By Ted Panken
Late in the afternoon on the final Sunday of this year's Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in Orvietoóa small hilltop city in which no structure within the walls that once contained it seems younger than half-a-millenniumópianist Stefano Bollani sipped pear juice while digesting his first real meal in days. Bollani was looking forward to a well-earned nap. Five days earlier, he'd been called to replace bossa nova legend Jo„o Gilberto, the festivalís headliner, for three sold-out shows in Teatro Mancinelli, an 18th century Umbrian opera house. Bollani had hustled to fulfill the task, and executed his duties with aplomb.
After performing a previously scheduled Thursday concert of duos with pianist Martial Solal and accordionist-pianist Antonello Salis, Bollani filled the house on Friday with a set by his working quintet. On Saturday he presented a quickly-assembled Brazil-themed concert, comprising his working group augmented by Paris-based Brazilian vocalist Marcos Sacramento, and also duos with clarinetist Anat Cohenóherself in town for the week with Duduka DaFonseca. The latter concert transpired a few hours after a sold-out duo performance with trumpeter Enrico Rava in the Sala Quattrocento, a 400-seat-room atop the Palazzo del Popolo in Orvietoís central square. After his nap, he would play sideman in a festival-concluding concert that evening with a group of Italian all-stars led by drummer Roberto Gatto.
American audiences know Bollani primarily through his long association with various Rava-led groups (ECM documented their duo repertoire on The Third Man, from 2006, and will soon release New York Days, by a Rava-led quintet that also includes Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, and Paul Motian), as well as the 2007 release, Piano Solo. Yet while he's an obscure figure in the States, Bollani is a quasi pop star in Italy. There, in addition to his eclectic musical productions, he's a television and radio personality, as well as a published author of both childrenís books and experimental novels.
Trained at the prestigious Luigi Cherubini Conservatory in Florenceówhere he graduated with honorsóBollani was a teenaged bebop acolyte. Now 36, his music has evolved; his solo concerts showcase rigorously formal yet freewheeling interpretations of far-flung repertoireóItalian pop, classical music, various South American song genres, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, art rock, and his own modernist originalsóin which he references a long timeline of jazz and classical styles, executed with enviable dexterity and touch, formidable contrapuntal skills, and nuanced pedaling. But he sells the highbrow fare with humor, entertaining his Italian audiences with remarks that parody various regional dialects, and occasionally concluding concerts with an appeal for tune requests, which he then collages into a meta-improvisation.
During the course of his Thursday duos, Bollani displayed other antics as well, both with Salis (among other things, he sat on the floor banging a tambourine to punctuate his partnerís solo episode) and with Solal, who went along with the jokes, among them a routine in which Bollani decided to play "musical piano benches." Solal even riposted with some of his own. At the end, the elder and junior maestro tossed-off an improvised melange of piano themes by Beethoven, Chopin, and other signposts of the European canon.
What youíre doing at this festival is impressive. Five days ago, youíre called to replace Joao Gilberto, who sold out all the tickets. Half the people came to town to hear him, and yet, by all appearances, youíre seamlessly occupying the flow, and improvising as you go along. You make it look very easy, but I know it isnít.
Well, the main thing was to set up the Brazilian Night concert, as I already knew that I was doing the concert with Solal and Salis, and I was able to bring my own band for the second nightówe played what we play. Of course, we didnít know each other, and of course, we had just two hours for rehearsal, and of course, I didnít want to do the usual standards of Brazilian music. So no girls from Ipanema; they stayed in Ipanema. No 'Desafinados' in the band. We played some choro, some samba, Chico Buarque [the Brazilian singer, guitarist, writer and composer]. So it wasnít just a question of taking a book and playing the songs.
I recently discovered choro and samba. I was invited to play at a festival in Brazil with my band, and a good friend of mine, a journalist who lives there, proposed me to record something with Brazilian musicians. He sent me something like 40 records of different things, and asked me to choose my repertoire. My record is called Carioca, and it will come out in America on EmArcy-Universal. Listening to choro ensembles helped me find a way to put the piano into this kind of musicóof course, the kind of music played by percussion and guitars is an old thing.
How many groups are you working with now?
I have my Danish trio, which I recorded in New York for ECM in November, as well as the duets with Enrico, and my quintet.
What role does the quintet serve for you? Is it the group for which you primarily compose?
Yes, original music. Absolutely. When I started the band, it was exactly this idea. I wanted a band to compose some music for.
Has Brazilian music had an impact on your compositional ideas?
I would say that everything has an effect on my ideas. If I was able, I could become a journalist and listen to, for example, the record I Visionari, and tell you, 'This is coming from Italian music,' or 'this is coming from Brazilian music,' etc. But I am not interested to explain myself, what is coming from where. Actually, in 2009, everything you are doing is coming from somewhere. You should be sure about that. What I like about this period is the postmodern idea to take a lot of different things, shake them, and see what is coming out. It is the idea of jazz music. It is not an original one. But the idea of the postmodern means that sometimes you are simply quoting something. People know so much about music history. Whether or not they can recognize a C-major, they can tell, 'Ah, itís joy;' C-minoró'Ooh, something happened.' Symphonic orchestraó'Ooh, itís classical music.' The strength of the drums, obviously, this is the theme of jazz music. There are a lot of elements that people can recognize, and you can play with them. This is always interesting, to play with language.
You do that when you do those encores.
Yes, for four or five years. I took that idea from another piano player, Victor Borge. I didnít see him do this on video, but I heard a record where he took requests, all classical things, and played them one-by-one. 'This is Chopin,' then he goes to Beethoven, then he goes... I thought I should try that. I call it a medley, but it isnít that exactly, because the themes come back. When you have, for example, five or six songs, itís like having six characters in a novel. You take them and move your cards and try to see what kind of figure comes out.
This presupposes knowing the material. How often do you encounter songs that you canít ...
Oh, not so often, though of course it happens. The audience doesnít expect it, so they ask for all of the famous songs. The worst thing is if they ask for a song that I donít do. They do this on purposeóthey are waiting for me to do this. But if I donít know it, usually I just invent it. Once on radio, they asked me for a song by Motorhead, which absolutely I donít know, and I said, 'Okay, now I am going to play the medley just to let you know the song of Motorhead will be this one [makes engine sounds].' Thatís what I do. In Germany once, a guy asked for AC-DC. I said, 'This is not that kind of concert, you go on out.'
Youíre 36 years old. You know a lot of songs.
A lot of old songs. Usually itís better if they ask me for old songs. If they ask me for Neil Young or James Taylor it can be dangerous. But if they ask me for Cole Porter or Nat King Cole or Paul Anka, or the Italian old songs, or the French old songs, I can do it. I grew up with old-fashioned things.
Youíve been a working musician since 15. Did you learn all these songs that way?
Not only. Also as a listener. My father had Fats Domino and Paul Anka and Nat King Cole records at home, and I started listening to these, and to the Italian ones. So while my friends were listening to Spandau Ballet or Duran-Duran or Tough-Talk, I was listening to Renato Carosone, I was listening to Celentanoóold stuff. Iím sure I liked the spirit and the freshness. Which is what Iím looking for sometimes in the pop songs today, and I donít find it because they are so serious. They talk about drugs, they talk about prostitution, they talk about problems, Jesus or Hell or whatever ...
Youíre talking about Bjork, Radiohead ...
I appreciate those two people, of course. You are talking about the two who everybody likes. But Italy is full of songwriters who are supposed to say serious things about the world: the war, religion, or whatever. In Italy we have a term for what Iím talking about, 'Musica legere,' 'light music.' It shouldnít be heavy. Sometimes I have the feeling that they want it to be heavy, to be important. If I want an important thing, I am going to buy a jazz record, or Mahler, or Schoenberg. If I want a pop song, it should be fresh. Sometimes I have a feeling it is not fresh at all. This doesnít mean that you are not supposed to talk about serious things. You can do that. But you have three minutes to talk about religion, so be cool and fresh because you cannot be a philosopher. You have to be a poet.
You also play with language when you compose and write..
I do. In almost any of my compositions, itís never 8 bars or 16 bars or 32 bars. Itís always 43. You miss something or thereís something more. Thatís why my musicians hate me.
Is that deliberate, or is it something that just happens?
Iím not sure, but I think itís deliberate. I pretend it happens.
Why is it deliberate?
[Cradles belly with hands] Because there is a little Stefano Bollani inside the big one, who wants to be original. He is saying, 'Ok, this song is nice, but it sounds like a standard or it sounds a little cornyóletís put a bar more.' I feel itís natural, but Iím not sure it is.
It seems that you need to have many voices at play all the time, certainly when you approach the piano, since, apart from the eclecticism of your repertoire, you move in and out of so many stylistic categories. Was that always how you felt things, or did this develop later?
Probably not at the beginning. My first passion was pop music when I was a kid, because I wanted to be a singer. My second passion was jazz, from 11 years old 'til 16. I only listened to hard bopóHorace Silver-Art Blakey, not Jazz-Rock, or Free Jazz. I was playing the shit, like the Taliban of hard bop. Then I discovered Bill Evans, then I discovered all the old ones; Iíd been listening to them a little bit, but then I fell in love with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and all the others. But it took me a while to listen to the Pat Metheny Group. At 16, there was a kind of explosion, a supernovaóI got into rock music. The most intellectual ones, maybe. I loved King Crimson, for example, or Beach Boys, the Beatles ...
The songwriters. And they are musicians, too. You cannot say they are not. And classical music, but it took me a while. I studied classical music, which is close to jazz music harmonically speakingóDebussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. Earlier I was studying it, but I didnít really like it. I was studying the technique. I didnít really like Beethoven at that moment.
But the way you use the pedal and your touch, itís obvious ...
Yes. I had serious classical training. My teacher was coming from a very old school, the Neapolitan school of piano playing, which gave to the world people like Aldo Ciccolini [the pianist], or Ricardo Muti [the conductor and soon-to-be Music Director of the Chicago Symphony], for example. He was teaching me with a stick sometimes. If I made a mistake, it was like bapp! So very serious. And he didnít know I was playing jazz at the time. When he discovered that, I was sweating, because I thought, 'Ok, I am going out from the conservatory; heís going to throw me out.' But he was clever. Two months before the final examination, he just said, 'Okay, I discovered youíre playing jazz in jazz clubs. Let me listen to some of this so-called jazz music.' Because he hated it. He only knew Louis Armstrong. Once he went to a Sun Ra concert, and he hated it, he told me. It was too far from him. I played him 'Someday My Prince Will Come' and he just said, 'Okay, letís go on.' I felt, well, probably he liked that, but he cannot tell me. Later, he came to a concert of mine (actually, it was my first concert with Enrico Rava in 1996), and he enjoyed it so much. Now heís happy about me, about my playing, even if he doesnít like jazz. He was clever to understand that this was my way.
Were you affected by the avant-garde? You use extended techniques within the flow of your performance.
A little-little bit. I donít like the ambiance of contemporary music, of the contemporary composersóbut I really love some of them. My favorite is Ligeti. I read the book of interviews he made before dying. Even if you donít know the music, itís interesting because the character is so interesting. Thatís what I love. I arrived there passing by Conlon Nancarrow actually, who Iím quite interested in as wellóthe technique and the idea. Maybe after 20 minutes of Conlon Nancarrow, itís enough as a listener. But as a musician, I can study with the compositions, because I am interested in the process.
So itís a challenge, an additive thing.
Yes, I would say so. Itís not a passion. Well, Ligeti is a passion. I like that. I can listen to that and I enjoy it, because I think itís good music. But most of the time, contemporary music is a challenge. People like Luciano Berio or a lot of other composers are interesting, but I am not in love with them.
How about the jazz avant garde in the Ď70s?
Almost the same.
You were speaking of the Taliban of hard bop, but my impression is that these attitudes began around 1980 in response to jazz neoclassicism and the Art Blakey 'Young Lions' editions of the Jazz Messengers, and so on.
Still in Italy we are divided into these camps. When you are out of these two lines, people donít understand what youíre doingóthere is the Avant Garde Party and thereís the Hard Bop Party, and nothing in between. In fact, a lot of journalists and maybe so-called jazz fans donít understand what I am doing, because you cannot say that I am a Hard Bop Taliban but you also cannot say that I am playing avant-garde all the time. Iím trying simply to make good music and to take the best (or maybe take the worst) from everything. We should have a Dixieland party or a Cool Jazz party. Iím waiting for that.
Coming from the outside, thatís the opposite of my impression. For example, Iíve written liner notes for projects by Salvatore Bonafede and Maria Pia De Vito, who draw from many areas.
Yeah, of course. I donít want to be snobbish. But there are 20 musicians in Italy who everybody knows, also broad, who are doing their own musicóthey just play good music. I have no problem with them. When they think about Italy, they talk about Rava, Pieranunzi, Maria Pia, Salvatore, Rita Marcatulli, Mirabassi, Fresu, Trovesi, etc. Every one of these people has their own path which is totally different from the usual path of Italian musicians. Usually we are coming out from some schools, Siena Jazz or Umbria Jazz, which are not really the American way, but almost. You play the standards from the Real Book, you learn the scales, you learn the chords; you learn the right thing to do, and then maybe a bit of free jazz or whatever.
But I do think that every one of the people I mentioned has a different approach and a different way. Some come from folk music, some of them are coming from maybe the classical background. I have a classical background, but I was playing keyboards in a pop band, so I am a mixture. We are very different from each otherówhich is why itís hard to decide if there is an Italian jazz scene. Well, we also have so much in common. Probably itís this love for the melody and a certain kind of humor. I donít know. But I am not able to find the thread which links us all together.
I havenít heard you deal so much with Italian materials.
Not so much.
It seems to be pop.
Yes. It depends on where you are coming from. I was born in Milano and I grew up in Florence. So we are talking about the north and talking about big cities. I was not involved in folk traditions, or costumes, parties, folk parties or celebrations, this kind of thing. Florence is a very old town, so we are full of these kinds of things. But itís a big city, an international city. Our tradition is much more pop songs, kind of guitar .... Some songwriters from the Ď20s. But pop songs. not what you call folk music. Trovesi is coming from a small town close to Bergamo, and heís older than me also. Once a week they play the salterello [a kind of dance]. So itís his own tradition. Salvatore is from Sicily, from Naples. Itís really different.
So itís hard to speak of Italian jazz because itís so ...
I think itís big. I know that it seems small if you see it from the U.S. But itís actually too big. As you know, we are united for a century and a half. 1861. This means we had Spanish in the South. We had the Vatican (we still have). Tuscany was independent. We were the first ones in the world not to have sentence to death. The Grand Duke of Tuscana, the first ones in the worldóitís like a big democracy. Then in the north, you had the Germans, or the Napoleone. So we are really different.
What I really think about Italian jazz is that everyone is an island himself. I could not compare Trovesi to Bonafede. It seems two different worlds. So everybody is concentrating on his own traditions, what they want from the music. Of course, we have some boppers who are very good, and you probably cannot feel that from them. But the other ones, I think theyíre islands.
Antonello Salis is a genius, and heís an autodidact. He doesnít read music. He plays accordion, Hammond, piano, whatever, and he is absolutely out of the world. Heís coming from Sardinia, and you cannot understand how the music is coming out from him. He is so different from me. I have been classically trained, I know where the notes are, and I am full of records I listen to. He doesnít have a piano at home. Apart from our duo, weíve played so much together with this band, Orchestra Titanic. I really think we are twins, in a way, but we have a totally different approach. Thatís what I like about Italy. You will find musicians so different.
Sometimes you have a feeling when you travel abroad ... For example, Denmark. Thatís the place to be. Their schools are working, full of musicians, they are 25 years old and they already can play every style. They are wonderful, but when you tell them, 'Okay, now you can play whatever you want ...' 'Whatever I want? Okay, letís play a blues.' 'Ah, okay, letís play a blues.' Sometimes you have this feeling that they lack imagination. You donít have this feeling with Trovesi or Maria Pia or whatever. You feel that they know that they want to be themselves.
The problem with education, for example, is that all these schools, the American ones and the European ones which are coming from the American ones, theyíre wonderful if you take them, and then forget about them and start playing the music. But itís dangerous if you think that's the music. A lot of friends who were with me at the conservatory are still trying to play music, but they are not working in music, not making a living, because they are still thinking so much about scales, chords, arpeggios, technique, practicing, whateveróthey never relaxed and tried to play music. Schools are wonderful, but you cannot take them so seriously. Sometimes you have the feeling that people coming out from Berklee or the Monk Institute in Los Angeles or Siena Jazz, think they know everything. 'Okay, they told me what music is.' Itís not like that.
Has your playing changed much over the last ten years?
Actually, I do think itís changing over time, but itís hard to explain how. The things I listen to are changing. I think the most important change was in the mind. I donít know exactly when, but I had a kind of switch-on when I understood that I am not in love with jazz as a kind of music, but I am in love with jazz as an idea. That helped me start to play other things, from Beach Boys and whatever, without feeling that I was doing something weird. I was simply doing what I was supposed to doótrying to get something new from old stuff. Earlier I had thought that jazz musicóhard bop or Earl Hines or Cool Jazz or whateverówas a music I liked because of the sound, because of the solos, because of the forms, because of a feeling, because I liked it as a listener. But when I started playing it professionally, I understood that what I liked was the idea of having something different each night. I donít know if this is a definition of jazz, because a lot of jazz musicians are not playing like that. They are improvising some solos, but the structures are so precise that you cannot really say that they are trying to build something new each night.
You seem more of a compositional improviser than a stylist. You seem to be thinking structurally all the time.
Actually, I would say that I am not interested in building my own style, because I do think that it will come out or not. You just have to play. You shouldnít sit down and think, 'I should go in this direction.' I donít want to do that. Probably I did that when I was young. I thought, 'Wow, I like this piano player, so I want to play in his line ...'
You imitated Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock ...
Yeah, of course. Everybody did that when we were young. I was trying to play like Oscar Peterson. But I have to say that it took me a little while to understand that this wasnít interesting. For a while, when I was 16, we had a project with a trio playing as the Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motianówe rehearsed twice a week and did some concerts and clubs. But it made no sense. We did it with Monk, too, and probably with a few others. It was very nice to study it, and I really appreciate that we did it. Thatís quite interesting to do as practice. Itís not interesting at all when you do it on stage.
To answer your question, I am not thinking about what style I should play. Itís just Iím playing .... Then I listen back, and I say, 'Wow, I sound like a guy trying to be Keith Jarrett here.' But then after a minute, I see where Iím doing something different, so ok. Whew. Itís ok. Good. Because I donít really want to. There are a lot of piano players or stylists who I studied so much that I donít recognize them when they are coming out. For example, if I am doing a chord which sounds like a McCoy Tyner chord or a Paul Bley chord, I immediately know that I am doing it, but would immediately feel that itís an external thing coming into my music, that Iím adding, like putting on salt. But some chops which are coming, I would say, from Horace Silver, just to mention one, or Oscar Peterson, I donít even recognize because itís part of my language.
You mentioned the little Stefano Bollani inside you who thinks his music is original. Does the big Stefano Bollani think the music is original?
I was talking about compositions, I donít like compositions.
Because they are cages. I prefer to play a simple thing. Talking about improvisation is more difficult. I would lie saying that I donít like my piano playing, of course. But talking about my compositions, I can tell you, I am not a Bollani fan. In fact, if you see my records and my concerts, I play a range of five or six compositions of mine, and I wrote 50 or 60. 'Elena e Il Suo Violino,' for example, I recorded three times in eight years, which is a lot. So some compositions I think are ok. But a lot of them I play, and after two months I say, 'I have enough.' But I donít have enough of playing 'There Will Never Be Another You' or 'Cheek To Cheek.'
What is it about those songs evokes that reaction? Is it about the music. The signification?
Yes, the signification. Of course there is that aspect. But most of all, to me, it is a heart thing. I am really mad for these kinds of songs, for that kind of repertoire, the atmosphere. Itís nostalgia for something you never lived and never experienced.
Thatís interesting, too, because youíre speaking of originality and wanting to move forward, and yet youíre loving both things simultaneously.
But again, I am not an avant-gardist. Of course, I want to play new things, but I am always listening to old music. If you ask me to choose between a new record and an old record, I would buy the old record always. My house is full of old records, not contemporary records. The past, of course, is full of big teachers and great masters. But also, you cannot exactly play the way they were playing. You cannot exactly play that kind of arrangement because itís anachronistic. Thatís why itís interesting, because you cannot really imitate them. You have to listen to them, eat them, and try to find your own way. If you are always listening to contemporary musicians, the risk is that you will imitate them.
Iím fascinated by the way people who live in very old cultures embrace modernity and the new. Youíre in Orvieto, where everything is 800 years old, and itís beautiful, incomparable, nothing like it. Youíre from Florence, the home of Dante ...
Right. All the art. Leonardo, everyone.
The tradition of Western Art is all there. Does that impact you in any subconscious way?
I think so. Living in Italy, you cannot avoid history, because everything is so old. You can avoid history if you live in other places in the world. But I think itís a spirit most of all. Because I cannot say I am mad about Leonardo DaVinci, I know his story or whatever. But I can say there is a kind of spirit in Tuscany which is a free spirit. I am not from Tuscany, but I lived there for a long time. We are so close to the Vatican, and we are absolutely not Catholic. Probably a lot of people in Tuscany would say that they are Catholic. But since the end of the Second World War, we always had the Communist Party or the Socialist Party at the top of the region. Yes, we have churches, of course. We had churches even at that time. The Medici family, of course they produced a lot of churches.
The church was an instrument of political power.
Exactly. But itís not really because you are religious. We have always been free. We were alone before Italy was united. Thatís good and bad, because we are used to think with our mind, and our humor is much more wicked than other ones. We have comic papers which are really bad to everybody. This is not a question of politicsóif you are of the Left party, you just say jokes about Berlusconi, or the opposite. No, you are bad to everybody! Because you only care about yourself, because you are coming from a place where once they said the center of everything is the Man, is myself. I think we had it. I think I do have it. The center of the universe is me. Itís not the ego thing. Itís the idea of the world. Itís the Man. Not me. The one. The power I have here is unbelievable...
Youíre pointing to your brain.
Exactly. Itís much more than the power that the church has, or George Bush, or Signor Berlusconi. This is the power I have.
So the tradition of Humanism as established in the Renaissance is ...
Absolutely. Itís coming from that.
This is the end of Part One of Ted Panken's two-part interview with Stefano Bollani. Part Two will be posted soon.
January 31, 2009 · 4 commentsTags:
By Tomas PeŮa
Talent, dedication, formal training, and the opportunity to perform withóand learn fromóone of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived: all are factors in helping make Clifton Anderson one of today's top trombonists. Of course, Clifton is best-known for his work with Sonny Rollins, but he's also shared the stage with Slide Hampton, Abdullah Ibrahim, Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, Dionne Warwick, James 'Jabbo' Ware, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wyclef Jean, Stevie Wonder Ö the list goes on.
Clifton produced his debut CD as a leaderóLandmarks, on the Milestone labelóin 1997. His performance and compositions received critical acclaim, and contributed to his growing following among jazz fans and trombone aficionados, worldwide. Since the release of Landmarks, Clifton has led his own groups, here in the U.S. and abroad.
Now, with the release of his new CDóDecade, on the Doxy/EmArcy imprintóAnderson has created an outstanding showcase for his skills as a player, composer, bandleader, and producer. The album is aimed, states Anderson, at 'encapsulating ten years of development, my perceptions and insights as a trombonist, producer, and writer.' The album is dedicated to the memory of his mother, the late Gloria Anderson.
No doubt you have been asked this question numerous times, but for the sake of our readers, whatís it like being the nephew of Sonny Rollins?
Well, for a musician it's the best place to be. Of course, there's a mixed bag to it. But first and foremost, it is probably the best experience a musician could have, because of the vast experience and wealth of information that Sonny carries with him, and who he is. Itís not just about playing with Sonny every night Ö itís also being around him and absorbing the vast amount of information that he has to offer. People often ask, 'Does Sonny show you this or that?' But we've never had that kind of relationship. He shows me things on stage when he plays, but never anything specifically. Itís a matter of observation and being open to what he has to offer. And he has a whole lot to offer! There is never a dull moment with him; every night is different. Sonny has always been referred to as a spontaneous improviser, and itís really true. Itís just his personality. His approach to music is really about where his head is at a particular time.
I find it interesting that he refers to himself as a 'work in progress.'
In that regard he's an unusual artist to be around, because there aren't many artists who really, genuinely operate in that way. Mind you, I am not trying to put anyone down. I'm just saying Sonny is a unique item in that regard. He comes from a period when there were many giants who operated that way, so this is a situation that is not easily duplicated. He is one of the last artists of his generation that is playing the way he plays.
How is he doing health-wise?
How old is he now?
Heís 78 years old. We just got back from a tour in Zurich, Switzerland, and he still carries the show. I mean, we all get to play and do our thing, but Sonny carries the show. To get back to your original question, itís a one-of-a-kind experience to be working with him, and to be his nephew. On a more personal level, if you ever get the opportunity to meet or know him, he is really one of the most humane, loving people that you will probably ever meet in your life. He is very quiet and to himself, but he is very caring and very generous. I canít say enough about him. As an uncle, he has always been very supportive of me, and he has not given me an easy road. When I first started working with him, I would hear through the grapevine that the only reason I was playing Sonny was because I am his nephew. But a lot of people donít know that he fired me [from his band], and it wasnít all roses working with him.
He didnít favor you.
He didnít make my road any different from anybody elseís. I was subject to the same scrutiny as any other musician. So it's been a great experience, and I wouldnít trade if for anything.
In addition to being a member of Sonnyís band you are his producer. In fact, you produced Sonny, Please and more recently, Road Shows, Vol. 1.
I think that my being a producer made it a more comfortable experience for Sonny than usual, even though itís never comfortable! [Laughs] I think we were able to make it a better situation, and it helped with the results. When we recorded Sonny, Please, we had a group that had been playing together for about a year straight. We had just come off a Japanese tour, so everyone was pretty hot, and there was a lot of good chemistry between us. I was fortunate to be able to produce Sonny, Please, and have [engineer] Rich Corcello with me, who's been recording Sonny for about thirty years. It was like a family reunion. We also worked on Road Shows, Volume 1, and were able to find some really good material. I'm sure that there are other performances that we havenít listened to that are outstanding, as well. Also, we are recording every night, so there will be a lot of great things to come.
Letís talk about your formative years. Your father led the church choir and played the organ. Your mother, Gloria Anderson, who recently passed away, sang and played the piano. Please accept my condolences on the recent passing of your mother.
Thank you very much.
Did she get to hear your new recording before she passed?
I showed her the [cover] artwork. At the time she was in the hospital, but she did get to hear it, and she gave it her seal of approval.
Getting back to your family, you have another uncle who is an accomplished violinist. I think it is safe to say that music is in your genes.
Oh yeah, like it or not! [Laughs]
You've been quoted as saying 'Everything I do musically is a representation of my life, and my life is really closely associated with my family. I have very strong relationships obviously with my uncle, and with my mother; they've been the two essential relationships. In every note I play, there's something of my mother in there and something of Sonny.' And then there's the story that I read in just about every interview you have ever done, where your mother took you to see the film The Music Man, and how much you loved the parade scene with the seventy-six trombones. Shortly thereafter, Sonny bought you a trombone, but at the time you didnít really take it seriously.
I knew I was musically inclined, but my mother had a lot of reservations about me becoming a professional musician, or having a career in music. She saw the struggles that Sonny went through, and she knows how hard the music business is, so she wasnít too thrilled about me becoming a musician. She would have preferred that I follow in my other uncleís footsteps, who is a doctor. I like biology and those kinds of things, but the music was just pulling me.
I read an interview in the African-American Review, where you talk about the negative stereotypes that plague jazz musicians. Itís no secret that Sonny, Charlie Parker, Miles and Coltrane had issues back then. But times have changed.
Well, I think itís this whole mystique with jazz music, which was kind of successful in promoting the music during the '50s and '60s. Unfortunately, itís a perception that still lingers.
At first, you didnít take the trombone seriously, but there were a number of factors that turned you around: your peers in the Bronx Borough Wide concert band, and the music of trombonist J.J. Jackson.
I was one of those kids who was always the best musician of the bunch, so in junior high school they recommended that I audition for Bronx Borough Wide. When I got there, there were other kids who could play like me, and in a way it was a little more inspiring. There was a guy name Thomas Brown who was running the Bronx Borough Wide program at that time, who happened to be a trombone player. He whipped us into shape. And then there were a lot of young guys and ladies who were in the orchestra, a few of whom went on to become highly respected musicians.
Do you remember their names?
Drummer Steve Jordan went on to make a lot of great records with jazz and rock musicians. He's also a producer. In fact, he just produced the music for the film Cadillac Records. He's done a lot of great things, and is highly respected in the business. There was a bass trombonist named Mallion Walker who is no longer with us. Itís hard for me to remember all of their names.
Did you get turned-on to the music of J.J. Johnson at that time?
Yeah, it was in that period, before I got into high school. It kind of turned me around, because his sound was so unique. After I heard J.J., my curiosity was piqued, and I tried to figure out how to get that sound out of the instrument.
Witnessing first-hand the effect that Sonnyís music had on the public must have been a factor, also.
That was a major thing. Whenever Sonny played in town, my mother would gather the whole family and we would come out and support Sonny. He did a concert where Freddie Hubbard was supposed to be the special guest artist. Well, Freddy got sick, so Sonny called two of his 'friends' at the last minute to cover for Freddy. Are you ready for this? His friends were Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus! [Laughs] Even though I knew my uncle was a big celebrity, I was just beginning to listen to jazz music in a serious way. But I was also listening to Motown, Sly Stone, and a lot of pop music Ö a lot of other influences.
I wasn't aware of Sonnyís impact on people until I went to that concert and went backstage. The energy was something I had never experienced before. It just blew me away when I saw how people were so happy, involved, and engaged with Sonny, and how they would wait just to meet him. It was like the Pope came [laughs] Ö so I said, 'Wow, this is incredible, I'd like to be able to do something that will make people feel this good.' I think that was probably the turning point for me in terms of wanting to be a musician, because I saw how the people were so involved with Charlie [Mingus] and Dizzy [Gillespie], tooóthe way people were just hovering around them. So I though it would be great if I could make people that happy.
Isnít that exactly what you are doing?
Well, I am trying [laughs]. I hope one day, while I am still on this plane, to approach that level of having people feel that good about what I am doing.
After attending the New York High School of Music and Art you briefly attended the University of New York.
I went there for one year and I studied with a teacher who came highly recommended, but we didnít work well together.
You then attended and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. After graduation, you participated in a lot of recording sessions, worked on Broadway (Dreamgirls and Nine), and were a member of the Harlem Festival Orchestra. You also played with Slide Hamptonís World of Trombones with Steve Turre, Conrad Herwig, Robin Eubanks and Frank Lacey, among others.
Actually, while I was still at the Manhattan School of Music, Kenny Kirkland and I (as well as some other musicians our age), were getting heavily involved in the New York jazz scene. We would travel around and go to jam sessions and try to find similar opportunities to get involved in. My first record date was with Kenny Kirkland and saxophonist, Carlos Garnett. It was called Cosmos Nucleus. At the time Carlos had a big band Ö
I wasnít aware of Carlosís music until recently. I was completely blown away when I heard it.
Back then, Carlos was the guy that everyone was talking about. In fact, he was being compared to John Coltrane.
As I understand he is no longer living in the states.
I think he had some issues and had to get away. But he was a very powerful musician and Kenny and I were very fortunate to have had the chance to play with and be around him. It was a great first record date for me.
How did you get involved with Slide Hamptonís World of Trombones?
I had a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music named John Clark who had a student named Janice Robinson, who was a great trombonist. Apparently, she met Slide and he talked with her about putting together a trombone choir. Anyway, they were short a few trombone players, so she called me and asked if I would be interested. Of course I said yes. At the time, I thought it was going to be about four or five trombones, but as it turns out it was actually nine or ten trombones. I canít remember all of the guys, but the original group was Earl McIntyre Ö Janice Robinson, Steve Turre, myself, and Ö I'm leaving out a couple of guys that I canít remember. A year after that, Slide refined the concept and brought in some heavy hitters. We had a core of trombonists that were constant, but we also had lot of people that came and went, like Curtis Fuller, Frank Lacey, Robin Eubanks, Clarence Banks, and Conrad Herwig. It was an incredible group, but we just couldnít keep it together.
A lot of the band members have gone on to make names for themselves.
That group whipped us into shape! When you're young and up-and-coming, you have egos. Everybody thinks they're the 'baddest' thing on the block. But of course Slide shut us up by writing some really difficult stuff [laughs]. It really refined all of us. I donít think there are any of us who would not say that it was a pivotal moment in their career, especially for section playing. Steve and I, Slide, and Doug Purviance: we were the section on-call for all of the major jazz stuff that took place in the city. It was that way because our section playing was so tight. It really was an incredible experience.
Before joining up with your uncleís band, you worked with Frank Foster, Lester Bowie, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner Ö
I was freelancing, and I got an opportunity to work with Mc Coy Tynerís Big Band, which was another great experience.
Also, the Mighty Sparrow, and the Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino Ö
I go to Japan under my own name. Hino was kind enough to ask me to be a special guest at some of his concerts. I was trying to get him to play on Decade, but we were unable to reconcile our schedules.
You hooked-up with Sonnyís band in 1983. Between tours you've performed and recorded under your own name. In 1997 you recorded Legend. More recently you recorded Decade. What is the significance of the title?
It represents a lot of things. On the surface, the 10 year span between my first recording and the new release. Below the surface, I wanted to represent what my experiences and perspectives have been, whatís gone on in the worldógood and badóover that time frame. At the same time, I wanted to keep the feeling upbeat and hopeful.
After the last eight years, we could certainly use it Ö
Yeah, itís been like a hammer over everybodyís head. Itís about the last ten years, and what life is about. Obviously, my mother is not here anymore, John Stubblefield is not here anymore. Itís all wrapped up in what transpires in life over a ten year period. Some of the songs are about personal relationships that worked out or didnít work out. Itís really about relationships and life.
'I'm Glad There Is You' and 'We'll Be Together Again' were recorded with your mother in mind. And you mention the late tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield; he was supposed to play on this album, but passed away before it was recorded. You dedicated the tune 'Stubbs' to him. Kenny Garrett, who took over as saxophonist, did a great job of capturing Johnís vibe.
Yeah, Kenny is something else [laughs].
Then there is 'Iím Old Fashioned,' and 'If' [originally recorded by the '70s pop group, Bread], which is a very interesting choice.
Itís funny, because I havenít heard that tune in years. But the melody just stuck in my mind and wouldnít go away, so I had to deal with it. Plus, the tune lends itself to the trombone. We just hit it in the studio; it was just one of those natural things.
You spice things up with 'Ah Soon Come,' a calypso.
Yeah, thatís in my blood.
What exactly is your background?
Sonnyís side of the family, which is my motherís side, is from St. Croix, and my father is Jamaican. I was born here in Harlem, so itís a nice little trinity. 'Iím Old Fashioned' was on [the Rollins album] Sunny Days, Starry Nights, so thatís one of the first standards I played with Sonny.
How about introducing the band? Letís start with bassist Bob Cranshaw.
Bob has always been very supportive of me. He's guided and helped me with direction and ideas, and different ways to think about things. Bob is such a great bass player that you get spoiled by him, because what he does sounds very simple but is extremely complex. His ability to lay down a groove the way that he does Ö I donít hear that in a lot of bass players. Itís history, and there is no substitute for it. So I am very grateful to Bob. He is always there for me and I am so appreciative of him.
Christian Mc Bride is another tremendous bass player.
Christian is such a musical musician. His approach to music is really lyrical ... he has the chops, he has everything, but he doesnít use it in a way that is not musical. He's right in it every time, and his choice of notes is excellent. Christian and I would always come up on each other in different ways, so I recommended that Sonny use him for the Carnegie Hall show. After that, I invited him to participate in my recording, and he said yes. It was great having him.
Then there are Al Foster and Steve Jordan on drums.
Al Foster and I go back. When I first started coming to rehearsals with Sonny Ö I didnít always play but Sonny would let me sit in now and then, and Al would say to Sonny, 'Your nephew sounds good, you should put him in the band.' [Laughs] Steve I know from Bronx Borough Wide. He has a pocket and can play well in any style.
You have one of my favoriteóand one of the most underratedópianists on the scene today, my man Larry Willis.
Larry Willis is just incredible. I've worked with Larry in other situations. He played with the World of Trombones. I also worked with him in a number of other situations. I thought of him because I thought that his style would work out very well. And it did.
Also, pianist Steven Scott Ö
I met Steve through working with Sonny, and we just hit it off. His style is very different from Larry. I wanted to provide a nice variety of things for the record. I wanted to have a nice structure with a lot of beautiful colors, and represent the good things that have happened over the last ten years.
Saxophonist Eric Wyatt and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu Ö
Eric is Sonnyís godson and an up-and-coming player who, I feel, has not received the recognition he deserves. He runs the sessions at Sweet Rhythm [the NYC night club] and participates in a lot of jam sessions around the city. A lot of musicians know him but he is not well known by the general public.
Kimati is a master of African percussion who works regularly with Sonny. I met him on a job I did with Steve Turre when he had the Shell Choir. At the time, Steve had [percussionist] Milton Cardona and Kimati in his band, and the two of them played great. At one point Sonny was looking for a percussionist and I recommended Kimati.
I'd worked with a lot of the musicians who are on this record. That was a factor in choosing the musiciansópeople that I knew who would have a good chemistry with one another.
That definitely comes across in the recording. It sounds like the sessions were relaxed and easy. Another subject I would like to broach is that playing trombone helped you overcome asthma. I read that you were thinking about starting an organization in which music is used to help kids with asthma.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of kids, particularly here in New York City, who suffer from asthma. I'd like to start a not-for-profit organization that utilizes the techniques of playing a wind instrument: how to breathe, how to work with an instrument to create a sound and tone, and how to focus on the vibration. It is mental work that translates into the physical, and will help them relieveóor at least manageóthe disease. If I could put an organization like that together, it would be of great benefit to children. I just have to find a way to implement my idea. Also, it has to be broad-based, so that it reaches a lot of children.
In a past interview with Herb Sinter [African-American Review, 1999] you said, 'I'd like to see jazz and the artists that have contributed so much to it get their deserved recognition financially, historically, prestigiously. I'd also like to see us have more control of the business end of things. I hope that in the near future more jazz musicians can recognize the worst, and not be so open to manipulation by others.' Does that still hold true, or have things improved somewhat since you made that statement?
There has been some progress, but itís funny; itís like a changing paradigm. The internet has opened up a whole new arena. Today, a musician can make a record and sell his or her product through the internet or at their live performances. Also, musicians have more control over what they do. Up until five or six years ago, the record companies were insisting that we use certain musicians on our records, and we had to record all this kind of crap, and we had very little control over what we did creatively.
But what I find is that there is still a choke hold in the area of live performances. Things are being controlled by a very tight-knit group of people whose business relies on booking the same musicians all the time. As a result, certain musicians get all of the work, all of the time, which makes it difficult for other musicians to get any work. I know a lot of great musicians here in New York City who you never see anywhere. On the other hand, a good number of the musicians who I see at the festivalsówhich are the prime jobsósome are very young and they donít really have anything established to contribute to the art form, they really donít have a voice. Yet they are there because the people backing them are making a lot of money. So I donít know how, or if that will ever change.
I am amazed by the sheer amount of talent who canít get a gig.
Itís very difficult. Itís even difficult for me, and I've been in this business for how many years? I know most of the festival producersóespecially throughout Europe, because I play these festivals with Sonnyóand I have difficulty finding work.
I was talking to a musician recently (who will go unnamed) who's spent a lot of his hard-earned money on publicists and radio promotion, and is still having difficulty getting good gigs.
This is what I am saying. These venues and these promoters and these booking agents have this thing, and they keep it very closed. Itís fine for them to want to be business men and conduct their business their way, but we are dealing with an art form and it does a disservice to the music. Ultimately jazzóthe musicópays a price. People are consistently pushed and placed out here who are not necessarily the best or the most diverse group of people to represent the music. Itís a disservice to the music and especially the listeners, because listeners are manipulated by what is pressed upon them. When I mention to people that I am a musician, I often have people say to me, 'I love jazz, I love Kenny G!'
I blame a lot of that on radio, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. With the exception of public and college radio, radio has not lived up to its potential or responsibility to educate the public by playing a wide variety of good music.
I remember when I was in high school, I would run home to turn on WRVR because they were playing all of this great music. Now itís not really like that.
One of my idols is the late DJ, Frankie Crocker, who played Mongo Santamaria and John Coltrane back-to-back, and made no excuses. He just played good music and thatís what's missing. Radio is so important, and the lack of good music on the radio is hurting everyone: musicians, the music business, everyone.
Speaking of the radio, what have you been listening to lately?
[Laughs] Itís such a mess, such a potpourri Ö
Thatís a good thing.
Letís see Ö Lee Morgan, The Sidewinder; George Lewis, Changing with the Times; Danilo Pťrez, Across the Crystal Sea; Kenny Garrett, Simply Said; McCoy Tyner, New York Reunion; Karol Orchestra, Scheherazade; Rihanna, Good Girl Gone Bad, and Sonnyís live performance archives, 1996 to present.
That's the kind of diversity I am talking about! With that, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to speak with Jazz.com. Good luck with Decade.
Thank you, Tomas.
Visit Clifton Anderson's Web site: www.cliftonanderson.net
Landmarks (Milestone, 1997)
Sonny Please (Doxy, 2006)
Sanctified Shells, w/Steve Turre (Verve, 1992)
January 24, 2009 · 1 commentTags:
By Ted Panken
In 1975, not long after he left the Berklee School of Music, Bill Frisell heard a recording by Carlos Santana that would permanently impact his musical production. ďSantana played this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,Ē Frisell said recently. ďI was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me nowóthat piano-y sustained thing.Ē
In point of fact, Frisellís recorded output includes surprisingly few encounters with pianists, although his three duo performances with McCoy Tyner on the 2008 release Guitars [Half Note] are highlights of the release. But over the past decade-and-a-half, Frisell has incorporated the trumpet into his compositions through the distinctive tonal personality of Ron Miles, a fellow son of Denver.
In August, Miles made a rare New York appearance as a leader, performing a three-night mid-week run at the Jazz Standard with an A-list group headlined by Frisell, but also including bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Matt Wilson. On the final day, Miles and Frisell joined me at WKCR to discuss their musical relationship.
Youíve been playing together now for how long?
BF: I actually just got a poster from the first gig that we played. Was it 1993?
RM: Itís when Justice was a baby, so, yes. 1993.
As Bill once described it to me, you sent Bill a cassette, Bill heard it and didnít have a chance to hear it immediately...
BF: Iím not sure if Iíve ever told Ron about this. Did I ever tell you, Ron?
RM: I donít know.
BF: You sent me this cassette, which came to me second-hand, through Hans Wendl, our now-mutual friend, who told me, ďThereís this guy; I wanted you to hear this, and maybe play on a recording.Ē All I knew was that the cassette was by some trumpet player who lived in Denver. I listened to it, and it sounded really cool. It was uniqueóit knocked me out. But I never talked to you. I told Hans, ďJust say hi to him, and sorry, I donít have time,Ē blah-blah-blah. Whatever. It didnít work out that we met at that time.
A couple of years went by, and Iím driving... I remember the exact spot. Iím in my car, in Seattle, downshifting to go up a hill, and on the radio they were playing a record by Fred Hess, the saxophonist, and it was a Duke Ellington tune, ďChelsea BridgeĒ or something. Anyway, it was music by people I didnít know, and thereís a saxophone solo and then a trumpet soloóand it was like, ďItís got to be that guy.Ē I knew it was Ron from having heard the cassette a couple of years before. It knocked me out again. Then I thought, ďIíve got to call him up.Ē I went home and found the cassette, which had your 303 area code number on it, and I called you. We ended up talking for a long time, and it turned out that we went to the same high school, and knew a lot of the same people. For example, Ron was close with my main guitar teacher, and played with him. It was this instant thing, just from that conversation, and the feeling was, ďMan, weíve really got to play.Ē Then Ron asked me to come to Denver and play, whenever that was, Ď93...
BF: Was that too long a description?
No, it was great. Very thorough. Ron, does Billís account roughly corroborate with your recollection?
RM: Yes. At the time, this record label was interested in me, and they asked me who I wanted to be on the record. Iím from Denver, and I didnít know what record labels did, so I thought, ďWell, letís see...I like Bill Frisell,Ē and I started going down my list of the musicians I really loved. They said, ďWhy donít you call them and see if theyíll be on your record.Ē Then I made up little cassettes and sent it to everyone. It never really panned out, although Bill actually did write me a postcard. Not long after, I remember coming home from school, and my wife said, ďBill Frisell is on the answering machine.Ē I was like, ďWhat?!Ē It was one of those moments. A friend of mine got a call from Miles Davis once, and that tape...
It wasnít a fake Miles Davis.
RM: No, it was really Miles Davis. It was a kid from Greeley who was playing saxophone. It was that kind of moment. I listened to the tape, and it was really Bill Frisell, and I called him. I just couldnít believe it. Billís sitting here, so I wonít embarrass him too terribly much, but to stand on the bandstand with him on so many nights has been an unbelievable blessing, and Iíve learned so much through these years.
Do you share, in a generalized way, any aesthetic principles or sensibilities or ways of thinking about music that make you well-matched?
RM: Iíll dive in first. I think that we both like to be in the band as much as possible, and that we both like to keep the song going as long as possible. Thatís really the thing, as opposed to showing that you can do something, or giving a dissertation on the history of jazz or whatever is supposed to happen. You play a song, and you try to keep the integrity of the song going as long as you can. Sometimes you step out and sometimes you step back, but youíre always present with everybody on the bandstand all the time. I mean, individual expression, of course, but the sound of the band is what seems to be important. I think we both share that.
BF: I hope I do, because you sure... Ron is one of the deepest accompanists Iíve ever played with. He knows how to get from the inside of whatever is going on and support everybody else. Thatís pretty unusual. Trumpet you think of as the one instrument thatís probably the most out-front, and Ron can do that for sure, but heís really coming from the deepest center of the music.
Ron, you used the phrase, ďa dissertation on the history of jazz.Ē I gather that quite a bit of jazz history actually has passed through the high school that you both attended, from Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Lunceford, Bill and yourself, other musicians...
BF: Fletcher Hendersonís brother...?
RM: Well, Horace Henderson certainly lived in Denver for a long time, but I donít think he went to the school.
Itís called East High School?
RM: Yes, and I guess originally it was just Denver High School when Wilberforce Whiteman, who was Paul Whitemanís father, was a teacher there. I think Andy Kirk went there, too, actually.
Were both of you aware of that lineage when you were attending high school?
BF: Not me. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could! But looking back, in the school I had the feeling of having this community of musicians, of musicians being together, and I try to keep that with me. The students were like a cross-section of the whole city. Like a lot of American cities, Denver is divided according to race and peopleís economic situations, but that school is right in the middle, so everybody was there. So were all together, and it was cool.
It sounds like there was precedent for that earlier in the century, if both Jimmie Lunceford and Andy Kirk attended when Wilberforce Whiteman was teaching. Thereís an institutional power that accrues to that kind of history and tradition, in some way or another.
RM: I think so. When I came, the school had a purely musical tradition, as a school where music was always first. In 1981, when I graduated, it was right in the period when Maynard Ferguson was having Conquistador and ďTheme from RockyĒóand East was the school that didnít do that kind of stuff, that did music, talked about dynamics and subtlety. It was a real beacon. I remember feeling so fortunate to go there. I was deep into Maynard, just like everybody else, but I certainly appreciated getting a chance to have my teacher say, ďWell, if youíre into Maynard, maybe you should check out this record, Dinah Jams,Ē with Clark Terry and Clifford Brown, and Max Roach playing with Maynard. That was an awakening. At that point, I was aware of Bill Frisell, like everybody else, through Downbeat magazine. I knew he had been in Denver, and though I didnít know him personally or anything, I felt that connection, like, ďWow, he went to East High School.Ē We felt a sense of pride about it.
Bill, did you have a Eureka moment like that early on, such as Ron just described?
BF: Actually, I was playing clarinet in the school band and also playing guitar, trying to play blues and whatever pop music. There was an all-school talent show, and these girls were doing a dance routine to the recording of Wes Montgomeryís ďBumping on Sunset.Ē Iíd never heard of Wes Montgomery. But the band director said, ďWell, you play guitar, right? Here, Iíll give you this record, and can you learn this song?Ē He thought it would be cooler if they did it to a live band. So I went home and heard Wes Montgomery for the first time, and tried to sort of mimic it. Luckily, it wasnít ďAireginĒ or some other tune like that. It was a bridge between the music that I could deal with, and then this whole other world. So I learned that song, played it at the all-school show with these girls, and we were a smashing success. Then my buddies, the bass player and the drummer, we became kind of the hippest rhythm section in the school, and started backing up singers and stuff. It sounds like Iím name-dropping, but from junior high all the way through high school I was in the school band with Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk, who went on to be in Earth, Wind and Fire. Anyway, it was cool!
Bill left Denver, went to Berklee and to New York and had many travels. But unless Iím mistaken, Ronís path puts the lie to the adage that you need to come to New York to develop your musicianship. You developed into a world-class jazz musician pretty much staying in Denver, or am I incorrect?
RM: Actually, I went to school in New York, the Manhattan School of Music, for my first year of graduate school. I studied with Ray Mase, who now teaches at Juilliard, and leads the American Brass Quintet, and also with Bob Mintzer. They were great. The year I was there, Buck Clayton came to school, and Red Rodney, and Art Farmer. I mean, golly, just to hear them... The band director was not a fan of my playing.
RM: To put it mildly. He would literally yell at me every day, because I was really, at that point, greatly influenced by Lester Bowie and Miles Davis. I still am influenced by them! And he was not a fan.
He knew better.
RM: He knew better. He would always tell me, ďRed Rodney is coming or Art Farmerís coming, and theyíre going to tell you whatís what.Ē They came and were totally supportive. They were like, ďWell, heís of a generation where thatís what he should probably be into.Ē I was sad, but I guess they heard that I hopefully would get good at some point. After that, I got a teaching assistantship back in Colorado, so I came back and kept working on my stuff. Thereís music everywhere. We get a chance to go around (I know Bill does), and in every community you find people dealing with some music, or trying to.
Ron, in what ways has playing with Bill inflected your sensibility about musical expression?
RM: For one thing, just getting a chance to hear Bill and Joey Baron and all these folks up close, to see how they work on their music, and how dedicated they are. Itís not like they just fall out of bed and play. I mean, they work at this stuff, and theyíre really serious. When I came up, particularly in the Ď80s, there was almost an impression, because all these folks my age were getting record contracts, that you could skip the whole thing about being an apprentice with a master musician, that you could just show up and do it right away. I think that false sense has lost us a lotóbecause you really do learnóeverything. How to put together a set; learning from Joey about how to get quick-dry clothes on the road and not fill up a huge suitcase; seeing how musicians interact; giving them freedom and also structure. Iíve learned all those things in Billís band, not to mention learning a great deal about harmony and those sorts of things as well.
Had you been on the road much before you started going out with Bill?
RM: Not much. I was in the Duke Ellington band off and on for a year. But that was a very different thing. We were doing the hits, and there wasnít a lot of room for creative blowing. It was more of a recreative band. But it was best big band Iíd ever played with in my life, so just getting exposed to that was great.
Which trumpeter were you channeling?
RM: Well, I didnít get many opportunities. I was kind of the low man on the totem pole, so most of the time I got whichever part everybody didnít want to play! But every once in a while, I would open my book, like on ďMood Indigo,Ē which had Cootie Williamsí name in the left-hand corner. I was amazed at the part, because there was no melody written and no chords. It just said, in words, ďPlay the melody,Ē and then it had some whole notes that Ellington wrote for background parts. Getting to talk to those guys was great, too. Just being on the road with Mercer Ellington and getting to talk to those guys was a great learning experience.
I get the impression, which may be completely unsupported by fact, that youíve made a transition over the last decade to 12 years from being a functional musician playing in many different situations to one with a much more finely honed sensibility towards what you want to express.
RM: Twenty years ago, I was certainly trying to find my way in the musical world. I was playing lots of classical music, playing lots of different types of jazz, lots of repertory music. But even at that point, I was hoping to find common ground between that and being a modern musician. To get from Jelly Roll Morton not necessarily the specific things that involve New Orleans music, but the idea of balancing composition and improvisation. From Louis Armstrong about not having to play eighth notes to create a melodic line through a phrase, even though the harmony is changing. I tried to take those abstract concepts to see if it would lead me to a place where I could generate some creative music. I was always looking to do creative music. I wasnít always succeeding. Iím still not always succeeding!
Bill, were you at any point doing these sorts of journeyman gigs or playing in a lot of different functions? It seems youíve been in a position to be in creative bands at least since you joined Paul Motian in 1981.
BF: Riding up to the station, I was talking to Ron about how it seems like in the last few years, Iím doing my own music so many times, and itís almost a safe place to be. I definitely spent a lot of time playing in other peopleís bands and dealing with other peopleís music, playing a wedding where in the moment youíd have to try to act like you know a song youíd never heard. But in the last twenty years or so, it seems itís been more and more focused on my own stuff.
Can you speak towards your own compositional process? Is it inspired by the musicians you play with?
BF: When Iím actually writing the music, itís more that Iím alone in my room, just letting my imagination go. Iím not really thinking about what itís for. I accumulate material, and bring it to the musicians later. Iíve been spoiled, because I can write the most minimal, simple melody, give it to Ron, and heíll take it seriously and immediately make something out of it. When I write and arrange music, the line can blur, because Iím counting on all the people Iím playing with to bring their own thing to it, but at the same time Iím trying to set up a framework that establishes a world weíll enter into and everybody knows where we are. But I like it when it evolves and changes. Itís crucial that it change all the time, that people can find other things in it.
Ron, is the music youíre performing this week tailored to this configuration of musiciansóFrisell, Reginald Veal and Matt Wilsonóor does it draw on a longer history of compositions by you?
RM: Well, this particular band has no limits, so anything is possible. But I try to think of songs that would be fun for us to play that we could say something on, but are also challenging. A couple are older songs, but most are recent. What Bill was saying about composition is another thing Iíve learned from being with him. Composers can get into an ego thing, like, ďI wrote this and Iím going to write all this stuff.Ē Sometimes, though, itís good to give people enough material to tell them what they really need to know, but still leave them room to express themselves. Thatís why we play this music and why we love listening to this music, is the possibility that something that we never thought could happen, might happen. If you over-write, it can limit the possibilities. But that can happen if you under-write, too. Bill has always been masterfully balanced.
Another specific thing is giving musicians the whole score. Bill might have been the first person I played with who didnít just give you your own part, but gave you a score with everyoneís part. Then you could see what everyone else is doing as opposed to just being locked into your own thingóyou could really be part of all thatís going on. That was huge, and I see more people doing it. I think a lot of it is through himópeople who studied with Bill at Banff, who I see doing it later on.
At the time Bill met Ron, he was beginning to investigate a lot of American vernacular roots music; things we put titles on like blues and country, which emerge from American popular culture of your parentsí generation and your own formative years. Having now played a lot of this music in Billís bands, Ron, as a musician with a deep jazz and classical background, someone whoís used to playing a lot of complex music, can you discuss the satisfactions of addressing these more elemental emotions or musical content? Youíre twelve years younger than Bill. Were you yourself very involved with popular music as a kid?
RM: When I started listening to music, my first bands were like a lot of folks. I loved the Jackson Five and I loved the Archies. The Jackson Five were actually real, and the Archies, of course, werenít...
Itís good that you can admit this.
RM: Yes! Those were my favorites. But once I started to play the trumpet, I stopped listening to popular music altogether. I was aware of Thriller and Purple Rain and those things when they came out, but not really. Or the PoliceóI didnít listen to them at all. Then at the end of college, when I was about 22, I started listening to that music and found I really liked it a lot. One of the first records I heard that Bill was on was Power Tools, with Shannon Jackson and Melvin Gibbs. What was the pop song you guys covered on there...
BF: Oh, itís the one they played in that ghost movie... Was that the one?
BF: I canít remember.
RM: But it was striking how beautiful it was and what an emotional connection it made to me. Bill was the first person who started to do pop songs that I really knew, like ďLive to Tell.Ē Again, I was struck by just how emotional it was, and I thought I should look into a way to do that. I think it requires us to be real selective in what we pick. Earlier generation classic pop songs, like Gershwin songs, were written from a place where the composers played instruments also, which lent itself towards instrumental interpretation of them, whereas many of the generation of songwriters who came up in the Ď60s and Ď70s and Ď80s may have accompanied themselves on guitar, but itís really vocal musicóthe lyric changes a bunch, but sometimes the melodies donít change pitches enough to be instrumentally interesting. But as long as we choose selectively, and reinterpret and arrange the music, the pop tradition is really rich, because it does speak to our contemporary times on many levels. A hint can really bring the audience in, quite beautifully.
Bill, talk about your process of selection, how you assimilate and absorb these older songs. Your set might include ďHard Rainís Gonna Fall,Ē or Sam Cookeís ďChange Is Gonna Come,Ē then you might play a Charlie Christian transcription, or something with a Malian vibeómany flavors.
BF: It happens in different ways. Sometimes itís something thatís part of my life, something Iíve grown up with that Iíve heard thousands of times, and Iíll just remember, ďOh, thatís...Ē Those things are already in there. Then also, Iíve been playing ďA Change Is Gonna Come.Ē I hadnít heard it in a long time, and my wife, Carole, heard it one day, she told me I should play it. After she said that, I was on a long flight, and I had it on my portable CD player, and I listened to it about 100 times, over and over again. Iíve been playing it ever since. Sometimes Iím in my car and I hear something on the radio that seems would be a good song.
Is the process by which you treat these songs intuitive? Apart from playing guitar, you also famously incorporate a lot of electronics into your flow. So a level of what you do is highly sophisticated manipulation and intertwining between your fingers and your feet, but it never seems to get in the way of expressing the emotion.
BF: Hopefully not. All these songs youíre talking about are so rich on so many levels. Thereís the wordsómore and more, Iím getting inspiration from the lyrics of these songs. That gives you a lot to work with when youíre just playing the melody. Sometimes Iíll associate a song so much with the sound of the singer. If itís Sam Cookeówhat an unbelievable voice he has. Or even Bob Dylan... I shouldnít say ďeven.Ē Bob Dylanís voice, thereís a sound. Or Hank Williams.
You once mentioned trying to elicit the high nodal quality of Hank Williams.
BF: Yeah. Recently, Iíve been playing ďLovesick Blues.Ē He does this sort of yodeling thing, which is hard to do on a guitar, but Iím trying to copy that. I get off a lot on trying to match that vocal inflection that happens. Thereís so much music out there. Weíre floating through this ocean of music, and everywhere you look thereís something. Thereís not enough time to get to it all. You just keep grabbing it.
Is that notion of transcending the instrument important to you? Are you conscious of that in your tonal projection, or in the ways in which you state the melodies?
RM: Very much so. I donít even listen to the trumpet very much, and yes, I try to think of functioning as a singer as much as I can in the band, whether itís a background singer or a lead singer. Yes, I try to get the instrument out of the way as best I canóI mean, as an amplifier for the emotions.
It takes a lot of work to get to that place, I guess.
RM: I think it does. Itís still a work in progress, I must tell you. I sometimes fall victim to not succeeding, but I certainly try.
Interview notes: Ron Miles and Bill Frisell were interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on August 14, 2008.
January 18, 2009 · 1 commentTags:
By Tomas PeŮa
Francisco Mela by Elio Solera
Francisco Mela is obviously a strong believer in the maxim, "Practice makes perfect." When I caught up with him via telephone, he was diligently practicing to the music of saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Aaron Parks. Later, he told me that when he's not performing, he's practicing--sometimes up to 12 hours a day. Such single-mindedness is obviously working, if the glowing reviews given his latest albumóCirio, on the Half Note labelóare any evidence. Released in 2008, Cirio is Melaís most important and heartfelt recording to date. He wrote six of the album's eight compositions, dedicating two of them to family members. Mela calls his music "Free Jazz Latin," yet he admits that, at the end of the day, he's basically "A Latino guy who plays jazz." Read on, as "Franciscito" Mela talks about his life, his music, and his plans for the future.
Cirio is dedicated to your father: a man who dedicated his life to both the arts and his family. In a recent interview you described the recording as a 'family object.'
Cirio is a very significant recording for me. While I was composing the music for it, my father was making a recording in Cuba. After he completed the recording, he called me and asked if I would listen to it and give him some feedback. He mailed the recording to my son, who was living in Cancun, Mexico at the time. To make a long story short, by the time I received the recording my father had died, so I wasnít able to answer him. Cirio is my answer, and I dedicated the recording to his memory.
You also composed a tune for your mother ('Maria') and your newborn son ('Urick Mela').
As I mentioned before, when all of this happened I was composing the music for Cirio, so I decided to write a tune for my mother, who lives in Cuba. I didnít want what happened with my father to happen again. At the same time, my wife was pregnant, so I wrote a tune for my son, Urick.
Given the circumstances, what prompted you to make a live recording? Wouldnít it have been easier to record in a controlled environment?
I have a relationship with the Blue Note [the New York jazz club], so when Half Note Records asked me if I wanted to make a recording I said, 'Why not?' I had all of this material and I wasnít signed to a record company, so I just did it. Tomas, I have to be very honest with you, it was a good experience, but it was very hard. In the studio you can fix a lot of stuff, but live, whatever comes out gets recorded.
How long was your engagement at the Blue Note?
We played at the Blue Note for two nights, but all of the material on the album was recorded on the second night. Prior to the performance, all of the band members were busy and we didnít have time to rehearse, so the first night was a rehearsal.
Amazing. The recording sounds so polished.
Iím surprised that the recording came out as clean and good as it did. When I heard the takes from the first night, I didnít think we were going to make it. But my band mates made it happen. I give them all five stars!
That would be pianist Jason Moran, bassist Larry Grenadier, saxophonist Mark Turner, and guitarist Lionel Loueke [who also contributed the composition 'Benes,' arranged by Mela]. No doubt you are aware of the fact that the recording has been receiving very favorable reviews. In fact, Cirio made National Public Radioís Top Ten List for 2008.
I am really happy to hear that.
I have noticed that people seem to have a difficult time describing your music. Some call it 'Latin Jazz' while others call it 'Free Latin Jazz' and/or 'Jazz Latin?' How do you describe your music?
If you listen to the lyrics of 'PequeŮa Serenata de Urna' [a tune written Sylvio Rodriguez and performed on Cirio], you will hear me sing, 'Viva Un Pais Libre,' which means that I live in a free country. My music is the result of my culture (Cuba) combined with the freedom I have here, so I call it 'Free Jazz Latin.' My music is labeled as 'Latin' because I am a Latino. But I am a jazz musician. If an Indian musician plays jazz, does that make it Indian jazz? Take Lionel Loueke; heís an African guy playing jazz. Does that make his music African jazz? Heís a jazz musician.
We live in a society that's obsessed with stuffing things into categories.
I got out of that a lot a long time ago. When I was starting out, I talked with [saxophonist] David Sanchez and [pianist] Danilo Perez about the perception that Latin guys donít swing. I never put myself in that category. From the beginning, I applied my own techniques to the drum set, and have always considered myself to be a jazz musician. When Joe Lovano and Kenny Barron first heard me play they said, 'Mela, you swing! I donít know why they say that Latin guys canít swing!'
When Joe Lovano and Kenny Barron testify that you swing, you swing! Letís backtrack for a moment. You were born in 1968. You grew up in Bayamo, Cuba, a city full of culture, art and music. Tell me about growing up in Bayamo.
Oh my God, you are going to make me go out and buy a plane ticket! The political situation is Ö we donít have the freedom that you have here, but everybody loves their country. Actually, before I got into music, I was a painter.
You painted the portrait of your father which graces the cover of Cirio.
My record company asked me if I planned to continue painting, and I told them that I am thinking about painting my own album covers.
Thatís a great idea. It gives you more artistic freedom. Getting back to Bayamo Ö
I was a painter, but at the same time I played in little combos at the House of Culture in my hometown. We werenít professional musicians. We played for kids, and at social eventsóthings like that.
You played percussion.
Yes, percussion. Anyway, I went to Havana with my little combo for a festival, and we won the first prize. When I returned to Bayamo, I found out that I had missed the final exam and the school kicked me out!
Thatís Escuela de Artes Plasticas, The School of Plastic Arts.
Yes. So I decided that I had to go elsewhere. I was always an artist, a painter, a dancer, and surrounded by music. My father suggested that I major in dance, but I told him that I wanted to be a musician. Thatís how I ended up in El Yare music school.
Where you majored in Afro Cuban percussion Ö
Yes, but when I saw this drummer Ö Osmany Sanchez, the drummer for Pablo Milanťsí group, I said to myself, 'Thatís what I want to do for the rest of my life.'
He was a trap drummer, not a percussionist, correct?
Yes. After seeing him I stopped playing the congas and focused all of my energies on the trap drums. I am really happy with what I am doing, and I love my drum set and my music. In fact, right now I am practicing. I practice every day.
How did you become a member of pianist Emiliano Salvadorís band?
Photo by Pavel Korbut
Playing with Emiliano was one of my goals, and I am happy to say that I made it! At the time I was teaching Afro Cuban percussion at the Bayamo Rafael Cabrera Conservatory of Music, and playing with my group, Mela Son, in my hometown. As part of the requirement for teaching at the conservatory, I had to go to Havana for three years and earn a degree. At the same time, I used to watch the Havana Jazz Festival on TV and see guys like Chucho Valdťs, Emiliano Salvador and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
I went to Havana and started playing at jam sessions. Carlitos del Puerto, who was the bass player for Emilianoís band, heard me play and asked me for my phone number. He also gave me some music to memorize, and invited to me to a recording session. One week later, I went to the studio and met Emiliano and auditioned for the band. He asked me what I wanted to play and I said, 'Samba Conga,' which is one of his most difficult tunes. He just kind of looked at me and said, 'Are you sure?' As soon as he started playing the melody, I jumped in, and he said, 'Wow! Thatís the drummer that I need.' Unfortunately, he died three months later, so I only played with him for a short time.
I canít think of a Cuban pianist who was not influenced by Emiliano. He was way ahead of his time.
Emiliano Salvador is the father of every Cuban pianist. When Emiliano formed the new quartet, Chucho Valdťs and Gonzalo Rubalcaba used to stop by to greet him and see what was happening. A ton of people used to drop by.
After Emilianoís band disbanded, you played at the Cancun Jazz Festival with pianist Gabriel Hernandez.
Yes, in fact I just returned from Mexico, where I played with Gabriel.
Tell me about your two bands, Mela Son and Mela Monk.
Mela Son was the first band that I created in Cancun, Mexico with [pianist] Chuchito Valdťs. It was Carlos Alfonso on bass and Chuchito on the piano. Also, a conga player named Pupi; I canít remember his last name. Anyway, I played around and performed at the festival in Cancun.
What about Mela Monk?
Mela Monk was a project that I created in Boston. I was so touched by Thelonious Monkís music, that I put a quartet together and performed his music all over the world. It was a great project because it gave me the opportunity to travel and perform at international jazz festivals.
Speaking of Boston, pianist Danilo Perez was the person who suggested that you move there.
When I moved to Mexico, I heard about Danilo and someone gave me his phone number. So I called him and we hit it off. When he visited Cancun, he called me, and I invited him to come to come down and hear us play. When he saw my approach to the drums, he suggested that I move to Boston and attend Berklee or the New England Conservatory.
I read somewhere that Danilo gave you some rudimentary piano lessons.
Danilo always encouraged me to write my own music. In fact, he gave me a little keyboard. I composed the tune 'Melao' with the keyboard he gave me.
So you moved to Boston and performed at a jazz club called Wallyís, where you shared the stage with many of the musicians who passed through, including Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Roy Haynes Ö who just happens to be your mentor, correct?
How old is Roy now?
Heís 83. I just spoke to him last week. He said that he is going to come down to the Vanguard [in January] and hear me play. I went to see him perform at Birdland and sat-in with his band. I sang some Afro Cuban chants over his drumming, and he liked it so much, he suggested that he wants to record it on his next album. If he comes down to the Vanguard, I'm going to ask him to sit in.
Thatís something I would enjoy seeing. What school did you attend when you moved to Boston?
I applied for the New England Conservatory, but things didnít work out as planned. When I arrived in Boston, I was told that I would probably get a full scholarship. But it didnít happen, so I stayed around and I became the house drummer for Wallyís and gigged with some of the professors at Berklee. One day, while I was on tour with Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana, I received a phone call from Berklee saying, 'Mela, this is the percussion department at Berklee, we are offering you a job.' The funny thing is, I didnít understand what they were saying, so I handed the phone to Jane [Bunnett], and she confirmed the fact that Berklee was offering me a job! [Laughs]
I want to talk about an album that you made with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and pianist AruŠn Ortiz called Junjo (Ayva Music). Itís her debut album and sort of an underground classic.
I donít even have that album!
Why didnít it receive more attention?
Junjo and Melao, my first recording as a leader, were both released on Ayva Music, which is based in Spain. I donít think they are around anymore.
That explains it, sort of. Hopefully, another record company will pick them up and re-release them at some point.
I have been thinking about that; I would like to see that happen.
When you're not leading your own group, you work as a sideman with pianist Kenny Barron.
Yes, I play with the Kenny Barron Trio, and Esperanza Spalding, and I am a member of Joe Lovanoís new quintet. In fact, we just recorded a new album with Joe Lovano, and I just recorded The Traveler with Kenny Barron.
I am curious to know what kind of music you listen to when you are not 'on the job.'
When I woke up today I took a shower, plugged into my I-Pod, put on a set of headphones and started drumming over Wayne Shorterís Alegria and the new recording by Aaron Parks. I am also listening to the music of Charlie Hunter.
How often do you practice?
You should ask my wife! When I am not working I practice up to 12 hours a day, which is practically the whole day!
You have an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard, running from January 27th to February 4th.
Yes. I invite everyone to come down and join us.
I look forward to seeing you there. Good luck with Cirio and thanks for speaking with Jazz.com.
Thank you, Jazz.com and thank you, Tomas.
Visit Francisco Melaís Web Site: www.franciscomela.com
Junjo with Esperanza Spalding (Ayva Music, 2006)
Melao (Ayva Music, 2006)
The Traveler with Kenny Barron (Sunnyside, 2008)
January 15, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
at the Stanford Jazz Workshop
Pianist Taylor Eigsti and guitarist Julian Lage are two kindred spirits linked by more than their precocious talents. Both are youngóLage is twenty and Eigsti is twenty-threeóand both began playing professionally at an extraordinarily early age. Eigsti opened for David Benoit at the age of eight, played with Dave Brubeck at twelve, and made his recording debut as a leader at fourteen. Already, he has six albums and two Grammy nominations under his belt, and his latest album, Let It Come to You, has received a near unanimous thumbs-up from the critics and jazz public alike.
As for Lage, the soon-to-be-released EmArcy album Sounding Point is his first as a leader. Yet he's compiled an impressive resume as a sideman in just a few short years. He's toured and recorded with Gary Burtonís Generations quintet; played on Grammy-nominated albums by Nnenna Freelon, and by his long-time collaborator Eigsti. He's performed alongside a host of established stars, including Lee Konitz, Charles Lloyd, Martin Taylor, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, and the late Billy Higgins. A classical graduate of San Francisco Conservatory and a jazz graduate of Sonoma State University, Lage is currently balancing his burgeoning career in jazz with post-graduate studies in advanced classical music at Berklee College of Music.
Already being talked about as major jazz stars in-the-making, their musical outlooks have been shaped by very different cultural forces than those of preceding generations of jazz musicians. Lage and Eigsti grew up in the IT age, with computers, the internet, video games, iPods, and cell phones that pack more digital technology than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed the first men on the moon. They grew up at a time when popular culture was promoted with greater efficiency than ever before, filling the social spaces around them. Even as they studied jazz, the soundtrack to their daily lives included pop music from the internet, television, and radio. As a result, Eigsti is a fan of Icelandic cult-rocker BjŲrk, and he includes an Eels cover on his latest album. He and Lage greatly respect the American popular songóand might play accomplished improvisations on classic themes by a George Gershwin, a Cole Porter, or a Lorenz Hartóyet it is not the music of their time. Those songs do not resonate with them in the same way they do with older musicians.
Itís a generational thing, of course, and the availability of a huge range of music on the internet is just one element. If the sound of jazz is changing, it's because young jazz musicians are making it change by importing influences and experiences of their own time into the music. Just as turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans helped shape Louis Armstrongís music, and 1920s and '30s Harlem influenced Duke Ellingtonís, todayís young musicians are informed by the world surrounding them. The primary difference being, today the lines of input are faster, more diverse, more intense, and more unpredictable.
As they explain in the following interview, Eigsti and Lage look to create original music that's part of the universal language of jazz, yet also a singular expression of their own specific musical and cultural identities. They speak of the challenges of individuality and authenticity facing young musicians today. They ponder the question of whether we may have moved beyond jazz into something else, and they reflect on the importance of maintaining a fixed working group. Finally, they offer some useful words of advice to young musicians starting out in jazz.
How did you guys first get together?
TE: I met Julian when I was fourteen and he was eleven. Dr. Herb Wong, a great jazz promoter and historian, had the idea to put us together in a concert in the San Francisco Bay Area. We went through phases of losing touch and all that kind of stuff. What brought us together again was the Stanford Jazz Workshop. We were both teaching there, and started playing each others' music a lot. We started travelling a little bit as a duo, and Julian has been an integral part of my band for I donít know how many years.
What are the challenges of working with another instrument that plays both melodic lines and chords?
TE: Well, to tell you the truth, Iím not so much a fan of jazz guitar as a fan of Julian and what he does. There are a lot of musicians who you think are very good on their instrument. There's another group of musicians who you think their instrument is the group. They play the group thing very well, and the things that Julian does are subtle Ö sometimes there are tracks on this most recent album Let It Come To You that Iíve had people listen to, and they had no idea that Julian is even on the track. He adds two or three things right where they need to be, and doesnít make himself overly present when he doesnít feel itís necessary. Itís not only good to have that sensibility within a group, but at the same time it's inspiring for me, too, to emulate some of things he does. When we play together as a duo, we know each other so well as peopleósense of humour, musicality, and all that kind of stuffóeverything starts to come together.
Julian, same question, and perhaps you could fill out a little of that from your perspective. Youíve played on Taylorís last two albums, and he is on two tracks on your album Sounding Point, so what's the attraction for you in collaborating with a pianist?
JL: Very similar. If I was able to come back as a different musician, I would be a piano player; Iíd love to be a piano player without a doubt. So part of the attraction is the instrument, but primarily it is the personality: his sensibility of how to compose a piece and present it to an audience, how to support me, and how to be supportive. Heís an easy person to work with. He's very open, so it encourages this global sense of openness. The piano happens to be a beautiful instrument, and he plays it like nobody else.
When you play together, youíre working towards a collective voice, so how did you find that voice and how did you work towards that goal?
JL: Well, itís well-known that the piano is a difficult instrument to play. Heís got eighty-eight keys; Iíve got six strings. We can cover each up very easilyóIíve got a volume knob.
TE: Also, weíve got a wide range.
JL: [If] heís playing something, I try and play to go with that, and if Iím playing something heíll try and support me. A lot of this is musical common sense, so the issue is not the instrumentsóthatís more a generalityóit's about making the music work, about being on the same page about how you want to make the music sound. But we donít talk about it. A lot of all this is unspoken
TE: Thatís the funny part about it. There are bits we always mess up in one part, or we have this one little area where we just try and hit it together, and we donít really talk about it afterwards. There's one question weíve never asked when performing together and that is, ĎWhy did you do that?í We just assume that whatever the other person did was the best possible thing that could happen in that moment. And thatís why a lot of the shows will sound drastically different, because sometimes weíll feel very open and free, and take songs weíve done a lot of times and do them drastically different, based on the present moment. There are times where that doesnít happen, and that will be completely reversed. But either way, we donít see it as odd or different. We just kind of go with it, which is fun.
Youíve both got CDs out now that reflect your own visions of what jazz can be, from your own personal perspectives. I'd like both of you to talk about how you see jazzóor what people call jazz, todayóand how your music fits into that.
JL: I didnít start playing jazz, I played bluesólike Muddy Waters-style bluesóand like old, old acoustic music, and bluegrass a little bit. Iím not saying it was a natural progression studying blues, and folk music, and American folk music. Iíve since become a big jazz fan, hearing a lot of people as far as my role in jazz Ö Iím not trying to do anything different [from] anybody, but Iím guided by certain characteristics I believe to be true. Iím not trying to be different to Taylor or John Scofield or any other jazz group, because thatís not what Iím in it for. But I am trying to seek-out how music works on a very fundamental level. If it comes out in a jazz format, fine. If it comes out in an electronica format, fine. If it comes out in a bluegrass song, fine. Iím trying to be nebulous when it comes to the jazz area. I donít see myself as a jazz guitar player. I have the training, but equally I have an acoustic guitar training, and equally I have a blues training. Iím not the person to be talking to about being a jazz musician.
A lot of musicians feel weíre beyond jazz, into something else.
JL: Yeah, I agree Ö
A lot of people are thinking along your lines. Theyíre not Ďjazzí musicians in the old sense of the wordóthe Great American Songbook, straight-ahead swing and so forth.
JL: There is a stereotype of a jazz, a type of music that is played in jazz clubs seven nights a week. You reach hundreds of people, maybe you donít. Itís kind of like a stereotype that keeps it a very small field. I think everyone in our generation is in the mood to make music that reaches a lot of people, breaks down barriers. Itís happening politically and socially, and all these kind of things all around the world. I think weíre trying to be present and do whatever is appropriate for the time
TE: I think structures in many ways are breaking down. There are a lot of ways of looking at Ö look at the record industry, with record sales and [how] people want to get things digitallyóthe whole iTunes culture. That basically feeds our collective cultural attention span. You only have to have one or two tracks you like now off the CD, not the whole CD. Things are not about a full album any more. That context is changing. And there's also the [fact that] a lot of jazz musicians donít really see what they do as fitting into the Ďsmoky jazz clubí context.
Iíve had the privilege of having the third person perspective of seeing Julian developing his own music Ö I think anyone who tries to do something different because theyíre trying to do something different is not really going to be the most authentic. But if youíre trying to do something because you want to be yourself, and let it fit into whatever genre it may end up fitting into Ö
I hear Julianís new music, [and] itís authentic. There are adjectives you could use to describe it. A lot of them are not really similar to jazz. There are [jazz-like] elements that are incorporated into what heís doing, but I think Ďjazzí is such a nebulous term now. As you mentioned, it is getting stretched in so many directions, to lump it under that category is very hard, at times.
JL: To be honest, I grew up inówe both grew up inóSouthern California, we both had similar backgrounds, and jazz isnít primarily our Ďthing.í Itís not like our Ö it doesnít do the same things to us as it does to other people, you know? Especially growing up in the 1990s; weíre influenced by video games, so weíre just trying to not fake it. We can pull out the Great American Songbook, but it doesnít mean we believe in it completely.
TE: Yes, thatís the thing! Unfortunately, there are situations where musiciansóno matter if they are trying to be authentic to themselves and maybe do something that ends up being a little differentóhave to fit in to a certain mold, because of certain built-in audience expectations, demographically and whatnot. You alluded to the Great American Songbook. I think thatís one the things sometimes we battle against as musicians, because there are so many great songs there. And sure, there are people who dedicate their whole life to knowing the Great American Songbook inside and out. I am not trying to take anything away from that by saying this, but I am saying we grew up in a generation that has allowed-in a lot more influences than maybe previous generations, in some respects. So I think with that same level of openness to be authentic, we have to let in all those other influences as well.
What weíre really aiming to do isóalso within this duoóis to be authentic to ourselves. And I think one of the things about both of us is that weíre primarily composers almost more than players of our instruments. Many times we play concerts and thereís a set structure and stuff, and of course some of that caters to peopleís expectations. You want to hear people improvise, you want to hear melody, you want to hear all these kinds of things, and so within the improvisation we try to listen to each other as much as possible, to make it sound more like a spontaneous composition than just playing over the changes.
JT: Well said, well said. yesÖ
Lets concentrate on your latest albums. Taylor, talk about the artistic choices you made to arrive at ĎFallback Plan Suiteí [from Let It Come To You] and how you have evolved in this direction.
TE: For myself, I grew up first being first inspired by contemporary jazz before anything. I grew up listening to Smooth Jazz, which is now a scary word within the jazz world. But I started listening to a lot of that modern jazz and contemporary stuff that was first available to me in my life. I had a lot of mentors and idols that were more along the contemporary line, and when I was about ten or 11, I started opening myself up to the world of straight-ahead jazz. I became most inspired by that, and started playing with Red Holloway, Ernestine Anderson, and people who were definitely playing in a straight-ahead role. That became very ingrained in my sensibility. The things I would think about when I was playing were the things that go into playing straight-ahead jazz.
Then whatís grown out of that, is that some of the earlier things I was thinking about when I was like nine and ten, now have come back into my head. And I have kind of figured out that this last album, Let It Come To You, which is a very obvious mixture of straight-ahead and more contemporary progressive stuff Ö my four compositions on it sound drastically different from the straight-ahead jazz thatís on the rest of the album. Really, it's two albums. We sure as hell recorded two or three albums worth, and had to try and fit it onto one CD. The sequencing was probably the hardest part. But the result is a statement that showed a progression from straight-ahead into more the world of my own compositions. So it went a little bit inside my head, and a little bit more inside the person I am, musically.
The stuff Iím doing now, Iím basically taking a whole year to try and get all these concepts together and recorded. But the music Iím doing now, and want to be doing, kinda stems from where the suite was coming fromóthe last three songs on the album. [I'm forming] a new band [with] two vocalists, in addition to a keyboard player (myself), electric bass, and drums. The idea is to have a band that also combines with symphony orchestras frequently. So basically, thereís a lot of writing and things like that Iím involved in now to make this happen. But ultimately this is a little bit more myself, I feel, than just playing straight-ahead, even if the arrangements are different, because thatís one thing Iíve always tried to have within my group. If weíre going to play a straight-ahead song, thereís a couple of tunes we just call and play just to stretch, but for a lot of them we try to make interesting arrangements, so that it would be a little bit of a fresh take of something that is out of the American Songbook.
In an effort to also reach out to people of my generationówhich is a little bit more open-minded in many respects, in terms of the progression where the culture is going and things like thatóI think people are open to things now that donít have to be put in a certain genre. I think there is just a general openness that I have faith in that is coming out in people. People are listening to people like BjŲrk, whoís rarely played on the radio Ö In the States, BjŲrk is seen as someone who is a little bit different, or odd. People donít know what type of music that really is, so [they] throw it under the big umbrella of Ďrock.í And I guess maybe this new stuff Iím doing might even be thrown under that umbrella, because it doesnít sound like Ďstraight-aheadí jazz. But it's got a lot of vehicles for improvisation and communication, but then also weird rhythms and things like that. I just want to make things interesting compositionally, as well as listenable.
Letís look at a couple of tracks on the new album that illustrate this direction which youíre headed.
TE: Sure. Directionally, Iíd say ĎLess Free Willí (the first movement of the 'Suite Fallback Plan'): that song, the way I wrote it, is in kind of more of a format of a typical rock song where youíd have a verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and any solo that happens is wailing on the end chorus thatís going out, and things like that. I grew up listening to a lot of stuff that wasnít jazz, and I was more drawn to that structure than 'AABA, take a solo, drums trading fours, and back to AABA,' because it becomes so rigid after a while, and predictable. Even though itís swinging as hell, it can get predictable, one of the things I tell my students sometimes, is that if you want people to listen to every single note and key into it, and zoom in on it and listen to all the subtleties and the nuances of what you are doing, you have to be as unpredictable as possible. The second you allow predictability into the picture, people donít have to listen so hard, because they know where itís going. So ultimately I like to compose and play in a listenable but unpredictable way.
I think ĎLess Free Willí and also ĎBrick Steps,í the last movement of the suite Ö thereís a lot [more] R&B, classical harmonies, rock forms and structures and rhythms than there really is jazz in there. But the instrumentation is jazz instrumentationóa Ďstrangeí jazz instrumentation, with flute and two tenors, and a lot of layered keyboards, and piano and guitar, and whatnot. But I think there are a lot of other genre influences, really, drawn into that suite, and thatís a little window into a little bit of the stuff in terms of the direction where Iím going. Itís a whole separate band, anyway, this new band Iím developing.
Julian, I guess one thing thatís worse than not having a record contract with a major player is to suddenly find you have one, because then you have got to define your musical vision. Can you talk about how you conceptualized Sounding Point?
TE: A lot of paper on the floor!
JL: [Laughs] A lot of paper, I know! Thatís one thing I should say, Taylorís extremely visual. Heís a great artist, incredible; his artwork is on his record. So when I was planning for my record, I had him come over. Iím in Boston and heís in New York, so he came over and I had him do all the drawing-out of all the conceptual ideasóstacks of paper, where Taylor just drew like big shapes; 'hereís this song, hereís an arrow going to this song,' because his handwriting is way better than mine, and it just helped to visualize the whole thing.
TE: He has real girly handwriting Ö
JL: [Laughs] It is girly handwriting, but I like it! My process is weird. I donít know what my process is, it just changes so much
Youíre attempting to define a musical vision, so what was coming out?
JL: Iíll give you an example. I live next to a park. And one day I was coming home from school and I had this record.
Is this the crazy labyrinth gardens?
JL: Yes, beautiful community gardens. At that point I had four months until the recording, and I thought I had a lot of work to do. I had to find the band, rehearse everybody. So I had this concept inspired by this park, I said, ĎOkay, Iím going to write a record with music that is designed to fit in different environments; Iím going to write a song thatís meant to be performed in this garden Iíve just walked through; Iím going to write music that is created for a room like weíre in now; Iím going to write music for a concert hall.' Basically you're scoring music for an environment. That was one concept. What I would do is I would sketch out ideas; Iíd play a lot, Iíd write all this stuff up. I had kind of solved it as far as I could go until something else popped up. So okay, what if I was to write music that was designed to show timbral differences? What timbres do I want? Thatís when I decided guitar, cello, alto sax, bass, and percussion. I thought about that, and I said 'I donít want any cymbals on this, I donít want hi-hat, I donít want anything related to a traditional jazz drum kit,' so we followed that route.
Then I wrote a piece using the primary percussion [that was] the sound of someone writing a letter. So okay, cool; this letter is to my friend. Itís a lot of conceptual catching up: ĎWhat if I just, what happens if I go there?í And then, before I knew it, I had enough music. I had what I wanted, and I had exactly what I wanted to say. For me, a lot of this stuff goes on kinaesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, before it comes out as music. Thatís kind of my process. The underlying theme was that the music had to work as what I call bio-degradable music. I donít expect anyone to care, but my concept is, if you were [listening to] my record and a car horn went off, [the music] should work. There is some music that fights anything external; 'Let me shut the doors, shut the windows, put on some headphones, Iím going to listen to this record.' But that isnít my record. My record is supposed to blend-in and comfort you. Taylor has called it a musical score to whatever room youíre in.
TE: A soundtrack to your present location Ö
JL: So that was one driving force. I wanted music that didnít require the listener to know a thing about music. I kind of wanted to make music that didnít require you to know anything about making music either. I said to the musicians, 'Just play with this in mind. I know itís new but try thinking about this.' Getting things out of musicians that werenít obvious maybe at the time, like the [letter] thing. ĎWhy do I put down my sticks and Ö. í ĎTrust me!í And then you hear it, and it affects the drummer in some way, and it affects me in some way, and weíve got a connection. Thatís all I needed.
TE: And with his band the more they heard the music Ö
JL: Yeah, they kind of started believing.
TE: I get a lot of resistance, and you say 'go with it,' and then after a while they hear it and then itís like, ĎWhatever you say!í
Tell me about two more tunes that encapsulate this concept.
JL: The one I was just talking about is called ĎAll Purpose Beginning.í ĎClarity,í which is the first song, was a piece I wrote when I was fifteen, and I re-wrote it for this band. It was the same process. Let me take something there with significance to a fifteen year-old, and as a twenty year-old, how can I embody it any differently? Now when I hear it I crave cello. Now when I hear it I crave a longer form. Itís the same mentality. There's a really short song called ĎPeterborough,í like 30 seconds, 40 seconds, but itís all coming from the same style. When you hear the record structurally thereís my group; thereís a duo [with Taylor Eigsti]; thereís a track with Bela Fleck thatís closer to that Newgrass kind of music. But it all deals with that concept I talked aboutóthat it works. Itís inoffensive, but itís there. It lures you in.
Can we open it up now we have spoken about your albums? I'd like you to talk about the Ďworking groupí concept, and the importance of musicians not using a solo opportunity to show off their chops, but rather work within the context of the composition and group expression.
TE: I think it is important that if you are a bandleader it is important to write for the musicians you are going to be playing with. Iíve been in rehearsals with different musicians before, and one thing that always pisses me off is that I hear someone say, ĎOh, play this the way so-and-so would play it.í
TE: Yeah, exactly. Iíve always felt like, ĎWhy didnít you hire them?í It doesnít make sense to me. Iíve always thought the three most important parts of leading a group, are trust, openness, and unpredictability. If you keep things unpredictable, like I was saying earlier, then everybody is going to be listening to every note, including the musicians around you. I grew up playing in a trio with two wonderful musiciansóJohn Schifflet and Jason Lewis from the San Francisco Bay Areaóand they would roll their eyes and make fun of me if I played a song the same way twice. Or if I played a lick I had played before, they would look over and smile and that would be, ĎOkay, I canít do that again!í And they would also get on my case if I wasnít listening to what was going on rhythmically. I get overly sensitive after gigs, so I would ask them ĎHow was it?í And it was, ĎOh yeah, you were pushing there.í ĎOkay, cool.í As long as youíre open enough to tell people Ö thatís invaluable. To be open to accepting whatever ideas people are playing in the moment is not a mistake. Itís ĎThatís not the direction I want to take this, this is the present moment, this is what is happening now, and Iím not going to try and say this is a bad thing, because itís never a bad thing.í There are times when Iíve witnessed groups, when someone starts doing something, and a couple of people feel confused. Iíve never wanted to let that same sense of confusion enter the bandstand. I donít feel like people need to be confused by anything if you just accept that whatever happens in the present moment. It kind of goes conversationally, someone starts taking things 'out,' and itís 'yeah!' Iím going to go with it, whatís going on now! Sometimes a weird dude comes in and takes it out there and you have to go with it.
The last thing is trust. If youíre forming a group with particular musicians you should have those musicians there for a reason. Not just a sub of the day, or random musicians thrown together. Sometimes those situations are cool and exciting. There is an inherent unpredictability about that, but at the same time there is not the same level of trust. If you have musicians that are hand-picked, and have played together and played together and played together there is nothing left but trust. Maybe thereís less unpredictability, but there is trust. Either way, for me you have to bounce around those three concepts in order to have a group thatís listening to each other, making music that is collectively innovative, and music that is exciting and different to listen to and authentic to us all.
The key to it all.
TE: Yes, absolutely. Julian is already one of the best bandleaders I have seen in terms of this kind of thing. All the people on his record he has handpicked. He's battled fifteen or twenty rough drafts of who can be in his group
JL: Yes Ö
TE: He played with different things until he found what clicked. And when it did, [that's] the time to grow all the trust Ö they worked on different concepts like that. Now, as a group, it works.
JL: I was very fortunate to be in Gary Burtonís band, a kind of a hallmark: one of the last working bands. Itís like an institution, you know? I played in Gary Burtonís Quintet on and off from when I was twelve to when I was eighteen. It was important, because he was a great bandleader and I saw how important it was to him to have a band, rather than star soloists and just getting a lot of hot shots. So that's my framework. I knew that it worked and I knew that a band grew better because he had this collective group mentality rather than ĎIím going to take that great solo that just knocks everyone off!í I picked [my] band of people who were all great at different things. I wasnít looking for the greatest drummer in the world, the best bassist in the world, even though to me they are and I treat them that way. I wanted people who are great at things I couldnít provide myself. So thereís a very comfortable dependency. need them because they can provide that thing I just love about them. Itís true, the New York scene where everyone is on their own, and everyone is a star. Thatís fine, it exists, and we're part of that too. Weíre subject to that.
The instrumentation of Julian's groupósax, cello, bass, and drumsóis interesting. In many ways, when you hear a trumpet and saxophone you are confronted with all this history, a certain set of expectations, and they are immediately in competition with 50 years of recorded jazz.
JL: Right, right, right. Thatís true, thatís right and I was aware of that. And the drummer too. Heís not going to sound like Brian Blade, thatís not what Iím looking for.
TE: That comes down to unpredictability. People can play certain instruments that maybe dictate some sort of implied role, but it doesnít have to be that way. I think one of the things that hold back progress of music is the so-called purists. Because purists will have great respect for the Ďtradition,í but those who are most open and progressive and want to do something different, those are the people who I think respect the tradition the most. And the people who say, ĎYou can only sound like this,í I donít think are the most respectful to that tradition.
It also shows a grave misunderstanding of how art functions. If it were up to them, the only form fine art would take would be derived from the Lascaux cave paintingsóno Renaissance, no Baroque, no Neo-classicalism, Romanticism, Modernism, Impressionism Ö
Both: Yeah, yeah no Picasso, no Jackson Pollock Ö
JL: It just doesnít happen that way.
I'm interested in the challenges of getting started, and how difficult it is for young musicians to get established in the jazz economy as it stands today.
TE: There was a book out recently and it said that for successful peopleóin whatever field of endeavour, financial or whateveróthere has to be a high level of luck involved. Julian and I have both been very fortunate. We started very young, I did about eight years just playing in musical background situations, [being] musical wallpaper. By doing that, I started to break out and do some bigger concerts and things like that. A lot of people my age playing music didnít necessarily start at that point, so they are just running the normal path that I followed, but maybe just a little bit later. Some of my friends, too (who are much better musicians than me, I think), are frustrated sometimes by their situations, and feel that Ö sometimes it's just one lucky thing that allows them to break into something else. There are so many unpredictable elements in starting as a young performer and trying to make that your life. A lot of people burn out. Both of us have feared that at some point. I certainly felt pissed-off and certainly wanted to quit a great deal of the time, but I guess at a certain point you realize youíre in too deep. I have no other choice here!
JL: For anybody starting out, our age or younger, just be receptive to opportunities, because things may surprise you. Weíve played gigs where we donít expect it to be a big deal as far as musical experiences go, but it only [takes] one person who wants to play with us, or gives us a call a year later. Iíve had that happen to me. Mark O'Connor, an incredible fiddle player, saw me play once in New York in one of the worst gigs Iíve ever played. He called me a year later and said, 'You want to go on tour with me?' Be optimistic, I would say.
TE: Yes, I would say it's okay Ö in fact, it's necessary to fantasize about huge opportunities and big career success in the future. But as a young musician starting out, you have to be happy with where youíre at, at that present moment, in whatever the gig situation, because if you are making the best possible scenario for your yourself out of every situation, then that will lead you on. When we were recording the album Lucky To Be Me, I was really, really upset at the way I played one of the days Ö I just thought I had played terribly, but when I looked at it a couple of days later, I thought, well, I wasnít that bad. At the time, though, I thought, 'I suck!' [Drummer] Lewis Nash told me, ĎThis is the way you played today. I liked it. You might not have liked it, but listen, you have to let yourself like it. This is the present moment, the only thing that exists is the present moment, and you might as well be as happy as you can possibly be, within it.í Ultimately, there are going to be future present moments, and if you arenít happy now, then you arenít going to be happy then.
JL: In New York, you play for door money starting out, but you can be creative, give on-line lessons. You can be creative about how you make money, butÖ
TE: There is no money or success to be had by direct emulation any more.
JL: You have to really stand out and be doing something fresh.
TE: There used to be the school of a certain playeróten players who sounded exactly the same, and they all went off to have successful careers. It doesnít work like that any more. The jazz economy canít support that any more. The only thing it can support is when record labels find someone they think is original and different. When I hear someone saying, ĎHeís following in the same mold as someone they emulate,í I feel that if they accidentally played like themselves then they would make some money. Not trying to sound like him or him.
JL: But if you want to sound like me or Taylor thatís fine! [everyone breaks up]
[Laughing] Thatís great guys, thanks for your thoughts and time.
JL, TE: Hey, thank you.
January 09, 2009 · 1 commentTags:
By Ted Panken
In September 2006, Dave Liebman, the saxophonist-educator, celebrated his sixtieth birthday musician-style, with a four-night residency at Manhattanís Birdland, intending to represent, as Liebman put it, ďa wide spectrum from among the things Iíve enjoyed doing over the last ten years.Ē Towards this end, Liebman presented a different band each night, all but one of them documented by a contemporaneous recording, and each navigating a distinct sonic environment.
Night one featured a to-the-outer-partials two-tenor quartet with Ellery Eskelin, a Liebman student during the Ď80s (Renewal, Different But the Same [Hatology]), while on night two, Liebman led his working quartet of the past decade with guitarist Vic Juris, bassist Tony Marino, and drummer Marko Marcinko (Blues All Ways [Omnitone] and Further ConversationsĖLive [True Azul]). On night three, Liebman presented his big band music, and on night four he performed the music of Miles Davis, his one-time employer, and John Coltrane, his seminal inspiration, with an all-star sextet comprising trumpeter Randy Brecker, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
Although the program provided a consequential snapshot of Liebmanís intense activity as he approached his seventh decade, it only captured a fragment of his total musical production. To wit, during the months preceding the festivities, his itinerary included duo concerts with Markowitz and pianist Marc Copland; trios with Nussbaum and electric bassist Steve Swallow (Three For All) [Challenge], a week at Yoshiís in Oakland with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis; a week at Manhattanís Blue Note with McCoy Tyner. There were also European tours with a quartet from the Continent (Roberto Tarenzi, Pablo Bendettin, Tony ArcoóDream of Nite, Negative Space [Verve]); with the collective all-star quartet Quest, with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure, and drummer Billy Hart (Redemption, Quest Live in Europe [Hat Hut]), recently reconvened after a two-decade hiatus; and with Saxophone Summit (Seraphic Light [Telarc],) a Liebman-organized unit in which he, Joe Lovano, and Ravi Coltraneówho replaced Michael Brecker after Brecker contracted his fatal illnessóplayed music composed by or vibrationally akin to the spirit of John Coltrane.
Which meant that Liebman, as articulate with the English language as the language of notes and tones, had much to speak of while visiting WKCR to publicize his birthday run.
Am I mistaken that youíve been emphasizing tenor saxophone more in the last few years than you had in years previous?
DL: Yes. Itís back in the arsenal since 1996, after a fifteen-year hiatus.
What was the reason for that hiatus?
DL: To get really good on one instrument rather than be ok on a few. The soprano was the choice for a few reasons. One was that I felt a little bit closer to it as far as individuality. Also in 1980, as far as the water-under-the-bridge aspect of how many people had left a voice on the instrument, there werenít that many at the timeónow itís a little more crowded. Those two reasons made me think that it was time to put down the flute and the tenor, and concentrate on the soprano, and get it to a higher level. It took me 10-15 years to get it up to wherever it is now. Itís a hard one. But just when I was approaching 50, I decided it was time to bring back the father horn and own up to it, and to try to find a way to play it that made sense to me. I felt that I didnít want to go so much into the Coltrane thing, all my roots that I had played so much, and to find another way of playing it.
Someone remarked that your approach to tenor saxophone is almost like an electric guitar, to which you responded that if you hadnít heard Coltrane at 15, you might indeed have played electric guitar.
DL: I might have, yes, because of the expressive possibilities. Of course, I loved Jimi Hendrix. Those were all around the same time. But sometimes I hear... Especially on soprano, sometimes I think like that, even moreso than the tenor, because of its lightness and speed. But the way I play both instruments is marked with a certain kind of intensity, and thereís an immediacy that may be reminiscent of the way electric guitar is played.
Hearing Coltrane when you were 15 would place you in 1961, when he signed with Impulse and was starting to elaborate and extend his concept. Can you describe that first hearing?
DL: That first hearing was Birdland, and it was the second or third time Iíd gone there. Iíd gone with some of the older people in my school. I went to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn.
Sandy Koufaxís alma mater.
DL: Yes, and Larry King.
Joe Torre and John Franco. Bensonhurst.
DL: Well, first of all, six thousand people in the school, and my class, being 1946, was 2500 people. It was quite a large school. Anyway, I went to Birdland, and I didnít know really who Coltrane was. It was the Bill Evans Trio opposite. Coltrane was with Eric Dolphy, as it ended up, and they played ďMy Favorite Things,Ē which I couldnít believe. I said, ďHow can they play a song from ĎThe Sound of Musicí? This is not possible.Ē In any case, I was compelled to go back every time I could, dozens of times until his death. Thatís the main experience of my life, really. Outside of anything personal or family oriented that has happened to me, to see that group live was the big event. It was beyond words, the way they communicated, the way they played, their attitude, the atmosphere, the way it sounded. I was a teenager just starting to fool around a little bit, but I had no idea of the depth of this music, or what it could beóor what MUSIC could be, letís put it that way. Nothing had ever gotten to me like that at that point. It made me see that thereís something in this music that I didnít know.
You were playing saxophone by that point?
DL: Yeah, I was playing piano and clarinet.
So you had the music bug.
DL: I liked music, and I was trying to play jazz and pop and so forth. The first music I loved was rock-and-roll, Ď50s rock. I was an Elvis Presley freak. I loved the tenor in rock-and-roll, which is how I got to the tenor. I took music lessons like a high school student doesóyouíre in the dance band, you do shows, itís an activity. I enjoyed it. But when I saw Coltrane, and then subsequently Miles...all the different people... I would go see jazz every weekend, and they made me see this as a very serious thing. Of course, in my case, getting a chance to play with Elvin and Miles eventually opened the door, and then, of course, it went to another level. But I had no idea of that in my teenage yearsójust that it was very, very strong music.
When did you start to get involved in the New York scene? There was a group of people about your age, a little older, a little younger, who started a loft movement before loft jazz, in Ď67, Ď68. How did those attachments start to form?
DL: [Drummer] Bob Moses was my very close friend when I was 16. In fact, we went to the Catskills and played a hotel there. I actually ambushed him for a gig. We played merengues and such. I was in the lofts already at 16 years old, trying to play. That part of whatever the scene was... The amount of musicians in New York was very small. There were dozens, maybe, as compared to hundreds. So you kind of knew everybody. Say, you could see Hank Mobley, and he might know you because he knew your face, because youíd been around and you were hanging. It was a small community. It was easy to go into a club, you had a beer, you sat at the bar, and you could go night after night. By the time I got to college age, and was on my own at NYU in Greenwich Village, I was there a lot. We had quite a scene, a loft scene back in Ď69-Ď70...
You moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
DL: Yeah. When I was done from high school.
In those days, that was a big move.
DL: You were going to another country. But of course, I had been familiar with Manhattan, and I had been playing alreadyóclub dates, but also trying to play jazz as much as a young person could in those days. Looking for jazz on Bleecker Street with my horn. Seriously going out in the street and thinking there were sessions in the middle of the street! This was what I thought. But we actually organized in the late Ď60s. We put together an organization called Free Life Communication, which I was the head of, and Moses and Chick Corea and Holland, Mike and Randy Brecker, Lenny White, a lot of guys. We put on about 300 or 400 concerts in the first year. We saw that this was a thing we had to do on our own, because jazz actually was pretty low-down in the late Ď60s and early Ď70s as far as places to play and opportunities. So we decided to take matters into our own hands, and got funding from the New York State Council of the Arts, and so forth. So there was some organization and some activity, but we were basically playing free jazz. The avant-garde movement was very strong in New York in the late Ď60s, and that was all that young cats like me wanted to play. Our model was Ascension. We never even played a tune or a blues or anything straight-ahead.
So were you also involved in listening to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp...
DL: This was our favorite stuff. Thatís what you saw. Youíd be on the Lower East Side, and thatís what was happening. It was the current thing, and it seemed to be exciting, and it seemed to be something that you could doóget up and just start playing, basically. There were no schools then. Remember, there was no formal schooling. Some guys went to Berklee, but I didnít, and we didnít learn in any kind of formal way. We all learned from each other, from watching and listening and hearing and asking questions, and just hanging out.
Was it 1970 that you joined Elvin Jones?
DL: I was with Elvin in Ď71-Ď72, and then Ď73-Ď74 with Miles.
Seminal relationships, obviously, and very exciting. How did it happen?
DL: Gene Perla was the bassist with Elvin, and he got the gig in late Ď70 or early Ď71. He was part of our community. That was a big thing for us, because we saw one of our own, so to speak, getting with a heavyweightóa real heavyweight. He said, ďIím going to get you in the band and then Iím going to get Steve Grossman in the bandóIím telling you now.Ē Sure enough, slowly, Joe Farrell, whoíd been with Elvin for those years, the late Ď60s, eventually was leaving, and I took his place, and then within 4-5 months Steve was in the band. That was the unit that recorded Live at the Lighthouse and so forth. It went on for that two-year period. We had a wonderful time. First it was the quartet, and Don Alias was with us for about a year with the congas.
How had Elvin Jonesí playing evolved from the time he stopped playing with Coltrane until then?
DL: Iíll be honest with you. Of course, having seen it so many times and knowing Elvinís playing intimately, I was hoping and expecting and thinking that it would be like Coltrane. Of course, the one big thing that was missing is that Iím not Coltrane! That took a minute to realize. But in essence, Elvin was much more controlled. His timing was much different. He played soft for many, many choruses. He played a lot of brushes. He basically orchestrated the energy, which wasnít true in Coltraneís case, where it was Elvin and Coltrane and McCoy, all at the same time. But in this case, it was Elvinís band, he had young guys with him, and he basically orchestrated the whole thingówithout saying anything. When he went up, you went up. When he went down, you had to go down. I spent the first few months with my neck bulging, playing intensity, and heís playing brushes and saying, ďWhere are you going? What are you doing there?Ē The vibe was Iím pushing. He knew that. I was a young guy, I was excited, and thatís what I wanted to try to do. But he matured me slowly, and he was in great control of his drums.
The other thing was that he took a major solo every set, and a long solo. You got to hear a long, expansive drum solo, which you didnít hear so much with Coltrane.
During those years, how interested were you in changes playing? You were incredibly into Coltrane. Were you as into Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson...
DL: Oh, definitely. The two were always Sonny and Trane. For our generation, they always coexisted, always the half-and-half. Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson were on the second line. Those four were the main influences. Then Pharaoh and Archie Shepp, and the people kind of on the fringe who had a particular thing that you liked. We always had these debates. Youíd go up to guys on the street and say, ďTrane or Sonny?Ēóthis ongoing joke. It meant, ďWhoís your strongest influence? Whereís the real deal?Ē In a way, I was caught between both, because if I played a certain kind of tune, Iíd be in Traneís bag; if I played a certain Sonny kind of tune, Iíd be in Sonnyís bag.Ē That ended up to be a little bit of a challenge to get over.
But with Elvin, we played a combination of chord change tunes, regular standards, and, of course, modal type tunes. There was no piano, so it was very openójust trio, really, with the other horn. I was able to explore both things at the same time, sort of. When I got to Miles, Miles was completely one chord. It was just rock-and-roll, one pedal, E-flat for 45 minutes, letís say. There it was completely modal. So between those two leaders during those four years, I was able to go harmonically and non-harmonicallyóor, letís say, chord changes and also modal and pedal point. Which of course, ended up being what I do. That set the stage for me.
Under what circumstances did you join Miles Davis?
DL: Well, I did On The Corner, and Miles asked me to join, and I said no, because I wanted to be with Elvin.
You were contracted to do On The Corner? You werenít part of the band.
DL: My mother found me at a doctorís office in Brooklyn and said, ďTeo Macero, whoever he is, said ĎCome NOWí to 52nd Street and MadisonĒóI knew exactly where it was. I got in and played on ďBlack Satin,Ē the first track, and I did another overdub maybe. Then Miles said, ďJoin my band,Ē something like that, kind of offhand. I donít know if he meant it or what. I said, ďIím with Elvin, and Elvinís Daddy,Ē that was my vibe. He didnít say anything. Then six months later, in January of Ď73, we were playing the Vanguard, and he came down Tuesday night and Wednesday, and by Thursday he was on my case big-time to join. I told him, ďYouíve got to talk to Elvin.Ē And he did. He called me in the middle of the night and he said, ďElvin said youíre fine, and tomorrow night you play with me at the Fillmore, then you go back and finish the week with him and go to the Workshop next week, and then youíre with me.Ē That was one night where I played with both, actually. January 12, 1973. It was amazing. I played at the re-opening of the Fillmore, which had been closed for a year, and only was open that one night for Miles and Paul Winter, and then closed and never opened again! That was 8 oíclock, and by 10 oíclock I was back playing ďThree Card MollyĒ with Elvin and Steve at the Vanguard. I will never forget that night musically. Of course, it also felt good. But the music was from the 21st century to...well, I walked into the Vanguard, got down the steps, and they were playing a blues, something with that feel, the complete opposite from Milesí thing, which was all-electric. I couldnít hear a note I played. That morning I had just had holes put in my horn to put a pickup in. I had no idea what he was playing. Anyway, this was the beginning of that stage, and that went on for about 18 months with Miles.
What was new for you in that?
DL: It wasnít the rock-and-roll, which I was familiar withóor whatever you want to call it...funk. It was the volume and intensity. It was a loud band. Miles, of course, was playing electric trumpet and wah-wah pedal, and there were no real heads. There were no chord changes. You had to watch him for everything. He pointed to you, he cut you out, he cut the band downóyouíve seen the tapes from there. It was his band all the way. He didnít want anybody elseís tunes. You didnít bring anything to the plate. You just were there. The main thing with Miles was the chance to be next to him and hear him play every night. Regardless of the style, the way he played was classic Miles. To be able to hear it from five feet away is different than being on the other side, listening from the audience or listening on a recording. You canít really get it until you stand next to somebody. That was a big lesson in phrasing. Of course, the way he led the band. The way he nuanced everything, the way he brought the energies to him, and the way he controlled the rhythm section in a music that wasnít necessarily a give-and-take rhythm section like the jazz era. This was a background. They played more or less the same thing. But the way he controlled things was, of course, a major lesson.
So it was a spontaneous orchestration every night.
DL: Very much so. I mean, it got into patterns, because we did night after night, but it was really on him, what he wanted to do. Of course, he was playing keyboard then. At first there were keyboard players, but he fired them eventually, and then it was just him on the keyboard. Heíd play weird voicings with his elbow, and Iíd play the alto flute, not knowing what key weíre in! We had some good fun. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed him. He was a complex person. In a lot of ways he was a Jekyll-Hyde personality, itís true, and he had a lot of drug problems at that time, and a lot of physical problems. But in his heart of hearts, music was everything. It was all music.
Your subsequent career seems marked by an interesting approach to eclecticism. Youíre pragmatic, you keep working, and you also put yourself in creatively stimulating situations.
DL: I enjoy a lot of kinds of music. I certainly enjoy my band most, but we play about five different kinds of music in the band. I like the challenge. You are who you are, and the idea is you within a contextóyou being whatever your style is and how you hear. I hear harmonically a certain way, rhythmically a certain way, etcetera, and that will permeate, whether itís Puccini or Coltrane or my own tunes. To me, thatís an obvious thing. Of course, I come from this era, the Ď60s, which was the beginning of widespread eclecticism. Now, there were certainly eclectics before, but by the Ď60s you could hear a lot of musics much more readily. It was not unlikely that a listening session could be Bartok, Ravi Shankar, the Bulgarian Girlsí Choir, and then Coltrane or Cecil Taylor or something like that. There could be four or five hours of listening and hanging. All those things affected meórock-and-roll, world music, classical, especially 20th century classical. I enjoy all of it. On the pragmatic side, I donít have a contract, so I donít do one thing a year for a record label. Iíve done a little travel, so you find a label that enjoys one thing, another that enjoys another thing, and so on. I like that.
Lee Konitz has been doing that for about forty years now.
DL: Paul Bley. David Murray. Steve Lacy. Itís not unheard of. From the business side, thereís always the difficulty of selling, because you have too much product competing against your other product, and the labels hate it when you do that. On the other hand, more is always better in the sense that at least people hear more music that you like, that youíre a part of. Iím really thinking about people who are listeners. Selling is not going to happen anyway, in this day and age. So to me, if I can find a way to express myself and somebody is interested, Iím going to do it, and if itís crowding the other thing, what can I do about it?
You were saying that youíve concentrated more on the tenor saxophone over the last decade, since you hit 50.
DL: It has come back in, yes.
What other things have you been working on?
DL: Outside of a little envelope when I had a band with John Scofield for four-five years in the late Ď70s, much of my work after Miles was with Richie Beirach in Quest and Lookout Farm and Duo. My relationship with Richie was based on heavily on harmony, and the tradition coming out of Miles and Coltrane. He took care of the rhythm section and I was the soloist. That was our thing. By 1990, Iíd had enough of that, and I really wanted to explore rhythm, to get myself more sophisticated rhythmically. Of course, rhythm is the main thing thatís on everybodyís plate in the last 10-15 years. Iím about to go to Manhattan School of Music and start my course, which is based on my book, A Thematic Approach to Harmony and Melody. But of course, itís so arcane. It means nothing now, because nobody really uses harmony any more. What we have is a world of rhythm; everythingís not in four any more. In 1991, I felt there was a need for me to get familiar with it. Hence, I hired Jamey Haddad as my drummer, who is an expert on hand drums and an expert on rhythm. That was the bandís focus. Also synthesizeróPhil Markowitz played a lot of synthesizer. And I had Vic Juris there. I wanted more color and more written material than I had with Quest. Quest was really an improvising band. It was four master guys who could play. Not that these guys canít. But in Quest, we were all from the same generation.
But now, in the last five years or so, Iíve been getting back to harmony, playing with Marc Copland or playing duo with Markowitz. Also, Quest was been reawakened, for our first tour in fifteen years. What happens as you get older, in a certain way, you really donít care about what anybody thinks (if you ever did), you donít care about categories, and it really doesnít matter, because you do what you have to do. Also, time is limited. Iím not being morbid, but 60 is not 40. Iím just going to keep going until I canít.
You were describing your sense at the top of the Ď90s that nobody plays in four any more...
DL: Iím exaggerating.
But the beginning of the Ď90s is when that approach started to become more mainstream instead of an exotic thing.
Youíve been an educator over those years. Could you give us a birdís eye view of whatís transpired over this period?
DL: Well, itís the computer. Itís world music. The influence of odd rhythm has permeated the West. Thatís what it comes down to. Which it should have. Itís been there for thousands of years. Playing odd rhythms puts you in a situation where youíre not playing the same thing. You canít phrase the same way. The generation that came up in the Ď80s, or certainly in the Ď90s, heard everything from the past played so well from the past. How could they find something fresh? Weíre graduating so many students from these places who are so well-equipped, are such good musicians, that doing things in odd meter is one way to make things differentóat least at the surface. At least you start with a different premise than if youíre playing 4/4 and playing rhythm changes. I think the odd meters have become endemic. Itís everywhere. My students donít write anything in 4/4! Which is fine. Itís very interesting. The dust is already beginning to settle a little bit, and things will get to where the distinctions are not so... It doesnít have to be one or the other.
As far as education, the last ten or fifteen years are an amazing period, with hundreds of students who make my generation look like we couldnít play at all at that age. I certainly canít compare myself at 21 or 22 years old to these guys. Theyíre unbelievable. I mean, theyíre not mature men and women yet, but they know everything. They know tunes. Their tools are just ridiculous. What we teach them at Manhattan School of Music and what they have to do is so high-levelóI tell you, I canít believe what they turn into. Iím very impressed. What theyíre going to do with it, how theyíre going to make out, thatís another story. In some ways, the music is as healthy as itís ever been because of this influx from all over the world. Business-wise, itís the worst itís ever been. Itís a complete dichotomy.
I guess thereís a mix between fresh new repertoire and playing... Well, itís hard to say that playing ďPeace on EarthĒ and ďMeditations SuiteĒ is dealing with older forms, but this is music thatís forty years old.
DL: Yes. Thatís a very fair comment. First of all, thereís such a wealth of material. Just in general, because something was played once doesnít mean it canít be touched again and redone. Everybody knows that, and thatís why they go back and do it, and do it in ways that arenít recognizableóďderangingĒ tunes, as itís called now. An iota of ďMy Funny Valentine,Ē they call it ďMy Funny Valentine,Ē but it has nothing to do with it. Itís very interesting in a lot of ways. The students donít really know past-present. They have so much material. With the iPod, they have hundreds of years of music right in their hands. History doesnít mean the same to them as it does to us. So the little that we can do, somebody of my generation...
Itís all information. Decontextualized information.
DL: Yes. And itís hard to find a way into it. As somebody who has a link to this, through my roots in Trane and Elvin and Miles, which was my school of learning, I feel a responsibility to play the older material. Not only, not exclusively, but to play it and reinterpret it and make it present. Itís part of what weíre supposed to do. This is the tradition. I believe in it. I donít have Lincoln Center as a soapbox, but I believe exactly the way Wynton Marsalis does in that respect. We have a strong tradition. Iím very proud to be part of it. I feel like we have to continue it. I think itís a good thing for somebody to see somebody in my position playing itómixed with my own material, of course.
You mentioned recording for many different labels in recent years. Organizing all that activity and keeping the contexts separate must also be a bit of a challenge.
DL: Iím also an educator, and writing books. I can only say Iím very happy that some people enjoy and respect what I do. Thereís no real money in it. In fact, in some cases, recording you ends up costing people. To me, records always have been basically a calling card. Itís a means for you to classify your material, and then once you do it, and itís on the shelf, you can move on. From an artistic standpoint, itís a necessity, if you can, to close the door on a certain music, or a certain tune, or a certain idiom, or whatever. Also, itís a way for people to know youíre around. To me, itís a way for those people who enjoy my music, for fans (I have a couple here and there, not thousands) to know Iím still active, still going. Iím always inspired by older musicians who continue to evolve. When you have 30-40-50 years under the bridge, itís not easy to find new ways of doing things. For the first ten or twenty, youíre supposed to find new stuff. But when you get past 20-25 years, youíve done a lot, heard a lot, been inspired a lot, youíve written those amazing tunes based on your experiences and all that stuff. Youíve had your political awakening, your love awakening, your social awakening. Not that it ends, but you canít repeat what youíve done. Being creative... Itís one thing to die early, but itís another thing to keep going! I got to tell you, itís not easy, man, to keep going and be creative and have self-respect. Itís a matter of having respect for yourself. If other people see it that way, thatís their business. But I know I need to feel good about what I do. So I need to not repeat, if I can help it, and try to move onóand itís not easy.
You made a classical music duo recording not long ago, called Vienna Dialogues [Zoho]. Has that been more of a preoccupation over the last decade?
DL: Not really. Iíve always been interested in 20th century classical music because of the harmonic content, for obvious reasons, but Iíve been less interested in pre-20th century. I was doing something in Vienna, where the tradition is very strong, and I was inspired by the songsójust piano and voice (or in this case, soprano). I found a young pianist, Bobby Avey, who was willing to put in the time to help me find the tunes and arrange them. This is a very straightforward, lyrical recording of songs by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, celebrating the great European tradition. I didnít take the songs apart, or change too muchówe just played on the songs. That music is what forms the basis of the harmonic music of our time. These are the guys who laid it down.
In the program notes you wrote: ďThere are several unique challenges. Accuracy of pitch, of course, is crucial, but more important from the aesthetic side, the challenge is to convey an emotional attitude culled from the written music while infusing it with oneís own personal set of inflections, guided above all by good taste. The balance between too little and too much is very precarious.Ē
DL: Yes. Itís one thing to take a Duke Ellington tune, as on a gig I did at Yoshiís in 2006 with Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, where we played ďIt Donít Mean A Thing If It Ainít Got That SwingĒ every set, and then phrase it and work with it the way you want At least to me, thatís what youíre supposed to do. But with Chopin and Schubert and Schumann, you have to watch yourself that you donít go overboardóand I definitely can easily go overboard. One thing Iíve been guilty of has been in excess. I know that. Thatís part of my M.O. But when you play a delicate, lyrical song with piano and soprano, itís important to have good judgment and good tasteóto try to be underneath rather than over. That objective-subjective line is an interesting thing. How much of me is in it? How much of It is it? When do you detach yourself from the art? When is the art strong enough that it conveys itself by you being the messenger? All these questions are posed when you are interpreting classic...not just classical, but the classic material. How much is you? How much do you let the music take itself? Etcetera. Of course, every man and woman has a different view on those questions, from a listening standpoint, But from a performance standpoint, you do have to take an interpretive stance. Thatís what that paragraph is about.
What do you want to be doing in ten years?
DL: Keep doing it, man. Getting on that plane is getting tough. Iíve got to figure out what to do, because itís getting harder and harder to get to where youíve got to get. Iím not even taking the horns. I bring my mouthpiece. But Iím afraid Iím going to get to an airport and theyíll say, ďPut the soprano underneath.Ē Thatís the end of that. Things like that are happening. But I hope to continue doing what Iím doing and continue with the music.
Interview notes: Dave Liebman was interviewed on WKCR by Ted Panken on September 7, 2006