, it was kind of tough. But before that, I was getting a lot of publicity. Sometimes I would get negative things written. I think some people were annoyed at the fact that I was getting too much attention. But that was gone, and I think it was good that I had almost seven years of barely paying the rent.

You were scuffling, in other words.

TA: In New York! [laughs]

When did you start writing big band charts?

TA: Actually, when we met in 1967, I was in the midst of trying to have my own concert at the Town Hall in New York. The reason for that was that in 1966, at New Year’s. . . . The Japanese always do this. It’s an introspective time. I said, “What did I accomplish here? I’ve been in this country ten years, and what did I do? I haven’t done anything.” I thought, “Maybe I will have a concert. Maybe people will pay attention to me.” It took me a year to prepare and also to get a fund by playing the Holiday Inn circuit! So I had this concert, and I had a very good review from John Wilson in the The New York Times, but my life didn’t change.

It took more than that to change.

TA: Yes. Because in ‘67, that’s when I thought I’d try to do everything I have, which was to play solo and trio, and then have big band writing. I wrote five charts for that concert. That was the beginning.

It’s pretty well-known who your early piano influences were—Bud Powell, Monk, Tatum. But who were your main inspirations for composition and arrangement?

TA: I would like to think that is all my experience as a player. When I came to this country, the jazz scene was not quite so produced like it is today, so if you know the tunes (which most of the tunes I knew, because I listened to all the records when I was in Japan), they would let you sit in. Much more open than today. Today it’s pretty much like a group demonstration of what they do, and so on. So I came at a very good time. I was sitting in with Max Roach’s group, or Miles’ group, or even Duke Ellington’s band. I like to think that my writing comes from the sum total of all my experience and what I learned from records. Not just pianists. I learned a lot from Max Roach’s drumming, because I was always interested in rhythm.

Later, in 1974, when Duke died, that triggered me on how proud he was being a black American, and so much of his music was based on that. That opened my eyes to look into my heritage. That’s the beginning of my trying to infuse. . . to blend in some Japanese culture, which hadn’t existed in jazz history.

These things have been written about a fair amount, but could you describe how you first heard jazz, how you became interested in it, how as a young girl and young woman in Japan you were able to assimilate the feeling and sound in a way that struck so many people when they heard you?

TA: Are you talking about big band writing?

I’m talking about piano playing.

LT: How did you get turned on to jazz?

TA: I was born in old Manchuria—today it’s China. I had a piano. I studied piano from 7 years old, so I never heard of jazz. Then when the war was ended, my parents lost everything, so I didn’t have a piano, so I took a job in a dance hall. This was a Japanese dance hall for Japanese people, and there was one Japanese jazz record collector. He invited me to his home, and played the Teddy Wilson “Sweet Lorraine.” Actually this became a pretty famous story. That’s when I thought, “Oh, I’d like to play just like that.” That was the beginning.

Was this in Tokyo?

TA: No, it was Beppu, which was a small but very well known city for hot springs.

LT: It’s in the south of Japan.

So Teddy Wilson’s “Sweet Lorraine” is what spurred you. . .

TA: Yes, that was it.

LT: She was playing in this dance hall which was really horrible, and she thought that was jazz. So she really hated the whole idea until she heard that recording. “Wow, jazz can be beautiful.”

Lew, in 1967, when you met Toshiko under the circumstances you mentioned, you certainly knew who she was.

LT: Oh, yes. Actually, when I lived in Philadelphia, I heard Charles Mingus’ group with Toshiko which played at a place called Pep’s. So I was familiar with her. I knew who she was and I knew a bit about her playing because I heard her with Mingus. That was about it.

Toshiko mentioned that she was initially intrigued by the vocabulary you used, that it differed from what was commonly played by musicians your age during the 1960s, mixing things from Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and Coltrane as well. What put you on that path, given all the stylistic streams that were roiling about at the time?

LT: Basically, as a young player, it didn’t take me long to become a Coltrane clone. But I would go hear other players. . . I hate to sound racial, but I’d hear some white guys trying to play like Coltrane, and I said, “Boy, it sounds bad—but maybe I’m just as bad as they are.” I thought, “I have to find my own voice somehow, I have to find a way.” There was a trombone player who was a bit older than me who had a record collection, and he played me a bunch of great tenor saxophone players that I’d never heard before. Actually, the first guy I liked was Al Cohn, and then I moved on to Sonny Rollins, then Coltrane, blah-blah-blah. He played me all these guys, and it was an amazing revelation. The only one I couldn’t understand was Hawkins. That was too hard for me. I couldn’t relate to Hawkins. But I could relate to Ben Webster, and of course, I could relate to Lester Young and Byas. It was really ear-opening. So I started to try to develop in parallel motion—be a today person, but always check back to stuff I’d missed. Because anything you haven’t heard is new. I realized that I had to pay attention, investigate the history, then put it in a pot and mix it up, and eventually I’d find my own voice.

I started listening to all these people, trying to absorb the elements of their styles. A lot of times, it’s not the notes; it’s just the aura that they project. Then when I would go to hear one of my heroes, like Sonny Rollins, I could hear it in a different perspective. I’d say, “Wow, that sounds like Lester, that sounds like Chu Berry, that’s Hawkins, that’s Bird.” Now, you can do a Byas, you can do a Ben Webster, you can do a Lester, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about putting all the elements together and creating your own voice. I felt that started to happen consistently when I reached around 40. I miss that in a lot of the younger players, because they tend to deal with about thirty years of history. Hank Mobley is considered old. Hawkins, forget about it—they can’t relate to it. I try to point out that if you really pay attention, you might not like it or it might not make sense at first, but the lightbulb goes off at a certain point, and you realize the incredible scope of some of the earlier players, and then you have more in your arsenal. Like the way that you deal with sound. You don’t have to play with one little sound all the time; you have a variety of sounds that you can use to express yourself.

Basically, I kept on that track, and I’m still in the process. To me, it’s the process that’s important in playing or doing anything. It’s like you’re in-becoming. Hopefully, every year I become stronger musically and express more of my individuality.

As an instrumentalist and stylist, how has constant exposure to Toshiko’s original concept of composing affected the way you think about things?

LT: It started when I got the gig in Clark Terry’s band. Zoot Sims got me the gig. He never wanted to go to rehearsals, so he kept sending me to rehearsals, and I wound up in this all-star band with Clark Terry. I was trying to find where I was, and I played a little out. When I was playing in this band, I felt I was imposing myself on the music—it didn’t work. I thought, I’m really not approaching this right. So I started listening to Clark, to try to grow out of the spirit that he projected. I tried to use that concept, not necessarily to impose myself, but to grow out of the feeling. Toshiko writes a lot of what I’d guess you’d call program or narrative music that tells a story. I wanted to know the story, and when I know the story, then I can improvise. It’s not all about G-minor-7, C-7. When she started introducing Japanese stories and motifs and music, I’d ask her about what she was saying. So I tried to play in a narrative sense. I still had to listen to some shakuhachi music to try to understand a bit about how that works, and that Zen concept, kind of at-one with the environment and with the music. When she played her music, it exposed me to that aspect. In the non-Japanese stuff, too. . . she would write ballads and so on for me, and sometimes it would take me a minute to figure out how to approach it. But it certainly expanded my horizons, so to speak.

Toshiko, as a young person, how much was traditional Japanese music and folk culture part of your upbringing?

TA: Actually, not formal training. For whatever reason, always in school in Japan classes were European. My father was a student of Noh, a men’s performing art, and my second sister was a quite accomplished Japanese traditional dancer. She was studying. So I was surrounded by all that. But my training was always European.

Are you from a family of artists?

TA: Not really. I am the only one. . . . My mother used to say she didn’t understand how in the world, of all her children, I am the only musician. My mother always liked music. My father, as I say, was a student of Noh. My sister had her interest in dance. I think the family was always interested in doing something, but never was a musical family. I don’t say that.

But I guess since you were surrounded by these procedures as a young person, they’re part of the fabric of the way you think about things.

TA: Yes. I really liked tsuzumi, which is a Japanese drum, used often in Noh. I really liked that sound. Much, much later, I wanted to employ that.

When you heard jazz, particularly the type of jazz you were drawn to, by black American musicians, the velocity and intensity of it, did it seem of a piece with what you’d been raised with, or did it seem like something completely new?

TA: People always ask me why-why-why. I may be wrong, because I don’t quite remember. But as I said, when Teddy Wilson played such a beautiful piano, I thought, “Wow, I’d like to play just like that.” In Japan, no records were available, no books were available, and so on. You couldn’t even buy a record. I was working at the American club, the Officers Club, places like that, where they had V-disks, and I’d listen to them, and I copied the music. That’s how I learned the language and got used to it. It wasn’t much intellectual. I didn’t really analyze myself. I just really liked it. It was something that agreed with me.

Interview notes: Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin were interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on July 3, 2008.

December 05, 2008 · 0 comments