In Conversation with Nicholas Payton

By Ted Panken

                            Nicholas Payton, by Jos L. Knaepen

In 1996, Nicholas Payton, then 23, recorded a two-trumpet album with Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a 1905 baby, and a keen observer of the jazz continuum from the onset of a career that began only several years after Armstrong’s first recordings. Deeply moved and impressed by Payton’s ability to infuse the repertoire from that era with idiomatic authority and life force, Cheatham remarked that Payton came as close to the Armstrong essence as anyone he had ever heard.

At the time, certain observers, confusing Payton’s feats of derring-do with with a sensibility drenched in atavistic revivalism, regarded him with a certain skepticism. The critique took a similar tone to the brickbats often hurled at Wynton Marsalis for his so-called “conservatism”—indeed, in 1988, Marsalis, as a sign of his regard, sent his then-15-year-old New Orleans homie a trumpet. Now 35, Payton has long since quashed such talk with a series of albums, most recently Into the Blue (Nonesuch), that bespeak an ample comfort zone with a trumpet continuum spanning Armstrong to Don Cherry, at the service of a conceptual sensibility that embraces the Hot Five and Weather Report in equal measure.

You might call Payton's ancient-to-future aesthetic a birthright. His family lived in the Tremaine district, home base for numerous seminal New Orleans musicians, across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square, the 19th century locus of the slave trade, one of the few places in the Antebellum South where African slaves were allowed to play the drums. During formative years, he played in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century, which specialized in traditional repertoire, and also in the All-Star Brass Band, a group of peers deeply influenced by the rhythmic and harmonic extensions introduced to local vernacular by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He soaked up the feeling of Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian rituals. His mother, Maria, was a former operatic singer and a classically trained pianist who eschewed a career to raise her family; his father Walter, a bassist-tubist and retired educator who is a mainstay of the thriving Crescent City trad scene, would take his young son to Bourbon Street gigs.

Joining me on WKCR-FM during a week-long engagement in support of Into the Blue at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard in early June, Payton spoke at length of his current preoccupations.

Into The Blue is your first recording for Nonesuch, and your first since Sonic Trance, in 2003. Why so long?

That’s a good question. I didn’t really notice that it was that long, because I was doing so many other things. I was involved in the S.F. Jazz Collective for a number of years. I had several different bands. I went through several concepts. The time really seemed to float away, going through Katrina and so many other things on a personal tip. But I finally felt like it was time for me to do something. I’m glad I waited til I did, because what I was living through hadn’t yet been fully realized. At the point when I recorded, I was right on the cusp of a change.

Into the Blue

Titles can offer a window into what an artist is thinking. Into the Blue. . . ?

To me, the concept of this record was really one of no concept at all. I wasn’t trying to do anything innovative, I wasn’t out to impress. I wanted to try to create music that was beautiful, a music of simplicity, elegance and grace, yet very sophisticated at the same time.

You go back and forth between electric and acoustic environments, melding the flavors in an organic way, and you deploy Kevin Hays on the Fender Rhodes. What’s the appeal of that sound to you?

I grew up in the ‘70s. Many clubs at the time didn’t even have pianos, so cats would lug their Fender Rhodes around. So that was the first sound of jazz that I heard, watching my dad rehearse and play with bands, and also listening to R&B music—Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire. Weather Report was one of my favorite bands, too. It’s very interesting that now my band has the same exact instrumentation as the Weather Report band I grew up listening to, which was around the time of Heavy Weather, with keyboards, bass, drums and percussion—and myself, of course. With this instrumentation and with these musicians, I’ve been able to seamlessly flow within the the many different genres that I love in music within one tune. That’s sort of the idea.

How did this band come together? You have Marcus Gilmore, who seems to be in everyone’s band these days. . . .

Yeah, people are getting hip to him now!

Well, they have been. He’s been out with Chick Corea, and has been very well known on the New York scene for several years.

Well, I got him when he was 18. He was working with very few people at the time, among them Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman. I actually met him when I was playing with his grandfather, Roy Haynes, in the Birds of the Feather band at the Blue Note, and he sat in. It was his 18th birthday. He blew me away. So as soon as I got an opportunity to have another drummer, I gave him a call.

Tell me how you’re thinking about rhythm these days. You play all the instruments, so you’re able to be very specific about the sounds you want.

I was very specific on this record in terms of grooves. In fact, many of the tunes, I wrote the groove first, before any melody, or any harmony with changes, basslines and whatnot. I wanted the dance element to be prevalent. Growing up in New Orleans, I saw jazz in a social context. Many times jazz is performed in performing arts centers or jazz clubs, where people are very restricted and in their seats. But I grew up in an environment where it was nothing to wake up one day and go outside and hear a band, and before you know it, people are dancing on their rooftops and on top of cars. I wanted to embody that feeling of dance and jazz, with rhythm being the center point, and harmony used as color, just to make things pretty and beautiful.

There are various Payton stories, all very laudatory, from musicians, who say, “Yeah, he played the bass and he could have made the gig on the bass” or . . . well, I guess your father is a bassist. But the same on the drums or whatever else. Do you keep up on all of them?

I try to keep up. The last couple of years that I haven’t played the other instruments as much, because I’ve been really shedding hard on the trumpet. But yeah, I have all the instruments at home and I play them on occasion.

Do you think that affects the way you think about line, or musical expression in soloing and compositions?

Yes, definitely. When I compose, I try to think in terms of how things lay on a particular instrument. Also, sometimes it helps to be able to demonstrate a certain feel I’m hearing that can’t be notated, or just to have an orchestral approach to playing and improvising. Many times for me it’s not about the instrument, but just the sound and getting in a creative space. So sometimes when I’m playing, I may be the bass player. I may be the drummer. It ceases to become a trumpet, and those lines of demarcation become blurred. So it helps in trying to be a total musician as opposed to just a trumpet player.

You’ve been doing mostly your own projects these days. Anything outside of your own work?

Not too many things. One thing I’m very excited about will happen in August, at the Oslo Jazz Fest, We’re doing a recreation of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans version of Porgy and Bess, with Maria Schneider conducting, with my bassist, Vicente Archer, and Kendrick Scott on drums.

Because of your instrumental abilities and conceptual scope, you’ve been accepted as a major voice on your instrument from the beginning of your career. How do you approach a project like Porgy and Bess, or Louis Armstrong repertoire, which you’ve heard countless times, with a blank slate?

First, I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for tradition and the guys who’ve come before me. In fact, many past projects, like Gumbo Nouveau, where I updated a lot of the older New Orleans classics, and Dear Louis, my tribute to Louis Armstrong, were homages, in a way—but at the same time I always try to figure out a way to inject my personality and my feeling into it. Otherwise, it’s not honest, to me. I mean, I’m not Louis Armstrong, I’m not Miles Davis, but I’ve spent a considerable amount of time listening to these guys and studying their works.

But even when I was transcribing some of their solos when I was younger, I wanted to get so inside their character that I could improvise a solo à la Miles 1956, or, say, 1958, or 1963, without necessarily playing any of his licks verbatim. Same thing with Louis Armstrong. Same thing with Clifford Brown. I wanted to be at the point where I could sort of summon their spirits, so that it was free improvisation, not just verbatim regurgitation of licks and phrases. Approaching it like that perhaps makes it easier for me to feel expressive within an idiom, because I’m not looking at it like a style, I’m looking at it like an expression. When you do that, it’s open for all and anything to happen.

As a young guy soaking up the vibrant musical culture of New Orleans, you were positioned to witness some of the best musicians in town rehearse at your house with your father, Walter Payton. Was your learning process one of making decisions in real time after learning the fundamentals, or were you a stylistic emulator early on? In other words, you were playing Louis Armstrong with extreme accuracy and soul at a young age, and you got a lot of press for being able to do that. How much had you studied those solos?

I listened to the music played the music quite a bit. But I know maybe two or three Armstrong solos; there are a handful of Miles solos that I actually sat down and learned. Same thing with Clifford Brown. I didn’t spend a lot of time transcribing a whole lot of solos, because that goes against the idea. Like I said, I wanted to be able to understand the creative inspiration behind the artist, not just the notes. I wanted to put myself in a position where I’m sitting in the middle of the band, and this energy more or less is flowing through me. A lot of times I would do concerts, and people would say, “Yeah, you played that Armstrong solo beautifully.” I did a concert of Clifford Brown with Strings, and very informed journalists thought I was playing the actual solos—and I wasn’t. It’s just that I understand the character of certain cats so well, I can become them almost.

It’s a strange thing. I’m not just trying to say I am them. But I am very sympathetic to their spiritual energy. So I don’t feel bound. When I did Dear Louis, I knew that was not the end of me playing in a traditional New Orleans style, as many folks interpreted me saying, but the end of me summoning those spirits in the way that I had been. From now on, I’m only going to play me. That’s not to say I won’t play any New Orleans style, or any post-bop ‘60s style. I no longer look at it from the point of view of referring to the past any more, as perhaps I once did. I only look at it as an expression in the now. Now, I think that it was important for me to do that then. But you see, once I was able to sound and play just like Louis Armstrong, then it wasn’t necessary for me to do it any more. Once I got to the point I heard a record of myself and I sounded exactly like Freddie Hubbard, then I knew that had to die.

You must be very objective listening to yourself.

I’m my own worst critic! The last couple of years, the years that I wasn’t recording, I recorded almost every gig I did, and spent a lot of time listening to myself, so that I could transcribe me, almost like trying to find my sound within the center of all this. That’s why I’m glad I waited all that time, because it gave me a chance to discover myself perhaps in a way I hadn’t on other records. That’s not to say that they weren’t me—they were me at that time. But I think this record is more an amalgam of all the things I’ve done. It’s not a departure, but it’s as though I’m embracing all the things that were me, and hopefully pointing somewhat in the direction of perhaps what’s to come.

Who were some of your direct trumpet mentors? I’m talking about people you knew in New Orleans. I know Clyde Kerr was very important to you.

                          Nicholas Payton, by Jos L. Knaepen

Yes, and still is. Wendell Brunious. Leroy Jones. The late, great Teddy Riley. Those were the four cats I checked out and really understood. Long before I heard any records or anything, these guys I knew since I was born.

Now, Clyde Kerr is not averse about going to the outer partials, if necessary, in his musical expression, and the other three trumpeters you mentioned, in order to function in the workaday world of New Orleans music, had to play the entire timeline as part of their musical production.

I find New Orleans musicians to be amongst the most unbiased, open cats in terms of jazz music, contrary to what people may think of New Orleans as so tradition-based. Cats don’t separate or distinguish between styles. You might do 2-3 gigs in a day. Someone like Clyde Kerr is best known for his work in the avant-garde, but he’s equally at home playing traditional jazz music, which a lot of folks don’t know. He has a beautiful sound, which is not often associated with avant-garde trumpet playing. It’s almost like music has to sound abrasive for people to think of it as being innovative. But Clyde Kerr has one of the prettiest trumpet sounds I’ve ever heard. All those guys do. All the New Orleans guys on trumpet, it’s sound first. It’s always important. I remember reading a Down Beat interview with Woody Shaw in the ‘70s. He said, “Sound is the most important thing.” That’s what people feel, that’s what people hear, and that’s your spiritual energy.

Did these guys teach you about the importance of sound production?

They’d just play. It wasn’t a specific thing.

It’s the sound that was in your ear, though.

Yeah. When I heard that growing up, that is what made me want to play the trumpet. Hearing how the trumpet can call people to attention. In all the references in the Bible to people coming together or some type of grand alert, there’s always a trumpet used. The trumpet is a very powerful instrument. It’s a big responsibility. You can affect the energy in a room. I’m very sensitive to that at this point. I want to try, if I can, to put as much love and beauty in people’s lives as possible through my sound.

After Hurricane Katrina, you left New Orleans, but you’ve been back for a year or so. Post-Katrina New Orleans is very different than the New Orleans you grew up in. How do you see the state of things?

I remember first going back after I was away, remembering how things looked the last time I saw them and seeing how completely different they look now. I couldn’t believe it. It brought me to tears. It’s like being in a horrible dream. That’s actually changed quite a bit since I first came back, but it’s not where it needs to be. A lot of factors are involved in why, still to this day, three years later, things haven’t changed to the degree they could. I’m hopeful that it can be restored, but the people will have to make the effort. We can’t wait for someone to make it happen for us.

We hear that in the Treme neighborhood, where second line and brass band traditions have been part of the way of life for most of the 20th century, police now are breaking up second line gatherings, almost using those occasions as a flashpoint to assert their authority. It must be a maddening thing to see for someone who came up in that culture.

I just look at all of these things as distractions. For me, at this point, it’s all about love. I don’t want anything to take me out of that energy. Even if it’s something catastrophic, I just want to stay in that zone, love. That’s it.

Interview notes: Nicholas Payton was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on June 5, 2008.

August 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Profile: Adrien Moignard

By Bill Barnes

“Those French guys are absolutely scary,” quips Simon Planting, bass player for Amsterdam’s Robin Nolan Trio. Backstage at the Mill Pond Arts Center in New Hampshire, the last concert stop on the trio’s North American tour, the conversation has turned to the thriving European jazz scene and its batch of up and coming uber-jazz guitarists.

Adrien Moignard

Perhaps the scariest one of all is 23 year old Adrien Moignard, one of the featured soloists in the Selmer 607 project, a landmark album involving five Gypsy jazz-style guitarist virtuosi, each performing on one of the few Selmer petite bouche acoustic guitars still in playable condition. His spanking fresh version of “Impressions,” an album highlight, portends greater things to come and has become a popular item on YouTube. I caught up with him at Django In June, an annual week-long music event in Northampton, Massachusetts dedicated to Gypsy jazz studies. There I had the opportunity to hang out with him a bit, take his master class and hear him in concert with his current group, L’ensemble Zaiti.

Andrew Lawrence, the creative force behind Django in June, had first heard Adrien six years ago at the annual Django Festival in Samois-sur-Seine, France, where the 17 year-old wunderkind was creating a stir at one of the event’s many impromptu campsite jam sessions. Andrew comments, “Even with my limited French, I understood the expressions of ‘mon dieu,’ coming from the other participants.” Getting him to teach and perform at the Northampton camp as a part of his first American tour was quite a coup for Andrew, although some had expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Adrien’s teaching skills, given the language barrier. Still, camp participants were eager to register for his master classes, if only to be able to observe that technique up close.


GOING GYPSY: A Guide to Resources
LINGUA DJANCA: A Glossary of Gypsy Jazz
REVIEWS: Django Reinhardt’s Music on
THE DOZENS: Essential Stéphane Grappelli

As the interview day draws nearer, I begin to have real concerns over my own linguistic limitations and sleeping with headphones channeling a CD of conversational French lessons for several nights has done nothing to inspire confidence. As it turns out, I have no reason to worry. Adrien’s English, while not perfect, had progressed enough to meet me more than halfway.

On the afternoon of a muggy Friday the 13th, I arrive at the Smith College dorm where most of the camp activities are held. Andrew Lawrence immediately ushers me to the part of the lobby where Adrien and his band mates are focused on a laptop computer, engrossed in a soccer match between France and the Netherlands. Andrew introduces me to the young guitarist, who is taller, much more mature and self-assured than I had imagined. His greeting is polite and cordial, but our conversation will have to wait for the outcome of the match. Unfortunately, the French team loses.

We adjourn to the outside courtyard area where many of the classes and jams are still under way. There, over the competing strains of Gypsy guitars, violins, accordions, mandolins and basses, I break the ice by asking Adrien what first attracted him to jazz Manouche [i.e., Gypsy jazz, see glossary here]. He cites his early love of the violin.

“I began playing guitar at the age of 12, but have always loved the violin. When I heard Django with Stephane Grappelli, I fell in love with their music. Then I discovered other guys who were playing in that style, which gave me the determination to play this music.”

Born in Paris but raised primarily in the South of France, Adrien was already well versed in the style of Django Reinhardt when, at the age of twenty, he returned to the city of his birth to pursue a career in music. When asked if he studied guitar with anyone in particular he responds, “no, it’s just ear, listening to the music and trying to emulate Django and these other guys.” He adds, “I can’t read music, you know. I can read chords but I can’t read the notes.” I’m astonished. “All ear?”

“Yes, all by ear. Trying to understand the way Django thinks.”

I mention that I hear more than Django in his playing. There’s ample evidence of bebop and other influences.

“Yes I began with the Django licks but then I heard a lot of other musicians, like George Benson, Pat Martino; not only guitarists but Michel Petrucciani [the late French jazz pianist], Keith Jarrett, Frank Sinatra. . . a lot of things my players are interested in, maybe more into swing.”

“Any horn players?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah -- I love Kenny Garrett, I love John Coltrane, too, Miles Davis.”

I ask about his involvement in the Selmer #607 CD, which, he explains, had resulted from his friendship with one of the project’s organizers, Ghali Hadefi. One day he had received a phone call from an excited Hadefi, about a vintage Selmer now in the possession of nearby luthier- model number 607, just a few production units down the line from the actual Selmers played by Django himself. Fewer than 1,000 Selmer petite bouche models were ever made and not many have survived. Some are barely playable, but, according to Hadefi, this one was different. “He told me it’s very, very good.” Adrien visited the luthier a few times and played on this historic jazz box, falling in love with the instrument’s unique sound in the process.

In listening to the Selmer #607 album, it’s amazing how magnificent the guitar still sounds and how each artist reveals a different aspect of its well tempered character. However, some of the guitarists on the project have mentioned that 607 is not an easy guitar to play and I can’t resist asking Adrien about that. He’s quick to point out, “it’s an inspiring guitar, very good tone. She’s very special. So, when you play, it’s hard in the beginning, but if you practice a little you can get a very good sound.”

Crossing the courtyard on my way to Adrien’s master class the following morning, I’m more than a little concerned about getting a “very good sound.” In the left wing of the Franklin King House dormitory I find a dozen other clinic participants equally concerned, warming up in preparation. We compare axes and continue noodling away, until a tall figure comfortably attired in a running suit and sneakers enters the room. A respectful silence follows. Adrien Moignard is about to reveal some of the secrets of his technique.

He begins by sizing up the participants’ playing levels. We each take a chorus on Django’s “Minor Swing,” a simple 1-4-5 progression and the first Gypsy jazz tune most of us Gadje [Romani term for a non-Gypsy; see glossary here] learn to play. He listens, pauses for a moment and then launches into a series of dazzling arpeggios; in the flurry of sound, neither his picking hand nor the fretting fingers seem to make contact with the guitar.

“You all know arpeggios?” he asks, a little hesitantly. We nod in affirmation, though none of us seem too convinced after what we have just heard.

“Most of you have learned scales and arpeggios like this,” he says, as he demonstrates a fixed-position major scale, going vertically across the strings. “I’m going to try to show you the way the Gypsy guitarists do it.” He then deconstructs a major scale, the Gypsy way -- horizontally, across the length of the fretboard, shifting positions without a pause. “You play it this way, it gives you greater range, greater access to the higher notes, more choices,” he explains. Then he takes me by surprise. “Watch this,” he says, as he turns his back on us and continues to play. I think he’s having a little fun at our expense. “No, no, look!” Suddenly I get it. He’s revealing his left hand thumb position, pivoting, not sliding, through the shifting arpeggio, resulting in a much smoother pattern up and down the fretboard.

Over the next hour he demonstrates a series of arpeggios, including major, minor, diminished, whole tone/half tones, with incroyable speed and fluidity, along with other techniques, occasionally focusing on individual players and coaching them into position. And, so it goes, until the time is up and we tuck away our guitars, heads swimming and hearts singing. Any concerns over language barrier or teaching abilities have been thoroughly dispelled. After less than two hours in a clinic taught by a guy in his early twenties who never took formal lessons or learned how to read music, I consider throwing away over forty years of technique and professional experience and starting over.

I had wondered about his practice habits, the fundamentals he incorporated into his playing.

“It depends,” he says candidly. “Some days I play nothing, some days I play a lot. Sometimes I play the guitar for two weeks and then lay low. But, when I was very young, from the age of 16 until maybe now, I practiced a lot.”

“Scales? Modes?”

“Not really. I play with modes, but I don’t know I play modes, you know what I mean? It’s all ear. I understand it but I can’t really explain it.”

L’ensemble Zaiti is the result of a collaboration with co-founder Mathieu Chatelain, one of the most sought after rhythm players on the jazz Manouche scene today, having gigged with celebrated Romani artists such as Angelo Debarre and Tchavalo Schmitt. The collaboration has produced a group on the vanguard of a new wave, offering a fresh alternative to some of the establishment record industry’s over-processed, cliché-riddled pap currently crash-diving into grocery store muzak speakers. All afternoon Coltranesque sheets of sound have been emanating from some unknown region of the Laura Scales dormitory -- L’ensemble Zaiti’s Cedric Richard is putting his tenor saxophone through its paces, warming up for tonight’s much-anticipated concert, to be held, oddly enough, in a chapel on the Smith College campus.

Helen Hills Chapel is your postcard-perfect colonial era New England church, complete with white clapboard sides and towering steeple . . . and no air conditioning. Despite a sweltering East Coast heat wave, the sanctuary is packed. All the ninety-odd camp participants are there, along with curious Northampton townsfolk and the jazz Manouche faithful from all over the region, many dripping with sweat in the stifling humidity. Once L’ensemble Zaiti takes the stage, nobody seems to mind the heat. Over the two sets Adrien and company burn through tunes from different movements and eras: “Stompin’ At the Savoy,” “Four on Six,”” Cherokee,” a spirited “Blues En Mineur.” Cedric Richard displays his sensitivity on “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” his intensity on “Donna Lee.” Trading fours with the tenor, Adrien continually ups the ante on the bop workhorse, “Double Scotch.” It’s not your typical Gypsy fare, but then L’ensemble Zaiti is not your typical Hot Club Swing quartet. While, in the tradition of jazz Manouche, Mathieu Chatelain’s solid rhythm guitar work effectively covers the roll of drums and keyboard, Zaiti’s eclectic repertoire and Richard’s volatile tenor bring a contemporary element to their sound. Through it all, bassist Jeremie Arranger propels the group forward with a modern feel while still maintaining firm anchorage in the la pompe seabed. This is musical evolution in progress. Django would have undoubtedly approved.

In the second set, Adrien shows that he’s not afraid to share the spotlight, inviting another young guitar virtuoso, Gonzalo Bergara, onstage to join him in several numbers. Their musical dialogue delights the already enraptured audience. At the end of the set, they embrace. The concert ends on a high note, with the prerequisite encore, bows, thundering ovation, love and respect. Perhaps I’m an old softy, but moments such as these can still bring tears to my eyes.

Adrien isn’t exactly unaware of his abilities; he shows none of the false modesty which can be so cloying in an emerging talent. Yet he seems to take it in stride, retaining a sense of humor and a passion for playing unhampered by all the glare and adoration. He seems more or less philosophical about his prospects for the future, which look very promising for the young guitarist and his group.

“We have just signed with Iris Music and I’m very happy about that. We have distribution with Harmonia Mundi; our album will be released in France at the end of July.” He is also looking forward to performing on the main stage at this year’s Django Festival at Samois, with L’ensemble Zaiti as well as a reunion performance with the principals of the Selmer #607 project. “It’s a big psychological dream,” he admits.

Whatever fate may have in store for Adrien Moignard in the coming years, I’d lay odds that you will still find him sitting in on a campfire jam or two, an inspiration to future generations of guitar hopefuls making their annual pilgrimage to Samois.

August 24, 2008 · 0 comments


Mel Tormé & Marty Paich's Dek-tette

By Thomas Cunniffe

From the early fifties until his death in 1995, Marty Paich was one of the top arrangers for jazz and pop singers. While Paich's talents also encompassed instrumental jazz and orchestral film scores, he was especially adept at creating settings that showcased the best qualities of a featured vocalist. Like many arrangers, Paich could work independently, developing charts from what he knew of the singer's range and abilities. But Paich enjoyed collaborating with his featured artists, incorporating ideas that the vocalist had been willing to try, but had not successfully implemented. There is no better example of such collaboration than Paich's teaming with Mel Tormé in their series of albums featuring the Dek-tette.

              Mel Tormé, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The very idea of the Dek-tette was Tormé's. Tormé had been introduced to Paich's work through his cool jazz-influenced small group charts, and in 1955, when Tormé changed labels from Decca to Bethlehem, he specifically asked to work with Paich. Both Tormé and Paich were fans of the Gerry Mulligan Tentette and Tormé wanted to use a similar style as a backup for a vocal album. For the horns, Paich retained the Mulligan group's coupling of brass quintet (2 trumpets, trombone, French horn and tuba) and saxophone trio, but opted for alto, tenor and baritone sax rather than Mulligan's alto and 2 baritones. More importantly, at Tormé's urging, Paich omitted the piano from the rhythm section, allowing the singer to "stroll" with only bass and drums in accompaniment. Of course, it was Tormé's remarkable sense of pitch that allowed him that luxury.

Yet Tormé was not satisfied with just a new backdrop. For their first album, Mel Tormé & The Marty Paich Dek-tette, the vocalist and arranger specifically looked for songs that had not been widely heard, and whether by coincidence or design, not yet recorded by Frank Sinatra. (Of course, one of the tunes on the album, "The Lady Is A Tramp", became a Sinatra vehicle, but Sinatra didn't record it until October 1956, 10 months after this Tormé/Paich version.) Tormé was also interested in showcasing his scat singing, his compositional gifts, his ability to blend with horns, and his uncanny talent for performing unassisted modulations.

 Mel Tormé & The Marty Paich Dek-tette

From the first notes on the first track, the listener can tell that this is no ordinary vocal album. "Lulu's Back In Town" opens with Al Pollan's sprightly tuba performing a syncopated pedal point over the swinging rhythm provided by Red Mitchell and Mel Lewis. Then Tormé enters, not with Harry Warren's original melody and Al Dubin's lyric, but with Tormé's own verse. The horns, which entered with Tormé, back him up with soft sustained chords which peak with Tormé on the line, "but oo-oo, Lulu" giving us our first taste of the Dek-tette's marvelous ensemble sound.

Next, Tormé begins to sing the original tune, not with the usual herky-jerky dotted-eight/sixteenth note patterns, but with smoothed-out quarter/eighth triplets, transforming ‘Lulu’ from an uptight square to a swingin' chick! The horns return on the fifth bar of the tune, on the line, "'cause tonight I gotta look my best." The italicized words are accented by the horns with a long quarter/staccato eighth note pattern. On those words, Tormé matches the tonal inflections produced by lead trumpeter Pete Candoli, which basically turns Tormé into the eleventh member of the band, and, with Candoli, the co-leader of the ensemble!

                                  Marty Paich

After solos by alto saxophonist Bud Shank and valve trombonist Bob Enevoldsen, Tormé re-enters with a reprise of the verse, and then the horns mimic his last phrase up a half-step to modulate into the last chorus. The first sixteen bars of this chorus are based on original melodic material and are in the style known in big band circles as a "shout chorus." Here, Tormé's vocal line is clearly the lead voice in the band, with the horns punching identical rhythmic figures behind him.

Then to begin the final eight bars, Paich and Tormé find the perfect medium between the shout chorus material and the original tune: a shout figure closely based on the melody, which gains momentum by eliminating one note and adding a strong syncopation to the note that follows. In the seventh bar, Tormé melds into the coda, which repeats a variation of the final line in two successive keys, followed by a new shout figure which is cut short as Tormé begins to hold the last note, but which is then reprised as Tormé holds that note.

And "Lulu" was just the beginning! The remainder of the first Dek-tette album covered a wide variety of jazz styles: the Latin rhythms of "The Carioca," the big-band style of "Fascinating Rhythm," the dramatic ballad lines of "When The Sun Comes Out," and the laid-back cool jazz of "Lullaby Of Birdland" (the latter featuring a scat tour de force by Tormé). Also included was the very funny Rodgers and Hart classic, "I Like To Recognize The Tune" and the starkly dramatic Ellington re-creation of "The Blues" from Black, Brown & Beige.

The obvious reason for such a broad spectrum was that Tormé and Paich wanted to show all the various styles that the Dek-tette could perform. What is less obvious today is that the Dek-tette was not intended to survive past the original LP. After the album was completed, Tormé went back to his nightclub engagements and Paich toured England with Dorothy Dandridge. The album was released while Paich was away, and when he retrieved his phone messages, he discovered an overwhelming response to the album, including several requests from other singers to use the Dek-tette on their next albums. In a Down Beat interview from 1956, Paich said he would have to "re-form the Dek-tette" for future recordings.

The Dek-tette was re-formed, of course, and now that its future seemed guaranteed for at least a few albums, there was no need to display every aspect of the Dek-tette's sound on every album. Now Paich could focus on one style of writing for each LP, thus subtly unifying the sound of each successive album. Also, several of the subsequent Dek-tette LPs were "concept albums," where all of the music was related by a common theme. In 1956, this was a fairly new idea, but throughout the recording industry, it was quickly embraced as a potent creative outlet and a brilliant marketing idea. Thus, the musicians were quite careful not to include any songs that fell out of the album's concept, and the marketing department was sure to advertise the album's concept in the LP title.

These unification tactics were certainly apparent on the Dek-tette's next album, also for Bethlehem, Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire. The songs, which had all been introduced in Fred Astaire's films, were not only top-notch, but also more familiar. Tormé is in magnificent voice, contributing a cappella intros to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "A Fine Romance," blending into the horn section on "A Foggy Day" and "Let's Face The Music & Dance," and swinging like mad on the up-tempo "The Way You Look Tonight." Paich's arrangements, featuring long stretches of block scoring, are less interesting from a strictly aural standpoint, but the album opener, "Nice Work If You Can Get It" features amazing formal play by Paich, and a remarkable performance by Tormé.

The arrangement starts conventionally enough: Tormé sings the first chorus accompanied by the horns, then there is a reprise of the introduction, which is followed by a half-chorus of exchanges with the ensemble taking the first six bars of each stanza and Tormé capping off the phrase with the title line. Then things get interesting: instead of going to the bridge, Tormé segues to the verse, then moves to the beginning of the original tune. At the second eight, Tormé pulls off a perfect unassisted half-step modulation, and four bars later we are suddenly in the coda. Tormé sings the title line, is interrupted by the horns, repeats the line in a different key, continues with "And if you get it," is again interrupted, then finishes the line, "Won't you tell me how?" as the arrangement concludes with another echo of the introduction.

                                  Mel Tormé

Both Paich and Tormé were justifiably proud of this album. For Tormé, it was a lovingly conceived tribute to his favorite singer (During the preparation for the album, Tormé phoned Astaire to ask about tunes, tempos, etc., and was astounded that Astaire not only degraded his own singing, but seemed surprised that anyone would consider doing an LP in tribute!) Paich, in the meantime, saw a considerable future with the Dek-tette, and so, took more care in polishing the ensemble playing of the group. The Dek-tette's ranks were filled with some of California's finest jazz musicians (many of whom performed on Dek-tette recordings for another decade) but beginning on the Astaire sessions, Paich worked hard to ensure that the group phrased together, and closely followed the dynamics he had included in the score. The results are clearly reflected in the recording, especially in the beautifully executed group phrasing on "Something's Gotta Give."

The Dek-tette's third album, recorded for Bethlehem in March 1957, was a remake of Mel Tormé's California Suite, featuring Tormé with orchestra and chorus. Paich remembered that the album was recorded in three long sessions, and that he wanted a fourth session scheduled due to the difficulty of the music. This proved impossible because of budget constraints, and Paich was never completely satisfied with the final product.

Originally written in 1949, California Suite was Tormé's answer to Gordon Jenkins' New York City tribute, Manhattan Tower. It is essentially a song suite woven together by vocal verses and instrumental interludes. The songs include tributes to many of California's cities, including San Diego, San Francisco, La Jolla and Hollywood, and while there is a great deal of cheerleading for the Golden State, there are also complimentary sections on Coney Island and Atlantic City. There are two featured voices: Tormé, a ‘California rooter’ and ‘The Easterner’, a New Yorker with lots of attitude and a very pronounced accent (portrayed on the original Capitol recording by Peggy Lee). In contrast to the real-life verbal battles between New Yorkers and Californians, Tormé's piece never really provokes any heated discussions between the two protagonists. In fact, Tormé's character recognizes the splendor of the East Coast, then simply points out that California has its own splendor.

In addition to Tormé and Lee, the original recording featured Mel's vocal group, The Mel-Tones, with a large orchestra and chorus. Although the performances are exemplary, the arrangements (credited to eight writers, including Tormé) have not aged well. The orchestrations are straight out of the Hollywood mill -- big and flashy, with lots of harp glissandi and overblown endings. As for the Mel-Tones' sections, Tormé's voicings sound like they were lifted straight out of arrangements for Tommy Dorsey's Pied Pipers or Glenn Miller's Modernaires. If this style was not passé by 1949, it certainly became so within a few years of the recording. It was probably the arrangements that led Tormé to remake California Suite in 1957 with Paich and the Dek-tette.

In the 1957 version, the Mel-Tones are gone, and the orchestra is the Dek-tette, augmented by a small string section. The chorus is smaller, and Tormé sings more of the work solo than on the Capitol recording. Tormé and Paich were the only musicians listed on the album jacket, and the full personnel has only been recently identified through a combination of recording contracts and memories of those present. However, we may never know the identity of the young lady who portrays ‘the Easterner’. According to the album's choral director and contractor, Randy Van Horn, ‘the Easterner’ was played by a girlfriend of the producer, and that her acting and singing abilities were not her most obvious assets. In fact, she was unable to properly execute her final line, "California's everything you told me / Hey, you sold me!" and drummer Al Stoller's screeching of the line in falsetto was eventually dubbed on to the master tape!

Paich's arrangement follows the Capitol version closely, eschews the Hollywood flash, and implements the Dek-tette in the jazz settings. The Dek-tette's ensemble work is especially noteworthy: the punch figures are tightly executed, yet the laid-back West Coast swing is never sacrificed. The string writing is refreshingly understated, especially in the Atlantic City waltz and in the backgrounds to "Poor Little Extra Girl." The opening of the second side features a section with three tempi occurring simultaneously, and a little later in the same movement, there is a wonderfully sultry alto sax solo by Ronnie Lang, which perfectly evokes the scores of film noir. Tormé, obviously relishing the chance to perform his own magnum opus, sings splendidly throughout, acting as lead voice for the chorus in several sections, and contributing exemplary solo work elsewhere. His reading of "Poor Little Extra Girl" is one of his finest ballads up to that time, and his high-spirited vocals in the up-tempo sections help overcome the weaknesses of the work. After all, who else but Tormé could put over a line like "La Jolla won't annoy ya"?

After California Suite, Paich recorded several Dek-tette albums with other singers, including Jeri Southern, The Hi-Lo's and Ella Fitzgerald. Tormé recorded one LP for the Tops label, then moved on to Verve Records. Both the Tops and the first Verve LP were arranged and conducted by Paich, but the Dek-tette was not used on either album (The Tops lists the Dek-tette, but neither the sound nor the instrumentation matches the classic Dek-tette.) It would be nearly three years before Tormé would record again with the Paich Dek-tette, but when they were reunited, they created a classic for the ages: Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley.


On Shubert Alley, Tormé and Paich explore songs from the "book" musicals. These Broadway shows, starting with 1943's Oklahoma! integrated story, music and dance to a higher degree than ever before. Fittingly, Shubert Alley is also highly integrated: song quotes, formerly used in Paich's Dek-tette scores, now became predominant parts of each arrangement. In addition, many of the tracks end with short, bluesy tags, which also subtly tie the twelve arrangements together. Many of the concepts used in earlier Dek-tette LPs are re-examined or expanded upon. The tuba takes on new predominance in the part-writing (and is beautifully captured in the excellent recording mix). In a Down Beat interview, Tormé told Leonard Feather, "I don't think I can sing better than I did on Shubert Alley and I don't think I could get better backing than I got from Marty Paich." Who could argue with that? In short, everyone involved in this recording was operating at peak level, and the album was an undisputed masterpiece.

Since Shubert Alley works so well as a unified album, it is almost unfair to single out individual tracks for praise. Suffice to say that every track on this album deserves (and withstands) close scrutiny; however, here are a few of the album's many highlights. The opening track, "Too Close For Comfort", effectively reprises and expands on several of the ideas presented on the first Dek-tette album. Tormé opens the track (and thus the album) a cappella with original music: "Be wise...Be fair...Be sure...Be there...Behave...Beware" with the Dek-tette echoing each phrase. Tormé begins the tune, accompanied by punch figures in the saxophones, with the brass joining in for the last bar, followed by a 3-bar extension. In the next eight, all the horns accompany Tormé, and in the bridge, Tormé is left with just bass and drums, with the horns contributing ensemble figures between Tormé's phrases. For the next eight, the saxes return with the same figure as before, and in the song's final section -- "One thing leads to another / Too late to run for cover / She's much too close for comfort” -- Tormé again plays "lead horn" in the ensemble (in the italicized words). Tormé doesn't actually finish this chorus; after the quoted lines above, the song’s cadence is on the word ‘now’; Tormé and Paich omit the cadence, so that Tormé and alto saxophonist Art Pepper can insert the first of the album's song quotes, Charlie Parker's "The Steeplechase." The quote doubles as a transition, and Pepper launches his solo, with background figures and a brief interruption by the Dek-tette.

When Tormé returns, it is with a shortened version of the introduction, and with a short ensemble passage, we encounter another shout chorus. As in "Lulu's Back In Town," Tormé matches his phrasing to the horns. However, the concept of this shout chorus is much more complex than in "Lulu". To begin with, the trumpets do not actually play the shout figures with Tormé, but contribute a muted figure between the shout phrases. Also, the shout figures do not begin on the first bar of the phrase. Instead, Tormé sings "Put on your old thinkin' cap, boy / 'cause if you don't look out / she . . . will have you up that old tree" with the horns coming in on the italicized words. The trumpets turn up again for ensemble figures at the end of each eight-bar section, but at these points, they play without mutes.

The 16 measures of shout chorus is only a preamble to the stunning bridge, which builds and builds with Tormé's impassioned "Too close. . . too close . . . much too close" over the Dek-tette's powerfully swinging background. The bridge reaches its peak with two stop-time scat passages by Tormé. Then it's back to the tune, appropriately with just bass and drums in accompaniment. When the horns return, there is more of the shout chorus style, but here, as in "Lulu," it is the original tune that is now receiving the shout chorus treatment. The section in question, "One thing leads to another / Too late to run for cover / She's much too close for comfort now" is repeated twice as a quasi-tag, with different backgrounds used each time and with bass fills by Mondragon inserted between each repetition. Then the introductory material returns, capped with Tormé's "She's too close, too close for comfort now" set to one of jazz's oldest cadential formulas, but saved from triteness by Paich's setting of it for voice and tuba. There is a final chord, and a brief improvised tag by Pepper.

Closing the first side is one of the most difficult arrangements ever conceived for a vocalist, "Just In Time." The tune is quite simple, based on a three-note motive, with the middle note a minor second below its two neighbors. The lyric speaks of the singer being in imminent danger before love (and his new lover) came "Just In Time." Paich's arrangement matches that sentiment exactly by placing the vocalist in treacherous areas where, if not for his superior musicianship, Tormé could wander off-pitch or lose the melody altogether. That Tormé pulls it off is a testament to his standing as one of the finest singers in jazz.

The arrangement opens with only Mondragon's walking bass. Then Tormé and Lewis enter, and the three men comprise the instrumentation for the entire first chorus. This is the longest sequence in the entire Dek-tette discography where a vocalist is accompanied by just bass and drums. When the horns finally come in, it is not with a background to "Just In Time," but an extended quote from "Who's Sorry Now." With eight horns surrounding him playing a completely different tune, with only similar chord changes, Tormé continues "Just In Time" for 16 bars, never faltering in pitch or melodic assuredness. The quote is quite noteworthy in its own right. In an interview, Tormé told me that he came up with all of the song quotes on Shubert Alley. However, it is clear that it was Paich's artistry that made them succeed. The "Who's Sorry Now" quote continues for 12 full bars, and to get out of it, Paich takes its last note, extends it over the bar line, and seamlessly makes it the first note of an original background figure to fill the remaining bars of the phrase. It is a masterful technique, and one easily missed if the listener is focusing on Tormé and not the background.

The ensemble bridge that follows sets the peak of intensity and volume for the arrangement. Then suddenly, it is Tormé with bass and drums again. He sings with them until the line, "lonely life, that lovely day," which is sung nine times, in three groups of three. The first time is with bass and drums, but each successive group adds instruments and volume, so that after the saxes have backed up Tormé, all of the horns are included on the last repeat. This final repeat is extended with Tormé's original "day you changed my life, that lovely day" and punch figures from the ensemble which crescendo throughout. When Tormé holds the word ‘day’, there is a closing ensemble tag which again challenges Tormé, since there are strong dissonances between Tormé's held note and those played by Red Callender on tuba. The arrangement sounds as if it's finished here, but after a slight pause, there is a short sax soli, and an improvised tag by trumpeter Stu Williamson.

Paich and Tormé take quite a few liberties with the formal scheme of Cole Porter's "Too Darn Hot." The song was originally in an odd AAABC form, but is usually adapted to an AABA form by singers. The Shubert Alley version goes in the other direction by adding another A section, and delaying the C until the very end of the performance. After the introduction, which features a scorching bop line for alto and trumpet, Tormé sings the first A section.

There is an extension, and a solo break for trombonist Frank Rosolino, who continues soloing in the next A section, while Tormé lays out. (Suffice to say, the interruption of the vocalist during the first theme statement is very unusual!) After Rosolino finishes, Tormé modulates up a step and sings the next A section. The extension, break and solo pattern is repeated, only this time Art Pepper is featured. After Tormé's bridge, there is an ensemble passage before Tormé returns with yet another A section. Although the extension and break return (with the break by Mel Lewis), there is no solo. Rather, we move directly to the bridge, where Tormé pulls off an amazing set of modulations. On the words, "According to the Kinsey Report/Every average man you know," Tormé modulates up a half-step on the words "Kinsey" and "average," then back down by half-steps on the words "man" and "know." It is the musical equivalent of a tap dancer going up one side of a stage staircase and then down the other side. The bridge now leads to the only appearance of the C section, which is extended into the brief coda.

Even the detailed analysis above fails to capture all of the wonderful moments on "Shubert Alley," and listing more just takes away the fun of discovery for the listener. Simply put, if you don't have this album, YOU NEED IT!!!

It would be 28 years before Tormé and Paich would team up again. Two albums were recorded for Concord Jazz, the studio session, Reunion and a follow-up concert recorded in Japan. By this time, Tormé had established himself as a preeminent jazz vocalist of his era and Paich had expanded his talents into the realms of pop music and film scores. The Dek-tette, which had last recorded for an Ella Fitzgerald LP in 1966, now featured an almost entirely different personnel. Further, Paich added both piano and synthesizers to the instrumentation. The repertoire was expanded as well: alongside remakes of "The Blues", "Too Close For Comfort" and "The Carioca" were tunes by Donald Fagen, Chick Corea and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Also included were song medleys where a portion of one song became the verse for another. This had become one of Tormé's favorite devices; of course, it is clearly a development of the quotes used on Shubert Alley.

Tormé's scat singing becomes a prominent part of these arrangements, especially on "Sweet Georgia Brown" where, at a blistering tempo, Tormé fires off scat exchanges with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The arrangement is filled with quotes, opening with the "Lulu" verse, incorporating an entire chorus of Gerry Mulligan's "Roundhouse" and using "Rose Of The Rio Grande" as a solo backdrop.

The album's stunner is a medley which takes "The Trolley Song," a song of first love, and moves the relationship into matrimony with "Get Me To The Church On Time." The opening verse of "Trolley" modulates from D-flat to D at its halfway point. There is another modulation (to E-flat) at the beginning of the chorus, and that's when this trolley moves! At perhaps the fastest tempo on any Dek-tette record, Tormé and the Dek-tette speed through two choruses, which includes a half-chorus of lightning-quick improvised exchanges with Tormé, Foster, Sheldon and Hamilton. The second chorus is never actually completed: at the words, "When the universe reels," Paich inserts a transition and Tormé goes into an original verse, "We met on the trolley/and we fell in love. . . ."

There is another key change (back to D-flat) to introduce the tune, "Get Me To The Church On Time." Before the Dek-tette joins in, there is a cute eight-bar passage where Tormé's primary backing is the tuba in a mocking "whump, whump" accompaniment that emulates the English music-hall style that was the basis of the original tune. Tormé sings one chorus of "Church," then, with an unassisted modulation, moves back to E-flat for a final half-chorus of "Trolley." But Paich has saved his best joke for last: at the closing lyric, "to the end of the line," Paich uses the Dek-tette to simulate the trolley's slowing and stopping. There is a long descending glissando to two eighth notes--a motive used in several previous Dek-tette charts -- but here, the second note is held, while Hamilton's brushes simulate the gradual slowing of the steam engine. (OK, so trolley cars don't have steam engines. It's still a great effect!)

In December 1989, Tormé, Paich and the Dek-tette traveled to Tokyo to perform at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival. Their concert was videotaped for Japanese television and recorded by Concord Jazz as the Dek-tette's final album, Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette In Concert Tokyo. There's no new material for the Dek-tette here but there are superior versions of earlier triumphs. The "Bossa Nova Potpourri" medley, originally recorded on Reunion and featuring "One Note Samba," "How Insensitive" and "The Gift" not merely strung together but interwoven beneath each other, features an extended tag with Tormé scatting over the surging rhythm section fueled by John Van Ohlen's drums. Tormé replaces Van Ohlen at the drums for a powerful "Cottontail" (previously recorded on Paich's instrumental LP, I Get A Boot Out Of You) which evolves into a recreation of the Benny Goodman/Gene Krupa duet from "Sing, Sing, Sing.” Of the remakes from the original Dek-tette albums, only "On The Street Where You Live" and "The Carioca" are completely successful. On "Just In Time" pianist Allen Farnham compromises the mood of imminent danger by comping throughout the first chorus, and on "When The Sun Comes Out" a trombone is substituted for the absent French horn of original Dek-tette member Vince De Rosa, losing the creamy sound that only De Rosa seemed capable of producing.

Before his passing, Marty Paich told me that he wanted to do further recordings with the Dek-tette, including collaborations with young, upcoming singers. Unfortunately, those projects never happened. Now that Tormé has left us too, we'll never hear his up-to-date interpretations of the Dek-tette classics. However, the concept of the Dek-tette lives on with its last pianist, Allen Farnham, who has created charts with instrumentation similar to the Dek-tette for singer Susannah McCorkle. While these charts do not echo Paich's cool jazz leanings, it is nice to know that the concept still lives. And if that's not enough for you, just put on Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley again.


Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dek-tette (currently reissued as Lulu's Back In Town). Rhino 75732

Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire. Bethlehem 20-3082*.

Mel Tormé, California Suite. Bethlehem 5026*.

Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley. Verve 821 581.

Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette, Reunion. Concord Jazz 4360.

Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette In Concert, Tokyo. Concord Jazz 4382.

*= out of print; numbers listed are the last known CD reissues.

August 21, 2008 · 4 comments


In Conversation with Mark Elf

by Marissa Dodge

The Mark Elf Guitar Conservatory recently opened online. [Editor’s note: Check it out here.] From what I’ve seen and heard from guitar players, your teaching concepts are remarkably logical and jazz language oriented. Would you expand on that?

I basically approach the music from a practical standpoint. In other words, if you're going to practice something you might as well practice something that you can apply to your playing. This has been done throughout jazz history by the greatest jazz musicians in the world, and I learned that way, and a lot of the great players I know, learned that way.

Mark Elf

I mean a lot of people practice technique and running their scales and arpeggios and yes that’s really important, but you have to make music out of it and the best way to learn how to make music out of it is from someone who can already do it. That’s how Clifford Brown learned from Fats Navarro, and Charlie Parker learned from Lester Young - I could just keep going.

What I’ve done here on the conservatory is that some players just can’t transcribe and they need to see it and hear it. This concept is what the greatest jazz musicians did and I'm applying that concept of learning to the conservatory by showing how to apply phrases and lines and how to play between the changes. In other words, how to hook the changes up from a linear and melodic standpoint.

When you learn these little phrases and ideas you're learning the language, but you're also - from osmosis so to speak - learning the ways in which the lines hook up very strongly between the changes. That’s usually the biggest stumbling block of most players, they might be able to play on one change or another but getting them all to flow together is a major issue with most players learning to play.

That’s a true sign of someone who has really concentrated on learning the language: fluidity through the progressions - intuitively choosing the definitive notes.

That is the music, that is the essence of what you need to be doing. In order to understand how to do it you have to learn it from somebody who already knows how to do it. Like I said, you can learn scales and arpeggios on each of the chords, but making music out of them and getting them to flow freely is really the toughest part about playing really well. So what I do on the site is to show players how to do that by example. The site has intermediate and advance so if some of the concepts in the advanced section are beyond what a particular student might understand then he or she can go back to the intermediate section, look at those videos and theory then fully understand what I'm talking about. So anything that I talk about is covered in the site and there are no unanswered questions. Students can also upload videos of themselves playing so I can see how they play, how they’re progressing, and make suggestions.

As you've seen, I might play a chorus of a tune and I'll slow the thing down in slow motion by 50% or even as much as 66% so it's actually playing at 1/3 speed in a close-up of my left hand so they can see exactly what's going on as the changes are going by. They can grab those lines, learn them, digest them and assimilate. As the months and years go by that becomes part of you and not only teaches your hands but it also teaches your ears what works, and eventually the student is able to do that on their own.

The idea is you continue, go off on your own and do it yourself. I’m not looking to have students stay here forever and ever and string them along, that’s not the purpose of this. The purpose is to get them to learn how to do this - to get them to actually be able to play good choruses themselves - and then they can go on. If they want to stay they can stay, but then you know it’s like anything else, you move on and you find your own voice. The purpose of this site is to do that and to get guys to really play.

Some people would say, “Well, no, the idea from a business standpoint you want to keep them there, you don’t want to let them go.” But you know if a player moves on and plays great and then someone else hears that player playing great, then they’re going to say, “Hey, how did you learn to play like that?” So I’ll be getting an influx of players who want to learn how to play and I’m not worried about losing players who have achieved - that only makes me feel good and that’s a feather in my cap when it happens, so that’s the positive end of that. I’m doing this because I want players to really get it.

And eventually what we all want and hope to do as jazz players and enthusiasts is to exponentially improve the art form.

Absolutely. If a player comes out of this and has his or her own voice and goes on to do something in the field, that’s nothing but good. That’s the purpose of it.

You’re also a great writer; will there be a composition section at your conservatory? Do you have any desire to show students how you construct a composition and what’s behind it?

[Laughing] Forgive me for chuckling, OK? But I see people in schools offering composition classes and that sort of thing, the truth of that is there are no classes for that, there is no teaching somebody to write.

Do you know the best composition class that I ever had? I was trying to write some tunes in the 70s and I was hanging out with Bill Hardman at the time - great trumpet player; Bill Hardman and Junior Cook - I used to play with them on and off in the 70s. Bill was a good friend and I was trying to write this tune, so I called Bill up and I said, “Hey Bill, man, I’m trying to write this tune and you know it’s like I’m not sure how to really go about it.” And he said to me, “Well, look man, just write the shit you normally play.” [Laughing] Just like that he told me. That was the only composition class I ever went to and I just did that. So basically when I’m writing a tune there’s no formula for it, there’s no class you can really take on that - although some people would probably argue with me about that.

I sit down and construct a melody. Sometimes I’ll just hear something and I’ll start writing it and it comes out. When you have a good melodic and linear sense and you listen to a lot of music you just try to write. Sometimes it doesn’t come out easy, some of it’s really hard, some things just come out easier than others, but I would never say, “Oh yeah, I could teach composition,” or anything like that. If you can play, if you have the ability to be creative and you can play something then you just - like Bill said, “write what you play.” If you’re able to sit down and play something on the guitar and it’s the start of a tune - the start of a melody - write it out and keep developing the melody and the changes.

Sometimes I’ve written tunes on already existing harmonies like “Dream Steppin’” is based on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.” I decided I wanted to play on that tune but I wanted to have my own head so I wrote that particular head; I tried to create some rhythmic modern sounding type of head and I came up with that. Sometimes I write a tune and I don’t have any changes in mind and I create it as I go. But I don’t really think anyone can teach anyone how to write a song, I think you either have the ability to write a song or you don’t. Sometimes it’s hard work, you have to just sit and force yourself to write - unless you think of something - like I’ve thought of things, I might be in the shower and I hurry up and get out of the shower and go on my guitar or drop something down on a piece of paper and get something started. I’ve had instances where I’ve started a tune and then finished it the next day but ordinarily I do it in one shot. Or I’m inspired by something I’ve heard and I’ll do it. But I really don’t think anyone can teach composition, honestly I don’t believe so anyway.

Well, I just learned some things from your “anti-composition course” course. (Laughing)

Yeah, I suppose so.

I’ve been asked the same question and I usually give a conceptual answer unless it’s a particular song they’re asking about and they want you to explain its impetus.


I think the best composition course is listening to Strayhorn, Duke, and all of the great standard writers. I’m still glad I asked because I admire your writing.

Oh, thank you.

Sometimes you’ll have a great player and they’ll have good ideas when they solo but then when they sit down to write it’s not as interesting as their takes on established tunes. It’s almost as if they take a break from structure and go off into a different place, you know what I mean?

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve heard players like that and that’s just the way it is. Some write good compositions and others don’t, so you just enjoy the ones that you like.

Well, scratch the composition course. What additional plans do you have for your conservatory?

My goal right now is to have a large amount of content; to cover lots of tunes, forms, changes, and chord solos. I want to have a huge library up there so that players can come and feel like they can find whatever they’re working on. I’m going to do an extensive thing on rhythm changes because the blues and rhythm changes are two forms that are important in jazz. I’m going to be doing a big stack of videos on “I Got Rhythm” changes and lots of different types of changes that can be played on that form. I want to have a big, big, library of material, hundreds and hundreds - my goal is to have a thousand videos up there. I’m not kidding, it’s going to take a long time but that’s what I really want to do, so when people enroll they feel like they can find anything and they can have a solid base to get what they want.

I also thought about having a student of the month, based not so much on the player’s ability but more as to how the player has progressed over a month or more. I don’t want it to be a fight or have anyone get mad, feel left out, or like it’s like a competition, but really music is a very competitive business and it is in a sense the reality of the world, so I don’t think it would be a terrible thing to do. It’s more to encourage practice and work, as a reward factor. Somebody gets crowned every month and that’s a nice way to tip your hat to somebody who’s worked very hard.

Back to your playing, are there people that you’re visualizing a project with?

Well, actually because of this conservatory project I haven’t really thought of recording anything new because this is really consuming me right now. I mean I’ve got a dozen records out and I don’t feel a need to put any more out anytime soon - that can change tomorrow, but right now this is really what I’m focusing on. Once I get a really nice library for the students up there, then I’ll start think about doing my own projects again. Recording is very consuming. I really don’t want anything else going on around me - it’s like tunnel vision when I’m working on a record. I don’t want to worry about anything else. Usually I work on projects for months and months.

Do you mean writing for them or recording them?

Yeah you know, like Milt Jackson says before he’d play a tune publicly he’d have to “live with it for a while.” So I work on those tunes - especially the last two albums that I did. You know I tackled Trane’s changes - especially the “Countdown” changes, they’re very difficult to play on, especially on up tempos, they become just monstrous to work and I worked very hard. Jimmy (Heath) told me that Trane worked on “Giant Steps” for over two years before he recorded it. I don’t expect to be working on anything like that again for a while. I’m not sure what I’m going to do after that, I mean I can’t play any more changes than that. I think Trane kind of said that too, “I’ve played all the changes I can play.“ I have no idea what I’m going to do on my next project - I think I’ll probably just pick some favorite tunes and just play them, or write a few new tunes, I don‘t know. I’m thinking about the conservatory right now, it’s brand new and in sort of a fledgling state. I just want to build it and get a lot of material up there, that’s really what I’m thinking about I’m not really thinking about recording anything new.

How do you choose individual tunes for the conservatory? Are you going for the ones with the most universal changes and will you add difficult ones that you know players need to learn?

That’s very good question. What I’ve done now is put up the kinds of tunes that players will come across in say, jam session situations or on gigs, teaching them the changes to “How High The Moon,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Just Friends,” very basic - they’re jam session-type tunes. But I’m going to start getting into more heavy weight tunes and tunes with different kinds of forms that are much more involved. First I just want to get up some of the basic tunes that most of the students - and when I was coming up the tunes that I learned - can learn the changes to and be able to play through those changes. So I’m going to be tackling those kinds of tunes and get a lot of those up first, and then start taking some of the more obscure type tunes that most players don’t play or hear as much, or that some of the students don’t know.

What do you listen to when you get a chance?

I like all of the old records, but I like some of the new players on the scene. I actually don’t listen as much as I should. When I’m the car I’ll turn on the radio and I listen to what’s being played and I don’t always like what I hear, but then sometimes I get surprised and someone’s playing some ridiculous stuff and I really like it. Right off the top of my head I can’t think of anything. I like Joel Frahm‘s playing and some of the other guys on the scene - can’t think of their names offhand.

It sounds like you’re hopeful about the direction of jazz.

Yeah, yeah, I don’t have much hope for the business of it. I have hope for the artistic end of it, but the business end, I don’t see very much light at the end of the rainbow. It’s a tiny fragment of the industry and it can’t support the players that are already in it, so business-wise it’s not terribly promising. But then anybody that ever played this music or wanted to play it wasn’t thinking about money anyway. If they were thinking about money they wouldn’t be playing this music. They’d be doing something completely different.

Art and the marketplace just don’t mesh do they?

No, no.

Any other thoughts about your current project?

All I would say is that I would hope that any aspiring guitarists looking to get their acts and their instrument together will come by and check out the conservatory site. The good part about it is that it’s very inexpensive and I kept it that way because I figured guys going to college can afford to do it without too much of a strain. It’s around the cost of a tank of gas nowadays. You can sign on and hang out for three months and get all you can. I look forward to players signing on and me helping them all I can.

My burning question. You’ve played with great organ players like Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff and great piano players like Hank Jones and David Hazeltine. I’ve listened extensively to The Eternal Triangle, A Minor Scramble, New York Cats, Swingin’, Dream Steppin’ , Glad To Be Back, Liftoff, etc., and I’ve always wanted to ask you about your methodology to comping. Will you illustrate the difference between comping with an organ player vs. a piano player? And what do you want to hear from a piano player so that it doesn’t get in your way when you solo but also inspires you?

First of all, anytime you’re on a gig with a guitar player and piano player - I’m actually going to do a whole video on the conservatory about this - the main thing that you have to realize as a guitar player is that the piano is physically a huge instrument; it’s got a big sound and unlike guitar, a piano player can hit ten note chords, he can play heavy-handed and a lot of stuff. Depending upon who you’re playing with depends upon what you’re going to do and how you’re going to approach it. What type of person is this musician, does he respect the guitar and does he respect the person playing it? All of that comes into play when you’re working with a piano player.

When I worked with Hank Jones with Dizzy in 1988, I was comping lightly behind Hank when he was playing a solo and he turned to me and said, “Give me four, could you give me four?” Or he said, “Could you play it like Freddie Green?” I knew that he wanted me to chomp in four, so I turned off my amp - almost all the way off, maybe it was all the way off - and I just played rhythm guitar for him, I just played the changes four to the bar. But some rhythm sections don’t want that type of rhythm because it’s too tight and it’s old school - they consider it to be too swing style. But Hank is an old-timer so that’s what he wanted and I love Hank, I’d give him anything he wants. My attitude was whatever makes this gentleman happy, I’m happy to do.

When I was playing with Ray Brown and Clark Terry, one time I was on a ship and three was just a trio, Ray, Clark, and myself, there were no drums or piano. I comped behind Clark, and when Ray had a solo he turned to me and he said, “Gimme some glue,” and I knew exactly what he meant, I turned my amp way down and I chomped in four.

Then I was on a gig with Jimmy Heath - part of the Jimmy Heath band - and we were at the Iridium and Jimmy hired Sir Roland Hannah. Roland and I know each other for many, many years; in fact he hired me in the 70s to play at a place called Gulliver’s. He called me up and he said, “Hey man, you wanna’ play a gig with me at Gulliver’s?” and I said, “Sure I’d love to.” I was thrilled that he called me and he said, “You get the bass player.” So I called this cat named Bob Bodley - great bass player - and we played with Roland. I comped behind him and he comped behind me, you know we played some solos. I don’t exactly remember how we played together because it was 30-35 years ago, but I would tell you that I remember this one at the Iridium because when Jimmy was there we had a horn player and basically I might comp behind Jimmy for 2 or 3 choruses and then I would lay out and I would just look at Roland and he’d comp, so we would exchange comping duties. Rather than having two rhythmic concepts underneath Jimmy and mess up his solo we chose to share the comping. Sometimes we would play together and do things together, sometimes I would just play some quiet lines underneath while Roland was comping, I’d play some guide tones behind Jimmy or something like that. But I stayed pretty much out of the way, I would play something but it would be something quiet that didn’t distract from his solo or get in the way of Roland.

Then I was on a gig with Dizzy and we were in a different city and it was without Hank, and Kenny Barron was on piano. I think we were at a rehearsal or sound check and Dizzy and the rhythm section were playing, and Kenny was comping behind Dizzy’s solo and I didn’t play because Kenny was very busy and was comping great and sounded good and I didn’t want to get in Dizzy’s way so I chose not to play. Then Dizzy turned around to me and he said (Mark doing Dizzy's voice), “Hey man, how come you’re not playing?” just like that he said to me, and I said, “Well, because I didn’t want to get in the way of Kenny and I didn’t want to mess up your train of thought up by having two chord instruments behind you.” And Dizzy said, “Oh well, just get in the cracks.” At that point Kenny turned around to me and said, “Oh man, I’ll lighten up a little bit.” In other words, Kenny was sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want to get in the way.

You know it’s not about, “I’m just gonna’ get in here no matter what happens,” you can’t think like that, you can’t be like that. I mean you get on gigs and see and hear things like that and it’s horrible and I don’t want to do that. So if I can’t add something to it - I just chose not to play at that moment at that sound check and Dizzy wanted me to. Then afterwards, yeah I did comp and play some other things and I found my way to add to the situation in a musical sense so I wouldn’t clash with Kenny’s comping. Kenny was also very sensitive with me and the fact that I showed that, made him more sensitive to the fact that I cared and I think really that is important.

There’s not a real strong answer for this age-long question about how guitar and piano can play together. But you know sometimes even when I played on my records, and if you listen to Wes with Wynton Kelly, you know he comps low but it doesn’t get in the way, he knows where to put it and that’s really the key to it. When you play with a particular piano player long enough you get to know that, so you know sometimes it’s better to lay out or play little. Sometimes you can comp and you can have two things going on, in other words the piano left hand and your left hand - if you’re a right-handed guitar player that is - it’s possible to do it musically. So each situation is a situation unique to itself depending upon the two players and what their attitudes and musical abilities are, how they listen, how they hear, and how they respect each other, all of that comes into play.

Intuition and appropriateness.

Right, all of those things really determine it. Some piano players are like, “This is a piano world and I’m the harmonic instrument, you play around me.” You know, there are players like that and so if that’s gonna be the case you have to deal with that accordingly.

How have you handled this in the past?

Well, as a guitar player you run into this all the time and sure, I ran into it a lot, but what I did is I just didn’t comp unless the piano player laid out. I stayed out of the way and I just played my solo and I did what I wanted to do and that was it. But the thing is a lot of times I was with organ players, they sustain the chords in their right hand and then I would comp. But if it was an organist that did a lot of rhythmic comping in his right hand then you got that same thing, but it’s not as bad because he’s playing the bass with his left hand; most of them do, unless you have an organ player that can play bass lines with his foot, but most of them play bass with their foot and their left hand, so they only have - fortunately - five fingers, so it doesn’t get too thick.

I played with Lonnie Smith and we had a nice rapport, and with Jimmy (McGriff), and (Jack) McDuff - all those guys - I didn’t have any problems at all. They were used to having a guitarist, like Grant (Green) played with McDuff - they had their own thing going on, so I never really had any problem with organ, except for the volume thing, it gets pretty loud.

Right. There are only so many frequencies; when you’ve got two chord instruments you’ve got to have a plan.

Well, the thing is it’s the chord voicings and the rhythmic concept, so you’ve got two things going on. Sometimes I play in a guitar band, like a quintet - with five guitars playing parts or whatever -and when the solos came up there’d be three guys comping, and I used to get upset about that. I said, “Look just one comp behind me and let’s say the person to the left comps and the rest of you guys just sit there unless you’ve got something to play, unless you’ve got a part or a background or something.“ Everybody doesn’t have to play at the same time. It’s just the musical thing to do, to not play sometimes - I shouldn’t have to say that.

(Laughs) Anything else you can think of?

Not a thing. (Both laughing)

Thanks Mark, you’re a very generous and laid-back cat.

I’m the same as anybody else, I just play the guitar.

No man, you’re a great soul. It’s nice to have a great player and great person in one.

Well, thanks. You know there’s funny little joke about that; one musician asks, “Hey man, can you recommend a couple of guys?” So the other musician says, “There’s a real nice guy who plays drums and a real nice guy who plays bass.” The first musician says, “Never mind the nice guys, just give me a couple assholes that can play.” [Both laughing] But I know what you’re saying; it’s nice when you’ve got the combination.

August 17, 2008 · 6 comments


In Conversation with Uri Caine

By Ted Panken

                                Uri Caine, by Jos L. Knaepen

“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Uri Caine stated some years ago. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It's a question of accepting the basis that they're dealing with. On the largest level it's all one thing. But I don't want to disrespect any of the music by saying it's all the same, because it's not. Coltrane's achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I'm for less generalizations and more specifics.”

This attitude, at once pragmatic and utopian, has enabled Caine to establish a body of work based on no less ambitious an imperative than to reflect the last 400 years of Western music history. He turns a section of Gustav Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel; constructs a narrative of his own invention over a Bach bassline; deploys three poets, an electric guitarist; and gospel and pop vocalists to perform a Robert Schumann song cycle of 16 love poems; hires a sextet of New York first-callers to perform Caine’s arrangements of iconic [Richard] Wagneria in the cafe’s of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. His oeuvre, contained on 19 recordings for Winter & Winter since 1996, reflects an archetypically American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon towards vernacular imperatives.

“I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” Caine said then of his classical proclivities. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.” “What I did” referenced his deep jazz background, one nurtured during a long apprenticeship playing piano and keyboards on Philadelphia’s hardcore jazz and avant-funk scenes, functions he performed at night while spending his days as a composition student at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of composer George Rochberg. A New Yorker since 1987, he developed a reputation as a strong postbop, inside-out pianist, one reinforced by the trio albums Blue Wail, from 1997, and Live at the Village Vanguard from 2004.

Ensconced at the Vanguard during Fourth of July week with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky, both long-time bandmates, Caine joined me at WKCR for a conversation, and to promote his forthcoming Winter & Winter release, Otello.

Your trio with Drew Gress and Ben Perowsky has some longevity.

That’s true. We met in the late ‘90s, playing in other people’s groups. We kept crossing paths, and then started playing as a trio. We get together at the Vanguard, but also we tour, more in Europe, but also in the United States. We still cross paths in other people’s groups—with Dave Douglas, Don Byron, and other various projects around New York. I guess it’s just normal; you’re trying to play with a lot of different people also.

You wear a lot of different hats as a performer and artist. There’s the improvising jazz pianist we hear on Live at the Village Vanguard and Blue Wail. There’s the composer. There’s the arranger. You’ve worked with canonic repertoire from European classical music, transformed the sound of it, and earned much cache in Europe for doing that. These days you’re focusing much more on composition, with commissioned works, and not just arrangements. A few years ago, you curated the musical portion of the Venice Biennale. Where does the piano trio fit into all of this? Are you composing new work specifically for this trio? Is it more of a clearing-house for you to work out ideas?

                              Uri Caine, by Jos L. Knaepen

I’d say it’s pretty fundamental. I’ve been playing piano since I was little. For a long time that was my fundamental focus of playing music, and it’s still interesting and challenging. Piano players often play in different functions, work with different types of rhythm sections, in different styles of music. They play with singers. Having those opportunities as a keyboard player is how I got into what I do. I still write pieces for the trio. Also, we take stuff that we’ve been playing for a while, and try to change it while we’re playing it. We play off of structures in the group, but it’s not always fixed. Even though we find ourselves playing a certain repertoire, we might drop certain things and go into something else in a more organic way, just to see what’s going on.

Does the trio perform material from your other spheres of activity? For instance, Mahler or Schumann or Wagner or the Diabelli Variations, which you’ve reworked on different projects Or your recent Mozart investigations...

Not really.

So you keep the trio as a separate entity?

It’s not a conscious thing. I’ve played some pieces, mostly because Drew and Ben have played in these other groups, so it’s another repertoire that we know. But I don’t mix them so much, because a lot of those projects for me depend on a bigger group, a bigger improvisation.

Maybe as a pianist, I’m a lot more in the background, functioning in different ways in a rhythm section, because I like to hear the variety of all the different sounds, especially with classical music—which has that going for it anyway. But again, the trio is very open, very free. You can go in so many different directions.

Do you still practice a lot on the piano?

I try to, definitely. Sometimes it’s technical things that I’ve always been working on, because I’m still struggling with it. Other times I’ll play over different time signatures, different chord sequences, writing a tune and then trying to figure out a way to improvise over it. There’s always a lot of stuff to work on. The problem is trying to find a period of time where you can really work on it and develop it.

You did your first classical project, which resulted in the Mahler recording, in 1996. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall it wasn’t your idea, but was suggested to you by your producer, Stefan Winter, who signed you for his JMT label a few years earlier, before he changed his imprimatur to Winter and Winter.

A little before that project, there was a JMT Festival at the Knitting Factory. Stefan Winter and his brother had made a documentary movie on Mahler from a lot of still images, and they were asking people on the label who would like to play over it and try to create something. I was interested, because I had been into Mahler’s music. After that initial film, I spent about a year trying to figure out a way to get a larger group together to play Mahler in a way which had nothing to do with the film. That became the record.

Was the treatment mandated by the producer, or did you generate it? In other words, to take Mahler’s themes and bring in the most up-to-date performance gestures towards their interpretation, rather than doing it in a more orthodox manner.

It was really a question of musicians working it out. I mean, the producer has certain talents, but maybe not as a musician. I wrote arrangements, and then as we started to play those arrangements, certain things would occur, and then we would make changes—we still make changes sometimes. But it’s always built around a core arrangement that I’ve written for each piece that we do.

Now, you’ve been doing these projects for more than a decade, and after not that long, it started to seem like the most normal thing to have a gospel singer sing lieder, or use a deejay or keyboardist, and so on. But in 1996, it was a pretty radical aesthetic gesture. Or was it?

It wasn’t necessarily a new idea. It’s been part of the music’s history for a long time that composers and arrangers look for different music to incorporate into their own music. Duke Ellington was writing incredible arrangements of Tchaikovsky. A lot of improvised music, jazz, whatever you want to call it, involves a lot of different variations on the form of the structures, and then using improvisation to enhance and intensify it. That relation between structure and improvisation is fundamental in a lot of the music. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone. That reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.

Had this approach been on your mind for a while, or did it coalesce through the empirical process of putting the Mahler project together?

Well, you’re working on different things. One of the first assignments I had as a young composition student was to take Mahler’s symphony and reduce it for piano. That was a monumental task. At least, it seemed so to me when I started to do it, because it involved really trying to understand what all the instruments were playing—of course, it was meant to teach orchestration in a certain way. So I was hearing Mahler inside me from that point of view. I had other experiences. I was playing a lot of klezmer music with Don Byron. I was playing in other large groups in New York where, again, I was seeing how the orchestration enhanced a lot of the music-making. So it was a question of accumulating all these experiences. It’s like anything else. When somebody gives you a gig, or an opportunity to play, or a deadline, you go for it, and hopefully it sounds good.

As a young guy in Philadelphia, you were involved in a lot of different scenes, as you are now. You grew up there, attended University of Pennsylania as a composition major, and played in pretty high-level company from your teens—a lot of dynamic drummers.

                                Uri Caine, by Jos L. Knaepen

Of the drummers who were playing when I was first coming up, Philly Joe Jones was the most famous.

You played with him a fair amount.

Sure. Also, Mickey Roker lived in Philadelphia. Bobby Durham, a very fiery drummer. There was a great drummer named Hakim Emannuel Thompson, who a lot of people don’t know as well as they should. Edgar Bateman also, a very complicated, complex drummer.

What sorts of gigs were you doing in those years?

The gigs were mostly in bars. Some of them were I guess known as jazz bars. Some were just bars that had music. People really enjoyed a lot of the music that was happening. Philly had a lot more jazz clubs then than now, and musicians from New York would come down and play. There were also sessions—a lot of the bars, especially in north Philadelphia and south Philadelphia, had music every night. So there were a lot of chances to play.

Were you playing mostly Fender Rhodes, or did they have pianos?

Some of the places had pianos, but most of them didn’t have anything. So I would end up bringing my Fender Rhodes. That’s actually how I started playing a lot of electric instruments, and then the DX-7 on straight-ahead jazz gigs. It’s mostly because they didn’t have pianos.

Would you say that these formative experiences have carried over into your musical production of the last decade in various ways?


In the piano trio, are you still thinking not so dissimilarly to the way you were thinking about 20 years ago in Philadelphia, or have your ideas evolved a great deal?

They’ve evolved in certain ways, but in other ways it retains the same basic thing—going for a certain energy, a certain type of swing, also a certain flexibility. It’s definitely part of the music that I was playing when I was growing up, and especially the music I was listening to when I was growing up. I also went to New York to listen to a lot of musicians play, too. So I think it’s continuing what was starting then.

What music were you listening to then? The Blue Note pianists? A broader range of music than that?

It depended. A lot of the live music I heard was happening in the clubs in New York, which included everything from Thad Jones-Mel Lewis to Joe Henderson, to a lot of the pianists you’re talking about. Really, all the pianists were playing in New York, Bradley’s, that whole scene where so many different styles were happening. Then, when I discovered the more Downtown scene in New York, I’d try to get records, and come to the clubs, and see what was going on. I went through phases of checking out musicians like Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor live, and getting really interested in what they were doing. I also think it’s natural that you get interested in a lot of different types of music you hear on the radio.

Philadelphia had a very strong radio station, WRTI.

Philly had a very strong radio station, it’s true. That station was taken over pretty much by Temple University. But there was a lot of opportunity to play live on WRTI, and they definitely fostered a lot of the music scene that was going on in Philly.

As a young guy, were you a stylistic emulator? Would you try to get Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, or even Cecil Taylor, under your fingers, or was it more a matter of absorbing vocabulary and letting it emerge?

Different ways. I went through a period of trying to transcribe, because other musicians that I was playing with were doing that. Other times, I would just try to listen a lot and see what was going on, not to try to imitate so much, but just to get the feeling of what was going on, but listening very carefully, especially in terms of phrasing, seeing how people improvised harmonically—all those things. It’s normal. You go through periods of research, where you really want to get something; other times, you’re just letting your imagination go where it goes, and then you work from that.

As a young guy, 18-19-20, doing gigs with musicians like Philly Joe Jones and Bobby Durham and Mickey Roker, how proactive were they with you? What did you assimilate from being around people of that generation?

It depended. They all had strong personalities, and they were functioning within a larger scene where they were known and respected, so that there was a certain seriousness that was taken to music, but also a lot of humor, a lot of telling stories about their experiences, sort of laughing at the situations that they were finding themselves in. A lot of talking about politics—a lot of stuff. As a younger person, you learn to absorb it. But on the musical tip, it was very serious, because you’re expected to know something, and you didn’t know it, and you had to try to get to that point where you could master a certain repertoire, certain styles of playing.

Would you say that in Philadelphia at that time there was a certain approach to piano playing distinct from other cities? The city produced a number of iconic pianists, and I’ll never list them all—McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland (a transplant from Texas), Hassan Ibn Ali, Kenny Barron, among them. Was there a Philadelphia piano lineage that you needed to be aware of in forming your own vocabulary?

When you would hear older musicians talking about pianists, or “this guy played with me and he moved to New York early,” you were definitely getting an idea about what was going on and what was expected, especially as the pianist in a rhythm section playing with them. It wasn’t stated explicitly, but you just understood that it was what you should be getting to know. For me, it was a very beautiful experience. It was like a mentoring thing. The musicians in Philadelphia were tough when they had to be, but they were also very friendly and encouraging to younger musicians.

There was also a serious funk and R&B scene in Philadelphia, and you had one foot in those waters as well.

There’s a really strong R&B scene coming out of Philly, and I loved playing that music, too. It was just an experience of they needed a keyboard player, BOOM. I enjoyed that.

In a certain way, all the vocabularies you’ve incorporated into the very diverse recordings you’ve done since 1996 we can trace to your early years.

I think so. I continue to maintain interest in all those areas. I think also, for a lot of musicians, you don’t really understand something until you’re in a situation where you actually have to do it. Then a lot of other considerations suddenly become very important, and that’s when it becomes really fun to study and get into it, to see what you can do it. Especially if the musicians around you are helping you out, it’s even better.

Your latest recording, Otello, is a recomposition, rearrangement, and recontextualization of Verdi’s opera Otello, which you first performed at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the one you curated. How did it come about?

Speaking about Philly connections, I was writing some music with Bunny Sigler, who is a singer who was associated with a lot of the sound of Philadelphia from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and as a songwriter also with Patti LaBelle, a lot of people who were coming out of that scene. We were talking about doing a version of Otello, where he would play Othello, and we started working on it from that point of view. We started recording it when we played it in Italy five years ago. It took a long while to get the whole recording done. But it started from hanging out with Bunny Sigler and thinking about how to take an R&B singer and deal with, say, something where the vocal tradition is so different, but in a way, maybe it isn’t.

What do you mean, “In a way, maybe it isn’t”?

Because there’s a certain dramatic aspect to singing that is in both of those traditions. The way emotion works in the music also can be very similar. It’s very direct. Some of the music we did is much more in the R&B side. Some of it is maybe more on the Verdi side. That’s what was fun about working on it, because we got a chance to do different things.

In preparing for a project like this, what do you do? Do you buy five recordings of Otello and three DVDs and the score, and immerse yourself in it? Or does work differently than that?

Yes, you do all those things. But you also think about how, let’s say, Shakespeare expressed Othello, and what about other treatments of that story. It’s a story that a lot of people know, and there’s a certain fascination with how it works. So in thinking about that, and thinking about how to present, let’s say, all the different aspects of that story (in these various versions, different aspects are emphasized or not emphasized), you come up with something. Working with and writing music for the singer is a different process than, let’s say, writing an arrangement for an octet. You’re following this plan in your head that you hope will work out, and when you feel that it isn’t happening, you start to make changes, adding things, maybe subtracting things. Then it just becomes something that you’re working on. But it helps to know, of course, the original material.

From your prior remarks, it sounds as though you started with arrangements of a few pieces, and then proceeded to build the structure empirically, through trial-and-error, seeing what worked in performance.


Are all these arrangements of yours—the Mahler lieder and symphonies, Diabelli Variations, Mozart, Schumann—very malleable? It seems that once you’ve completed a project, it becomes another tool in your arsenal, so to speak, that you can keep molding, as an ongoing story.

Just naturally, in the ebb and flow of events, yes, because you do something, then you work on it, then you might not do it until later, and then when you have to put it together later, different things might occur. Maybe there’s different musicians, different personnel, a different situation—you start to see that maybe it’s better to do it this way or another way. I think it’s good to be open in that way.

Are you very specific in how you want these pieces played, particularly on the classical projects? How proactive are you in determining the tone of the musicians who are performing?

Most of the time I try not to say so much, and just let the music suggest it. Usually, if you’re working with musicians who are sensitive to that, they can pick things up. Again, it’s more a give-and-take. But a lot of times, when you’re thinking about the arrangement in your head, obviously you had an idea, and there’s nothing wrong with stating that idea and seeing how it sounds. If it sounds good, then it’s cool. If it needs to be worked on, work on it. If there’s other ways to do it, check it out.

Do you suggest those other ways? In other words, will you say, “I don’t like that, try it this way”?

Sometimes. But a lot of times it’s a question of letting the players find their comfort level with what’s happening. Rather than jump on somebody immediately and say, “Do it this way?” or “Don’t do it that way,” it’s better to sort of let things grow. I think that’s natural, when people are playing together. After a concert, you can say, “Okay, that sounded great; maybe we should do this.” Especially if the players are open to that and they’re making their own suggestions, that’s a good process. Sometimes, though, immediately you can say, “This has to be fast,” or “this has to be played very short.” But it’s usually not a problem. When you’re playing with musicians who are flexible, it’s not a problem at all.

In 1995, when you embarked on these works, you were playing predominantly as a sideman, although you’d done a couple of recordings on your own. You still play with certain groups as a sideman—keyboards with Dave Douglas, projects by John Zorn and Don Byron, to name three. What is it like for you now to play as a sideman? Do those issues come into play for you, having control over the flow, over the sound?

Not really. So much of this music is about group playing. If you want to talk about a way of thinking as you’re growing up, as being part of a rhythm section and trying to learn how to play with other people that way, it’s just a natural thing. I don’t really think of being a sideman as somehow necessarily being subservient.

I wasn’t thinking of “subservient.” But this is music that isn’t yours, whereas more and more you’re producing works that reflect your view of the world through music.

But I like to be in other people’s movies, too. I think it’s interesting to see how other people work. In a certain way, it’s a relief, because you’re brought in to play your thing and do your part. You’re not necessarily worried about the whole thing, or other extraneous things which might distract you. Honestly, I like both. I like being able to play in situations where you just come in and play, or other times where you’ve rehearsed and worked stuff out. I also like to lead groups in both ways—sometimes just getting together to see what happens, and other times thinking we need to work on something for no other reason than that, when we hit it, we want to be comfortable that we know what we’re doing. I don’t think there’s that much difference. No matter what you’re doing, you still end up trying to think about how to sound best within the context of the group.

I wouldn’t ask most musicians this, but I’m wondering if you have any speculations, or have thought at all about where your musical production is positioned vis-a-vis the musicians of your generation and the musicians you play with, not in terms of its value, but the ideas that are expressed.

For me, I’m not so conscious of being part of a generation, although obviously, if you match experiences and say, “I came to New York at this point, and the first time I heard this was at this point. . . .” That’s different for every generation, and I wouldn’t deny that there’s a reality to that. I guess I’ve never thought of myself in that way, except as somebody who came and tried to participate in certain things that were happening at a certain period of time.

That period would be the cusp of the ‘90s. Peers would include the guys you do sideman work with—Dave Douglas, who’s a little younger. Zorn. Don Byron was mixing genres. Brad Mehldau was beginning to come into his own, odd meters were being expressed. Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba were coming on the scene. Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Many others. So I’m wondering if you see yourself as flowing within those broad streams, or if it’s a point of irrelevance to you?

No, it’s not a point of irrelevance, because all those people you mentioned, I love their music. I’ve studied it, I’ve listened to it, I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve been inspired by it. So in the sense that it’s part of my musical consciousness, then I would say I embrace that stuff. What happens, though, when you’re working on supposedly your own thing (or really just working on something) is that sometimes you think about those things, and other times to do so is a distraction. In other words, you have your own thing, whether you want it or not, and to go out of it or stay within it is always something you can decide. As for me, I’m not so conscious. I’m just thinking more intuitively, going for what I want and playing with whom I want to play.

August 14, 2008 · 1 comment


Jazz's Most Iconic Photo Is Half a Century Old

by Alan Kurtz

Art Kane: Harlem 1958 © Art Kane Archive - All Rights Reserved

"When I found out there was going to be this big meeting for a picture in Esquire," Dizzy Gillespie recalled, "I said to myself, 'Here's my chance to see all these musicians without going to a funeral.'" The mood was indeed far from funereal on that warm Tuesday morn of August 12, 1958, when nearly five dozen jazz artists overflowed the staircase of a Harlem brownstone for an unprecedented group portrait. The "big meeting" was the brainstorm of rookie photographer Art Kane (1925-1995), and proved surprisingly convivial for creatures of the night unused to a 10 a.m. gig. ("A musician at the shoot," wrote The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett, "said he was astonished to discover that there were two 10 o'clocks in each day.")

Naturally it took a while for the 55 cats and 3 chicks to arrive and exchange greetings, and it's unclear when everyone was finally in place. For that matter, nobody has the vaguest idea how so many rugged individualists wound up exactly where they did, since no one was directed where to stand. Any groupings, such as drummers in proximity or vocalists next to each other, were entirely fortuitous. Even the headcount was subject to last-minute revision, as shown by the gap in the second row (at left) behind singer Maxine Sullivan, which had lately been vacated by Harlem stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith. Just in time for the shutter's snap, The Lion tired of standing and, stepping out of frame, seated himself on a nearby stoop, reducing posterity's take from 58 to 57.

The only thing certain is that this assemblage encompassed many of the most luminous stars in the jazz firmament, preserved by the camera at an extraordinary moment in time. Fifty years later, salutes the golden anniversary of what Holly Anderson describes on the official Art Kane web site as "The greatest photograph in the history of jazz." With justifiable pride, she adds: "Not bad for a beginner." (By the way, when visiting Kane's web site, check out the interactive Harlem 1958, which lets you zoom in on the picture and identify each artist by name.)

The subjects caught in Kane's lens spanned the stylistic gamut from New Orleans to Chicago to Swing to Bebop to Modern. The oldest, Harlem stride pianist Luckey Roberts, was 71. The youngest, Sonny Rollins, was 27. Yet the concept of cliques was alien to all. Rollins, for example, viewed his onsite elders Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young as personal heroes, direct inspiration for his own calling as a musician.

Moreover, most of these 57 had performed together in various collegial combinations over the years, and in particular during the preceding eight months in two of the highest-profile jazz showcases ever. First came The Sound of Jazz, nationally telecast live by CBS-TV the previous December, featuring 16 of Kane's 57 varieties:

The Sound of Jazz

Assisting non-photo subject Billie Holiday in "Fine and Mellow" were Harlem 1958's Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young and Osie Johnson (who also supported Harlem 1958's Thelonious Monk in the telecast).

For "Wild Man Blues" Dickenson, Hawkins and Hinton were joined by Henry "Red" Allen, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell and Rex Stewart.

To Dickenson, Eldridge, Hawkins and Jones, "I Left My Baby" added Count Basie, Emmett Berry, Jimmy Rushing and Dicky Wells.

An even higher percentage (35%) of the 57 pictured artists appeared, just five weeks before the Harlem photo shoot, at July's 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which would be immortalized in the documentary film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960).

     Oscar Pettiford and Sonny Greer helped non-photo subjects Ben Webster and Billy Strayhorn cross "Chelsea Bridge" when they came to it.

     Gerry Mulligan sat in with Marian McPartland, whose trio also boasted Milt Hinton, for "C Jam Blues," and led his own quartet featuring Art Farmer in "Catch As Catch Can."

     Pianist Jimmy Jones embossed place cards for non-photo subject Anita O'Day's chic "Tea for Two."

     Thelonious Monk followed Sonny Rollins's trio set by retaining the same rhythm section for his own trio staple, "Blue Monk."

     Horace Silver stretched out with "Señor Blues."

Among the most appealing aspects of Harlem 1958 is its mix of traditionalists and modernists. By 1958 standards, 60% of the 57 photo subjects were traditionalists.

     Trombonist Miff Mole waxed "Buddy's Habits" (1926) with Red Nichols & His Five Pennies.

     Zutty Singleton and Max Kaminsky shared a connection with Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" (1928). Zutty was its drummer, and trumpeter Kaminsky among its most ecstatic admirers, marveling at Armstrong's leadoff cadenza: "I felt as if I had stared into the sun's eye."

     Taft Jordan trumpeted on Chick Webb's "If Dreams Come True" (1934).

     George Wettling drummed on Artie Shaw's "Jungle Drums" (1938).

     J.C. Heard pinch hit for Max West on Red Norvo's "Congo Blues" (1945).

     Rudy Powell and Joe Thomas invested in Billie Holiday's "Tain't Nobody's Business" (1949).

     Buck Clayton, Hilton Jefferson and Dicky Wells teamed with singer Frankie Laine, but only "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (1955).

Vintage 1950s handbag

Maxine Sullivan had long since returned from "Massachusetts" (1956) but, judging from the photographic evidence, was still schlepping her luggage. Or is that her purse? Marian McPartland is carting something of similar size, although hers looks more like a portable typewriter. Only Mary Lou Williams, ever the lady, clutches a demure handbag.

Meanwhile, Henry "Red" Allen, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins and J.C. Higginbotham cooed "Ain't She Sweet" (1957).

     The versatile Tyree Glenn hopped on "Cotton Tail" (1957).

     Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman and Pee Wee Russell contracted "That Old Feeling" (1958).

     Willie "The Lion" Smith, who'd come to the photo shoot with his pal Luckey Roberts, may have bailed out, but Luckey wasn't "Complainin'" (1958). Luckey was perfectly capable of representing Harlem stride pianists by himself, thank you very much.

     Chubby Jackson gravitated next to Art Blakey, possibly because among 54 men, they alone sported bow ties (obviously a sign of refinement). Perhaps said accessory was suggested by Chubby's wife, to whom he'd dedicated "A Ballad For Jai" (1958). Gentlemen always benefit from a woman's sartorial advice.

     Only two days after the Harlem 1958 photo shoot, Lawrence Brown, Roy Eldridge and Jo Jones reconvened to mull over whether or not "You Need to Rock" (1958), an important issue for musicians in those days.

     Count Basie issued an APB with "The M Squad Theme" (1958), but the dragnet scooped up only a dozen neighborhood kids who sat alongside him on the curb in Harlem 1958.

     Gene Krupa and Hank Jones spun Gerry Mulligan's "Disc Jockey Jump" (1958).

     And while his rhythm section burned, Stuff Smith fiddled "How High The Moon" (1965).

Modernists, for their part, may have been outnumbered in Harlem 1958, but they weren't outdone.

     Sahib Shihab and Thelonious Monk had crisscrossed paths on the very first recording of "Criss Cross" (1951).

     Gigi Gryce and fellow insomniac Oscar Pettiford were "Not So Sleepy" (1956).

     Dizzy Gillespie and Mary Lou Williams cast their astrological charts at Newport in "Selections from Zodiac Suite" (1957).

     Wilbur Ware helped Sonny Rollins arise "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" (1957).

Charles Mingus detail from Art Kane: Harlem 1958 © Art Kane Archive - All Rights Reserved

As usual, Charles Mingus demanded "Consider Me" (1958), but again as usual, record companies that year paid no heed. Maybe that's why Mingus looked so surly in contrast to Harlem 1958's other subjects. With an unlit cigarette tilting gangster-style from a corner of his mouth, Mingus seemed posed for a mug shot in the bowels of the 28th Precinct. Of course, it was 10 o'clock in the morning.

Sonny Rollins, who joined Thelonious Monk in the minority of 2 among 57 who kept their sunglasses on for the photograph, also looked as if he'd rather not be at 17 West 126th Street, but instead back with arranger Ernie Wilkins on "Grand Street" (1958).

     Speaking of Monk, just five days before the Harlem 1958 photo shoot, Thelonious and Johnny Griffin rendezvoused at the Five Spot Café to plot "Misterioso" (1958).

     It's no accident that Art Farmer and Benny Golson stand shoulder to shoulder on the top step of the Harlem 1958 staircase, for their frequent collaborations (that would soon result in The Jazztet) always led to widespread "Jubilation" (1958).

     Nor is it surprising that Art Blakey is stationed in front of Benny Golson, who in 2½ months would join Art in Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack studio for The Jazz Messengers' classic "Moanin'" (1958).

     Closing out our list is drummer Eddie Locke, who can be heard to advantage on "Big Buddy" (1960), but who serves as a reminder that not everyone pictured in Harlem 1958 was a star. The cast also included little-known supporting characters clarinetist/saxophonist Scoville Brown, a sideman with Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and Lionel Hampton in the '50s, and tenorman Bill Crump, who made just one recording date, with singer Ernestina in 1955.

In the half century since its initial publication in Esquire magazine, Harlem 1958 has become, quite simply, indelible. Jean Bach's Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary, A Great Day In Harlem, enhanced the legend. Unfortunately, it also permanently confused many people who wrongly attach its title to Art Kane's photo.

DVD: The Terminal

Harlem 1958 also figures in a more recent film, Steven Spielberg's The Terminal (2004), starring Tom Hanks as a hapless tourist from Eastern Europe. Upon arrival at JFK International Airport, Viktor Navorski is detained in the terminal by an overzealous bureaucrat from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. Only after an absurd months-long detention does Viktor disclose that his late father was a jazz fan who discovered Harlem 1958 in a Hungarian newspaper in 1958, and spent the next 40 years acquiring autographs by mail of the 57 participants. Before he died, he got all but one: Benny Golson. Viktor has come to New York to complete his father's collection.

Spielberg's screenwriters goofed both in citing 1958, since Harlem 1958 was first published in January 1959, and in selecting Benny Golson from among the seven survivors as the lone holdout who over the course of 45 years steadfastly refused to give up his autograph. Anyone who's ever had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Golson can attest to his good nature, and to accuse him of such rudeness is the sort of stupidity only Hollywood can concoct. (Golson, incidentally, appears as himself near the end of the film, and even gets a chance to play a few bars of "Killer Joe" onscreen. Perhaps this was a quid pro quo for having his character impugned.)

At any rate, dedicates this tribute to the aforementioned survivors—besides Benny Golson, they are (alphabetically) Hank Jones, Eddie Locke, Marian McPartland, Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver—and to the memory of Johnny Griffin, who died at his home in France on July 25, 2008. Long may they wail. And may they forever be spared overzealous bureaucrats.

August 11, 2008 · 0 comments


The Music of the Tango (Part Two)

by Ted Gioia

Below is part two of Ted Gioia's survey of tango music. For part one click here. See also Gioia's related Dozens feature on "Twelve Essential Tango Recordings," and Karen Kucharski's gallery of tango-inspired art.

                      Jeweled Walk, artwork by Karen Kucharski

The movie industry had a love affair with the tango even during the silent film era. Just the sight of the tango radiated sensuality, both elegant and slightly disreputable. Over the decades, Hollywood directors have relied on the tango's stylized eroticism, with everyone from Rudolf Valentino, a carnation clutched between his teeth, to Gloria Swanson and William Holden dancing to "La Cumparsita" in Sunset Boulevard, getting in on the fun. In True Lies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, partnered with Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere (in separate scenes) to the strains of "Por Una Cabeza," demonstrating unexpected tango dancing acumen on screen. Al Pacino relied on the same Gardel song for his famous dance scene in Scent of a Woman. The contemporary tango band Gotan Project provides music for a key romantic encounter between Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in Shall We Dance. Even Jack Lemmon danced the tango in drag in Some Like it Hot, parodying the stylized macho intensity of the music for comic effect.

Given this natural affinity between film and tango, the great Carlos Gardel might have developed into a major motion picture star. Circumstances prevented this from happening. The Great Depression was leading Paramount to re-trench just at the time Gardel began working for the studio. He managed to appear in features and a short film for Paramount, but Gardel wanted to do more. When he came to New York at the close of 1933, Gardel entered into negotiations with Fox over his appearance in two films. Fox offered $15,000, but Gardel held out for $50,000, and the deal fell through. Finally, he convinced Paramount to give him $25,000 plus a share of the profits for two movies, with an option for four more.

Gardel's film work is far from memorable outside of his contributions as a singer, yet one could sense his growing confidence as an actor. A brief appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1936 demonstrated the studio's commitment to bringing Gardel to the attention of the U.S. mass market. Here the tango singer was co-starring with big acts such as Bing Crosby, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, even the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson. Gardel knew that he needed to improve his mastery of spoken English before embarking on a full-fledged Hollywood career, but he was aware of Maurice Chevalier's success is crossing international cinematic boundaries, and aspired to match this accomplishment. When he embarked on a tour of the Caribbean, Gardel brought an English-language tutor with him on the trip. The conquest of Hollywood would need to wait, but only for a brief spell.

Gardel was never able to follow up on these dreams of cinematic success. His Caribbean tour was followed by South American performances which confirmed the tremendous fame which Gardel now enjoyed in the Spanish-speaking world. His films and recordings had built his following even in cities where he had never gone before. Gardel's financial situation had turned around by now, and he looked with greater confidence than ever on his prospects for the future. But these were cut short, by his sudden, tragic death in a plane crash. On June 24, 1935, the F31 plane carrying Gardel from Medellín to Cali lost control only a few seconds after departure, and crashed into a second plane waiting for take-off.

The mourning in the aftermath of Gardel's death even out-stripped that accorded to royalty. In the case of this celebrated singer, several countries competed in paying their respects, and his body was brought from Colombia to Panama, from Panama to New York, from New York to Brazil, from Brazil to Uruguay, and finally to Buenos Aires, where tens of thousands of admirers waited on the dock for its arrival. Gardel's lying-in-state took place at Luna Park in the largest indoor stadium in Argentina. Later a crowd, estimated at between thirty and forty thousand people, descended on the cemetery. Nor did the grieving stop with Gardel's burial. One photo lab in Buenos Aires is said to have printed and distributed 350,000 photos of the tango singer during the two decades following his death. An almost religious passion attached itself to this artist. To a certain extent, the mourning has never stopped.

                          Night Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Gardel's death not only ended one great tango career, but might very well have prevented another one. Astor Piazzolla, whose reworking of the tango in the post-war years would bring him even greater international fame than Gardel, had been asked by the singer to join him on this tour. Piazzolla, then in his early teens, had met Gardel in New York, and had played a small role in the tango singer's 1935 film El Dia Que Me Quieras. Only the objections of Piazzolla's parents prevented the youngster from accompanying the singer on the fateful journey.

The next step in Piazzolla's tango education would come at the hands of the renowned musician, leader and composer Anibal "Pichucho" Troilo, whose band served as an important training ground for dozens of important tango musicians. A huge man—his other nickname was "El Gordo," the "Fat Man"—Troilo was the finest bandoneón player of his generation and, in the opinion of many, of all time. His birthday, July 11, is still celebrated as Bandoneón Day by the tango-loving Argentines. Troilo had an experimental, progressive side, and he would sometimes irk the purists, as when he unveiled a "theme and variations" arrangement of "La Cumparsita." Yet Troilo enjoyed tremendous commercial success, and was a longtime fixture of Argentine nightlife. After his band made its debut at the Marabu cabaret in 1937, it moved on to the Tibidabo, where he would perform frequently until the early 1950s. At his death, Troilo's funeral procession stopped all traffic, with one half million people taking to the streets.

Perhaps Troilo's greatest rival for tango supremacy during the middle decades of the century came from Osvaldo Pugliese, whose work combined the edgy toughness of the streets with a concert hall aplomb. This pianist infused his music with insistent rhythms, even at slow to medium tempos -- Wynton Marsalis once aptly called him the Count Basie of tango -- and relied heavily on syncopation. His songs are still much loved by dancers, especially since their well-defined rhythmic accents make them well-suited for dramatic effects. Works such as "Recuerdo," "Chique," "La Yumba" remain classics of 20th century tango. Yet Pugliese's career was hurt by his outspoken political views, and for a time he was blacklisted and even put in jail -- during this period his orchestra continued to perform without their leader and placed a red rose on the piano to call attention to his absence. Hard feelings still linger over this artist: in 2007, Pugliese's statue in Buenos Aires was vandalized on the anniversary of his death.

Astor Piazzolla would come to experience both the adulation that Troilo enjoyed, but (perhaps more often) the hostility Pugliese faced -- although for his music rather than his politics. Indeed Piazzolla infuriated the purists more than any of the other innovators in the history of tango. When he began incorporating modern elements into his performances, he not only found himself panned by the critics, but even received death threats. The musicians themselves were no more receptive: the elder Troilo even went so far as to chastise the young Piazzolla, telling him "No, pibe, eso no es tango" (No, my boy, that is not tango.). Many agreed with Troilo. Look at what the young up-start had done! Piazzolla had introduced dissonance into the tango. He sprinkled his music with advanced harmonies, resisting the simple diatonic melodies loved by the masses. He adopted a wider range of rhythms, some of which seemed foreign to the tango tradition. He played with musicians with backgrounds far outside the tango tradition—not just jazz players, but modern jazz musicians such as Gary Burton and Gerry Mulligan.

Even Piazzolla's appearance on stage was a departure from the past. Whereas Troilo would play the bandoneón while sitting, as was the traditional manner, Piazzolla stood and performed with the instrument propped on his right leg. Perhaps most daring of all: Piazzolla was indifferent about performing tango for dancers, and they showed little affection in return. "For me," he remarked, "tango was always for the ears rather than for the feet." But if he alienated the traditionalists, Piazzolla did more than any other artist of his generation to expand the audience for tango music, drawing fans from classical and jazz backgrounds who had little previous exposure to it. They wanted to learn about the future of tango, not its past, and for that they came to Astor Piazzolla.

Piazzolla's training prepared him splendidly to play this role of progressive and seer. Indeed, he boasted a deep and wide-ranging musical education, unprecedented for a tango bandleader. For the longest time, he envisioned a career as a classical composer, and pursued studies with the noted Argentine modernist composer Alberto Ginastera as well as in Paris under the tutelage of legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger—whose other students, over the years, included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions and Roy Harris. In New York, Piazzolla was also captivated by the jazz music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and other big band leaders. But at home in the evening, he would watch his father play, over and over, the prized tango 78s of Carlos Gardel, which he had brought with him from his native Argentina. While this music revolved on the turntable, with its hypnotic combination of machismo arrogance and fatalism, the elder Piazzolla would weep. "Papa, why are you crying?" "Because I am listening to my country's music." Years later, Astor Piazzolla would talk about the masochism of his music, of his love of sadness, and of the melancholy of the tango. The Brazilian sense of music, he would explain, is extroverted, and finds his fullest expression in the samba, a communal music in which self-awareness and introspection are banished. The Argentine, in contrast, is introverted, and probes the depths of emotions, both of joy and suffering.

Despite this home-grown appreciation for the tango, and his experiences with Gardel and Troilo, Piazzolla was slow to realize that this idiom could provide him with a means of serious artistic expression. Boulanger urged him to use the tango as the basis for his compositions, and though he took her advice, he also resisted the idea that he could not be a "serious" composer. He determined that tango, for him, would become art music. He called his music tango nuevo (new tango) to make his progressive leanings clear to all. Toward the end of his life, he wanted to push even further ahead, and suggested that his music should now be called nuevo tango nuevo—a sort of post-modernism of tango music.

                          The Embrace, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Piazzolla eventually found a place for his compositions in the classical music section of your local CD store—but this enshrinement did not take place in earnest until after his death, and even then it relied on the efforts of others who wrote arrangements of this music suitable for the concert hall. Pianists, cellists, violinist, string quartets, yea the whole highbrow establishment eventually tried to grab hold of Piazzolla's tango, capture its elusive rhythmic stutter. Even music conservatory icons—cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Emanuel Ax, Kronos and other string quartets—would offer their personal tributes to tango. As we have seen, the motion picture industry has done the same; indeed, it was trying to co-opt the tango even before Gardel was enticed in front of the cameras. On Broadway, the tango has been the inspiration for various box office successes. Everyone, it seems, wants to export a bit of the Buenos Aires mystique for their own projects.

The tango has conquered the world. Yet much of its charm remains fraught with controversy. No, we no longer hear religious leaders condemn the moral depravity of the music. However, the symbolic power and gender roles of the music continue to raise debate and concern. As Julie Taylor writes in her book Paper Tangos: "Both men and women, inside and outside of the dance halls, tell me that in their eyes, the tango dances around relations between men and women, relations that dancers and observers alike question. And many Argentine dancers and observers imply that, especially in the wake of decades of political violence, they also feel the tango bears the weight of other forms of authoritarianism." We have thus moved from one end of the spectrum to another during the history of this music: once criticized for being too progressive and daring, the tango is now attacked for being reactionary and overly traditional.

Yet even in the earliest days of the music, women did not limit their role to passive acquiescence. Sometimes they even demanded their rightful place on the bandstand, a move which men found both upsetting and enticing. In 1921, Paquita Bernardo caused a sensation when her all female tango sextet performed on the balcony of a bar on Corrientes Street. The crowd that gathered below was so huge that traffic was stopped. Yet even the compliments which Paquita received indicated how far women still had to go in the world of tango: the great Gardel praised her as "the only woman who has mastered the macho character of the bandoneón." Other female tango orchestras were formed in the 1920s and early 1930s, although record companies showed little interest in promoting their music. But as singers, women played an important role in the tango idiom almost from the start, as reflected in the popularity of Falcon, Maizani, Simone and others.

The lives of these great ladies of tango seem inevitably marked by high drama and surprising -- sometimes tragic -- turns of events. Take the case of Libertad Lamarque, who leaves Argentina for Mexico, perhaps due to bad blood between the singer and Eva Perón. Unsubstantiated but oft-repeated rumors describe her slapping the future First Lady while the duo were filming a movie in 1945, thus establishing a lifelong grudge. Other accounts tell of Lamarque attempting suicide in Chile, or of a heated battle with her husband, which involved the abduction of their daughter. For all this turbulence, Lamarque lived to the age of 92, and left behind a huge body of recorded work.

                 Key West Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Or take the case of Ada Falcón, an alluring femme fatale during the 1930s, who started acting on stage at age 11, appeared in her first film at 13, and emerges as a famous tango singer in her twenties. For reasons that still remain unclear—perhaps a reaction to her failed romance with Francisco Canaro - this public figure suddenly becomes reclusive. Accounts tell of Falcón making recordings behind a curtain to stay out of view, and she decides to become a lay sister of the Franciscan order. After 1942, Falcón refuses to let her photo be taken, and covers herself with a white turban and sunglasses when she appears in public. The woman who made hundreds of records eventually relocates to a convent in Cordoba, where she lives a mystical, ascetic life. Her final years were marked by mental instability, and she dies in 2002, more than half her life spent fleeing from the glamour and celebrity of her early days.

But on a deeper level, women have always played a virtually co-equal role in the popularity of the dance—it taking two after all, as the expression goes, to tango. And one suspects that the sharply delineated gender roles of the tango play no small role in making the dance appealing to men and women. Who knows what to do, to wear, to say, in these days in which so many traditions and time-honored practices have been tossed out the window? The tango is like a salve for this social ambiguity. When we walk into the ballroom, we leave behind the mish-mash of conflicting norms and expectations, and enter a realm of reassuring certainty. The music itself demands psychological strength, demands self-assurance and power—both from men and women. If anything, the feminist ethos has made the tango even richer in its overtones. This is a music which, after all, both worships and subverts gender roles; and in modern society, which is obsessed with these roles, and their subtleties and permutations, the tango provides a rich canvas for their exploration, a playful setting for their realization. As Piazzolla showed, the tango can be both traditional and progressive at the same time.

The tango continues to morph and evolve in the new millennium. Bands such as Gotan Project and Narcotango bring in all the trappings and tools of today's commercial music: sampling, programming, electronics, whatever ingredients they can find that might add a different twist to an old musical style. Looking at the current state of tango, one can hardly imagine what all the fuss was about when Piazzolla offered us his tango nuevo. The legacy of Piazzolla is now the tradition that others move beyond. Yet the venerable heritage of Buenos Aires' greatest musical contribution to the world is still ever present in contemporary tango, and even the most radical transformations of this idiom pay constant homage to the masters of the past. With tango, what is new is old, and what is old is new.

So we are back at where we began. The tango is a music unafraid of contradiction. It even thrives on it. When Hegel spoke of his concept of dialectic, with its ability to merge opposites, he may very well have been talking about a great metaphysical tango, an intimate dance of yin-and-yang. Perhaps this strange quality, so evident throughout the music's history, explains why it continues to touch us so deeply. More than any other branch of so-called World Music, tango imparts all the certainty of the past, and all of the openness of the future. Everything in tango is defined, but also open to re-definition. Everything is structured, but has proven over time to be highly flexible and adaptable as well. It is local and particular, but also global and universal. In essence, tango is much like our modern life. And for as long as we deal with the flux and fury of modern life, drawing energy from it, but also crave the comforting solidity of the time-honored—and when will we not want both?—the tango will continue to attract us with its paradoxical, dialectical charm.

August 07, 2008 · 1 comment


Gypsy Jazz Resources

GOING GYPSY: a guide to resources

So, you want to explore the world of Django Reinhardt and jazz Manouche? These resources will get you started in the right direction.

The Best of Django Reinhardt (Blue Note)
Djangology (Bluebird)
In Solitaire (Definitive Records)
Bireli Lagrene, Gipsy Project (Available through Gypsy
Selmer #607 (Available through
The Rosenberg Trio Live at Samois (Available through
Jimmy Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre and Bireli Lagrene: The One and Only (Available through

Biography, History:
Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni
Gypsy Jazz: In Search of Django Reinhardt and the Soul of Gypsy Swing by Michael Dregni
Django Reinhardt by Charles Delaunay
Gypsies by Jan Yoors
Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca

Instructional Books/CDs (Available through

Gypsy Picking by Michael Horowitz
Gypsy Fire by Andreas Oberg

Gypsy Violin by Matt Glaser
Never Before…Never Again by Joe Venuti.

Instructional DVD/Books:
Jazz Manouche: Technique & Improvisation, Vol. 1-4 (DVDs) by Denis Chang (Available through

Info and Products:; great forum, books DVDs, CDs, instruments and accessories more books, DVDs, CDs instruments and accessories
Django Station: French jazz Manouche website
Gypsy Guitars: great source of info and instruments- Romani info and history-
Jazz Guitar: Gypsy guitar licks from Bireli Lagrene-
Selmer 607 project website: Videos of the session and other resources

Shelly Park
AJL Guitars
Castelluccia Guitars
Holo Guitar
Olivier Marin Luthier (Spain)

August 04, 2008 · 0 comments


Lingua Djanca: A brief introduction to Gypsy jazz terminology

Romani term for non-Gypsy.
Spanish-based Romani.
Grande Bouche:
French for ‘large mouth.’ The original Selmer jazz guitar designed by Maccaferri, with a large, D-shaped sound hole. This design is still preferred by rhythm players in jazz Manouche ensembles.
Gypsy jazz:
Genre of music evolved after American jazz came to Europe, created by Romani musicians living around Paris in the 1930s, notably Pierre “Baro” Ferret and Django Reinhardt. Also called Hot Club swing, after Django’s first jazz ensemble, le Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Jazz Manouche:
More widely accepted term for Gypsy jazz, from the French branch of the Romani people, the Manouche.
Petite Bouche:
French for ‘small mouth.’ The Selmer acoustic jazz guitar preferred by Django, featuring a small, oval-shaped sound hole for more intense solo projection. Only around a thousand Selmer petite bouche guitars were ever built.
La pompe:
The rhythm technique used by Gypsy guitarists in Hot Club swing music. In English, it means “the pump.” This distinct pulse allows one or two guitarists to take the place of drums and keyboard in a traditional Hot Club group.
Roma, Romani:
Proper name of the ethnic group commonly known as the Gypsies. The Romani people are believed to have been displaced from Northern India around 1,000 A.D.
Parisian musical instrument company which produced Django Reinhardt’s favorite guitar, originally designed for Selmer by Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri. Production on these guitars stopped in the early 1950s.
Also Cinti. Romani people primarily based in Germany and the Netherlands.
Special handcrafted guitar pick made by Dutch artisan Michael Wegen. Formed from synthetic material resembling natural tortoise shell, this plectrum is universally preferred by jazz Manouche guitarists across the globe.

August 04, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Edmar Castaneda

By Tomas Peña

What kind of a reaction do you get when you walk into a jazz club or a contemporary performance venue with your harp in hand?

Edmar Castaneda

I used to go to jam sessions with (tres player) Nelson Gonzalez. There were two places … one of them was Nell’s. I used to go there and watch the musicians play, I really loved the music. So one day I went to Nell’s with my harp and asked if I could play and I forget who the person was but they asked, “Can you play another instrument, something smaller?” And I said no, no, no, if you don’t like it, or it doesn’t work I will go away and that’s it. Just let me try once.” I have been playing ever since.

As for jazz clubs, in the beginning people would say, “Harp? I don’t know if the audience is going to like it.” But after they saw us perform they usually changed their minds.

To what extent does the harp play a role in Colombian music?

In joropo, the harp is the main instrument, followed by the cuatro, maracas and bass. We share that tradition with Venezuela, it’s the same music. The harp also plays a role in South American music but it used in a different context.

You started playing the harp at the age of thirteen. What prompted you to choose the harp?

I started dancing joropo when I was seven. My mother did not have anyone to take care of my sister (Johanna) and me, so on Saturdays she would to take us to music school to study folkloric dance. That’s where I first saw the harp. Also, my father is a musician.

What instrument does your father play?

The harp, the piano and the cuatro. We didn't live together but he taught me a lot about music. He taught me how to play the cuatro. I always have a little bit of my father's influence.

Where did you study?

I have no formal training. I studied with my family and friends and learned a couple of folk tunes. Later I went to Medellin and learned other types of music. I didn’t meet jazz until I came to this country.

Speaking of jazz and the harp, are you aware of the fact that Alice Coltrane played the harp?

You saw her?

Yes, I attended her last concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2007.

Oh wow! How was it?

It was wonderful, her music was very spiritual. Did Alice Coltrane influence you in any way?

No, I never listened to harpists.

Really? Who do you listen to?

Right now I am listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Brad Mehldau.

So you chose pianists over harpists. Who were your influences early on?

Percussionists as well as Danilo Perez and Chick Corea. I played the trumpet in high school (in Colombia) and graduated from college (in the U.S.) as a trumpet player.

Really? What college did you graduate from?

Five Towns College in Long Island. That’s where I developed my jazz “chops.” I applied everything learned to the harp.


I went to college during the day and performed at a restaurant called Meson Ole at night. Bascially, I played music all day (in school) then I would go to the restaurant and jam. I played solo so I was forced to experiment and play all of the parts.

That explains why you sound like a one man band.

Let’s talk about your trio, which consists of a harp, trombone and drums. By any stretch, it’s an unusual combination.

I know it’s weird to imagine.

Why did you choose this particular configuration?

I really love the trombone. When I met Marshall Gilkes I really liked his sound, he’s a virtuoso on his instrument. When I met Dave Silliman he was playing the cajones with a flamenco group. Then I found out that he also plays the drums (traps) so invited him to play on my first recording, Cuarto de Colores, which is a duo/trio project. When we were doing the initial sound check we realized that, wow, this really works! That’s how the trio came to be.

Your wife, vocalist Andrea Tierra also performs with the trio.

Yes, she usually sings with us. We just finished her new album, it’s called Melodia Verde. She also writes poetry. The repertoire consists of Latin American tunes and jazz. It’s really nice.

I look forward to hearing it. What’s the status on your new recording?

We are still in the studio. The recording is in the mixing process.

What can we expect to hear?

It’s the trio with special guests, guitarist John Scofield on one track and vibraphonist Joe Locke and my wife Andrea.

What kind of material did you choose?

Conceptually, it’s similar to my first recording. It contains some of the material you heard at the Jazz Standard.

Would you call it jazz?

Hmmm (laughter). It’s not jazz and it’s not strictly Latin American … I call it Pan Americana jazz. It has influences from Cuba, Colombia and Brazil.

Fair enough.

I ask everyone this question, what’s in your CD player at home or in your car as we speak?

Brad Mehldau and Maria Schneider. I am really into them right now.

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual and/or religious person?

I’m a Christian.

I got the sense that you were very spiritual when you performed (the tune) “Jesus of Nazareth” at the Jazz Standard. It was very moving.

This whole thing with the harp is because of him, the music is his creation and I am just doing what he tells me to do. I hope that my music plays a part in changing the world.

Him meaning God. No doubt you are aware of the association between trumpets (Gabriel the archangel) and harps (angels in general). That should give our readers something to think about!

Have you ever taught?

No, I don’t have the time right now.

The reason I ask is because you are single handedly taking the harp in a new direction and there is no one else who does what you do.

I performed at a harp conference in Detroit a few weeks ago. Afterwards, I received an e-mail from an eleven year-old harpist who saw me perform. He said that watching me play was an amazing experience. I hope it changes the way he sees the harp.

No doubt it will. Is that your mission? To change the way the world views the harp?

My hope is that the harp will become a main instrument in all types of music.

From your lips to God’s ears. Thank you for speaking with

August 04, 2008 · 2 comments