In Conversation with Andy LaVerne

by Eugene Marlow

Question: What do Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Lionel Hampton, Michael Brecker, Elvin Jones, John Abercrombie, and Neil Sedaka have in common? Answer: theyíve all worked with jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Andy LaVerne.

Andy LaVerne

A prolific recording artist, LaVerneís projects as a leader number over 50. He is also a jazz educator, having released a series of instructional videos. He is the author of Handbook of Chord Substitutions, Tons of Runs (Ekay), Bill Evans Compositions 19 Solo Piano Arrangements, and is the pianist on The Chick Corea Play-Along Collection (Hal Leonard). Andy is a frequent contributor (since 1986) to Keyboard Magazine and Piano Today Magazine. His articles have also appeared in Down Beat, Jazz Improv, Piano Quarterly, Jazz and Keyboard Workshop, and JazzOne.

LaVerne is the recipient of five Jazz Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is winner of the 2000 John Lennon Songwriting contest for his tune ďShania.Ē He has appeared at concerts, festivals, and clubs throughout the world, and has given clinics and Master classes at universities, colleges, and conservatories worldwide. LaVerne is Professor of Jazz Piano at The Hartt School (University of Hartford) and on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. In a conversation with jazz.comís Eugene Marlow, LaVerne looks back on his decades long prolific career, his early association with the legendary Bill Evans, and his current projects.

You have played with a host of people from Frank Sinatra to--it seems like everybody. Youíve recorded with tons of people including your own albums. How do you manage to do that?

I look back at that list myself and sometimes I find it hard to believe Iíve played with that many people over such a long period of time. I guess you start playing and obviously time passes and you end up playing with a lot more people. As far as the versatility goes, I donít feel my playing is all that eclectic. I read articles about people and they say they have all sorts of influences from world music to rock to all sorts of things. I guess I have influences of classical music and obviously jazz, but even my jazz seems to be focused in a certain area. I appreciate all eras of jazz, but I seem to be focused more in a certain area although I have expanded that over the course of time. I think I started initially with Bill Evans and then expanded from there and then backwards from there. Everybody has their set of influences and, of course, I grew up in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Who are your influences?

Specifically, thereís really a group of five pianists who seem to have shaped everything I do in one way or another and they are, not necessarily in any order, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. And then from there Richie Beirach. Probably not quite as much because Richie also had absorbed a lot of the people I just mentioned, so he was sort of a consolidation of those styles. But he did add some of his own very unique things that influenced me as well.

Why those five?

Iíve pondered that for a long time because I certainly have gotten things from other people. Certainly Monk and Bud Powell and Sonny Clark and a lot of other pianists. But that group of five was really the core of my interest and influences. I think what they share is a certain clarity, creativity and musicality, lyricism, and fire. I guess you could say that about a lot of people, but it seems those five people encapsulate those qualities for me and thatís what appeals to me.

Andy LaVerne

You studied with Bill Evans. How long did you study with him?

I took a number of lessons with Bill over the course of maybe a year or so. And I was very fortunate to have had that opportunity because I donít think he was really teaching very much, if at all, at that point. Itís not like these days where pretty much everybody teaches. I had been going down to the Village Vanguard (New York City) to hear him every night. He would play there for a week or two weeks. I would just go every single night. Then one night on a break he came into the audience and was just sitting with a couple of friends and he was telling them about an apartment he just moved into in the Bronx. I happened to overhear him say that and it was only four blocks away from where I was living with my parents at that time. So I figured, well, okay, I guess Iíll go up and say something. I was petrified to even talk to him. But he was actually very nice and unassuming and I told him I was an aspiring jazz pianist of sorts and he seemed to be interested in that and invited me over. And thatís how it happened.

Was this in Riverdale?

Yes, it was in Riverdale. I was going into his building--he lived in an apartment building on West 246th Street--and as I was going into the building he was just getting into the building too. So we went up into the elevator together. He couldnít shake hands because his hands were so swollen, I guess from perhaps the drug abuse, Iím not quite sure. But that struck me as kind of odd. When we got upstairs he had just gotten a copy of Jazz Improvisation Volume 4 by John Mehegan in which he wrote the preface. That whole book is basically a codification of Billís left-hand, rootless voicings. So Bill gave me that copy and he said, "Here, you take it. I donít need it."

Did he sign it?

He didnít sign it. I wish he had signed it. The only thing of Billís thatís like a signature was when I was playing--this was many years later-- when I was playing with Stan Getz, and Bill and Stan were doing a lot of double-bill concerts together. So we were traveling together: the Stan Getz quartet and the Bill Evans trio. Bill would open for Stan.

That was right around the time Stan produced a record for me, a recording for me with himself and John Abercrombie, Billy Hart and Eddie Gomez, which unfortunately never came out because it was produced for Columbia Records. He produced two records for me for Columbia and I thought, well, my career is set, Iím on the fast track now, no problem. Shortly after we recorded those two records, Stan got dropped from Columbia, so the records never came out.

Who has those masters?

I had them at one point and gave them to a friend of mine who used to be the head of Atlantic Studios in Manhattan for safe-keeping, and he lost them, or he couldnít locate them, so theyíre gone. I donít know where they are.

Anyway, I had given Bill a cassette of that first CD because I wanted him to hear it. I wanted to see what he thought. Eddie Gomez was also on it, so I thought heíd be interested. He took it and he was in the hotel, but he left the hotel before we did so he wrote me a note. It was a really nice note and he said yeah, you know, loved the record and went into some detail about the tunes and everything. And then he said at the end of it, youíre going to be making the big bucks, and it was signed Bill. I lost that note. I donít have anything with Billís signature on it.

Earlier you touched on the subject of surviving in the jazz music business, then and now. Can you talk about that? What was it like 20, 30 years playing in the business, and what is it that a jazz musician has to do today in order to survive? You talked about everybody teaches.


I presume everybody teaches because thatís another income stream.

Exactly. Thatís not the only motivation to teach, obviously, but that certainly is a practical thing to keep in mind. Itís part of the income stream you have to generate these days. Obviously you've got to generate a lot more income now than you had to 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe proportionately itís the same, but the numbers have certainly increased. I think itís extremely difficult. Sometimes Iím amazed Iíve been able to do it myself without taking any other source of work outside of music.

I write for Keyboard Magazine and Piano Today Magazine; Iíve been doing that for quite a number of years. Iíve written a number of books. So tangentially itís not just the playing; itís other things connected to playing and connected to music, at least in my case.

One thing I have noticed is that everybody is in a slightly different space when it comes to their own career in music or what they want to pursue or how to do it best. In terms of giving advice, itís kind of hard because I think the whole scene is constantly evolving and changing. But what I see now from all the teaching Iím doing is I have a lot of younger students who are just trying to get into what Iíve been doing for a long time. Itís difficult for them because, number one, there arenít as many bands around playing and touring as a unit full-time. When I joined Stan Getz, we were on the road virtually almost 100% of the time. I basically didnít need a place to live because it was all hotels and traveling. Now, even if you play with a band on a steady basis, you go out for like a two or three week tour and then youíre back for a couple of months or something. So, in terms of the teaching thing, it seems like now the degrees that are required to teach jazz are getting more and more. If you have a bachelorís, thatís not enough anymore. You need a masterís. Now people are getting masterís degrees and they still canít find jobs teaching.

I donít know what the solution for this generation is, exactly. There are that select handful of musicians, as John Abercrombie calls them, the ďhappy jazz musiciansĒ who are making tons of money. Theyíre playing whatever they want, as much as they want, they get amazing amounts of recognition, reviews are always completely glowing.

Give me some examples.

Well, obviously thereís the established hierarchy of jazz musicians, some of the ones I just mentioned: Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner. Iím sure theyíre not hustling or scuffling for gigs or recognition. When they get gigs thereís plenty of people there and Iím sure they get remuneration that reflects their high status. Thereís also Joe Lovano and John Scofield for the slightly younger generation. Now also thereís Wynton Marsalis and a lot of his followers or proponents. Then thereís a crop of younger generation of players. There are a crop of really amazingly talented guitarists that seem to be on the forefront of developing the music. Thatís what it appears to me at this point. Iím sure there are pianists as well, but it seems like the guitarists are getting a lot of attention these days. So thereís that handful of artists who are very well established and are doing very well and are doing exactly what they want. And then there are the rest of us who are sort of doing what we want and have to do a lot of it to make as much money. We donít make as much money, we never will. Thatís kind of a harsh reality to deal with.

Andy LaVerne

According to drummer Bobby Sanabria one of the major reasons why thereís not as much going or why itís so difficult financially is that the vast majority of jazz radio has gone away.

Thatís a good point.

Do you agree with that?

Iím not really that aware of it because I donít listen to that much jazz radio. I donít get WBGO (Newark, NJ) too well in Peekskill. I know you can listen online but--I have so many CDs and so many things I want to listen to that I donít really find it necessary to listen that much to radio. I find when I do listen to radio theyíll play something I like and then theyíll play five things I donít want to listen to and Iím saying to myself, why am I spending time listening to this stuff that I donít want to hear? So rather than doing that, I just have a master collection of stuff I really like. Of course, that makes it difficult to hear new stuff that you might not ordinarily be exposed to. But to get to the question about jazz radio, I canít say Iím really aware of that. It wouldnít surprise me because the media has changed so much. Another point that you might want to think about is CDs.

I was going to ask you about that.

It just seems the whole industry is imploding. Itís collapsing like a house of cards. Itís kind of scary.

Itís all going digital?

Itís all going digital and not only that but nobody seems to be buying much of anything anymore, they donít have to. They can get it all for free somehow, whether theyíre downloading it or sharing it with people.

Then why produce a CD?

Thatís an excellent question. That has me in a quandary because it seems like in more recent times in my career Iíve been more focused on recording than live gigs. Iím tired of traveling and going through the hassles that you have to go through and it seems like traveling is getting more and more difficult. But I want to keep playing and keep producing new product and I really like recording. Itís kind of a solitary process in a way, but at least you can document your music and get it out there to people interested in hearing it. Now this method of getting your music to people seems to be evaporating. Iím not quite sure where itís all going.

Letís talk a little bit about your music. Youíve been composing and arranging other peopleís work for some time now. Has your compositional style changed? Has it evolved? And, if so, how?

Yes, Iím sure it has changed and evolved. I have been writing for a long time. I started writing when I was just learning how to play. I guess it was just always part of what I liked to do. Even before I started playing jazz when I was playing classical music I was writing fugues and sonatas in those styles. So it was just, I guess, that creative part of me that needed some sort of outlet. And I always took that as just part of what I did in music or as a musician. But as far as how my writing has evolved, itís funny. It seems to go through stages of either more dissonance and then back into more consonance and then maybe a combination of those factors. But I think itís more of a refinement now than a radical evolution. It seems like Iím more sensitive now to melodic development and a lot of my writing seems to be paring down elements, not only melodically, but also rhythmically and harmonically, just to get to the pure essence of what it is Iím trying to write. It seems like the melodies are getting more sparse and the chords--theyíre as complex as theyíve been over the years. Theyíre not getting more complex. I seem to be able to meld them with more conventional chords better. I feel like my writing and playing is improving as time goes by which, to me, I think, is a good thing, even though Iím getting older. I look at some of my idols that I mentioned before and I prefer to listen to their earlier periods than their more current periods.

Why is that?

Iím not quite sure. It seems like when it gets to a certain point it gets almost to be either a caricature of what they played earlier on, or they changed directions a little bit and Iím not quite as interested. Weíre still just searching and developing where other people kind of reached a plateau of style and then just kind of went with that, you know, to play to larger audiences or something.

How do you keep your chops up? Iíve spoken to other pianists and they say they spend two to three hours a day on exercises, reading repertoire, doing classical material, reading charts, just working at it every day. Do you feel like you have to work at it every day?

I donít really feel quite that way and maybe that might be reflected when you hear me play. I just did a gig recently at the Gitano in New York for a couple of nights and by the end of the last set I felt like I could pretty much play anything I wanted to. Of course, when we first started I felt pretty good, but I could see I had some place to go. So for me, playing at home or practicing, itís never the same as actually performing and being on either a gig or recording. I play at home and Iím constantly playing and doing things, but itís not the same intensity level as when youíre actually playing a gig.

Thereís more adrenaline going on when youíre playing a gig and that changes your performance acumen?

Yes, Iím sure thatís part of the equation. Thereís also the interaction between people you canít get if youíre just playing at home by yourself.

Youíre talking about the other musicians on the set?

Yeah and the energy coming from the audience as well. There are all those factors that when youíre in a solitary state just practicing, you canít duplicate any of that. So for me, luckily, chops have never been a major issue. I have enough technique to execute what it is I need to execute. As a matter of fact, getting back to Bill Evans, I remember one of the first things he said to me after I first played for him when I was still in my teens, he said, ďBoy, you sure have a lot of technique.Ē Iím sure that came from all my years at Juilliard and I never really thought about it. I just did what I was told and it evolved that way.

Youíve studied at Juilliard and Berklee and the New England Conservatory?


How much of your background was strictly classical?

A large part of it. Obviously not at Berklee and New England. Well, I shouldnít say ďobviouslyĒ with New England because they have a great classical department. But I was studying with Jaki Byard there. Certainly at Juilliard there was no jazz program at the time I was there. I didnít even know anything about jazz at that point in my life. I was a little kid. I studied there for many years.

When did you start there at Juilliard?

I started when I was six years old. So I was obviously not in the college at that point.


Iím smart but Iím not that smart. Although in my lifetime somehow Iíve managed to be a child prodigy and a late bloomer.

What do you mean a late bloomer?

I feel like Iím just starting to get to what I need to get to musically in my career as well, and Iím 60 years old, so thatís what I mean by late bloomer.

You definitely donít come across as 60 years old.

Maybe intellectually and emotionally.

So when did you leave Juilliard?

I was in high school, so probably around 15 or 16.

You went through high school at Juilliard, is that correct?

Yeah, I didnít go to high school in Juilliard, I went to the High School of Music and Art in New York that is now the LaGuardia High School.

And then you went from there to Berklee and then to New England?

No, I went from high school to Ithaca College and then from Ithaca College I transferred to Berklee and then from Berklee to New England.

Of that total experience, who would you say was your strongest influence in terms of your playing or your musical experience or musical training experience, including the Juilliard experience?

Certainly from a theory and a pianistic standpoint, Juilliard certainly had the major impact on me.

Anybody specifically there?

It was a woman by the name of Mrs. Kurka, Robert Kurkaís wife. Robert Kurka was a contemporary composer who died while I was at Juilliard. He died rather young; he was probably maybe in his forties or something. But she was my teacher for many years and she taught me well. She knew what she was doing.

You must have been a good student as well.

Actually, I was not that big on practicing as much as I should have, but fortunately my talent carried me through part of that. In any case, from a jazz standpoint, even studying with Bill and Don Friedman and Jaki Byard and Richie Beirach, I learned a great deal from all those people, but I think I learned most of the stuff I know about jazz from other musicians Iíve played with over the years. Just playing and figuring it out myself, which people these days donít seem to be doing quite as much. Although I must admit that some of my more advanced students, regardless of what I show them, they just kind of figure it out themselves anyway.

You really have to find your own way.

I think you do. People can show you tools and information, but itís how you put all that together yourself. I was reading something recently, it mentioned you can teach people how to paint, but you canít teach them what to paint. I think itís the same with music. You can teach them how to play music, but you canít teach them what to play.

Let me close with an open question. What would you like to say about your music experience, your playing, or the music industry or the jazz business? Anything that comes to mind that is fairly close to your heart at this point?

I would like to talk a little bit about what Iím doing now. I have this group, as you know, that I formed about four years ago, a piano/organ trio that I really love playing with. I feel that somehow I have found what seems to be a more or less unique setting for myself. There are a number of reasons. I play piano, thereís a Hammond B3 organ, and thereís drums.

Who are the players?

Well, itís been Gary Versace, a great organist and a pianist. It was because of his playing that actually I got the idea to form the group in the first place. But Gary has been really, really busy. I have a gig coming up with the group and unfortunately Gary is going to be out of the country. I knew this day was going to come where I would be at a crossroads either deciding to get another organ player or to just play piano trio which I certainly would be happy to do. Iíve been keeping my ear to the ground for other organists in case this would occur, and it has. So I found a guy by the name of Brian Charette who coincidentally went to college with Gary Versace and who knows him quite well. But they have a lot of similar influences and they seem to have a similar approach to playing the instrument that I really, really like.

Is drummer Danny Gottlieb still with the group?

Danny Gottlieb is also one of my long-time great friends, one of my closest friends and favorite drummers, but he lives in Florida. So it hasnít been that easy for him to get up here to play gigs when I need him. But I have found another drummer I really love playing with. His name is Anthony Pinciotti. We met about ten years ago when he was a student at the University of Miami and I was down there playing--doing a clinic and playing a concert--and he was recruited to play with me. And I said wow, you know, this guy sounds really great. He ended up moving to New York and it was through Gary, actually, Gary had mentioned him and thatís when I made the connection that I had met Anthony several years ago. And so Gary and I played with Anthony and it was fantastic. Anthony and Brian Charette are the latest incarnation of this group.

The reason I really like playing in this group so much is it gives me the opportunity to do what I like to do best which is not only solo, but to comp. And, you know, if youíre playing in a piano trio with a bass player, youíre comping behind the bass solo. But the bass solos donít happen necessarily on every tune. They might, but even if they do, they donít generally last more than a few choruses. And when youíre comping behind the bass, you have to tone it down somewhat because itís a different texture and timbre and you have to adjust to that. But when Iím comping behind an organ solo, itís like comping for a horn player or a guitar player. So, thereís no holds barred there. Plus just the texture of the piano and the organ together is such a rich, beautiful sound to me. Somehow I stumbled on this because I hadnít really heard a group like this before and I want to stick with it. So like Bill Evans did years ago, when unfortunately Scott LaFaro died, he had to get another bass player. So he got Chuck Israels. But when Chuck Israels left, he got Eddie Gomez.

It wasnít too bad then.

Yeah, it wasnít too bad either. But Iím sure I will be playing more gigs with Gary again as well. I just have to look at it like itís an evolution of this concept now rather than a group of just three people who have to remain the same. Itís that group and my duet with guitarist John Abercrombie that incidentally has turned into a DVD recording. That duet has been an ongoing thing that I just love doing also, playing duo with John. Weíre been such good friends for such a long time that itís just another part of my musical expression that I really love doing.

I think on that note weíll close. Thank you Andy LaVerne.

June 30, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Zaccai Curtis

By Tomas PeŮa

                           Pianist and composer Zaccai Curtis

Howís this for a coincidence? My fiancť (Nilsa) knows your parents. In fact, she attended one of your performances, when (as she put it) ďyou were just kids!Ē

Oh, wow!

More important, she mentioned that your parents were very supportive. Did they facilitate a music program for children in Hartford (Connecticut)?

Actually, there were a few parents that were involved. I think the program you are talking about is a Latin jazz program that was run by a guy named Joe Velez. He used to bring in his charts and have us rehearse simple tunes like "Oye Como Va" and "Sofrito."

After a few years the program was canceled so we continued to rehearse in our basement. In time we formed a group called Latin Flavor. We performed locally, opening up for other acts at The Hartford Center for the Arts and The Artists Collective

How old were you?

We were pretty young, probably about twelve or thirteen. It was me, my brother Luques and Joel (the trumpet player). We also participated in programs at The Jackie Mc Lean School and a salsa program called Guakia.

Did you start out playing the piano?

I started out playing the congas and classical piano. Luques also started out on the congas and my eldest brother, Damien plays the piano.

What is Damien doing now?

Heís a producer and the leader of his own band. He goes under the name, King Solomon.

Then it was off to the New England Conservatory, where you formed The Rhythmic Prophecies Quartet and were chosen to participate in Lincoln Centerís American Music Abroad Program. That must have been quite an experience Ö

It was awesome. We traveled to Bangladesh, Mumbai, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Just to clarify, the members of the Rhythmic Prophecy Quartet were you, Luques (bass), Richie Barshay (drums) and Reinaldo de Jesus (percussion). How was your music received over there?

The audiences were very receptive, the venues were packed and the musicians were great. They were really open. I have some video clips from the trip the trip I am going to post on You Tube.

Some time ago I received a copy of Richie Barshayís recording, Homework (2005). I was amazed at his command of North Indian percussion. Now I ďgetĒ the connection.

Actually, Richie was studying North Indian percussion before we went to India! But he was really glad to go on that trip!

Do you and Luques still perform with drummer, Ralph Petersonís trio?

We still perform with Ralph. We performed at Cecilís in New Jersey, and Smoke and Sweet Rhythm in New York.

How did you hook up with Ralph?

Through my brother Luques Ö I will never forget the first time I played with Ralph. I was completely blown away. In my opinion, and the in the opinion of many others Ralph is Art Blakeyís protťgť. He is one of the greats.

Letís talk about The Curtis Brothers. In the liner-notes for Insight, A Genesis you mention that your music is African-based with influences from Puerto Rico, Cuba, South America, Central America, Europe and Asia. In other words, influences from everywhere!

We grew up listening to all kinds of music, everything from Fela Kuti to John Coltrane. Lately, I have been exploring Afro-Puerto Rican music. I am looking into the connections between the slaves in Puerto Rico and West Africa.

You recently participated in Papo Vazquezí recording, Marooned/Aislado (Picaro Records). Speaking of Afro-Puerto Rican music, no one does it better!

Papo has taken Afro-Puerto Rican music to another level. He has always been a big influence Ö

So thatís going to be your new focus?

We are going to go straight to the roots! By the same token, if someone wants to bring something new to the group I am always open. We are constantly changing the music and keeping it fresh for ourselves.

In the liner notes you state that, ďThe world is in need of a wake-up call.Ē Also, tunes like "Sudan" and "Darfur" are a clear indication that the group has a political conscience.

Itís funny that you would mention that. I was talking to Damien yesterday and we noticed that a lot of young artists are starting to speak up. Check out Erykah Baduís Amerykah. Change begins with the artists.

True. The artists generally sound the call Ö

For the record, I am not trying to push my political views on anyone. But if I donít speak out who will? That is one of the reasons that we choose to not get involved with a record label. I donít want anyone telling us what we can, or cannot do. We want to create music that feels real. I am really lucky that everyone else in the band feels the same way. We are lucky to have each other.

Overall, Insight, A Genesis has received very good reviews. I particularly like Chip Boazí commentary: ďBy taking a challenging and original road towards a musical statement, Insight has created a personalized performance style that pushes Latin jazz on a journey towards the future.Ē

Itís a great compliment because Latin Jazz is the music of Andy Gonzalez, Hilton Ruiz and Eddie Palmieri and we learned everything from them.

Eddie has influenced everybody. It must have been a thrill when he said, ďGive these guys a couple of years and they are going to blow everyone off the stage!Ē

When he said that I was like, Wow! Eddie has always been my hero, my number one cat. Just meeting him and having him listen to the group was a great experience. Luques is a member of Eddieís salsa and jazz band.

Who are some of the other artists you have worked with as a sideman?

Iíve worked with Donald Harrison, Brian Lynch, Bill Saxton, Charles Flores, Kendrick Oliver, Sean Jones, Christian Scott, Jimmy Greene, Albert Rivera and Will Calhoun among others.

Before we conclude, where do you see the music going?

Thereís definitely a split. A lot of the young musicians are frustrated by the fact that the big corporations literally ďownĒ the jazz festivals and the venues but no one is talking about. Thatís why we have chosen to remain independent.

So when can we expect another recording from The Curtis Brothers?

Right now I have enough material for four recordings! The only thing standing in the way is money!

Where have I heard that before? {Laughter}. Congratulations on a fine performance at The Jazz Gallery and good luck with your upcoming gig at The Nuyorican Poets Cafť.

Thank you Tomas.

June 20, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Dianne Reeves

by Thierry Quťnum

On your last album, thereís only one song that youíve written. Is there a reason why you compose less than you did before?

                          Dianne Reeves, by Jos L. Knaepen

Well, weíve been touring so much that it was only during the last year that I could take some time off to write. Since I had already had the idea for this last record, I only included one of my tunes in it, but the rest of the original material will be on the next.

Also, I guess Iím a singer first. I like to write songs, but I like more than anything to find songs that, whether I write them or not, really address my life. So I find myself singing the things that feel good inside of me. These songs all have stories behind them, and I canít wait till I sing them live on stage.

The last one, ďToday Will be a Good DayĒ is different as far as the sonic approach is concerned, so itís at the end and I chose to explain why I wrote it because itís about my mother, whoís very important for me. It was a gift to her. The other songs, like ďJust my ImaginationĒ or ďLoving You,Ē make me reminisce about a place and a time in my life that was very special, and I love the fact that I can still access to them emotionally through music.

Some also reflect the journey of my graduation from imaginative love to what Iíve come to know love to be at this time of my life. And thatís something thatís abiding, uncompromising and compassionate. And it includes the love for self and all the love that you can give to change things. Itís such an amazing powerful present!

You were talking about being eager to sing these songs onstage, but a lot of listeners here in Europe have the feeling that your studio records are a bit overproduced, compared to the rawer quality of your live performances.

As I grow older I become more refined. Iíve come to understand that my voice is not just the instrument that you hear, but itís my soul. Anytime I do a record, Iím baring my soul and I give 100% of who I am. Besides, the taste of listeners differs from country to country. As an artist, I have no control on that, and I can only be the best of who I am.

Recently Iíve been touring a lot around the world with a group that hasnít been recorded yet : only me and two guitars (Russell Malone and Romero Lubambo). From now on, Iím going to tour either with this group or with the group thatís on my last record. So, for me the records are a jumping off point. Iím a jazz musician, so what you will hear onstage will be different from night to night. I love what happens during a recording, but I like it to be the beginning of moving the music to another place.

                      Dianne Reeves, by Jos L. Knaepen

You were just talking about the evolution of your voice, and as a singer you definitely have a maturity that enhances your music. How do you view the actual fad for young so-called jazz singers?

Honestly, I donít concentrate on those things. Everybody has the right to express themselves in a way that they wish to, and the success depends on the taste of the public. Sometimes they like simple melodies with uncolorful voices, and itís not the first time in history that uneventful recordings have been successful. When there is a major machine telling people what they should listen to, then people listen. All I know is that I can do what I do, and thank God, I do it enough that it sustains my life, that I can still be passionate and that I donít have to compromise on the things I want to say or do. So I just say ę live and let live Ľ.

I know that you teach singing? What do you teach to young wannabe jazz singers?

I do lots of master classes and clinics, and the thing I emphasize most of all is that your voice is not your instrument. You can convey what you have to say clearly just by talking. So if you happen to have this instrument that is a voice or a piano, how do you translate what it is that is inside of you into this instrument? And then how do you refine and define this particular instrument? I spent a long time singing the way that I do because I listened to great singers and great musicians who all said you must have your own unique sound. So I always wanted to be counted among those whom you recognize in just a few seconds. I tell my student that one of the great miracles in the world is that you are unique, so just find out this uniqueness. Whether it may garner a big audience or not, if you love it, are passionate about it, and know where you want to take it, thatís whatís important. I tell these young students to find out how they want to sing. It might even not be jazz. You are a musician before being a jazz singer. Abbey Lincoln said that jazz is a spirit. As a singer, if you want to front the band instead of being a co-creator with the musicians of the band, then you are not a jazz singer, for example.

The banner of jazz has been thrown around a lot, and used by the industry to promote things. But if you want to start as a jazz singer because of that, how long will you last? So I donít tell my student to try and sound like anybody else, be it Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald or Dakota Staton. I tell them to listen to these great voices that have lasted, to check out how they could sing the same song differently because of what they each were, and to try to find this type of identity inside themselves so as to make a song their own. Jazz is improvisation, and this doesnít necessarily mean scat but the ability to improvise different variations, to phrase differently on the same theme, night after night, in interaction with the rest of the band. Just like anything else, it is a discipline.

Letís talk about the George Clooney movie Good Night and Good Luck now, if you donít mind. How about the sudden exposure it gave you?

I think itís great and it has served me well. First, the film is very intelligent and I think it really speaks to the world about our civil liberties. I love the way George Clooney integrated the music, making it the soothsayer or the Greek chorus of the film, because the songs he selected take on a totally different personality, which is amazing because there are love songs that turn into songs about the FBI or what have you. I also loved the fact that I had to sing these songs from the period when the story takes place with respect of the time, in a Ďcleaní way, and with no extra type of concepts that we have about this music nowadays. I also loved the fact that George Clooney allowed me to sing live, like they did in the studios at that time. When I received the script I thought: ďThatís interesting: youíre doing a soundtrack and they send you the script.Ē But then I realized that I really had to play a part, and George Clooney explained to me what he expected of me, and I found it amazing.

Part of this role that you and the music play in this film seems to be an emotional counterpoint to what happens in the plot, for example, when the main character comes to see you sing ďHow High the MoonĒ after one of his friends has committed suicide because of the McCarthy campaign against him.

The plot and the dialogues are so heavy in this film that the music had to bring some kind of relief. In the scene you talk about, Clooney wanted a very slow version of the song, and while they shot the scene, I was really in front of the actor who impersonated Edward R. Murrow, behind the studio glass so I could really see his face and reflect the sadness of what he expressed. This was like my shining moment. When I went to the premiere in New York, I was sitting next to Mr Clooney and I hadnít seen the film. When it came to this scene, he grabbed my arm and said ďHere it comes.Ē And it made me cry because I had never seen myself on a big screen.

Did you know George Clooney before?

No, but when I asked him why he had selected me he said that his aunt Rosemary Clooney was a big fan of mine and had told him a lot about me.

Arenít you afraid that this film may give your new fans a distorted image of you, and that they may expect the same vintage routine onstage and on record?

Not at all. On the contrary I think they are curious about what else I can do than what they saw in the film. Some didnít know me before, so they have gone back in my catalog, trying to discover what I did before. I guess my audience is more mature than you may think it is, and it accepts that an artist is multifaceted. As far as this is concerned, today is a good time for me.

June 15, 2008 · 4 comments


In Conversation with Arturo OíFarrill

By Tomas PeŮa

Congratulations on successfully completing your first season at Symphony Space!

Thank you man, that means a lot to me.

Also, congratulations on the release of Song for Chico, a recording that your father would have been very proud of.

                   Arturo Oí Farrill, photo by John Abbott

Yeah, I think it's a good one. It's also a testament to the orchestra because we created it under great duress.

Not bad for an orchestra that was ďBanished from the Kingdom!Ē

I did use those words, didnít I?

You certainly did. Care to talk about it?

The fact is the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra left Jazz at Lincoln Center because the focus on our activities was diminishing. On the other hand I canít say as I blame them because Lincoln Center was never really our ďhouse.Ē Actually, it was very generous of Lincoln Center to even think that they could pull the idea off. The important thing to remember is that Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center were the only major institution that even paid any attention to us. So kudos to them for caring!

As the saying goes, ďOne door closes and another door opens.Ē How are things at Symphony Space?

Funny that you should mention that. I grew up eight blocks away from Symphony Space. In fact, the City of New York recently renamed the corner where I grew up. Itís called ďArturo / Chico Oí Farrill Place.Ē As for Symphony Space, the best thing it is the educational work that we are doing. Symphony Space represents the ďrealĒ world. Just look at their programming. It runs the gamut.

Itís one of the few venues where the masses can see a concert for a reasonable price.

They have made an overriding commitment to keeping their ticket prices to about twenty-five dollars. Thatís one of the many reasons why Symphony Space deserves to be praised and supported. At the end of the day the institutions that we fund should reflect the communities they serve.

Letís backtrack for a moment. You were born in Mexico City and you grew up in New York City. Obviously your father, the great Chico Oí Farrill was a tremendous influence on you as well as Frank Machito Grillo, Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Graciela and others.

Yeah, my father was a heavy, heavy.

You attended The Manhattan School of Music and the Brooklyn Conservatory.

And I earned my degree from Queens College.

Early in your career you performed with Carla Bley, a key figure in the free jazz movement.

Sheís brilliant! I played with Carlaís band for three years. In fact, I was listening to her and the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra just this morning. It almost made me cry!

Initially you rejected your fatherís music but as you matured and your father got older you developed an appreciation for it.

When youíre a kid you reject everything. I was into bebop and free jazz. Basically, I ignored his music. I didnít want to play montunos (vamps) and hang out at Latin nightclubs until four in the morning.

Back then the New York Latin nightclub scene was called the ďCuchifrito Circuit.Ē

You have no idea. Imagine being on the subway with your keyboard at four oí clock in the morning!

In 1994 I worked with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez and they very generous. They were actually the ones who hipped me to that fact that it was OK for me to play my fatherís music and that Latin jazz is really profound. They also recommended a whole line of pianists and musicians that I should study. At the same time my father was asked to come out of retirement. You know how your parents get old overnight? One year my father was strong and healthy and the next year he was old! So I started helping my father and it was an ambivalent journey because we were not the best of friends when I was growing up.

Nevertheless what I came to realize is that my father was not only a great composer and bandleader, but he was also a great contributor to the music of the 20th century. He was my Pops, a great man who was finally being given his due, so I really did not have a choice. This is the same man who wrote The Aztec Suite and recorded with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and never received a Grammy. As he got older I assumed the leadership of the orchestra.

Tell me about your trip to Cuba.

The people remembered us. Not only did they remember us, they venerated my fatherís memory, knew who I was and actively followed my career.

               Arturo Oí Farrill, photo by John Abbott

What is it like to be the leader of a 20-piece orchestra?

I am primarily a composer and a pianist. Being the leader of a big band is an art; however, the artistry is revealed at the rehearsals. Also, the art of being a bandleader is reflected by how you treat your musicians. If you still you have all of your musicians at the end of the day then you are doing something right, because the Lord knows I canít pay them the money they deserve! The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra has the baddest of the baddest (musicians). Deep down, they know I love them and I would do anything for them.

Speaking of bad, you enlisted drummer Dafnis Prieto and trombone player Angel Papo Vazquez to arrange two of the tunes.

Dafnis arranged the title track ("Song for Chico") and Papo arranged Juan Tizolís ďCaravan.Ē Dafnis also plays with my Riza Negra band and my quintet and octet. He is an exceptional musician and in my view, a model for the young musicians of today.

In your liner-notes you rail about the fact that ďtoo many people spend useless amounts of energy defining jazz by what it isnítĒ What do you mean by that?

Put simply, we cannot define jazz by what it is not. What we need to do is define jazz by its inclusionary possibilities. Dizzy Gillespie preached this every day of his career. Itís a reality that hits me everyday. The music that we love has to reflect who we are. The spirit of jazz has always been about innovation and overcoming oppression. Thatís how it began and thatís how it will continue. Jazz doesnít need validation. It doesnít need to go to the concert halls or the corporate boardrooms to be thought of as Ďseriousí music. Now is the time for people to organize, create their own non-profit institutions, their own distribution systems, and to make alliances with culturally friendly institutions that are not interested in dividing culture by race or by socio-economic standards. I could go on all day.

Letís talk about Song for Chico, a recording that definitely reflects who you are. You dedicate the tune, ďSuch LoveĒ to Sam Furnace Ö

Heís a musician I grew up with, a real journeyman.

We already talked about the title track and ďCaravan.Ē Thereís ďHumility,Ē which was penned by trumpet player Tom Harrell, a scorching version of Tito Puenteís ďPicadilloĒ (dedicated to the late Mario Rivera), ďCuban BluesĒ and ďThe Journey,Ē which was composed by your father.

The repertoire consists of a lot of simple, classy arrangements. My dream is to record Musica Nueva. In fact, we are already planning our next season at Symphony Space and Musica Nueva Dos is in the works.

Funny you should mention that, after the Music Nueva concert at Symphony Space I overheard someone complaining about the fact that the music was not danceable Ö

In a previous concert we revisited the music of Tito Rodriguez and somebody told me that they overheard someone saying, ďAw man, they are playing the same old stuff.Ē

Musically speaking, do you sometimes feel like you are caught between a rock and a hard place?

Not really, because it means people are talking.

From your vantage point, where is the music headed?

Both of my sons are brilliant musicians. One is an incredible trumpet player and the other is an incredible drummer. They are ready to take over the world! Nothing gives me more joy than having a young musician kick my ass! That means that long after I am gone the music will continue.

In addition to being a bandleader, pianist, composer and arranger, you are also an educator.

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Where do you find the time? Whatís a typical week in the life of Arturo Oí Farrill like?

A typical week for me could be a board meeting on Monday, followed by a rehearsal. Then I come up to Amherst for two or three days to teach. I have a trio at the Harlem School of the Arts on Saturday; we do Birdland on Sundayís as well as master classes, seminars, and workshops. It is maddening, slightly chaotic and sick! You only have one lifetime to give it all away. If you donít, then you have failed.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We are all humans, we all overreach, we all make mistakes but it is important to keep in mind that the work that is being done at Jazz at Lincoln Center is very important. People need to support Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Space. And if you donít like what we are doing, tell us! Thatís how we learn. I will never forget Wynton for having the vision and for giving my father the recognition and respect that he deserved while he was alive. Chico Oí Farrillís brilliance has yet to be fully understood Ö

Yet another reason to honor our legends while they are alive and well. Thank you for speaking with and good luck with the upcoming season at Symphony Space.

Un Abrazo my brother!

June 10, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Brad Mehldau (Part 2)

Below is part two of Ted Pankenís extensive interview with Brad Mehldau. For part one, click here. Also check out's Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldu tracks, and the essay "Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career."

by Ted Panken

     Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasnít getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didnít like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what Iím still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long timeóI absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music...

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when youíre soloing. Thatís great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, ďWow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.Ē So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early Ď90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

Iíve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

                                                                 Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958óall these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the songóthe art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a storyóLester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You donít have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I donít know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if youíre addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didnít have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone...

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldnít even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think Iíve pretty much grown out of it nowóan old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldnít play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What youíre alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, ďWhat are you doing, changing this thing you have thatís so special?Ē That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasnít. I donít want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorgeís phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personallyójust as a drummer, independent of playing with usóand wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor's note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummersóhe plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way Iíd describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, ďWow, I never heard Larry play like this, and Iím playing with him all the time.Ē It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, letís say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how Iíd build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does thatís different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say weíre on the road, weíve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand peopleóand he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to thatóif I donít change what Iím doing, it wonít make sense. So I have to find something new. Then weíre actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I donít write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where youíre going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. Thatís how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.


That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musicianóin a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone whoís played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? Youíve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

   Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. Thatís what makes it cool for me, if Iím taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. Thatís the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, itís not that the forms are complicated, they arenít at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, thereís a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what youíre going to do when youíre blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. Thatís the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnít.

Given that youíve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me youíve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it wereóbeing a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasnít been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone elseís music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what theyíve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

June 07, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Brad Mehldau

Below is the first part of Ted Panken's extensive interview with pianist Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article. Also check out's Dozens feature on twelve essential Brad Mehldu tracks, and the essay "Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career."

by Ted Panken

              Brad Mehldau, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early Ď90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after himófor instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? Youíre from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasnít. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasnít too far awayóa 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradleyís, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

Elsewhere on
The Dozens: Twelve Essential Brad Mehldau Tracks
Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career

A couple of blocks away from where youíd be going to school.

Thatís right. The next night I heard Cedar Waltonís...well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higginsí ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostlyóhe was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because theyíre so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. Thatís pretty much what I was doing. I wasnít trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If Iím not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobbís Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. Itís a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2Ĺ hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose!

   Brad Mehldau, by Jos L. Knaepen

Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, ďOkay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,Ē and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? Iíd assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late Ď50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadnít heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. Itís that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose youíd have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.


Iím interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if youíre a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if youíre a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because itís a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experienceóthe seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosisóI watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesnít, that will rub off very quickly. Iíd say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You donít develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadnít gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabularyóspecific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, weíd play on two. I said, ďI want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?Ē He said, ďWell, letís do it.Ē So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

Iím bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and itís now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

Iím not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito DíRivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

Weíd take a well-known standard like ďStella by Starlight,Ē and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like ďI Didnít Know What Time It Was,Ē in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I'd get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. Itís swinging and itís free on this profound level, because itís very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing Iíve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, itís really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe... Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the Ď70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal---ďHey, look, weíre playing 7, and this is what it is.Ē

This is the end of part one of Ted Pankenís interview with Brad Mehldau. Click here, for part two of this article.

June 05, 2008 · 0 comments