In Conversation with Claudia Acuña

By Tomas Peña

Claudia Acuña

Born in Santiago and raised in Concepcion, Chile, Acuña began singing Chilean folk/pop, rock, fusion and opera, drawing inspiration from Chilean music pioneers Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. At the age of 15 she discovered her first "outside" musical model: Frank Sinatra. Moving to Santiago in 1991, she immediately gravitated to the local musicians and soon made a name for herself on the jazz scene. Acuña was featured on live radio broadcast while sitting in with visiting musicians Wynton Marsalis, Michel Petrucciani, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez.

In 1995 Acuña made the move to New York City to fulfill her dreams, where she immediately became a fixture at local jam sessions and stints at various New York haunts, with pianist Harry Whitaker at Arturo's and guitarist Ron Affif at the Zinc Bar and pianist Jason Lindner, her closest collaborator to this day. Acuña was signed to Verve Records in 1999, and recorded her critically acclaimed debut Wind From The South, followed by the much welcomed follow-up, Rhythm Of Life. In 2004, she recorded the beautiful Luna for MaxJazz, where, as noted by the Daily News, "Acuña transforms classics into something provocative and unexpected."

Acuña ‘s latest project, In These Shoes on Zoho, finds her collaborating again with Arturo O’ Farrill, with whom she previously recorded Una Noche Involvidable. Below she discusses this new CD, as well as her career and future plans

Congratulations, I understand that you were recently appointed as the spokesperson for World Vision Chile, an international Christian relief and development organization that delivers humanitarian assistance and operates child-focused development programs.

Being the spokesperson for World Vision Chile is one of my greatest achievements. The organization is dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

Your last recording was Luna (Max Jazz) back in 2004. What have you been up to since then?

I just signed with Marsalis Music and will be releasing a new recording in January of 2009. The album is mostly in Spanish and consists of bolero’s (ballads), folk music, a tune by Gary McFarland called “Sack Full of Dreams,” a few original compositions and the special guest is (saxophonist) Branford Marsalis.

Congratulations on the release of In These Shoes (Zoho). This recording marks your second collaboration with pianist, Arturo O’ Farrill, the first being Una Noche Involvidable/An Unforgettable Night (Palmetto) in 2005.

It was through that project, which was recorded live at Jazz at Lincoln Center, that the idea for this project came up. It took us a minute to release it but I am glad it’s out. Arturo and I worked really hard on this project.

It sounds like you all had a lot of fun making this recording.

Yes, it was fun! You can hear it in the record. It’s very different from what we usually do. Especially for me, which is why I say it’s not me singing, it’s my alter-ego, Lorena! She’s a crazy girl! (Laughter)

I can see that! The first track (“In My Shoes") reminds me of a tune that Mongo Santamaria and La Lupe did on the recording, Mongo Introduces La Lupe (Milestone, 1993). The tune is called “Besito Pa’ Ti” (“A Little Kiss for You”).

I’m not familiar with that recording. Anyway, it was just fun to connect with the lighter part and go in a lot of different directions. Like Arturo says in his liner-notes: “Ella and Louie, Tito and Celia, why not Arturo and Claudia?” That’s the beautiful thing about collaborating with other artists; you can go in so many directions that you never thought of.

Arturo’s a work horse. I interviewed him a few months ago and I was amazed at his work ethic and his unwavering commitment to the music.

I adore Arturo. It’s been a great gift to be his friend and I am lucky and blessed to work with such a great musician and with someone who is so committed to the Latin community. It has been an honor and I hope it is not the last time that we collaborate on a project.

I noticed a connection between Una Noche Involvidable and In These Shoes. The cover-art on both recordings depicts a pair of shapely legs with spike heels!

Oh my God, that’s true!

Was In These Shoes intended to be a continuation of Una Noche Involvidable?

No, I don’t think so. It’s funny but I never noticed the similarities between the two album covers.

Where did you and Arturo meet?

We met in Cuba.

Do you recall the year?

I remember is that it was before 9/11 and it was at the Cuban jazz festival where they honored Arturo’s father, Chico O’ Farrill.

One of the things that caught my attention about In These Shoes is how much your voice has matured.

Thank you!

Also, your phrasing and articulation are impeccable.

Thank you so much, that means a lot to me. Now that I have been living here for awhile I feel more comfortable in my own skin. Also, I have become more comfortable with the language. Words are powerful in any language, that’s why it’s so important to be articulate. I write songs so I understand what it means to take the time to sit down and write lyrics. Certain things are written in stone and we need to honor that in the best way that we can. Also, articulating things in a certain way makes them mine.

Let’s talk about the wonderful musicians that participated on the project: Arturo O’ Farrill, Pedro “Pedrito” Martinez, Yosvany Terry, Ruben Rodriguez, Michael Phillip Mossman, Dafnis Prieto, and Adam Rogers. Who was responsible for selecting the musicians?

Arturo and I. Arturo had a very clear idea of who he wanted to use and all of those people are friends. Each of them had a beautiful disposition towards the project and they are all amazing musicians in their own right. It was a pleasure and a fun thing to do. Also, it was great singing with Pedrito, he is a great singer. There is one track by Willie Colon and Ruben Blades …

That’s “Dime “(“Tell Me”), a tune that every Latino on the planet should be familiar with.

I was little apprehensive about that tune because it’s a territory that I have never explored. When I told Arturo that I am not a salsa singer, he said, “Honey, we don’t want you to be a salsa singer, we just want you to be you!” In the end it was a lot of fun.

Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch did something similar, with the Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs on The Brian Lynch Eddie Palmieri Project, and it won a Grammy! “Dime” happens to be one of my favorite songs on the album.

While we are it, let’s go through the tracks one-by-one and you tell me your thoughts. How about Dafnis Prieto’s “Vida Sin Miel”?

Some years ago Dafnis gave me two songs. One of them was "Vida Sin Miel." Since Dafnis was involved in the project, I thought it would be a great idea to include it.

“Paciencia” (“Patience”) …

It’s written by a Brazilian composer. We translated the lyrics from Portuguese to English. It speaks about slowing things down and showing patience and appreciation for all things.

“Cuando Cuando” …

There is a beautiful story behind the song. Michael Phillip Mossman brought his beautiful little daughter to the recording studio. At the time she was about 2 ½ or 3 years old and she brought all of this light and energy to the studio. When it was time for me to go in and record I could see her from the recording booth, she was jumping on the couch and dancing and that really inspired me. Whatever beauty and sweetness came from my voice was inspired by her and I thank her for it.

“Agua” (“Water") ….

I love the groove. “Agua.” The theme revolves around being fluid, like water.

“Como dos Amantes” (“Like Two Lovers”) …

That was one of the songs that I was not too thrilled about, but as I sang it I left Claudia in the house and Lorena took over. She had fun acting out the personas that each song brought up.

I like what you did with Van Morrison’s “Moondance” …

I do too. We didn’t try very hard, we just brought this Joropo rhythm from Venezuela and it went so naturally with the lyrics and the vibe, I hope that Mr. Morrison and his fans appreciate what we did with his tune.

“California” …

(Laughter) It’s a tribute to the West Coast. To be honest it is not one of my favorite songs, but singing with Pedrito was a lot of fun.

“Jibarito” …

“Jibarito” is a classic tune from Batacumbele’s repertoire.

We already talked about “Dime”; the next tune on the list is “La Piye.”

I love that song, especially what we did with the vocalese stuff.

When you look back on your career thus far, what comes to mind?

It makes me want to hug myself and say, congratulations! I have done a lot and I have always tried to do it with a lot of dignity, integrity, passion and love for the music, which is the reason why I have crossed bridges and oceans. My story is typical of many immigrants; what makes my story somewhat different is the fact that I had a very clear vision of why I came. It’s been a great journey, I have met amazing people, amazing musicians, and I have learned a lot and seen the best and worst of humanity …

Welcome to the music business!

Welcome to the world, that’s just the way it is. I love the quote, “Take care of the music and the music will take care of you.” Music saved me; it’s the tool and the energy that keeps pushing me to continue doing what I am doing. There have been many sad moments and even moments where I asked myself, “What the heck am I doing here?” With the way the world is and with the recent shifts in the music business, it hasn’t been easy for anybody, but despite the pain and the disappointments, I like the woman I have become. When I arrived in this country I was part woman and part girl, I was a person who still had a lot to discover. Today I feel comfortable in my own shoes. In the future I hope to become even more comfortable and I hope that I can celebrate the woman, singer and musician that I am. I have dedicated my life to the music and I would do it again if God asked me to die and be reborn tomorrow.

Who are some of the people who inspired you along the way?

It’s been Harry Whittaker, Jason Lindner and so many people that have given me their support. Sometimes a complete stranger will walk up to me and say something that is right on the money. There have been so many people that it would be unfair of me to name just a few. If your senses are open, even walking down the street and breathing can be an inspiration.

What street is that?

Or it could be the opposite, like “Get me out of here!” (Laughter)

I assume that you and Arturo will be touring with the band. Do you have any gigs lined up?

There’s a CD release party in November at Dizzy’s (Jazz at Lincoln Center), but I don’t have the exact date. That’s my favorite room; the people, the vibe, the space the acoustics. We are going to invite people to come down and celebrate this huge effort and put out some good energy and happiness to the world. It would be great to perform with this group at the Heineken Jazz Festival in Puerto Rico.

Before we close, what you are listening to at home, or on your I Pod?

Believe it or not, I have been spending a lot of time in silence; however, I have been listening to my friend Hiram Bullock, who recently passed away, Salif Keita, Ravel and an old recording by Etta Jones called Etta Jones and Strings.

Claudia, it has been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with your new endeavor.

It’s been four years since I have made a recording, so it’s great to walk into 2009 with a new recording. 2009 is my year!

September 30, 2008 · 3 comments


In Conversation with David Sánchez

By Ted Panken

It is hard to fathom why tenor saxophonist David Sánchez, who turns 40 this month, draws scant attention from the jazz press. It can’t be for an insufficiently distinguished pedigree. After apprenticing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie in his early twenties, Sánchez continued to be a first-call sideman with top-dog jazzfolk like Hilton Ruiz, Kenny Barron, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden, and Pat Metheny while developing a tonal personality as individualistic as any musician of his generation.

David Sanchez by Devin DeHaven

Thoroughly conversant with tenor vocabulary, stretching the timeline from the ‘40s (Dexter Gordon) to the hypermodern (John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter), Sánchez began to articulate his experimentalist bent—re-contextualizing the folkloric rhythms and melodies of his native Puerto Rico with the harmonic and gestural tropes of jazz. He delivers them with a heroic, ravishing tone and command of dynamics at all tempos—as demonstrated on three Grammy-nominated recordings for Columbia/Sony (Melaza, Obsesión and Travesía). He revealed himself a full-fledged master on Coral, on which arranger Carlos Franzetti framed his sextet against the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on a suite of repertoire by Latin American classical composers. Although Coral earned the 2005 Latin Grammy for “Best Instrumental Album,” it marked the end of his 7-CD relationship with Sony.

In late July, Sánchez came to New York for a four-night run at the Jazz Standard with his new quartet—guitarist (and 2005 Thelonious Monk Award winner) Lage Lund, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and drummer Henry Cole. He joined me on WKCR-FM to talk about it.

Your new CD, Cultural Survival, is your first in four years.

It’s been a while. Sony was my only label since I started in the mid ‘90s, so it took me a minute to see what was the right fit and what direction I should take this time. I needed to feel comfortable for real to do whatever I wanted. I knew this recording would be a series of firsts—the first time recording with Concord, the first time recording with a quartet with guitar, after always using piano before. So the compositional vibe is different, both from that configuration and the fact that I’ve been checking out a lot of African music, especially southeast Cameroonian music and the Ari people from Tanzania, polyphonic music from Ethiopia, music from Mali. The essence of what I’d been doing is still there, but it does sound different.

Melaza in 1998 was the first project on which you delved deeply into the folkloric music of Puerto Rico, and you worked with that repertoire for the next several records. Did your study of African music emerge from your explorations in Puerto Rican idioms?

It’s sort of an extension, to be honest with you. I’ve been listening to that [African] music already since Coral. All of a sudden, everything started making a lot of sense. You often think that something is from you, where you come from. I was listening to all these pygmy communities, to something that was way before, and all of a sudden I realized, “Well, this is kind of ours, but not really.” Listening to that music gave me a bigger picture. It definitely changed my perspective. We developed it this way in the Caribbean, but then again, the roots are very strong all over Africa.

Your own development has followed a path of formal saxophone training, salsa, hardcore jazz. Your first gig in the States was with Eddie Palmieri. Once you started making records, you did Latin jazz dates and hardcore jazz things, as well as exploring your own vernacular. So it’s a long, ongoing journey.

Indeed. You have to bring the New York City experience into the equation, too. In New York, if you let your mind be open to those different influences and cultural backgrounds, then it’s available for you. But you have to be open. Everything is available. Whoever plays in a unidirectional way, or thinks or hears that way, it’s because they want to. Once I came here, I was exposed to all these different people coming from different places. That helps, too. A lot.

You’ve been living in Atlanta for the last few years.

For the last four years, almost.

How is it not living in New York any more?

Well, it’s interesting, actually! I do miss it a little. Especially my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Park Slope, which was pretty hip. Then again, I have the blessing to come here three-four-five times a year, which is a lot. Also, Atlanta has its own musical scene. The gospel thing is huge. The R&B—as you know, all the studios are there. Everyone goes there to record. The movement of underground hip-hop mixed with jazz, the real underground (the other one, too, the one that you hear on the radio) is a very strong movement there. The jazz scene is tiny. But the bottom line is that, culturally speaking, when you analyze it, Atlanta is a cultural center. It has some kind of traditional something. It might not be jazz, but it’s something else. And the Atlanta Symphony is a really decent symphony orchestra.

But New York is unique. No other city in the United States is going to be a match for it.

In the past, we’re used to hearing you in a more polyrhythmic setup, with Adam Cruz or someone else playing drumkit and usually Pernell Saturnino, but occasionally someone else, playing hand drums and percussion. Is this a different concept? Is the paredown for economic reasons? Aesthetic ones?

Both. Today it’s very hard to go out there with a larger configuration. But at the same time, I saw it as an opportunity. I was a percussionist before I was a saxophonist. I was really deep into the rhythms. My brother used to play with a folkloric group in Puerto Rico, with one of the masters in Rafael Cepeda. So I saw it as an opportunity to write music, as I did on Melaza, in a way that my percussion influence is very present, but you can either have the percussion or not have it. It’s going to be implied in the bass lines, or on the piano—in this case, on the guitar—and on the saxophone itself. Then you say: “What is this? This sounds different. This is not straight-ahead jazz, but this is not Latin Jazz either. What is it?”

Continuing on your remarks about the multiplicity of musical languages that are available to any musician who comes to New York, and how the intersection of those languages creates exciting possibilities for R&D, it occurs to me that people like you, Danilo Perez, and Edward Simon, were in the forefront of a generation that arrived in New York from all over the world with a mastery of jazz language, which they used in elaborating their own vernaculars. Were you thinking about any of those things twenty years ago? Was it simply a matter of the gigs as best you could as they came up, and things just happened?

It was a little bit of both. As I said before, once you come to this city, the opportunities are out there. Don’t get me wrong. There are other cities in the world where the same dynamic takes place, like Paris. You meet colleagues who are roughly around the same age, a little older or a little younger, and you share ideas. You view the ideas and you think, “Wow, I never thought of this in this way.” If you have enough flexibility to accept and be receptive to those ideas, then it would help you and it would help the music to evolve in a different way, in a way that you’re no longer thinking of these categories, like: “Well, I play bebop.” “No, I’m post-bop jazz.” “No, I play free jazz—that’s my period.” “I’m a Latin Jazz guy.” “No, I’m a salsa guy who plays a little bit of jazz on top.” After a while, when you experience a city like this, all of this is irrelevant! It’s just the music, and you have all these ways of playing music, all these people coming from different parts of the world, different parts of the United States. It’s up to us as artists to take whatever we think can help us and enrich our own vocabularies.

What was your path towards jazz? Coming up in Puerto Rico playing percussion, folkloric music, how did jazz enter your view?

I have to say a great part of it was because of my sister. She’s not a musician. She’s still into comparative theology and comparative literature.

Serious stuff.

Serious stuff! [Laughs] She was open to so many different styles of music. I’m talking about not only jazz, but music from Johan Sebastian Bach, or Stravinsky, or Milton Nascimento or Elis Regina in Brazil.

This is an older sister?

Yes. There’s twelve years difference. When she was a teenager, I was a kid. I was exposed to jazz and all the other genres because of her, although obviously I didn’t know it back in those days.

I had a dilemma when I was 10-11-12, and I went to the performing arts school. I really wanted to study drums and percussion. You had to pass these exams, and I did, but they said that there were too many drummers. I chose saxophone because I liked the sound—it was the only other instrument I liked. Somehow, I was sitting in with the percussion and doing the saxophone classes also. But not until she brought me a recording called Basic Miles, an LP with a green jacket, which was a compilation of different periods of Miles Davis’ career. . . . I was already playing classical foundation-oriented music; which is what they were teaching—no jazz or anything. But I immediately became curious. I was like, “Wow, this is weird, introspective, and kind of dark,” but at the same time something attracted me.

Then all these questions arose. “What is that?” “Was that written?” “This is unbelievable.” Then a friend said, “No, that’s improvisation.” “Wow.” That was a turning point for me to be really serious on my instrument. My sister also brought Lady in Satin, Billie Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, her last record. That was my introduction to jazz. Weird. I was growing up in the Caribbean, and I’ve got to be honest with you—not many people were into that.

For one thing, the rhythmic feel of jazz, the 4/4 swing, is pretty different than the polyrhythms you knew from folkloric music, or the time feel in classical music. A lot of people from the Caribbean say that’s the biggest adjustment they need to make in playing jazz. Was this the case for you?

There are a lot of similarities at the same time. Feeling the beat on 2 and 4 is something really basic in Caribbean music generally. In Cuban music, if you listen to the conga, or we call it bacateo, and the references when they’re dancing is 2 and 4. It subdivides into that. The triplet feel, too. That 6/8 or 12/8, however you want to call it, against four, is very present in both. When you listen to jazz, that triplet feel must be there in order to swing. If you listen to Duke or Count Basie, all those people, you hear it. It’s that really African thing, going back to that subject. The European is there also, but the rhythmic foundation. . . . You would be amazed how many similarities. For me, the biggest adjustment was phrasing, and that has to do with language. The way you deliver the accents, the inflections. We speak open in Spanish, and in English you utilize vowels that are more on the inside of your mouth. The same thing with the music. I found that very challenging. Just the way people from the jazz world need that downbeat thing to feel more comfortable—they find the upbeats challenging. The upbeats happen in the Brazilian world, too. Still, when you really look at it, from all the different angles, there are a lot of similarities, and that comes from the African side. It’s African roots.

So many tributaries, according to the particularities of each place where African slaves were brought.

There are definitely some very strong ties. But it’s still challenging.

In your formative period, how did you approach assimilating tenor saxophone vocabulary?

Back when I was growing up, especially coming out of the performing arts school that did not teach jazz at all, and then entering Rutgers, it was a little less academic. I was very enthusiastic about it. For a certain period of time I’d be checking out Charlie Parker; for another period of time I’d be checking out Dexter Gordon. It wasn’t like an assignment. It was just enthusiasm and out of love at that particular time for what Dexter was doing or what Sonny Rollins was doing. I had this strong tie with Sonny, because somewhere you feel that Caribbean experience, and his way of delivering certain phrases was very percussive. I felt, “Wow, this guy is almost playing the drums at the same time he’s playing the saxophone, too, but with an unbelievable sound.” Those were some of my heroes. I got to Joe Henderson much later. Wayne Shorter, too.

When you’re ready, life takes you to where you need to go. But at first, it was enthusiasm and passion for what I was listening to. It wasn’t like a report or work. Later on, at Rutgers, of course, you needed structure, and they’d tell you to check out certain records and certain tunes, and learn harmony. I owe that to Ted Dunbar. He said, “Man, you’ve got to play the piano. You’ve got to match your ears with your technical abilities on the instrument.” He pointed out all those things to me, which were priceless lessons. Kenny Barron as well. So definitely there was a structure, but before the structure there has to be that passion and willingness to be curious about something you don’t know.

You worked with Eddie Palmieri as soon as you arrived on the mainland, and you’ve maintained your relationship with him over the years. Recently, you’ve performed with him in duo, and he himself has been expanding his concept since the time you first joined him. Talk about that relationship.

Without Eddie, nothing else would have been possible. First of all, he was one of my heroes. Eddie Palmieri was huge back in the ‘70s. He did some compositions in the salsa genre that became classics. And he would not settle for this. He would move on. He clearly had the New York experience, too. So did Tito Puente. You could feel it. Okay, it’s the salsa genre, but it doesn’t sound like the conventional variety—this has something else going on. I don’t know exactly what. My relationship with Eddie from the beginning was very special, because he embraced me. Just like Dizzy, too. He embraced me in a way that he knows, “yeah, this guy has a lot of potential; he has to work on this and that.” They were aware of those things, but they still embrace you.

What sorts of things did Eddie Palmieri tell you and what sorts of things did Dizzy Gillespie tell you?

For instance, at the time, Eddie would always be working on how to flow rhythmically and be open and free within the clave structure. We had a connection in there right away. It might have something to do with the fact that I was very familiar with that way of playing drums. It became like if you put a hand in a glove, and it fit. Also, I’ve got to be honest with you, there is no way I would have gotten to Dizzy if I hadn’t been playing with Eddie Palmieri. I was so blessed. I was a kid still at Rutgers University, trying to learn more music and be exposed to all these ways of playing, and here I’m already playing with Eddie Palmieri, making a little bread to go back to school and buy some books and records, which was extremely hard for me to do in Puerto Rico. Then maybe a year-and-half or so later, I had the blessing to be able to play with Dizzy.

Who himself knew a lot about drums and rhythms and passed on that information to several generations of drummers.

There you go. Once again, there’s a connection. I owe a lot to my very early musical development, which had nothing to do with learning to play the piano or sounds or anything. It was just feeling the rhythm and playing the drums. It actually was an access that I didn’t know I had at the time, but it tied me to great artists like Dizzy and Eddie and helped me relate to them.

Now, you toured with Pat Metheny a couple of years ago. Did that experience factor into using guitar in your groups?

He called me at the last minute to be the guest with the trio for a two-month tour. I was very flattered. It was the first time in my life that I played with a guitarist on a consistent basis. It was a great learning experience. Because it is different.

The way I approach music, I can play a solo over any comp, over anybody comping—just play all my ideas on top of it. But I’ve reached a point that, in some ways, I hate doing that. I want to be receptive and try to take a risk as to how I can relate my idea to what the person is comping behind me. I’ve found that more challenging with guitar players than with piano players. It’s funny, because with guitarists you have more space in some ways, but the strings, the textures, the sound, the sonorities can also take you elsewhere. So I find it very challenging, and I take my time. I leave the space. Some people take that as tentativeness. Some writers get a little confused by that. They think that you don’t know. But what you’re doing is, you’re waiting to have a conversation with somebody. You’re not talking all the time. You take your pauses. Or if you’re writing, you have your commas.

You might spend six hours looking for the right place to put that comma.

As long as emotion is happening, that’s all that matters. It’s a collective. You’re making music. It’s a composition. The only thing is that we’re improvising, so the composition happens at the moment. When you’re writing for an orchestra, the saxophone section is not playing all the time. Maybe the trombones are doing a rhythmic figure, and then, BAM, the saxophones jump in and reply to that. The same thing with the smaller configuration. Maybe he has an idea, and if I’m not listening well to that idea, I cannot take that idea elsewhere. That’s the challenge. You can approach it so many ways. You can approach the guitar as another horn, meaning you play the head, and then he lays out and you play like a trio. Then he comes and plays his solo—you could approach it like that. You could approach it as a piano or any other harmonic instrument behind your solo. You can go on and on with different ways of approaching the instrument. It’s fantastic. As I said at earlier, there’s a lot of first-times with this recording, and that’s one—never, ever before had I had a guitar on my records.

So this in some sense stems from hearing it for two months with Pat Metheny, and also your investigations into string music from different parts of Africa.

I have to say that before Pat, I listened to many recordings with the kora, and also a wooden instrument called the ieta—it looks like it's going to be a percussion instrument, but no, it has the 7 strings—as well as an 8-string instrument called the ngombi. That had a lot to do with my decision to see what sound the strings would give me. Then when I played with Pat, it confirmed everything. I was like, wow, we're only doubling the melody, and it sounds so full. The tenor and the guitar complement each other very well. Something about the timbre.

Interview notes: David Sánchez was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on July 24, 2008.

September 27, 2008 · 3 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Toots Thielemans

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

Our subject this month is harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans.

by arnold jay smith

                        Toots Thielemans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

‘Twas a dark and stormy night (forgive me) in Waterbury, CT. All hell was breaking loose, meteorologically. Sheets of rain so steady that you literally could not see across the street. Wind gusts of a velocity which blew the rain such that a brief foray got you soaked. Thunder directly overhead loudly and proudly announced Thor himself was at the rooftops; and the lightning! Whooee! Repeated horizontal flashes lit up the blackened sky.

We were there to attend the Litchfield Jazz Festival some miles into the mountains, and worse, I had an appointment to meet my brother the Sonny Rollins fanatic, who was making a rare appearance and our cells would not cooperate in the cataclysm. [The show went on as scheduled even though the performance tent threatened to go down.]

Meanwhile down the mountain in Waterbury decisions were being made as to whether to drive up or wait it out. That decision was made for us: a bolt hit a transformer and in a display of sparking fireworks the power went out. Outside under the hotel’s marquee, watching the storm stood a familiar figure, Dirk Godts, Toots’ friend, companion and road manager. After warm greetings, he said he’d get Toots who was relaxing in his room prior to his appearance at the Festival the following night. (Toots takes all the relaxation he can muster after a stroke some years ago and his constant asthma.) Never willingly disabled when it comes to telling some good jazz war stories down to the lobby the harmonicist came to sit at the candlelit bar and spin yarns. We were all disappointed but well-rewarded when the lights came on sometime early the next morning. Due to some serious bending of elbows we all had long ago forgotten the time.

This time Dirk and Hugette, Mrs. Toots, were in NYC for a few days at the Iridium where Toots was guesting with the Kenny Werner Trio. “He is such an underrated piano player, isn’t he?” Toots asked rhetorically. “He is so-o-o good.” Good doesn’t cover it. Here’s a pianist who challenges not only his sidemen and his leaders, but himself with European, contemporary, folk and multifarious religious references. Toots just sits on his stool and plays his chromatic mouth organ darting in and out and playing those beautiful sometimes forgotten melodies, bossa novas, medium tempo bebop, waltzes, and favorites, like his “social security number” “Bluesette.” He even played one for me, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” by his Belgian homey Jacques Brel. [Translation: “Don’t Go Away” not “If You Go Away.”]

Due in part to some hand impairment—ironically Toots’ first idol was the hand-damaged gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt—Toots limits himself to harmonica these days. He was a guitarist who doubled when he wrote “Bluesette” and he often whistled the melody while he strummed. His whistling may be heard on an old Old Spice jingle. His harmonica still opens Sesame Street. And he tinkles, as he puts it, on so many recordings led my artists in every genre in the business. His commercials continue to pay royalties.

He opened our telephone conversation with “a station break”: he played the Sesame Street theme. “I started playing some 65 years ago, but it wasn’t always jazz,” he said. “When there were lulls we played other kinds of music, popular music. I even went back to Europe in the ‘60s to play French popular music. [Much earlier] I accompanied Edith Piaf for two weeks in Brussels on guitar as part of the band. I played my first Django guitar with an Armond pick up.” It was during WWII when nothing was getting through let alone records from the U.S.A. “We didn’t have our pick, but we did get some Louis Armstrong. We listened to the BBC, or tried to. The Germans were constantly jamming the broadcasts.”

It wasn’t until after the war that Toots got bitten by the bebop bug. “We got our first wax (78 rpm) and heard the likes of Charlie Parker. I was a bebopper then and I still am.” (His diversity is wide. I first heard him on a bebop LP called Man Bites Harmonica with Pepper Adams. Some years later he recorded the album, Captured Alive with pianist Joanne Brackeen.) But in the forties the time was not ripe, and nobody wanted to hear him play the harmonica. “‘That’s a toy; throw that away. Play the guitar,’ they told me. The harmonica man was Larry Adler, ‘Mr. Harmonica’ they called him. No one else could play it but him. He took all the attention. He didn’t swing but he was a magnificent virtuoso, pop, classical. Sold lots of records.” But Toots stuck with it.

You never know where or from whence a break will come. “I recorded “Star Dust,” an amateur recording, in a garage somewhere. Don’t ask me how, but Benny Goodman heard it. He looked me up and I played it with him at the London Palladium in 1947. The 1950 BG Septet did a tour with Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Dick Hyman (piano), Ed Shaughnessy (drums), British-er Charlie Short (bass), and me. I played the Charlie Christian stuff, “Air Mail Special,” like that.” But he also got to play the “Star Dust” that Benny loved as well as “How High the Moon,” both on harmonica.

During the fifties it was too expensive to get to the States so Toots stayed in Europe where he saw the bands of Don Redman and Peanuts Holland, and Don Byas. “Listening to him I learned how to play ballads,” he remembered. He even got close to his idol. “I got to see and hear Django, but I never played with him,” he lamented. Sounds like the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Low Down.

While Toots was still tootin’ he was constantly being told to “put away that toy and play a real instrument. “The harmonica was a showpiece instrument,” he explained. Television and the Catskill Mountain resorts played big parts in the development of the popularity of his toy. Bands of harmonicas like Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats (“Peg o’ My Heart”) appeared regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show; ditto Borah Minevich and the Harmonica Rascals fresh from the Jewish Alps where their antics included a dwarf (don’t ask). “They were professional and they played classical music.” But they had to have a gimmick. Then there was Larry Adler. Toots sent a note to be read at Adler’s funeral which read, in part, “Thank you Larry. You opened the door for many harmonica players including myself.’ I should have added, ‘I’m lucky I fell under the spell of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; you gave me that chance.’”

It was a very important, world-renowned stint with George Shearing that sprang Toots Thielemans as we know him today. He spoke reverentially. “Not only did he give my harmonica playing space it was my first opportunity to show off my musicianship.” Clarinetist Tony Scott introduced him to Shearing in 1952, when he first came Stateside. “I was looking for and playing $10 Monday night sessions at Birdland [the original at Broadway near 52nd St.]. Tony had heard me in Europe and knew me as a guitarist. He told me that Shearing was looking for a guitarist.” Toots was to replace Dick Garcia. Scott took him backstage at Carnegie Hall where Shearing was doing a concert and said, ‘Here’s your next guitarist, but listen to this.’ I played “Body and Soul”this time, not “Star Dust,” on the harmonica. He told me that if I can play the book I got the job. I auditioned at a club called the Rendezvous where we were visited by one of George’s fans, Ava Gardner.” Unbeknownst to Toots, Shearing was looking for a “new sound” and Toots’ harmonica was it.

The chromatic harmonica which Toots plays is different from the blues harp which players in that idiom use. “Theirs is a diatonic harmonica and is much more popular than mine,” he explained. In the sixties there were only Stevie Wonder and me using [the chromatic]. In the fifties Adler, the Harmonicats and Borah Minevitch all used chromatic. It’s a three octave instrument with the range of a flute. You have to be crazy to want to play it.” [He demonstrated.] There are two interesting things about his instrument. “There’s this button on the side which allows me to bend the notes.” (Think Louis Armstrong’s first half-valving innovations.) “And it’s a good breathing exercise especially for people with asthma. Some notes you blow and others you inhale. (Another demonstration.) “You can’t blow long notes but taking short breaths in and out is good for you.”

Regrets: “For a long time making a living was something very necessary. I’m sorry I took those weddings and bar mitzvahs, the club dates and I didn’t stick it out in jazz even when times got rough. I did the commercials, the studios. What is pretentiously called ‘The Great American Songbook,’ the Broadway tunes. All the other guys were playing a Monk, then a Metheny. Yes, I have a house which I didn’t get from playing jazz. I even made lots of money from a little tune I wrote called “Lady Fingers.” It appeared on the Herb Alpert album which featured “A Taste of Honey.” The album sold millions and I got a taste. But I wasn’t playing the music I loved.”

And then he wrote Bluesette which became his signature. He gets to sign autographs in Europe, Asia and North and South America because of that tune. He’s been feted so many times in Scandinavia that he speaks their languages. He’s a Baron in Belgium and he is a 2008 NEA Jazz Masters designee. He’s popular in Sweden for a cartoon he plays on; in Holland for music for a soft core porn flick. As we closed with his playing and my whistling accompaniment to Sesame Street, he sent “regards to your ’internauts.’”

September 21, 2008 · 8 comments


In Conversation with Elio Villafranca

By Tomas Peña

You grew up in a town called San Luis in the Province of Pinar Del Rio, where the Tambor Yuka culture is strong. Could you talk about the Tambor Yuka culture and explain the impact that it had on you?

I grew up in a small town in the Southwestern part of Cuba where the main culture was Congolese, more specifically the Tambor Yuka culture. When I was a kid I experienced the culture in a very indirect way because I was too young to understand what I was witnessing. Whenever there was an activity or a festival there would be this huge bonfire and drumming in the center of town. It was amazing!

The Congolese culture has three different subcultures: the Tambor Yuka, the Tambor Makuta and the Tambor Palo. What makes these cultures similar are the instruments, a similar system of tuning (the drums), the way the drums are constructed and the dialect. I didn’t realize the impact that the Tambor Yuka culture had on me until the influences came out in my playing.

You also grew up next door to the House of Culture, where you were able to observe all of the rehearsals for the concerts, carnivals and groups and take music (guitar) lessons. Given the circumstances, do you ever feel that you were destined to become a musician?

It’s funny that you should say that because there are no other musicians in my family. So yes, that is definitely a possibility.

                                    El Pelotero, watercolor by Elio Villafranca

After studying the guitar you moved on to percussion at the Art School.

In Cuba they interview and select students in the main provinces first. By the time they got to San Luis the only instruments that were left were the trombone and the drums. Of the two, the instrument I was most familiar with was the drum, for all of the reasons I mentioned before, so I chose percussion.

You studied percussion, symphonic composition and the piano at the Instituto Superior de Arte.

In the Cuban system you have to learn to play the piano no matter what. After the third year in school I started taking the piano seriously. The reason I took it seriously was because whenever there was a jam session the drum set was usually taken so I agreed to play the piano. In time I became the “house” player for all the jam sessions and I started hanging out with other piano players and taking the piano more seriously. Then I spoke to my piano teacher and told him that I was interested in learning what the classically trained pianists were playing (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, etc).

Most of your instructors were Russian, correct?

Yes, many of the teachers were educated under the Russian system. They were excellent teachers.

Like many Cubans, you learned about popular music – rock, jazz and rumba - in the streets.

Are you familiar with The Real Book? (Interviewer’s notes: Today there are scores of Real books, however, The Real Book, Volume 1 refers to a semi-underground series transcribed and compiled by students at the Berklee College of Music during the 1970s.).

Elio Villafranca


At that time there was no Real Book in Cuba. We would get music by transcribing what he heard. Let me give you a little background on the subject.

By all means!

I came from Pinar del Rio, so when I arrived in Havana my family was my only means of support. They gave me 45 Cuban pesos per month to survive. At the time the cost of a cassette tape was fifteen pesos! Sometimes I would go to Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s house or Chucho Valdes’s house to see what new music had come out and I would ask them if they could make me copies (sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t). Once I had a copy in my possession I would listen to it over and over and transcribe the music. That’s how I learned all of the standards.

About what year was that?

That was during the late 1980s. Surprisingly, Cuba was pretty up-to-date in terms of new music. I remember having the first Chick Corea Electric Band recording before it was sold on the street.

Where did you get it?

From Chucho (Valdes), he was very popular in American and people would trade music with him and send him demos. At the time there was only one cassette player in the entire school so we would compile a list of names and take turns listening to the music. If your turn came up at 3 AM, that’s when you listened to the music! Often times I would take the cassette player outside and connect it to an electrical outlet (in the street) and listen to the music over and over. Once you returned the cassette player there was no telling when you would get it back -- so I memorized the music. That’s how I learned jazz. During that time I was studying classical composition, my teacher used to kid with me and say, “I know you like jazz” because I had a jazz ensemble and we performed at the Havana Jazz Festival. We were very lucky to be selected.

What was the name of your ensemble?

Ferjomesis, the name is made up of the initials of the band members. To perform at the Havana Jazz Festival you have to compete with anyone and everyone who also wants to perform, be it a trio or a big band. Fermojesis was an excellent group, every once in awhile Gonzalo Rubalcaba would join us on stage.

It sounds as if it was a good time in your life.

Yes, learning about jazz and embracing the music. But it wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I realized what “real” jazz is.

You mean when you moved to Philadelphia. . . . You stated in a past interview that you left Cuba for musical, not political reasons? Given the situation in Cuba, how do you make the distinction between politics and music?

I guess you could spin it that way, but Cuba affects different people in different ways. There is one musician (who will go unnamed) who says that Cuba deprived him of his family. The truth is, when we were in school we didn’t see our families for months, we couldn’t afford to buy a ticket to go home and often times we went hungry. But somehow we still managed to have a great time. We were discovering jazz and I was playing in a rock band and touring outside of Cuba with (Cuban singer/songwriter) Carlos Varela. Just to clarify, I didn’t make the negative aspects of the situation in Cuba the center of my life. In the case of the musician I mentioned, he was a classical musician and was unable to travel outside of Cuba; so he didn’t have much of a choice. For me it was such a joy to perform at the Havana jazz festival, seeing all the people and all the different musicians. We would leave the festival hyped and spend the next eleven months preparing for the next festival; it was the center of our lives.

But when I look back I also remember being part of the hunger strike in the east. It was a crazy time and things got really ugly when the government got involved. Keep in mind that it was the first time that anything like that had ever happened. So we all went through that and it affected different people in different ways. If something like that ever happened in the United States, it would be a different story; but in Cuba there was none of that. If you got sick, you still had to show up for school the next day. If the school had learned that I was playing at the jazz festival until 4AM I would have gotten into a lot of trouble.

So you made the move. . .

For the record, I wasn’t doing too badly. I was performing with Carlos Varela and we were signed to a record label and doing a lot of great stuff, including participating in concerts with Pink Floyd and Kool and the Gang. I was the co-director and musical arranger for Carlos Varela’s band. But it wasn’t my music; it was his music, and he was so demanding that I didn’t have time to create my own music. Also, as the band got more popular, the band started developing this attitude, I don’t know if it has something to with rock (music) …

The rock scene is a totally different mindset.

Things kept getting progressively worse and I thought to myself, “You know what? This is not for me.”

When was that?


On the other hand you were well received in Philly. In retrospect, was relocating to Philly a good move?

Philly is a city where you do a lot of stuff (career wise) but nothing really happens. It’s not like back in the day, when John Coltrane and the Heath Brothers were there. Back then there was a lot of activity.

I performed at some of the most important venues in Philadelphia and nothing happened. Musicians like (pianist) Oscar Hernandez used to ask me, “What are you doing here?” And suggest that I should move to New York.

Which eventually you did.

Musically, I was ready. Also, my wife decided to go to graduate school in New York. But when I moved to New York I had to start from zero. It was like everything that I had accomplished in Philly didn’t count!

So you began the process of re-establishing yourself and shortly thereafter, you recorded Incantations / Encantaciones, your first recording as a leader.

When I moved to the U.S., I was labeled as a “Latin jazz artist.” At the time I was missing Cuba so much that even though I wanted to do something more creative there was bound to be a Cuban influence in my music. During that time I was listening to (pianist) Danilo Perez and lot of jazz and I kept thinking to myself, there has to be more to Latin jazz than just playing Tito Puente style. The whole Latin thing is very intricate because you can compose Latin music in so many different ways. Take for example, (the tunes) "Cubana" and "Cacique." If you add percussion, they have a Latin jazz vibe. If you subtract the percussion, they have a jazzy vibe. Either way, the tunes stand up on their own.

When I was creating the Incantations / Encantanciones I saw (guitarist) Pat Martino playing “El Hombre” and I asked him if I could record the piece and he said yes. That’s how he became involved with the project.

It must have been a great feeling to have your recording selected by Jazz Times as one of the top 50 jazz albums of the year (2003).

I was very happy and surprised but unfortunately I didn’t take advantage of the situation. At the time I was very unhappy with my record company so I lost out on the opportunity to take advantage of the momentum.

Let’s move on to your new recording, The Source in Between, which you recorded in “real time.” Was the idea to make it the next best thing to a live recording?

That wasn’t the original intention, but when I got to the studio the engineer suggested that we do a live recording and I agreed. It’s a very daring idea because doing a live album only makes sense if you are surrounded by great musicians and you really trust them. At the time I was listening to (saxophonist) Ornette Coleman, who is a strong believer in the idea of listening to everyone’s individual voice and I embraced the concept.

You composed all of the material for this project. Let’s go through the tracks and perhaps you could tell me what was on your mind when you created these tunes. First “The Source in Between.”

It’s my way of demonstrating the fine line that exists between jazz and Latin jazz. The source represents my roots and my background.

“The Lonely One.”

I was asked how I composed a beautiful melody and I explained that I composed it at a time when I was lonely.

Oddua Suite. “Three Plus One.”

I was thinking of odd structures, Monk, that kind of thing.

“In the Dark.”

Sometimes I close my eyes when I play. It’s about listening and enjoying the music with your eyes closed.

“Faces, not Evil.”

The tune is based on a program that I heard on National Public Radio, but I think it was originally called “The Faces of Evil.” It’s a play on words.

“Resurrection of the Incapacitated.”

It’s my take on an Afro Cuban ritual, or dance dedicated to Babalu Aye (Saint Lazarus), where the deity struggles to get to his feet and dance.

“Don’t Say Never.”

It’s sort of a hit song with different elements of syncopation.


“Luna” is just “Luna.”

In a past interview you talked extensively about your struggle with the concepts of commercialism vs. art.

It’s a common theme among musicians. I honestly believe that if you are honest with your art you will get better results. When I say better results I don’t mean money, what I mean is, you will get better results from the people who approach you and appreciate your artistry.

Your music doesn’t sound “compromised,” if you know what I mean. In fact, it sounds quite “free.”

When you look into the lives of all the great artists, painters, composers and musicians in the world you see a certain amount of selfishness. By selfishness I mean that their art has to please their soul regardless of whether people like it or not. Your artistry represents who you are and it shouldn’t be compromised. At least that’s what I’m trying to do with my music.

You are also an educator.

I just returned from Guadalajara, Mexico, where I am involved with a group called Tonica. We conduct music programs and teach jazz. Also, I used to teach at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Let’s talk about your upcoming concert at the Caramoor Jazz Festival (in Katonah, New York), where you will be performing solo and with Chuchito Valdes, Jr. Do you know each other or have you ever performed together in the past?

No we don’t really know each other.

You mentioned that you know his father, the great Chucho Valedes.


It sounds like it’s going to be an interesting meeting of the minds.

I have to touch base with Chuchito and discuss with him what we are going to play! It’s going to be great because he is a great piano player. The only thing that concerns me is whether we speak the same “language” or not.


You can have a great chemistry with someone but if you don’t speak the same language you can’t communicate. In other words, when we both sit down at the piano, are we both going to have the same conversation? [Interviewer’s notes: Since the interview was conducted I spoke to Elio and the concert was a resounding success!]

What’s in your CD player or I Pod as we speak?

I have been listening a lot to Oblique by (vibraphonist) Bobby Hutcherson. It’s an old recording but it’s really beautiful. I also went through a phase where I listened to a lot of (pianist) Andrew Hill. I enjoy his philosophy. And of course Monk, Art Tatum, Ornette Coleman and classical music, there is a lot of stuff that never gets old.

I read somewhere that you like to paint.

My co-producer Ron Berg is a painter. He has a beautiful piano in his studio and sometimes we get together and I play while he paints. I recently picked up a brush and collaborated with him on one of his paintings.

Whenever I travel or wherever I go, the first thing I always ask is, “Where is the nearest museum?”

You obviously draw a lot of inspiration from art in general.

A lot!

I understand that you will be celebrating the release of The Source in Between at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Yes, I will be celebrating the release of my new recording with my quartet: Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone), Matt Brewer (acoustic bass) and drummer Dafnis Prieto.

I should also mention that the Source in Between is dedicated to your father, Eliobaldo Villafranca. Good luck!

September 15, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Jim Hall

By Patrick Spurling

Were family members an influence on your early interest in music and jazz?

I didn’t really know my father, who split when I was about seven. And my mom’s family was hillbilly WASPS from around Ohio on the Great Lakes. Somebody once put together a bootleg record of some of my stuff and the liner notes said my mother was a pianist, my uncle was a guitarist and my grandfather was a conductor -- which is all true. But my mom played a kind of horrible church piano, my uncle Ed, probably a very bright guy, played country music and drank himself to death; and my grandfather was a conductor. He was a conductor . . . but on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.

Can you remember the reason for choosing guitar?

                                        Jim Hall, by Jos L. Knaepen

I heard Charlie Christian on a record when I was 13. I didn’t know what that was but … I realized then that that was my calling. A guitar teacher who was really important to me was Fred Sharp, who played with Red Norvo and others. I stayed in touch until he died about a year ago. He really opened up the guitar for me.

You earned an undergraduate degree in music theory and worked on a master’s degree in composition. Why not guitar performance over theory and composition?

That was in the 1950’s. I graduated in 1955 and there was no jazz at the school. If you were not killed in the service there were GI schools that taught jazz but that was not ‘serious’ music. I had a marvelous teacher for composition and theory, but I was this hillbilly kid and he scared the hell out of me somehow -- Marcel Dick. He played viola in the Kolisch String Quartet and was a good friend of Arnold Schönberg.

Did you play other instruments early on?

In high school there were never enough bass players for the orchestra so I played string bass. At the Cleveland Institute I played bass again in the orchestra, but when we’d have a concert they’d get some real bass players and I’d move down to the end. I would intentionally not practice because I didn’t want to mess up my hands. Fortunately I hear the bass now as a lower extension to the guitar.

Was there a good reason for your leaving the Cleveland Institute without completing the graduate degree in composition?

Ray Graziano, a good friend and I had talked about going to Los Angeles. Finally he said one day I’m leaving Saturday if you want to go. It was an impulse I guess. I don’t know if it’s still possible but you could deliver a car –- say Cleveland to L.A. -- and just pay for the gas. We sort of delivered it.

How do you feel about your honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music?

I thought about saying where were you when I needed you? But it was great. Ray Brown was there, Milt Jackson and my friends. … [Presented at the Umbria Jazz Festival - at the Sala del Notari in Perugia, Italy - July 16th, 2005]. Sometimes I’ll read, ‘this is Down Beat award winner and honorary doctorate Jim Hall.’ I could understand if I were involved with some kind of medical profession. Okay, I’m a doctor, that sort of thing. But It depends how far you go with that. I dislike titles.

When Jane and I got married [in 1965] -- which was great -- I needed to get off the road. We were looking around for work so I made the trip up to the Berklee ‘School’ of music for an interview. I assumed having worked with Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald that [I would be offered a job] but I didn’t get hired. Instead I ended up doing the Merv Griffin show for three and a half years. Good guests but some pretty putrid music.

Little by little Berklee did offer the Jim Hall Scholarship [Fund for guitarists]. Sometimes I’d be so broke I’d want to apply for it.

Your experiences with Ella Fitzgerald and that tour of South America – memorable moments?

Everything with Ella was pretty amazing. Going to South American was incredible for me, especially the first stop. We played at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. We played three weeks in this great hotel right on the water. The bossa nova was just starting up and the music was just kind of coming out of the air. I couldn’t believe it. We went to São Paulo after that, Montevideo and then on to Buenos Aires. I heard Astor Piazzolla’s music for the first time. I’d never heard tango music and it was an ear-opening experience.

                          Jim Hall, by Jos L. Knaepen

Ella was just stunningly good. I think I heard her miss one note. Working with Gus Johnson we once played an arrangement by Nelson Riddle at the Academy Awards. There was a quick key change and she missed one note. She was amazing.

And you stayed on a while in South America after that tour?

I did. We were supposed to go to Chile but Santiago had had a bad earthquake so that part of the tour was cancelled. I borrowed some money from Norman Granz and stayed in Buenos Aires for about a month.

Norman Granz also managed Jimmy Giuffre so I was able to work with Ella Fitzgerald because of him -- took Herb Ellis’s place. I felt like Lou Gehrig without the disease -- always in the right place at the right time.

About Ron Carter -- both of you had classical backgrounds. Did that have an impact on your work together as a duo?

I am not sure it did -- maybe unconsciously. I met Ron through Art Farmer though I’ve not worked with Art Farmer. His group at that time included Ron Carter and Walter Perkins. Ron hadn’t been in New York too long and we were working together on 7th Avenue one night, and Miles Davis came in and was skulking around. He asked Ron about working with him, but Ron said you’d have to talk to Art. Anyway Ron went to work with Miles Davis and Steve Swallow took his place. That happened a lot in those days.

Later I somehow got a job at this place called The Guitar where Kenny Burrell was part owner. I called Ron and we started doing these duets together in the mid and late sixties. About 15 years later we hooked up again and played the Blue Note in New York and then three Blue Notes in Japan.

Did you have opportunities to play with Eddie Gomez?

Yes, though I didn’t play with Eddie a lot. Of course he is entirely different from Ron Carter. He is a cool friend and actually lives in my neighborhood in New York City. We each have a dog so we talk about dogs. I think I recommended him once for the Bill Evans trio.

It was a "turning point" when playing with Sonny Rollins in the early sixties?

Sounds corny but I felt accepted somehow by the jazz community. In spite of everything that was happening, I got this note in my mailbox one day from Sonny Rollins. I remember the first performance in an upper west side club. God, everybody came in. Max Roach, John Lewis and Wes Montgomery used to come to hear me play -- because of Sonny. It is amazing the camaraderie among musicians. Of course, Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I still can’t believe the way he can play.

Who has something to say among the younger players?

People like Bill Frisell get my attention because I never know what the hell is going to come out. We’ve been working on a duet recording for a while. I kind of like young people who surprise me and keep pushing the envelope. I love Chris Potter’s playing. He composes as he plays rather than plays what is under his fingers. He is surprisingly good. Dave Binney is another but not as well known as Chris. I love Tom Harrell’s playing, especially considering what he’s been going through. Joe Lovano of course, I love Joe’s playing. Tenor saxophone has always been just about my favorite instrument. I had the honor of working once with Ben Webster before working with Sonny.

What attracts you to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Béla Bartok?

Béla Bartok was my hero more than Rachmaninoff. Some things are pretty obvious, like the melodies he uses in his orchestral pieces, but his interest in folk music is part of it. In school I loved his quartets. When I first got into the Cleveland Institute of Music [Paul] Hindemith was a favorite because he reminded me of Stan Kenton. I knew nothing about Mozart and thought he was elementary, but in five years he got so much better. I don’t listen to music very much now because it tends to influence what I am doing. I look more at paintings and that sort of thing. If somebody asked what recording I would take on a desert island, "4’33” of silence by John Cage would be my choice.

‘Clarity is the thing you are after.’ What is clarity in improvisation?

It means listening to what you just played then reacting to that and making something out of it -- which is not to say that you can’t push the envelope a lot too.

You once said the guitar is still a mystery to you.

Absolutely. You get all of these awards like the Chevalier from the French Government [2007] -- which is startling -- or the NEA award [Jazz Masters Fellowship, 2004] and then I’ll be doing an interview on the telephone with someone and the guy says, ‘Mr. Hall, you played with Beethoven…blah … blah.’ And the guitar sits there in the corner and says ‘yeah big deal. Try to tune me today.’ Yeah it is a mystery. Which is good too, I think.

You live in Greenwich Village?

We’re across from the New School for Social Research.

So you’re in the good neighborhood?

Yeah, well, yeah it is. But it’s not my fault. It’s a fascinating neighborhood. Meryl Streep had a building right down the street and Ramsey Clark is a neighbor. We got to know each other by grimacing at one another over the years. He was going all over on genocide trials when I first knew him. Some people I know from just being out there with my dog Django.

After the first election –- what ever you call that thievery -- I never heard so much cursing as on our block. And the second election, it was so blatant with all the Supreme Court meddling. I was in mourning for months after that second election and had to tune everything out for a while. Somehow it was mildly amusing, but I wonder what is going to happen now?

Do you vote?

Yeah. But I’m in a quandary about what to do this next time. It’s going to take us 50 years to recover no matter who takes power. We [Americans] feel badly about cigarettes, McDonald’s, Americana, George Bush and fascist governments.

Why have you not done more composing?

In a way I regret not doing more with composition. But its sort of come full circle since I got with Telarc Records. The first record I did for Telarc was just me and over dubs. They were understandably leery of investing in that, so I said okay, I’ll do it for free. Then later at the Village Vanguard I did another one and that Helped. Telarc has been great.

Did you consider conducting the compositions By Arrangement (1998) and Textures, (1996)?

No, but funny you should ask. André Previn asked me the same thing. I said I couldn’t conduct electricity.

How did you feel about your recordings with Itzhak Perlman and André Previn?

It was great being around Itzhak Perlman. André Previn had called Shelly Manne to play drums and Red Mitchell to play bass –- both old friends of mine. I had known André Previn in California from years before. My favorite part of it was as soon as Itzhak and Shelly were introduced their eyes met and that was it -- the Jewish jokes started. Anyway, I don’t think they are very good records, but it was a lot of fun.

How did you feel about performing at the new Jazz at Lincoln Center venue?

It’s not like the Village Vanguard, but then why should it be. On one hand I am not a huge fan of Wynton Marsalis, but on the other I could never have done anything like what he has accomplished. They’ve created a lot of interest in jazz, though it’s not particularly forward-looking.

Then you feel there is a bias there toward older jazz?

Exactly. Duke Ellington or Art Tatum certainly wouldn’t have felt like that. I heard a piece that Wynton recorded on some classical concert and he sounded terrific, but it was like the preservation society. I dislike the term classical jazz. I do like Stanley Crouch and Wynton too but, in spite of himself, Stanley and I always get into these kinds of arguments.

For young musicians interested in playing jazz what do you say to them?

What I usually say is a long distance quote from John Lewis. John had this School for jazz at the end of summer for three weeks up in Lenox Massachusetts. At the end of one three week session he was talking to the graduates and a couple of guys asked if there were any gigs out there? John said: “Wait, wait, you got it backwards.”

What he was saying was that music gives you so much already. What the hell else do you want? This is your reward right here just being involved. And it is really just stunning what you can get out of music. It’s unique; it’s yours and its something to be cherished. Making a living is an added bonus occasionally, but I think you already have quite a bit if you can play. . ..

Would you like to see a picture of my dog Django? He is very demanding but he has a calming affect.

Many thanks to Jim Hall for graciously offering his time while on tour, to Rebecca Kilgore, to and to Moods Nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland.

September 12, 2008 · 6 comments


In Conversation with Jean-Luc Ponty

by Thierry Quénum

The liner notes of Le Voyage, the Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology on Atlantic Records say that when your parents asked you to choose between piano and violin, as a child, you chose the latter because it was more expressive. Do you still feel that way?

It definitely is one of most expressive instruments and one that is closest to the human voice. It’s very archaic in fact: you run your fingers on strings attached to a stick with no predetermined notes on it while driving a bow on those strings, and it’s the contact of the flesh on the strings and the pressure of the bow that makes the quality of the sound. Besides, you hold it close to your body, like an extension of it, whereas the piano — which I also adore — is more of a mechanical instrument. My father taught the violin and my mother the piano, so, though I never talked to a shrink about that, it may have counted when I made my choice at 11, after having studied both instruments from age 5. Neither of my parents tried to influence me, they just wanted me to focus on an instrument so as to become good on it, instead of mediocre on both.

                     Jean-Luc Ponty, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Your consciousness of the violin’s expressivity was really natural, then?

Actually I only became aware of it later on, but I must have felt something unconsciously, and I still do now. After all these years, I still like being able to find pleasure with this ‘wooden box’ and in improving my technique. I compose on electronic keyboards, so every time I go back to the violin to try what I wrote, I experience again the feeling of this touch and this vibration.

Were you conscious of this expressivity when you were studying at the Paris Conservatory?

No, I was just a good student learning the classical technique and tradition. I discovered this expressivity with jazz, a music that I almost totally ignored. Actually I started playing it on the clarinet, in dance bands. My father had taught me the clarinet as a third instrument so I would be put in an army band instead of a battlefield in case I were drafted, and I felt a strong interest for this instrument too. When a friend of mine at the Conservatory proposed a gig with a student’s band, I went there with my clarinet and tried my luck, thinking it would be a good opportunity to date girls. I was hired because I could play by hear, though I knew nothing about jazz improvisation, which I learned on the spot.

From then on I discovered a brand new musical world — from Benny Goodman to Miles Davis — started buying records and went to concerts. I really got passionate when I noticed that the harmonies I heard in modern jazz were often very close to those I had learned and practiced in classical music, but I still didn’t make the relationship with playing my violin in a jazz context. I had even started playing the tenor sax in this jazz band.

The leap to the violin happened when I went to hear Albert Nicholas in a club, in 1958. I had my violin case with me, but no clarinet nor sax and I got so excited at the end of the concert that I asked if I could sit in with my violin. When I played, people stopped dancing and started to listen, and this first time was a revelation for me and for everybody around. The French drummer who led the band that had invited Nicholas made me discover that jazz violinists already existed, which I largely ignored, and the one that touched me most was Stuff Smith. He confirmed me that the violin could be really expressive in jazz, and in fact his style is often compared to that of reed players, which was my first experience in the field.

At that time, embracing a jazz career wasn’t usual for a young classically trained musician bound to become a classical concert player, was it?

No, it was very rare, especially on the violin. In France, in those days, some jazz piano players or trumpet players were classically trained, but the violin is a rare instrument in jazz and I think it is due to its difficulties. If you study the instrument deeply, which can only be done through classical studies, you will invest so much time and energy in it that chances are you will want to embrace a profitable career in the classical field rather than a risky one in jazz. On the other hand, the lack of role models on the violin in modern jazz did not make it easy for a kid who liked this music to choose such a difficult instrument. Still it?s very important to acquire the classical technique. That?s what allowed me to evolve and to be able to play any music I chose. The violin is definitely an expressive instrument and as such it can be played in the jazz field, but if you don’t have strong technical roots you’re bound to experience limitations in your musical career.

Some people talk about a ‘French school’ of jazz strings, since each generation seems to have brought a prominent violinist: Stéphane Grappelli, then you, then Didier Lockwood, then Dominique Pifarély . . .

You can talk about a ‘Russian school’ or a ‘French school’ in classical violin, because each nation teaches a different way of holding the bow, and this has an impact on the sound. But I wouldn’t talk about a ‘French school’ of jazz violin. First because I started playing the violin in jazz even before I had ever heard Stéphane Grappelli and became more interested in Stuff Smith than in him, for example.

I guess lots of younger violin players were either influenced by Grappelli’s way of playing or by mine, but since I left France rather early, I’ve had few contacts with French players even if I can hear something of me in the playing of some of them. Anyway this is not limited to France and if people were influenced by me, it’s a choice they made, not a direct influence. I guess I transferred what I had practiced on the clarinet and tenor sax — and what I liked in the trumpet or piano in the post bebop idiom — to the violin. Since there were no other violin players in modern jazz at the time, this opened a brand new path for younger musicians. So, style is such an original approach in jazz, overall on the violin, that I don’t really think there can be ‘schools’. I taught a few master classes all over the world, though I don’t consider myself as a teacher, but I never tried to entice anybody to play like me and I don’t believe much in jazz schools at large, anyway.

Were you aware of being a pioneer, back then in the sixties, or were you just searching for your own identity?

At first I was not really aware of anything, but I was curious, which brought me to explore several musical territories as I met new musicians in France or in Europe. Since I was one of the very few violinists available on the Continent (there was also Svend Asmussen in Sweden and Michal Urbaniak in Poland) I was called here and there. In France, I became a mainstay at the Paris Blue Note, alternating with Bud Powell and, at age 21, I played at the Juan-les-Pins Festival, where I met lots of promoters. This brought a lot of gigs all over Europe: Madrid with Tete Montoliu, Copenhagen with Kenny Drew and NHOP, Germany with keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner and bassist Eberhard Weber for example. In fact my relationship with Dauner has been a lasting one: the two of us toured with Robert Wyatt, formerly from the Soft Machine, in ‘72 and we recently started a new duet. It’s also during this period that I formed this trio with organ player Eddy Louiss and drummer Daniel Humair. It started in a Paris club, the Caméléon, and didn’t last more than a few months, but it has remained famous because it was original and had been recorded. Of course all this opened a lot of doors to me and made me decide to quit classical music for good.

How did you get to leave for the USA, where you made most of your career and switched to jazz-rock?

John Lewis was the artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival at the time, and he was always on the look out for new talents. He’d heard about a violin summit where I had played in Basel, Switzerland in ‘66 and he wanted to do it again at Monterey ‘67. That was my first time in the USA, and I met Richard Bock there. He signed me on his label, World Pacific, and made me come back to Los Angeles next year to record my first disc with the Gerald Wilson big band. This time I wanted to stay longer in the US and to play club gigs. I was really willing to understand American jazz from the inside. I stayed three months in California and that’s how I got to meet George Duke, who also was a beginner.

That’s about the time when you met Frank Zappa too, isn’t it ?

Richard Bock was something of a visionary guy: he was a Buddhist, had a guru who later became the Beatles’, had signed Ravi Shankar. . . . He wanted me to play with some of the Californian rock and pop groups of the time, but I was very reluctant until he played me something by Frank Zappa. I knew very little about him, but I thought it worth trying provided George Duke was part of the recording too.

We went to Zappa’s house and I remember very well the cultural shock: at that time, in Europe, even the Beatles had trimmed half long hair. Here eveybody sported ponytails and kids were running around the house at 1 AM. I expected Zappa to be the fairly haughty rock star type, but not at all. When Bock played him the live recording Duke and I had recently done for him, his reaction was: “Whoa! I can’t play with those guys. They are too great for me!” But when he understood he would have to write music and produce the session, he agreed. Two weeks later, the scores for King Kong were ready and we recorded with instrumentalists chosen by Zappa, who were mostly jazz musicians from the L.A. area. I must admit that at the time I didn’t really understand what was happening musically during this recording, but it opened my ears to a type of music that I wasn’t listening to at the time.

But later on you toured with the regular Zappa band…

That was in 1973. He hired me along with George Duke in his Mothers of Invention because he wanted high-level musicians to play his instrumental music. But things didn’t go as well as I expected: in fact we never played any themes from King Kong live. Zappa played to huge audiences and I think he was prisoner of his own image. His fans wanted songs, not instrumentals, and I wound up accompanying songs and playing only one solo per night. So I quit.

You didn’t start your own group right away, though. You played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra first. This experience seems to have been more rewarding, since you discovered jazz-rock with this band, and still play it today.

Even if the last moments with Zappa were not satisfying, playing with him helped my vision of music evolve a lot. It was the same with Mahavishnu. I came from the classical tradition and had switched to jazz at the time of hard bop, and the lyrical compositions I had started to write in Paris at the end of the sixties didn't fit with these formal bop structures. Besides, in Europe, I had started experimenting with rock musicians who were interested in jazz and jazz musicians who were curious about the new technologies. So playing with Zappa, then McLaughlin was relevant: they were experimenting with wah-wah pedals, phase shifters, ring modulators and this brought me to electrify my violin and be able to try these new technologies, just like a guitarist. What’s more, the type of jazz rock I experimented with Mahavishnu allowed me to use my knowledge of classical music. The musical structures that Zappa and McLaughlin were using helped me get rid of the bop and standards tradition and let me follow whatever came to my mind. To this day my music still contains a huge part of structure and a huge part of improv. That’s why I usually write the compositions and why the band remains very stable. This also allowed me to have faithful followers all round the world. You hear everywhere that jazz-rock is dead, but plenty of people come and listen to the JLP Band!

The most recent evolution in your music was the integration of African elements and African musicians. How did this happen?

Actually I discovered African tribal music back in the sixties thanks to Belgian bassist Benoît Quersin. He went to Africa and recorded music on the spot, in the villages, and I was very interested by what he made me listen to. But during my stay in the USA, I lost contact with this music. Still some traces of it must have remained in me because around the time I was with Mahavishnu I started writing tunes using polyrhythms based on a triplet feel like most African music, as opposed to John McLaughlin's polyrhythms being based on even feel. In fact I rediscovered African music during a stay in Paris, in 1988. I had been told about African musicians living and playing there, but this time I met drummer Brice Wassy, from Cameroon, and he introduced me to some of his friends. I realized that most of them were also jazz musicians and that their influences were very diverse. In turn, they told me that they found my rhythmic approach very special and somehow African. I formed a new group with them, which recorded the CD Tchokola, and we toured the US. Ever since that time, I’ve always had African musicians in my group and my music has become more acoustic.

September 06, 2008 · 5 comments