By Tomas Peña
Though he began his career as a bebopper, Mark Levine has forged a remarkable career in Latin jazz. A graduate of Boston University, and a respected pianist, composer, educator, and author, Levine's interest in Latin jazz was stoked by a visit to see Tito Puente play at the world famous Palladium. Eventually, Levine moved to Los Angeles, where he honed his skills by playing with a variety of Latin bands. Over the years, Mark has performed with some of the most renowned names in jazz and Latin jazz: Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Harold Land, Blue Mitchell, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson, Carmen McRae, Bobby Shew, and others. More recently, he's distinguished himself as the leader of The Latin Tinge. He's also the author of The Jazz Theory Book (a virtual bible for jazz pianists), The Jazz Piano Book and the Drop 2 Book. Levine currently resides in the Bay Area, and teaches a course in World Music at the Jazzschool in Berkeley.
Congratulations on the release of Off & On—The Music of Moacir Santos (Left Coast Clave Records). You seem to have struck a chord. The reviews are excellent.
Thank you! If nothing else, I will be happy if Moacir's music becomes better known. Maybe it will even inspire Blue Note Records to release the recordings that Moacir made in the 70s [Maestro (1972), Saudade (1974), and Carnival of the Spirits (1975)].
I am sure that there are plenty of collectors who would love to get their hands on those recordings, myself included!
eBay and Amazon.com in Japan are a good place to look. Oddly enough the prices fluctuate between $14.98 and $304.00 dollars for a collector's copy. The albums have a mysterious way of disappearing and reappearing, but if you look hard enough you can find them for a reasonable price.
You played an important role in the making of Saudade, and you toured with Moacir as well.
Yes, I worked with him and fell in love with his music. I rehearsed with Santos' working group, but only performed with him on one ill-fated tour. At the time, the Brazilian music that was popular in the U.S. was along the lines of Brasil '66, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, and others doing the Bossa Nova style. What we played was strikingly different. One casino manager went so far as to call it 'jungle music' and told us to go home half-way through the tour.
How did you meet Moacir?
Luis Gasca, a Mexican-American trumpet player who was touring with Mongo Santamaria, introduced me to Moacir. Prior to that, I had never heard of his music.
For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with Moacir Santos, tell us a little bit about him, and explain why his music was so important.
Moacir was a great Brazilian songwriter—I think probably the best one of all, with all due respect to Antonio Carlos Jobim and everybody else. But he wasn't just about Bossa Nova and Samba. He grew up in Pernambuco in the northeast region of the country, and was exposed to a backwoods area. He also traveled a lot, and played with a lot of bands in that area. So he was exposed to music other than just Bossa Nova and Samba, which is why he uses a lot of rhythms that are unfamiliar to this country. Eventually he moved to Rio and São Paulo, where he became a conductor and a movie writer.
He composed soundtracks for films. I understand that he was also a teacher.
The list of those who studied with Moacir is a Who's Who of Brazilian music: Sergio Mendes, Nara Leão, Flora Purim, and Eumir Deodato, among many others. So he was a tremendous influence that way, and his music was a tremendous influence in general. Harmonically he was way ahead of any other Brazilian songwriter and his music is strange, in that it has nine-bar phrases and seven-bar phrases, and it wasn't uncommon for him to superimpose one rhythm on top of another. So he was extremely important.
And musically-speaking, he was ahead of the curve.
Yes, very much so.
What prompted Moacir to move to the U.S., and why do you think fame eluded him?
When he came to the U.S., it was the time of Sergio Mendes, João Gilberto and other Brazilian musicians, many of who moved to L.A. The rumor is that Sergio Mendes encouraged Moacir to come to the United States, but I don't know that to be true. Aside from the fact that Moacir recorded the Blue Note albums, everything else was wrong.
The problem was Blue Note was seeking another Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. I don't know if you have ever heard the first track from [the album] Maestro, but it's definitely not a commercial track. There is this long monologue where he talks about coming to the United States and it just wasn't what Blue Note was expecting. After he fulfilled his three-record contract, Blue Note just sat on the recordings, and he was kind of stuck in the U.S.
He worked in the movie industry on the West Coast, composing soundtracks for films.
He did a couple of things in movies. Nothing memorable.
During an interview conducted in 1996, Moacir said that he was a ghostwriter for a ghostwriter! To the best of my knowledge, the only film he ever received credit for was Final Justice. He composed the soundtrack and orchestrated the music.
There are still lots of blanks in my knowledge about Moacir's life. Everyday new stuff comes up. For example, people have sent me versions of recordings by Moacir that I have never heard before. Every few days I discover another version of 'Nana.' There must hundreds of versions.
Was Moacir revered in Brazil?
He was very well known in Brazil, but I don't think he made much money. As far as being revered, I think that only happened in retrospect when Mario Adnet produced Ouro Negro (Black Gold) in 2004.
That's a double-CD set that features an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians.
They brought back some of the people from his earlier records, and a lot of Brazilian superstars. Wynton Marsalis was also a featured guest. Actually, it was a tribute to them and what they learned from Moacir.
I understand that just prior to his death, the record label Adventure Music was working on a documentary about Moacir's life. Do you know if it was ever completed?
It's very possible. I know that there is a lot of research going on in Brazil. In fact, there's a guy in Brazil who is writing a biography about Moacir.
Tell me about the making of Off & On and why you chose to mount a tribute to Moacir at this juncture in your career.
It was basically, 'Gee, I should have done this before.' In a way it's better that I didn't do it until now, because I'm more ready now than I was five years ago. You know, The Latin Tinge has three previous recordings, and they are all Afro Cuban in orientation, although they have recorded a considerable amount of Brazilian music, too. But I knew that as soon as Mike Spiro got a hold of the music, it was going to take a left turn and go to Havana [laughs]. Actually, I was hoping that would happen, and it did. The music is a mixture of Brazilian music and North American jazz, but rhythmically it is much more Afro Cuban.
So technically, it falls under the heading of World Music.
To me, this to me is a World Music project. The record has only been out for a couple of weeks and is doing well on the World Jazz charts.
This is as good a time as any to introduce the band.
[Percussionist] Michael Spiro and [drummer] Paul Van Wageningen have been with me from the beginning. In fact, we played our first gig ten years ago in August. The first three CD's were done with a different bass player. Bassist John Wiitala joined the band about seven years ago. The newcomer is flutist, saxophonist, and bass clarinetist Mary Fettig, who has performed with just about everybody in the Brazilian jazz scene.
How did you go about selecting the material?
I became familiar with Moacir's music through the Blue Note recordings, which were recorded in the states. By the way, if you will notice, there are no Brazilian musicians on those recordings. Most of the musicians were the cream of Los Angeles jazz scene. So that was my orientation. I went back to those recordings, listened to them and selected the tunes I liked. The majority of the tunes are from the first two recordings (Maestro and Saudade) and one tune is from the third album (Carnival of the Spirits). That was the music I was most familiar with.
Obviously, the project was a labor of love.
It was a labor of love, and everyone in the band was familiar with Moacir's music. They discovered his music 20 years ago, and were chafing at the bit to do it.
Do you think the project will spark a resurgence of Moacir's music?
I think it's starting already. I am getting a lot of feedback from jazz artists asking, 'Where can I get his music?' Also, I am getting a lot of feedback from Brazil, which I was a little bit afraid of, because of that left turn we took to Havana, though it was really nothing to worry about. With the exception of one local musician (who will go unnamed) the reviews have been very positive.
What was his complaint?
Basically, he expected the recording to be more Brazilian, but after he listened to it a few times he took it back! If I may put my teacher's hat on just for a moment, I teach World Music at the Jazz school Institute in Berkeley, California. My view of World Music is music that combines genres and works. There has to be some commonalities between different genres and what's common between Brazilian and Cuban music is clave. Clave rules Cuban music. If you listen to almost any Brazilian record, everything is in clave, though most Brazilian musicians will vehemently deny it! That said they break some rules in the Cuban sense. All of a sudden there might be an extra bar, or one fewer bar, or the clave gets flipped around, which you are not supposed to do if you are in Havana. Other than that, all the music is in clave and the influences are all from the same part of Africa. To me there are only a handful of people in the world that know how to do that. One is [guitarist] Nguyen Lee, and another is [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Hermeto Pascoal. They are able to put it all together because they understand the things they have in common. Of course, Moacir did it and that's what I am trying to do.
In hindsight, are you happy with the way things turned out? If you had it to do over again, is there anything you would change?
I feel wonderful about it. The release date was September 15th, and the reviews and the airplay we have been getting have been very gratifying. Our last CD [Isla] was also a labor of love, and it was nominated for a Grammy.
The nomination was well deserved. Your recordings stand the test of time.
I think Off & On is the kind of record that will be listened to years down the road, simply because it is the first North American tribute to Moacir's music.
I couldn't agree more. Thank you for speaking with Jazz.com, and long live the music of Moacir Santos!
For more info on Mark Levine visit www.markelevine.com
November 30, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
A Sonny Rollins concert is an event in the world of jazz. Rolling Stone once said that, in the future, people will boast of having seen Rollins perform, much as the lucky few now boast of having seen the great bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.
Rollins indelibly wrote himself into the pages of jazz history on June 22, 1956 with a series of nonpareil performances for the album Saxophone Colossus. It was hailed as a classic from the moment it was released, but for the then-25 year-old saxophonist, it was just another session in the course of a remarkable creative high that spanned almost three years. During that time he recorded fifteen sessions under his own name, beginning with Worktime in December 1955 and ending with Freedom Suite in 1958, with such masterworks as the aforementioned Colossus, Way Out West,and the classic Blue Note album, A Night at the Village Vanguard sandwiched in-between.
This was an astonishing period of creativity by any measure. It saw Rollins prising jazz from the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker, whose legion of followers mistook speed for content and ended up creating solos that seemed like one enormous glissando. In contrast, Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety, and even wit. With sometimes blunt, sometimes asymmetric phrasing, and always a big powerful tone, his style was unmistakable. He seemed to dismantle songs and reassemble them in new and interesting ways before your very eyes, a feat performed with such clarity of purpose you could almost hear him thinking.
Rollins solos were propositions—cerebral inventions that sounded as if they could be spun endlessly, in contrast to the pronouncements of an Armstrong or a Parker, which seemed to arrive, etched in stone. “I always stress that music never ends, it just continues, there is no real cut-off,” he once said. His improvisations are a beguiling mixture of the vertical and the horizontal, governed as much by the underlying harmonic sequence (the vertical) as the development and thematic variation of a melodic idea (the horizontal). Ever since “Blue 7” from Saxophone Colossus, shrewdly analyzed by Gunther Schuller in the pages of the then-highly influential Jazz Review, Rollins has, over the years, developed and refined this creative process into a unique art.
So what goes through his mind when creating one of his majestic, hypnotic solos that brings you to the edge of the seat with a mixture of awe and admiration? Ten years ago he touched on his creative process in an interview for the now-defunct Jazz Express magazine, when he talked about thematic unity in his solos. “You have to create around a fixed pattern yet still leave the creative element sounding free,” he explained. “The essence of freedom in improvisation is something that is very creative, yet very formal; the ability to create something very spiritual, something of one’s own.” It seemed an interesting place to begin to try and explore the art of Sonny Rollins.
In an interview you kindly gave me about ten years ago, we touched on your creative process, and you said that you would ‘work around a fixed pattern and still leave the creative element sounding free,’ and that ‘the essence of freedom in improvisation is both creative and formal.’ I think students, in particular, would be fascinated if we could explore these points in a little more depth, in order to try and discover how you conceptualize the improvisation process.
Well, let me try and take a crack at it. The whole act of improvisation—and really painting, it’s the same sort of thing—you try and communicate a subconscious, if you will, and a higher power, an energy. So that is very interesting trying to create. I love this, because I feel that jazz improvisation is the ultimate. You have to create on the spot, the essence of this music from Louis Armstrong and all the great people who followed in his path. Cliché playing may be okay to a point, and maybe you learn by playing clichés, but then you throw all of that stuff aside. It’s just like when I am working a piece of music, I will study the music, I will learn the music. Maybe that’s what I meant when I said there is some kind of formal aspect to this, so I learn the melody, the chord progression, in preparation for my instrumental improvisation.
Now when I improvise after learning formally these things, I forget them. I don’t go up on the stage and think of them. I forget them and that’s where the creativity comes in. That little area is quite mysterious. Music is magical, we all know that, and that area where you create and your subconscious is at work and you don’t know what you’re playing. Often I play things—if I’m in the right groove—I’ll play things where I surprise myself. Those are things that are deep in my subconscious, and they come out during my improvisation, but they are not things I went into the song thinking about. They are things I hear, and they come out.
And this is why in improvisation it is so top of the field when it comes to artistic expression, to me, because there is so much skill involved in playing music, and yet it has got to be free and loose. The skill is there; you learn the skill and you forget it. You don’t have to play your scales in the middle of the set. You know what your scales are. It’s a matter of keeping your embouchure. You don’t have to think about that.
In fact, in a way, improvisation is making the mind blank. When I’m playing, I’m in a trance. I’m not thinking of anything. Sometimes I’ve thought about a nice pattern I wanted to play, maybe a little riff on the song. It’s very clever and I’d think about it and go, ‘Oh yeah, this song I’ll put in this clever riff, it’ll really sound clever, everybody will think I’m clever!’ But I can’t do it, because when I think about putting it in someplace, the music has gone by so fast that it doesn’t work, so I just forget it. Just absorb it and it comes out at some weird time and for some weird reason from the subconscious, so I’ll play it, but don’t try to manage it and put it in to a solo. So that’s what I have learned about music—about improvisation—and it’s beautiful. I think somebody told me Miles [Davis] said something like that, he learns something and he forgets it because you can’t be creative if you know too much about what you’re doing.
There’s something else that Miles hated: cliché people. These are some of the best artists in the world who have tremendous skill, but they play clichés. A cliché is something which is proven to be effective, but if you just use clichés, it’s a different type of playing. It’s not really the height of jazz improvisation, it’s not where I want to be anyway. Look, I don’t put any kind of playing down, certainly there are some great players who play clichés [who] I admire. Because it takes a lot of skill to play clichés in an effective way. But it’s not—Miles and I used to talk about this all the time—it’s not the optimum. It’s a different way of playing, but it’s not the way I want to play. It’s not the way other people play that I look to, these people in the firmament played.
How would you direct students to work towards that end?
Well, they should learn their materials. If it’s a song pattern, they should learn the melody, they should learn the harmony, learn all of these things, and then try and improvise on it. Now people improvise in different ways; some people improvise on the chord progression, some people improvise more on the melody like Lester Young. Coleman Hawkins would be a guy who improvises on the chord progression, so whatever suits the individual person, that’s the way to go about it, and you’ll soon find out if you have the talent to be a jazz musician.
Turning to your recent work, Road Shows: Volume 1, there is a track recorded at Carnegie Hall with a trio comprising Christian McBride on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Trio is a configuration in which you produced many of your finest albums, and I wonder if you could speak about this aspect of your career, and what it means to you.
When I look back on my career, I find that I was playing trio almost from the beginning. You know, when I first met Miles, I was playing an opening act for Miles Davis and some of these stars that [had been] playing down on 52nd Street. This was a place up in the Bronx called the 845 Club, and I was hired to play and open up for these guys. As I look back I remember I had a trio then. When Miles, I remember, offered me a job in his band, he heard me in a trio originally.
When I look back on my career, I find I made many records with a trio, that’s why when nowadays you find saxophone, drums, bass, there’s a little bit of Sonny Rollins in that line-up. I find I had been doing it for so much of my career, and I didn’t even realize it until somebody asked me about it a year or so ago, and I looked back and I realized how much of my work was with a trio. Some of my records, like A Night at the Village Vanguard, Way Out West, Freedom Suite, a lot of records were made with trio. I had more than useful accompaniment too! I had people like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, , Ray Brown, Shelly Manne—I mean, I had configurations of groups which really had the crème de la crème, and so the success of those records is certainly not only my playing.
I do find it has been some years since I played in that grouping. The reason I first did it was, as a soloist, it gave me more freedom to hear the harmonic possibilities of any piece of music that we’re playing. With due respect to the piano players—and I have worked with some of the best—the piano is a dominating instrument. If you have eighty-eight keys and the person is playing chords behind you when you are soloing, it is very difficult to deviate from their harmonic direction. So with a bass and drums I don’t have that. I can hear my own harmony and fill it in myself.
I’ve always liked that. When I first started playing as a kid, I used to be in the house playing by myself, for hours and hours, and my dear mother used to call me, ‘Sonny, Sonny, it’s time to eat dinner.’ And I’d just be in there in the bedroom playing in my own reverie, my own peaceful trance so to speak. I have always been a person who has been able to create my own harmony when I play, and the fact that other people are doing it today, I’m glad, because I feel it’s good. And it’s not that pianos are not great too. They’re good, it’s all good; it’s not a matter of that, but in my case I find it was a natural progression towards the piano-less group.
I wonder what the date was when you were playing trio at the 845 Club?
That would have been in—I’m not sure—1948, or 1949 … maybe 1948 actually. I was a teenager, but I was a determined teenager, who knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play music, I wanted to be a jazz musician. People have asked me, ‘Sonny, you played with people like Charlie Parker when you were young, didn’t it make you feel a little bit scared?’ So I said no. Actually I loved all those people. They were my gods, but still I had something in me that made me always feel as if I belonged, and that I should be there where I was. So, I was young but I always had a feeling, I was so certain I wanted to be a musician. I shouldn’t say certain, because there were a lot of people who I grew up with, we all wanted to be jazz musicians. That was the only thing to be. We all wanted to be jazz musicians and some of us tried but couldn’t make it, didn’t have the natural ability like I did. So it wasn’t a fait accompli that I should be a musician. I don’t want to be too glib about this. I didn’t know I was going to make it, but I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker: our idol, our prophet, our god.
He was something of a mentor to you.
Definitely. Oh yes. Well, he looked at me in rather an avuncular way, myself and a lot of other young people, all trying to play like him, and I think he was very proud of us, really.
What aspects of his playing gave you most inspiration?
Gee, that’s very hard to say, because my idol [was] originally Louis Jordan, the rhythm and blues saxophonist. Then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins, and I stayed with Coleman Hawkins, trying to absorb him. And then I familiarized myself with Lester Young, and all the time I had heard Ben Webster and tried to absorb some of his playing. The great Don Byas was one of my ultimate favorite saxophone players; I think he was one of these unsung heroes. So I tried—I learned a lot [laughs]. I wish I could have learned more from these people. I studied them a lot, let me say that!
Charlie Parker came along and I studied Charlie Parker a lot. The fact that Charlie Parker came on the scene just at the time when I was coming into my adolescence meant he became a prominent source of my inspiration at that time. When I first heard Charlie Parker it was the '40s. The first record I had by Charlie Parker was a record called ‘KoKo.' It was a famous record of him playing on ‘Cherokee.’ It was on Savoy. On the other side of that record was ‘How High the Moon’ by Don Byas, and I actually bought that record for Don Byas because I didn’t really know Charlie Parker!
So I listened to Charlie Parker play. It was interesting, but after playing it for my friends at school I realized this guy has got something going here, and I began to become a devotee of Charlie Parker. But originally Don Byas was the reason for my purchasing that record and to this day I still love Don Byas, Don Byas is great.
When you’re young it has to be this or that, but as you grow older and get more mature you’re able to realize everyone has something unique and special to say in jazz, everybody should really play. If you love jazz you can contribute to it; if you have talent you can make a contribution. You don’t have to be as good as Sonny Stitt to play saxophone, you can make your own kind of contribution
Very important for young students to realize.
< How did you make yourself known to Charlie Parker?
As I began playing more and getting some recognition from some of the older players and so on, finally I got to the point where I was playing with Miles [Davis] and our paths crossed. And Miles said to Charlie Parker, 'listen to this guy,' and Charlie Parker, the first time he heard me, he said, ‘Hey, man! That’s me!’ So I really felt great, and he was like a father figure to us all, mentor and everything.
You mention Miles Davis a lot, and it would be interesting to talk about your association with him, as he gave you rights of first refusal for the tenor chair when he was forming his 1955 quintet.
[Laughs] Well, I had been playing with Miles. When I was away from New York, he gravitated towards me to start his band up. We were very good friends. Miles and me used to hang out, at my house; I’ve been in his house, this kind of stuff. And although I had played with Miles and Coltrane in 1949—I think that’s right, but my chronology could be off a little bit, we both played with Miles [around then], so Miles knew Coltrane and he knew me … I think he recounts some of that in his biography. I was very excited, of course, when he said he 'wanted to get Sonny,' but I think that was because he and I were very close personally and musically. So probably that’s why he wanted to get me back [from Chicago] when he formed his band, but I’m sure Coltrane was available and was someone who he would have taken, also. I think he just mentioned my name as the first one at that point.
Miles loved to have a strong saxophone player; that was one of his desires …. I think it set his playing in relief, which he enjoyed and he realized it was good musically to play against the pattern of saxophone sounds. It set his playing off in relief, made him more cogent, and I think he knew that.
I’m thinking of ‘Paper Moon’ that you recorded with him.
Oh yeah! ‘Paper Moon,’ right! Oh yeah, boy, I haven’t heard that in a long time!
To me that encapsulates what you were just saying.
I guess so, I guess so. I think also when I look back on the songs he made with Charlie Parker he played differently to Dizzy Gillespie when he played with Charlie Parker. You know when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came out, they were both playing basically in the same style, the bebop style playing a lot of notes and so forth. But when Miles played with Bird, he played the opposite. He played much more introspectively. It was different. Of course, Miles was a genius, and I think he had that in mind all the time, 'one day I’ll have a strong saxophone player,' so he could play his style. It would set off his style more prominently.
Another trumpet player you were associated with was Clifford Brown, who of course was a completely different player than Miles.
Yes, yes. Yes, he was quite different [from] Miles. Miles was Miles. You have to look into past trumpet players to find parallels with Miles, people like Freddie Webster—that’s one guy who Miles loved. You could sort of see Miles trying to get a lot of his things from Freddie Webster. But other people coming on after you had Dizzy Gillespie. You had the great Fats Navarro, who was a fantastic trumpet player. I had a guy playing with me, a great pianist called Stephen Scott, and Stephen used to tell me, he said, ‘Oh, man. I think Fats Navarro was my favorite trumpeter.’ And that’s perfectly legitimate, because he could play anything. I had the good opportunity to play some jobs with Fats Navarro. But to get back to Clifford Brown … Clifford Brown, I would say, had a style akin to Fats Navarro. That was his inspiration. Clifford was so fresh, he was young, he was fresh and he was exuberant—beautiful sound, everything. He was just a gift to the music profession when he came out. He was somebody very, very special.
For me, I find him the most rewarding trumpet player in jazz to listen to.
Okay, well I certainly wouldn’t give you an argument over that at all. He was fantastic. He was so full of life in his playing, so much life in his playing, just wonderful, just wonderful.
What impact did he have on you as a person and as a musician, and what were you able to take from that experience?
Well, as person he had a great effect on me—as a musician also, but first as a person. He was a very humble person, very businesslike, very nice. For a person who could play that much music, when we played together he could bring the house down, he was still a very humble person and at the time he was a very clean-living person, which unfortunately artists and musicians don’t always go that route in their personal lives. This is not a criticism of jazz musicians, because jazz musicians have hard, hard, hard lives and they are prey to the usual things artists are prey to: alcohol, drugs, all these things. In fact, jazz musicians [because they work in bars and clubs] even more so. But I would say all artists are subject to getting involved in these things because it sort of goes with the living, trying to get closer to nature and music, and these things are hard to find in every day life, every day society. So artists and writers may get into drinking and all that, because we’re trying to find essences of things you’re not going to find in everyday life. That’s what makes art ‘art,’ something separate, so one of the pitfalls is that in order to find those things, you drink a lot, you use drugs a lot, you find ways that at least temporarily give you a different consciousness.
With Clifford Brown, he was a guy who played so much music but he was clean-living person. At that time in my life I was struggling to get away from some of these bad habits, all of which I had indulged in, so when I came across Clifford it was, ‘Wow, this guy can play so much music, and yet he’s clean-living, he is what I want to be: a clean-living person.’ So he ended up being a perfect model for me at a particularly dangerous time in my life, if I can put it that way.
You would put it that strongly, would you?
Well, you see I had been in a rehabilitation hospital for substance abuse [in Lexington], and when I joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach I had been fighting to get free of all of these things. I had been going along very nicely. In fact, I had turned a corner in many ways. I had turned a corner but I had to stay away from music for awhile. I had to stay away from the environment of music until I got myself strong enough to be around music and not fall prey to drinking and drug abuse and all that stuff. So I was right at a critical point in my life when I had turned a corner and I was ready to going back to playing, and that’s when I met the band and they asked me to join it and Clifford became such a light to me, because he was playing so great and yet he was completely clean, a clean-living person. So he was a great influence on me in a very, very positive way
And as a musician, what little bit of Clifford Brown did you take away from that experience?
Well, Clifford was a fine, consummate musician, but I certainly didn’t feel, ‘Boy, Clifford Brown, I don’t know if I should be up here.’ I didn’t feel that, but I certainly felt a big challenge playing with Clifford Brown because of his great playing. However, what sort of saved me and the edification of that band was that I was playing a little differently to the fellow I followed in the band, Harold Land, a fine saxophone player. But the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band with Harold Land was set in a certain direction and when I joined the band it sort of opened-up a lot of other things, it changed a lot about the band. A lot of people observed that, it changed the character of the band, and in so doing it changed Brownie. I know that, because Brownie’s wife told me some years ago when I was playing the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware—his home—she told me, she said, ‘You know Sonny, you and Brownie were so close and Brownie was really affected by you.’ For someone to say that I had an effect on him as well as him influencing me was a mutual thing, it was very humbling to me, because Clifford was so great. I don’t know if I was as great on saxophone as Clifford was on trumpet, I’m not sure about that, you know? But what I am sure is that I had it in my hands to go in a slightly different direction which changed the character of that band and eventually when his wife, when she told me, she said, ‘Yes, you guys were affecting each other,’ that was great!
We have talked about certain mentors in your life, but jazz has lost mentors like Art Blakey, Betty Carter, and so on, who gave musicians a firm grounding in music and the jazz life. These figures are no longer with us and I just wonder whether you think if jazz has lost anything by this, the opportunity of playing with someone with a very powerful personality?
There is a criticism going around that the kids coming out of the schools don’t really have the old-style ‘hands-on’ experience that people got when they were playing in these smoke-filled nightclubs, [when] there were no [jazz] schools per se. That’s a legitimate criticism. However, what can we do about it? There’s nothing we can do about it. So instead of lamenting the fact that we have no … that things aren’t the way they were fifty years ago … we just have to hope that we can get people coming out of schools, because that’s what happening now. The schools is where it’s at rather than nightclubs, which is where it was at when I started.
So things change, things go in cycles, and I’m not to concerned about that. I think it might be … I can see why a lot of people say ‘everybody sounds alike, they play the same.’ Well, that’s probably the beginning of something that might be not so desirable, but I think that will ameliorate given time. You’ll find people beginning to follow different models. Technology might give people a chance to play with records, whatever it is, or there might be more of a chance for people to play in live situations in optimum ways that they can get the essence, which is what a lot of people tell me. ‘The essence has gone. They’re playing something they could read out of books!’ All of these things, I don’t feel too discouraged by them. Jazz is a force of nature, nobody can stop jazz.
It’s nature, you can’t stop nature. You can try and control nature, but it doesn’t work. So you’re never going to eliminate jazz because it’s a wonderful natural freedom, its very spiritual and creative. I think it is a very high spiritual part of what we consider. …. Other people might think jazz is more funky; whatever you think about it, there’s something there that’s real, and these great people we have had have certainly shown that it is a beautiful expression of nature and the spirit, whatever you want to call it. There is nothing demeaning about jazz that anybody can say, because I know differently. So I’m not worried that the schools have taken over, I think probably they had to, because society at large always keeps jazz so far back from the consciousness of the people, and maybe we needed it to have it to go into the schools.
Finally, last question. When you sit down to listen to music, what do you listen to?
Well, I don’t listen to records nowadays. I sort of had a mental block about listening to music for many years now. I don’t do that. I used to do that, in fact I am probably going to start listening to music again, but I haven’t listened to music as a relaxing part of my day for many years. I think because I listened to so much music and was involved in so much music it probably just got to overkill, so I can’t really answer that question because I don’t do that.
I understand, of course. I thought you might take me by surprise and say Mozart or …
I love Mozart, by the way.
Well, he’s very difficult to dislike!
Yes, and there’s a lot of other music I like. I mean, I’m lucky because I love so many kinds of music, it’s great. You hear music all the time, even though I don’t sit down and listen to it, usually you can’t escape some kind of music, so if I happen to be some place and they play some Mozart, sure, it’s great. If I started listening again, I’d have to have a room just full of records. I’m a music lover. I love all kinds of music. Good music and bad music, that’s the two things; if it's good which means it's done well, if it's done with spirit, if it's done with feeling, if it's done with heart, its good. If its done without those things, then I consider it’s bad music—any style, it doesn’t matter the style, just those qualifications should obtain. Most music, I like it if it’s done well.
Thank you for your time.
November 13, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
You can approach guitarist Tim Sparks’ music from several directions. You can enter through Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, originally arranged for orchestra, rearranged by Sparks for six strings—a feat that won him the 1993 National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship. You can look for other CDs he's made for the German Acoustic Music label. You can track down recordings by the Twin Cities jazz group Rio Nido, popular during the 1970s and 80s, and still sorely missed. You can enter through the bluegrass and jazz Sparks heard as a child, and finally got around to recording on his new release, Sidewalk Blues (Tonewood, 2009).
Or you can walk through the door marked “Radical Jewish Culture,” a series on John Zorn's Tzadik label. Starting in 1999 with the solo album Neshamah, Sparks has made five recordings for Tzadik. His latest, 2009's Little Princess, is a collection of tunes by Naftule Brandwein, aka “Nifty,” "The King of the Klezmer Clarinet." It’s an elegant, polyglot, sophisticated recording—World Music for the 21st century.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Tim Sparks “appropriated my dad’s guitar” as a child and started picking out tunes. When encephalitis kept him housebound for a year, he taught himself to play traditional country blues and gospel by listening to old LPs, the radio, and his grandmother, who played piano in a small church. Impressed by Tim's skill, an uncle nominated him for a scholarship at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Sparks studied the classics with Segovia protégé Jesus Silva, and began adapting compositions by Jelly Roll Martin and Fats Waller for solo guitar.
Rather than continue on to college, “I got my degree in the world of music, the world of nightclubs.” He went on the road with a funk and R&B band and ended up in Minnesota, where he worked as a session player and became part of the vocal jazz group Rio Nido. That kept him busy for several years, after which he worked in a variety of groups, traveled, and moved to a farm in northern Minnesota with his wife, Chyrll, who is part owner of the country music festival We Fest.
For a time, Sparks taught at the University of Minnesota-Morris, but gave that up because of the killer two-hour commute, which “during winter is really tough. We have heavy-duty weather out here on the plains.”
I’ve been an admirer since first hearing a track from his "Nutcracker Suite" on the radio several years ago, then ordering the CD and almost wearing it out. When I heard he was playing a late-night show for Little Princess at a local jazz club, I grabbed a table near the stage so I could see his fingers on the strings. We spoke on the phone not long after.
How did a nice Christian boy from North Carolina end up making radical Jewish music for John Zorn?
It all started with Rio Nido. That was a pretty successful Twin Cities jazz group for quite a long time. It was a period of our lives collectively when we all had families and worked constantly. We were the house band at a club; we played there two weeks a month. You can’t get those long gigs anymore.
The band folded around 1986–87. After that, I played like a lounge lizard—straight-ahead jazz, R&B—for many years. I went on a long trip to Europe with my wife. Part of it involved traveling to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bosnia. I encountered a lot of music that was really exotic to my ears. I’d always been curious about Eastern European music. When I was a teenager, my two favorite recordings were Village Music of Bulgaria and a Charlie Parker album on Verve. In a funny sort of way, those two streams finally came together in the Tzadik recordings.
When we came back from Europe, I began digging all kinds of people. Plus I started learning a lot of things Rio Nido didn’t play—Brazilian music, world music, Edith Piaf. I took up some Middle Eastern instruments—oud, fretless lute, saz, long-string lute. I played with a belly dancer, with a group called Rubaiyat that played Persian music, with Boiled in Lead, with a Brazilian group called Mandala.
I studied Jewish music with accordionists Maury Bernstein and Mark Stillman. I played with a group called Voices of Sepharad, music of the Sephardic tradition. I had a very hands-on experience with Jewish music.
I get asked, 'Why are you playing this music? You’re not Jewish.' The answer is, first of all, it’s beautiful music. Jewish music shares a quality with gypsy music of touching on a diverse array of cultural and musical boundaries, especially Middle Eastern and Eastern European, with a particular soulfulness that moves me …. There’s a mystery in it; you never get tired of it. Like the blues progression. That 'Hava Nagila' scale pushes a button for me.
How did you and John Zorn first get together?
Through my friend Duck Baker. Duck was kind of a mentor to me as a teenager. He lived briefly in Winston-Salem … I used to go over to his house and he’d play Sun Ra and Frank Zappa. Perverse on his part; illuminating for me.
In the 60s, guitar music was in a bunch of separate categories and players never crossed the line. Classical guitarists completely ignored jazz and so on. Then gradually, because of people like Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins, and, in a way, Duck Baker, we reached the point where we’re at today, with incredibly eclectic fingerstyle guitar. It’s been quite a fluorescence in the last 20 years.
Can you explain what you mean by 'fluorescence'?
In a cultural fluorescence, you have a certain idea that catches on and blossoms. It’s a tipping point, when many people and ideas connect. The fluorescence in fingerstyle guitar started to happen in the late 1980s and early '90s.
I visited Duck at some point in the '90s, and he had done this great record called Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols for Zorn [Zorn was the executive producer]. It may be Duck’s best record. He’s known for playing Irish/Celtic music.
Which is notably absent from your repertoire.
Seems to me, there are enough people covering it. There’s nothing I can add. I try to do things that add to the overall value of the body of guitar work. I’ve always been drawn more to the tri-tonal, Afro-American, Middle Eastern music sounds. Though I did go to Ireland on tour and decided that when I die, I want them to pour my ashes down the toilet of O’Flaherty’s bar in Flago.
Back to Duck Baker and John Zorn …
So Duck said, 'Zorn is really righteous.' I sent Zorn one of my Peter Finger [Acoustic Music] CDs, a fusion of Middle Eastern and American roots music called Guitar Bazaar. I had done an arrangement of Bartok’s 'Romanian Dances' as part of that record. Zorn said he really liked it and wanted me to do a record of Jewish folk music, but done in my style. I sent him some stuff I was doing with David Harris and Mick LaBriola [of Voices of Sepharad] but he kept insisting on the solo guitar thing. That’s what he really wanted. So I worked on it. Any artist is happy to work.
Another cool thing about Zorn was he said, 'Be as eclectic as you want. Pick out the songs you like.' I chose things I thought were compelling or beautiful. He also encouraged me to be eclectic in the way I play the tunes. So I freely mixed country with jazz and bebop riffs and blues runs and Middle Eastern scales. That for me made Neshamah [Sparks’ first CD for Tzadik] a really fulfilling project. It was a stew of guitar music that had all these diverse elements. More like a salad than a stew, because everything still has its own unique identity.
Every time I make a record, I have a few tunes left over, seeds for another record. Zorn put me together with Greg Cohen and Cyro Baptista for Tanz, a trio record. Then the next time [for At the Rebbe’s Table] he said, 'I want you to add Marc Ribot and Eric Friedlander.' Then we did Masada Guitars, where he had me and Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot each pick out tunes from his Masada songbook.
Zorn never wants to repeat himself.
What about Little Princess?
I worked up a lot of tunes—more Masada tunes and a bunch of other stuff. Zorn liked the Brandwein stuff best.
I may by now have recorded almost everything there is by Brandwein. He only recorded 25–28 tunes that have been released by Rounder. When I was working on Neshama, I came across that recording and used it as a resource. I like Brandwein’s tunes a lot. A hundred years ago, he was playing with a palette and a repertoire that reflected multiple influences. His music’s got a lot of different bags in it.
You must be having déjà vu. Releasing Little Princess and Sidewalk Blues in the same year is similar to what you did ten years ago—with Neshamah and One String Leads to Another, your album of mostly original compositions for Acoustic Music.
That’s kind of a coincidence. I put together Sidewalk Blues, put it out, and didn’t realize that I was going to wind up recording Little Princess so soon or that Zorn would release it so quickly. We just recorded Princess in February. That’s another nice thing about working for Tzadik. It’s a small label, always righteous … that’s what Tzadik means. A Tzadik is a righteous person. I’ve been very happy to do stuff with them. Very cool catalog, cool community.
Are you still composing?
On Little Princess, the core songs are ten percent of the song, then twenty percent my arranging, then a lot of composition that developed those arrangements before improvisation. I’m not right now composing songs from scratch. I’m being a blank slate for a while. That feels kind of good.
I worked up half the tunes for the new record as part of a batch of demos I sent to Zorn last year. Then he sent me an email saying, 'Let’s do a record of just the Brandwein tunes.' From October on I worked up the rest of the material, thinking as a solo guitarist. I had to comp with myself and do the bass line. When I got to New York and started to play the tunes in the studio with Greg and Cyro, suddenly half the arrangements I had made, meticulously developed and practiced, turned into soloing. I don’t know where that came from. It was something I never practiced, and I’m kind of happy about that. I played a lot of jazz for years and none of it was recorded. I think there’s some nice playing on Princess.
Greg and Cyro were creating spontaneously. They had just learned the tunes. That’s how those guys work all the time. When Zorn does a project, the musicians come to the studio, then he shows up and gives them tunes they have never heard before. John Coltrane liked to do that, too. You get a very, very fresh sound.
Has there ever been anything you wanted to play but couldn’t?
Sure. All kinds of stuff. If there wasn’t, there would be no reason to live. I’ve been playing 'Giant Steps' a lot lately, trying to figure out how to play that tune. For years I’ve been trying to do a follow-up to 'Nutcracker Suite,' an arrangement of Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet, but I can never find enough time to allocate to it. I did about five of the tunes ten years ago. Prokofiev’s music is something I’d like to figure out how to do on guitar. Maybe that will be the next thing I do.
A City Pages article from 2002 mentioned your trips to Japan and your interest in Japanese music. Tzadik has a 'New Japan' series. Any chance we’ll see you there?
I’ve got an idea I have pitched to Zorn and felt might be cool. In Japan, there’s a type of music called Enka music. It’s Japanese, but with a Western musical influence that goes back to the 1800s, when the Meiji dynasty decided to embrace Western culture and technology. It’s soulful, sad music about broken hearts, betrayal, the usual stuff, like Hank Williams, but the Japanese version, with cool Japanese pentatonic scales mixed with Westernized arrangements. I’ve checked into and heard stuff that definitely caught my ear. Sometimes you hear things and a light goes on and you can start hearing and sensing how that would go on guitar, how cool it would be.
So you’re still passionate about this?
I’m too old to quit. That’s what [bassist] Billy Peterson once told me. 'We’re too old to quit, man.'
Visit Tim Sparks’ Web Site.
November 06, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
About twenty years ago, when he was writing the music for Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, his first film score, trumpeter Terence Blanchard took a hiatus from a successful career—at 28, he could already look back on a four-year stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and several years with the contemporaneously influential quintet he co-led with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison—to change his embouchure.
"I wasn't developing technically," Blanchard told me a decade later for a Down Beat feature connected to his selection as 1999's Jazz Artist of the Year. "Emotionally and musically, I was growing. I kept hearing ideas in my head that I wanted to play but couldn't execute, and that was very frustrating. My bottom lip was rolled over my teeth and I was cutting my lip. Art Blakey's whole thing was, 'Don't lie to yourself; just tell yourself the truth.' He meant that when you lie to yourself, you're covering up inadequacies, and you can't grow that way. Once I figured out what the problem was, I had the opportunity to fix it. Then it was a matter of being diligent, staying on course, taking my time and being disciplined. When I made the change, it immediately allowed me to open up my sound. Technically I got to the point where I could play over the horn from low to high with a certain amount of ease. That allowed me the freedom to explore more musical ideas. Before I would put in the time, but I wouldn't gain the results I wanted. Now there's no excuse. If there's something I want to do, then I have to put in the time to develop the ability to do it."
The fruits of Blanchard's diligence are apparent in a glance at his musical and cultural production. His website cites 13 recordings as a combo leader and four with Harrison-Blanchard, as well as nine in-print soundtrack recordings that represent an output of several dozen, many of them for Spike Lee. Furthermore, he is Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a position he assumed at the turn of the decade, when the Institute opened for business. He subsequently influenced the Institute's 2007 decision to move its base of operations from Los Angeles to Loyola University in New Orleans, where it plays a consequential role in the Crescent City's cultural reconstruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the aforementioned Down Beat article, Clark Terry remarked that Blanchard "is trumpeter of genuineness." He continued: "You can tell who are the name brands and who are the off-brands and substitutions. Terence always would be recognized as a name brand, not an also-ran. He's a leader. He has his own sound. I can recognize him right away. If you work diligently enough and go through the right channels, all the beautiful things within you are capable of coming out. Terence was smart enough or gifted enough to choose the right channels, and you can't hold talent down when it's given the right nourishment."
That Blanchard has made wise decisions is reflected by both the title and contents of his new release, Choices, an artfully produced collaboration of spoken word, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. The album features his sextet (comprising new additions Fabian Almazan on piano and Walter Smith, III on tenor saxophone, with Blanchard veterans Lionel Loueke on guitar, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Kendrick Scott on drums) playing a suite of pieces that springboard off Professor Cornell West's spontaneously generated meditations on the core jazz aesthetics that sustain the idiom's continuing vitality and relevance. The excellent singer Bilal contributes a pair of counter-signifying vocals, and Blanchard's own technically audacious improvisations again reveal his position on the highest branches of the contemporary trumpet tree.
The group (minus Loueke) stretched-out on this repertoire during a week-long run in late July at Manhattan's Jazz Standard. On the morning after night three, Blanchard joined Jazz.com to discuss this latest project.
Choices is your first album for Concord, and also your first that incorporates spoken word as such into the narrative arc. Can you speak about how you conceptualized the date, how it was put together?
I hate to keep throwing Herbie Hancock's name out there, but that's basically where it came from. When I started working at the Monk Institute, I would periodically have conversations with Herbie at various functions, and he'd hear me say, "I should have done this," or some such thing. He responded: "Listen, it's just a choice. Your career and life are a collection of choices. In the world of art, there are no wrong choices. Make the choice, experience the ramifications, and move on. Don't belabor the negative side of what could or should have been. Experience this, learn from it, and move to the next thing."
That became my rallying cry, in the sense that I started examining my entire life that way. I started thinking about my role as a father, husband, person in society—hopefully a productive person in society. Then I started thinking about the community. I started even thinking about the jazz community—that the entire jazz community makes choices that affect us. I wanted to put together an album addressing that idea, to create a little bit of a debate. I was on the road with Herbie again, and I started talking to him about the process of making CDs ...
This happened over about two months on the road last fall?
2½ months. We had a lot of fun. One thing Herbie said is that, for him, making records is much more than just music. It's about what the record is trying to say, the ideas it's trying to convey to an audience, and the thought process that it can generate as a result of its creation. That's when I started to formalize the idea about Choices, and how I could go about doing it.
I'd already thought about doing an album where the band would do an album of one tune, because the band plays so differently every night. But I thought that would be kind of crazy. I didn't think a label would go for that. And how do you sell it? But we did give three versions of the title track, to illustrate the various forms music can go into if you allow yourself to be free enough to think in those terms.
That was the first thing. The second part was to allow the guys to make their own choices on what to bring to the project. I knew it was all going to be cool—they know how the band operates, the thought process behind how we play every night and what we want to do when we make a CD. So I didn't have a set thing about, 'Ok, I need this type of music.' I told everybody to bring two tunes. We did Flow and A Tale of God's Will that way.
Was Aaron Parks still your pianist when you presented this to the band?
No, Fabian Almazan was in the band. But Fabian had bought into the concept.
Walter Smith, III, is also a new member.
Yeah, but Walter had been at the Monk Institute.
Then after that, we started rehearsing the music. But I knew that I wanted to deal with the topic with more than just music. I thought about lyrics, and I said, 'No, but that's going to get involved in writing melodies, finding a lyricist,' and I didn't think we had enough time to go through that process. So I thought about spoken word as a means of sparking this debate, and the first person I thought of was Dr. West. We sent a request to his office, and he immediately got back to us and said he would be more than happy to work on the project. He was very gracious.
We had rehearsals, we recorded the music, started mixing it, and sent him rough mixes just to listen to. Then we scheduled a day where we flew to New York and drove to Princeton. I hung out with Dr. West for a couple of hours, and we videotaped an hour-long conversation. The album contains excerpts from that conversation. The thing is, I presented the whole concept of what we were doing with Choices. You can see that on the uncut videotape (we're still trying to figure out what to do with that). He hit on all of the topics that we wanted to talk about. Next I had to figure out a way to edit those into the CD. His whole thing was, 'You're going to take snippets of this, right?' He had done some other records with some hip-hop artist. I said, 'Yeah,' but I didn't think in terms of snippets. I thought in terms of at least one-minute pieces. I spent a lot of time cataloguing the various topics and making notes. Then I whittled away. I started to extract stuff, set it aside, and played around with certain ideas that he expressed in relation to the various titles and meanings of certain tunes.
You've done a number of recordings with singers, both male and female, and during the latter half of the '90s in particular there was about a five-year period where you weren't doing so much original music. Perhaps that had something to do with the label you were signed to.
Very much so.
But this is the first recording since Let's Get Lost where you use a vocalist, Bilal. How did he come into the project, and what was his role?
Again, it goes back to my conversations with Herbie. Herbie was telling me that he tries to bring together different people to make the statement that we're all different, and we all can come together to do something in a harmonious way that can be beautiful. I kept thinking about that, too. I could have gotten any of the jazz vocalists that most people would expect me to work with, but I really didn't want to do that. I had a relationship with Bilal. We'd worked together on a couple of Spike Lee concerts, and I knew that he's a big fan of the music. He told me he grew up listening to John Coltrane and all of that stuff.
He's very tight with people like Robert Glasper and the musicians who attended the New School at the end of the '90s.
Exactly. He's also tight with the Philly crowd—John Blake, Jr., that whole line. So we knew we wanted to work together, and I thought this would be the perfect project to pull him in on. Then I thought more about it. Lionel Loueke was on the road with me on Herbie's tour, and I hadn't played with him in a while. I was trying to bring together different people to create something a little different for me, and hopefully something for others.
This was recorded in New Orleans. The question arises whether one should consider this a sort of companion piece to A Tale of God's Will, which was a powerful response to Hurricane Katrina, recorded two years after the disaster.
When we did A Tale of God's Will, you're right—it was very much a reaction to what had happened, my attempt to pay homage to the people who persevered, to those who perished. It was also to give the rest of the world a glimpse of all of the mixed emotions that you experienced as a native New Orleansian at that time. All the hurt and feelings of hopelessness, feelings of embarrassment—astonishment really—at the way our government treated us. But also a source of pride. I feel that I come from a unique community that has given a lot to the world, and in our darkest moments, our government wasn't there for us. That CD dealt with all of those issues, and it stirred up a debate about many things. Survival. Government. But a lot of negative things, too, about what was going on in New Orleans.
On Choices, I didn't want to talk about the negative, even though we still have a long way to go, I've realized a few things. For one thing, as Wendell Pierce said in Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, our impression was that right after the hurricane you would hear nothing but hammers and buzz saws going off all over the city—and that didn't happen. Aside from all the corruption and all the other things that happened, we started to realize it takes a long time to rebuild a city. It takes a long time to build a city, let alone rebuild it. That was a stark dose of reality that we all had to swallow.
But then, too, looking at the overall picture, with all the stuff that we still have to do, I'm very proud. A lot of people have persevered throughout extremely tough times, basically an impossible situation, encountering obstacle after obstacle that our own government has put in front of them in terms of trying to get money and resources to rebuild their homes. Some neighborhoods still don't have services, in terms of drugstores and daily necessities. But with all that, people are still rebuilding. People are driving to New Orleans on weekends from Atlanta and Houston, working on their homes. That to me is a positive, in that it speaks volumes about people's passion for the city.
Another thing, too, is that I saw on CNN that New Orleans is one of the largest-growing cities in America. That's amazing to me, given everything that was said about whether we should rebuild New Orleans. Frankly, that incensed me. I was infuriated by those comments, because I knew that a lot of the people who said that probably were partying all the time, every time they came to New Orleans. And the whole notion of New Orleans being a decadent city, and so on ... It was preposterous. Most of those people in the Lower 9th Ward were homeowners.
There's also a racial subtext to this. Most of the people who couldn't come back to New Orleans, who didn't have the means to, were African-American.
Poor African-Americans. Working class African-Americans who were living the American dream in the sense that, although they were still poor, they were homeowners, and they were struggling to maintain their homes and paying their taxes, doing everything that responsible people could do in very tough situations. So for me, they are true Americans, in the sense that they are not out there doing anything illegal or doing anything to hurt their communities. They were doing everything to support and make their communities thrive. To leave them out in the cold like that I think is an embarrassment and makes a mockery of what it is we've said we're supposed to be about as a country. But that's a whole 'nother debate.
But it's certainly the context in which you created Tale of God's Will.
Certainly, these themes were evoked in When The Levees Broke, which you participated in the making of, and which A Tale Of God's Will was associated with.
Yes. But in regard to Choices, I also want to talk about other positive things I'm involved with. One thing is the move of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute to New Orleans, and the effect it's had on some students in the middle schools and high schools. Also partnering with the Lieutenant Governor and some other folks on a panel, along with the National Park Service, to revamp the U.S. Mint in New Orleans and make the third floor a high-tech, modular performance space that has seven or eight different configurations that can be used to put on different types of performances, and then to turn the second floor a jazz museum. The National Parks Services has been revamping parks all over the country, but New Orleans doesn't have a national park—our national park is virtual. It's a $6 million venture. We have all the funding. Now we're figuring out the scheduling, in terms of when to break ground, and so on. The designs are done. Alan Askew, the architect, has completed the designs, and my wife, Robin Burgess, and I helped mold the concept—we answered a ton of questions about what we look for in performance spaces when we travel, what we think people will look for in this space. They called on my expertise on the technical side, and Robin's expertise in terms of managing such a facility, and what you need to do to bring in high level artists.
Then also the National Music Initiative, which the Obama administration started, where we'll try to do something similar to Teach For America, having graduate students commit to New Orleans for two years to help raise the level of music education across the board in the New Orleans school system, starting from grade school on up.
Let's return to New Orleans later. I'm interested in how you recruit bands. Your pianist, Fabian Almazan, who is of Cuban descent, is the second pianist from the Afro-Hispanic diaspora that you've employed, after Ed Simon during the latter '90s. You've always shown an affinity for pan-Latin rhythms.
If we can transition to musical choices: It's my opinion that, in your bands over the last twenty years, you've embraced younger musicians who have been at the forefront of moving jazz expression forward. Certainly, expanding the rhythmic palette was a major component of the '90s and early '00s.
It's not something that I set out to do specifically, or that we set out to do. Elvin Jones told me something years ago. [Elvin and I] were in Japan doing an all-star thing with Art Blakey. We went to dinner one night, and Elvin started talking to me about hiring musicians in your band. He said: 'Listen, man, when you hire somebody, don't tell them what to play. Because whatever you heard is what made you hire them. Let them do that.' I guess it's something he went through in his development as a young artist. He said, 'People will hire you, and then tell you not to do what it is you were doing when they heard you.' That stuck with me.
One thing I've learned is that we all grow as a result of that policy. When I heard Ed Simon play for the first time, I didn't think about him being of Latin descent. I thought, 'Man, this guy can really play.' What's interesting is that, as he was in the band, he started to bring more of his heritage to the music … I had the same conversation with Ed and with Fabian that somebody had with me about New Orleans. I told Ed and Fabian both, 'Don't forget where you come from.' Their thinking was that they wanted to learn how to play jazz, and jazz was a specific thing. I was like, 'No-no, no-no-no, bring all of that to bear.' That's what Fabian is doing now. We've been running into people of Cuban descent in a lot of places we've visited; I think in St. Louis we ran into some people who are friends of Fabian's father. One guy came in and gave him some scores to great classical Cuban composers. It made him realize that he needs to deal more with his own heritage. That's the reason why 'Hugs' is on the album. Even now, when he starts to play his solo pianistic things, you hear more of that influence entering his music.
But it's nothing that we set out to do. I think what you described is the result of that conversation with Elvin, where I allow these guys to bring what they feel is pertinent to what we're doing, and everybody's growing from it. Like Derrick Hodge, for example. Derrick grew up in the church, and you feel the breath of all of that coming through when he plays and when he writes. Kendrick Scott grew up in an area in Houston where he was involved in many different types of things. That's why he's so versatile, why he'll go in a lot of different directions, because he brings this quality to bear from his background. To put all those things together sounds like it could be a train wreck. But the thing about these guys is that they're all so sensitive, and what makes them brilliant, in my mind, is that they don't try force their thing upon anybody, but in the spirit of making it fit in with whatever somebody else is doing.
If I might just remark, with all respect, you're still the bandleader. Can you discern any common threads you're looking for among the players you recruit to play with you, whether stylistic or in terms of sensibility?
It's all sensibility. It's the ability to listen and to change. It's like being a boxer. When you get in the ring with somebody, you've got to adapt to their style. If you don't, you're not going to be successful. One thing I talk about to the guys in my band is a method I learned from Roger Dickerson, my composition teacher, called 'If I Could Tell You, I Would.' He would write out this phrase, and have you permeate it as many times as you can to create a dialogue, even changing the meanings of the words. When you first do it, everybody's trying to use the words, 'I would tell, if you could tell,' all those types of things. But he showed me that you need to think outside the box. So you could say 'I could tell if, if if could tell would,' and 'would could tell could if would could,' and 'could tell, tell.' Right then, you start to see how limitless the possibilities are. He made me do just that on a sketch pad for weeks, and then we started doing it with music. He'd show me how to manipulate phrase in so many ways, to treat the shape as malleable—you can reverse it, work with different portions, and come up with ideas that are directly related to your original idea. Everything that you write starts to have continuity. We also talk about that method in terms of improvisation and playing as a band. Somebody will throw out an idea, and Kendrick, 'Oh, ok, boom,' and he starts to make something out of it, and Fabian figures out a way to fit into it. So if there's anything I'm bringing to the band, it's that concept of listening and making sure that we all move in similar directions.
That would be different than the process you follow in scoring or composing for a film?
Not necessarily. The thing is, that's where I've really honed the method. In a film, when you have a theme, you don't want to beat it to death. Some directors (Spike being one of them) who love melody will want to hear these themes throughout the movie. So I need to find a way to take the theme and keep it interesting throughout. For example, there are subtle shifts in the intervals that you may not discern as a listener, but which allow me to change color. Changing color means that it never comes back totally the same way; there's always a little variable that makes it slightly different. I really got it on the closing credits of Summer of Sam. Spike loved that cue. It's a long cue, and I started to write a chorale based on this concept. Then I realized we could play the way I described. Then I started teaching it at the Monk Institute, talking about it with the band. Then it started to grow into this thing. A couple of years ago, on Wandering Moon, we did a tune called, 'If I Could, I Would.'
Did you encounter Roger Dickerson before you started getting really serious about the trumpet, or did it coincide with being really serious about the trumpet?
It was a little bit before.
So you were playing mostly piano then.
Yes. I had the trumpet, and I was playing it. I was in the marching bands and school bands, and so on. But I was still mainly taking lessons on the piano. Even though I wanted to be a trumpet player, I hadn't taken lessons yet. I first met Wynton when we were in sixth grade at a summer music camp. Then in sophomore year in high school, I heard him play again, and he was playing up a storm. I went, 'Wow, what happened to him?' He told me he was going to NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] and was studying with John Longo. Then I decided that I had to go to NOCCA find me a trumpet teacher. John Longo left for New York the next year to play with the Ellington band, so I started studying with George Jensen.
Describe the NOCCA experience.
It was a very intense period of my life. It was the first time that I got a high level of musical tutelage on a consistent basis—the piano lessons had only been on the weekends. This was the first time that I wanted to go to school every day; I was having fun doing it, and the stuff was useful and practical. The practicality was the most important thing for me, because I could see a way to use the stuff. I started devoting all of my time to studying and listening to music and practicing at home, and I started playing in some pop bands and learned how to play. I saw my development grow by leaps and bounds during my first year there. Later, although I didn't have a chance to play in the New Orleans style bands, I did get a chance to play more modern stuff. Dick Stabile had a big band at the Fairmount Hotel, and I'd sub there for Emory Thompson. I'd to sit with people at a club called Tyler's (it's closed now), and Snug Harbor, which had another name at that time.
But my piano studies were because of my father. He wanted me to be a classical artist. I'm grateful now that I studied as much piano as I did, because obviously it's helped me immensely with my writing skills and my film career.
Wasn't he an opera singer? He sang professionally for a while and was into the older cats.
Yeah. Oscar Peterson, he had Count Basie, Pops ... He loved jazz, but he loved the earlier stuff. When it came to the bebop era and the things beyond that, he wasn't interested. He said, 'Oh, man, those guys play too many notes.' He said, 'Listen to Pops. You can hear melody there.' And he was a stickler, too, for singers and their diction. He said, 'Look, I can't hear what they're singing.'
Did he pass on to you that quality of diligence?
Oh yeah. My father was kind of a self-made man. He was an insurance salesman, and he sang, and he belonged to the church choir and a couple of other groups. Whenever he would have a performance, this guy ... I thought he was nuts, because he would be at the piano all day. He was a one-fingered piano player. He was a baritone, and he would play his part and learn it, then he would play the tenor part and sing his part against the tenor part while he was playing it—stuff like that. I'd go out and play, be out for hours, come back, and he'd still be at the piano. I'd think, 'Man, this cat is strange.' But after a while, the older and more mature I became, you start to love that kind of love and passion that a person can have for something.
It's interesting that when I started playing with Art Blakey, he started talking about Louis Armstrong—he was the last guy that I expected to start talking about him. That's what made me go back and really research that music again. Because my father kept talking about Louis Armstrong and all those guys, but I was saying, 'No, man, Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, that's the shit!' But when I got in Bu's band, he was like, 'Yeah, they're cool, but Pops had a sound.' What are you talking about? This made me realize how important he was.
You make your process of leading a band sound completely natural. But not everyone who's an established leader is so laissez faire. Just to mention three people you grew up with who are prominent in the sound of jazz today: Branford Marsalis, say, is pretty specific how he wants things to be played; Wynton is specific how he wants things to be played; Donald Harrison is specific about the beats. What influenced you to be so accepting of other musicians' input?
Well, I still want to be surprised. You know that feeling you get when you hear a specific record for the first time, and it goes in some directions you didn't expect, and it's exciting to listen to? That's the feeling I want to capture myself as I'm playing with musicians. If I know what they're going to do all the time, I'm not going to be excited by that. If I know that this tune goes this direction, or that tune does this, I get bored. I had prior bands, early in my career, where the bands were getting tired of playing the tunes, and I started to realize that the reason why those bands got tired is because they weren't being inventive. Dr. West says it on the CD—what he loves about certain artists is how they always step out on nothing, expecting to land on something. That's exactly how we feel most of the time.
It's interesting to me when we're recording, because we can do a take, and some magic can happen, but it won't be a full take, because there's a technical problem, or someone misses something, or we have to stop for whatever reason. When we start to do the next take, they don't try to recreate what we just did. We might see if we can make an insert, try to figure out a way to make it work. But if it doesn't work, they let it go and move on to something else. That's really what playing in the moment is about.
You made the exact same point to me a while ago about the '50s Miles Davis Quintet, that they restrained their egos to play exactly what needed to be played at the moment.
What I loved about that band is that there were no wasted notes from anyone, whether they were accompanying a soloist or out front. They really seemed to play in tune with the music. The thing about it is that, as a group, the band so much control. Anybody can step out and play some stuff that's melodically hip or rhythmically hip. But it takes a lot of control to restrain yourself and be able to play what's perfect for the moment, which may be different from what you intended to play when you walked into the studio or walked into the club that night.
I saw that for myself with Herbie Hancock on the road for 2½ months. He blew me away every night. He would do these solo piano things, and I finally got to the point where I'd leave the stage, because every night I just wanted to sit by the piano and watch this guy. I'm like, 'Is he for real?' Every night he took it in different directions. Every night he was enthused about playing. He never came to the stage with a bad attitude. It was always, 'come on, man, let's go.' Excited to play. That was another reaffirmation and reconfirming of what we just talked about. That's why his records, why his career has been this way. He's always searching. And he was 68 years old! I said, 'that's the model for me.' That's always been the model for me, to constantly move forward and try some new things.
Your bands seem to bear out that principle. Over the last decade, you've recruited players—Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, Lionel Loueke, Aaron Parks—who are very much at the forefront of what people are thinking about in New York.
When we had the band with Lionel and Derek, and Eric Harland had just left, I had a conversation with those guys. The thing that I love about them is that they may just be finding out how great they are—they really didn't have a clue. I said, 'Let me tell you something. You guys can really make a mark on this business based on the way you're playing and developing, but the thing is, you have to keep your ego out of it and make music the priority. Staying on that path and doing what you're doing, watch—you'll see things start to turn around.' That's exactly what's starting to happen now. All of those guys, and others, Miguel Zenon, Glasper, Jason Moran, who's older, but still part of that crew, and this younger kid coming along, Ambrose Akinmusire ... I've been speaking out about this. There's a whole new movement of young artists who are not doing what people expect, but a lot of people aren't paying attention. They're courageous and they're trying a lot of different things. It's going to be rough for them, because it's a different time now ...
How would you describe what they're doing?
Adventurous. They're not allowing themselves to be put into a box, whether it's the jazz or the hip-hop box, either one. They're really trying things, trying to create. For example, on Choices, there are a couple of tunes, my tune, 'Choices' and Walter Smith's 'Byus,' where the introductions are basically the changes played in reverse! I can't even remember who came up with the idea. 'Why don't we play this from this section to this section; why don't we play it backwards, from the back to the front?' 'Ok. Cool.' I love ideas like that. It's got to the point now where a lot of ideas are unspoken. On Kendrick's tune, 'Journey,' we start the tune with Lionel and drums, then Bilal starts to sing. Somebody asked me one time, 'man, how did you get Derek to come in ...' I said, 'Dude, I let him do his thing.' It wasn't my decision. He listened to what was happening, and he felt that was a perfect musical spot for him to come in. It makes the moment extremely dramatic. That's what I love about these musicians. It's not about the self. It's really about the music.
There's another important thing that we've learned through this process. You know how you see guys try to play it all in one tune. No! If you stick with a thing for this tune, and you get to something else on another, you wind up having more to play. A drummer told me one time, 'what it is, younger musicians want to play their entire vocabulary.' It's not about that. It's about selecting from the vocabulary, because it's appropriate for this tune at this particular moment in time. Art Blakey used to call it letting the punishment fit the crime.
Speaking of Art Blakey, the notion of having a bunch of young musicians in a band, all contributing pieces, mirrors a remark he made to you. When you joined the band, he said, 'I know you've got a box of tunes; pull them all out—we're going to play them all!'
I realize you've been asked this eight million times, but did those four years have an effect on the way you approach being a bandleader?
Oh, yes, indeed! With everything that Art Blakey had to offer musically, which was immense, he was still a very humble person, man, to allow all of us to write music for that band.
Well, he needed material!
Of course. But the thing about it, you've got to remember, at the time we came along, there was still a ton of great records.
But most of them were out of print.
Yeah, but he still had Walter Davis, Jr., all those guys who were still willing to give music to the band. He didn't want that. Well, we played a couple of Walter Davis things, but Art wanted us to write. He always said, 'That's how you really find yourself.' I look at that as being a model in terms of how to lead a band. Not to lead a band with a strong hand, because then it's not a democratic thing. It's more of a dictatorship. Unh-uh, I don't want that. I like the democratic process. I want everybody to feel they have just as much stake in what's going on creatively as I do.
You're speaking about how adventurous this generation of musicians is. When I asked you ten years ago about how the sound of jazz had changed, you were more pessimistic. You said it had become too conservative for your taste. So things have changed over the last decade.
Oh, I think things have changed a lot. But it's still a hard road. The conservatism in the music still exists, and it's still being held up as what jazz is. I've always tried to move away from that because of Art Blakey. I remember one time I was in the dressing room, and I said, 'Man, I've got to work on my fingering' or something like that. Art told me, 'You'd better be working on something, because if you don't, this music will become like a museum piece.' These are his words. Not mine. He said, 'You'll see jazz bands pop up around like symphonies, and there will be one place that plays the music of Bird, and one place that plays the music of Monk, and one place that plays the music of Duke.' Those are his words. He said, 'So if you guys who are not contributing anything, that's what's going to happen to this music.' People have all of a sudden started to see jazz as being this national treasure, which it is—but this treasure that's confined in a box. The true nature of jazz has always been is it's the art form to break outside of the box, never to be conservative. Ok, we've always had high standards in terms of professionalism and craftsmanship, and I think those qualities get confused with tradition. But the main thing has always been, 'What do you bring?'
Stanley Turrentine told me something once, about ten years ago, when I was hanging out with him a lot. He said, 'Man, I remember if we walked into a club and a cat was playing like Sonny Rollins, we'd leave. Say, "Oh, man, he's playing like Newk. Let's go hear somebody. We don't want to hear that. We can go hear Newk!"' To me, that's a hell of a statement. That says a lot about where that generation was and the reason why so many different personalities existed in that period. You're starting to see it now with these guys.
You've mentioned to me that as a young guy in New Orleans en route to school, you'd stop by Bourbon Street and hear musicians like Emory Thompson and Teddy Riley and Willie Singleton, who were born in the '30s and '40s, and were playing the older music for a living, but were also informed about modern music. You came up under Ellis Marsalis, also a modernist who played professionally in the traditional music scene.
New Orleans is thought of as a conservative community, in a certain way, and yet it produced a lot of radical musicians. Ed Blackwell, Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, Kidd Jordan, I think of Wynton and Branford and Donald as radical musicians, Herlin Riley and James Black, and so on. Can you talk about how those tensions—my word—filtered into the development of your own sensibility?
What has always interested me about New Orleans is that New Orleans has been one of the most Christian fundamentalist towns in the South. But wherever you see that type of dogma when it comes to religion, there always is the extreme counter to that.
Well, once upon a time there was a Red-Light District!
[LAUGHS] Then in that counter-class society, for lack of a better phrase, that subculture, a lot of things spring up as a result of the frustrations of being put into that framework. You see it all around the world in various places. Look at Brazil. In Brazil, they have that big crucifix on top of the mountain. Man, it's huge! Then you see all the glorious music that comes out of that community as well.
So it's always been interesting to me that New Orleans is a very conservative town, but in the midst of all of that conservatism has been this rebellious movement, in terms of saying, 'Yeah, you all got that. But we need to express ourselves with wild abandon.' It goes back even to slavery, when you look at Congo Square, where free people of color would gather as a means to sit and testify and do whatever as a means to express what they needed to express. That carried on through the music. The interesting thing in African-American culture is that there started to be a split, where you saw that quality enter the spiritual and move through to the secular. So while you still had this Christian fundamentalism in New Orleans, inside of that was the Baptist movement that channeled all that wild abandon into the spiritual realm musically. We are natural offsprings of that evolution. Interestingly, along the way the whole educational portion entered the picture—we started to learn more about our instruments, learn more about music.
New Orleans was destined for this, anyway. At the turn of the century, New Orleans was one of the main stops for musicians who were on their way to Havana. There was this constant back-and-forth between Cuba and New Orleans. So New Orleans was the logical place for all of these cultures to come together to create this music. Big Black once said to Art Blakey, 'jazz is African,' and Art Blakey said, 'No-no-no. If it was African, you'd see a bunch of clubs in Africa where people would be swinging all over the continent. No-no, no-no-no. Jazz is a distinctly American art form.'
During the '80s, when Harrison-Blanchard was happening, I wasn't aware of how influential it was. I wasn't aware until musicians started telling me how it influential it was on their ideas. Can you speak to the impact of that experience on your subsequent musical production?
The thing is, we didn't realize it until some younger musicians started telling us about our albums. We were just making albums because we loved playing music, and Donald is a very adventurous guy. So we were always trying to do something different in the way we manipulated form, structure and rhythm. We weren't trying necessarily to play 4/4 all of the time, and we were trying to bring in and fuse different elements. Sometimes I brought in African 6/8 things, and Donald would bring in things that fused different rhythms on top of each other. We weren't trying to write in 32-bar song form. Frankly, we didn't know that many people were listening to the records. But when we started to hear all these young guys recounting things that happened on records that we had forgotten about, then we said, 'Wow, maybe we did have an impact on some of these younger generations.' But the key thing is that those guys have picked it up and taken it to a whole new place. These guys play different meters and shifts like it's 'Mary Had A Little Lamb,' like it's nothing. For me, it's exciting to see.
That brings out another way in which the young musicians you're playing with are a little different from the cats of your generation. You came in on the beginning of the codification of jazz education. You went to Rutgers and studied with William Fielder, but you also were playing with Lionel Hampton on the weekends, and split to go with Art Blakey. Each of you guys experienced something of the old-school way of doing research and development, through the bands, through the hierarchy. Is the type of R&D that these musicians are able to do having an impact on the way the music sounds?
I think so. What I've seen that's been interesting to me ...we had a chance ... There was Woody Shaw's band, Horace Silver's band, Art Blakey's band. Joe Henderson had a band, Elvin Jones' band, and all the various cats who had bands around New York that I can't remember right now. So you're right. There was this hierarchy, and there was this kind of proving ground that existed, and it's a little different these days. But now, Wynton has his band that he has young musicians coming in and out. Dianne Reeves, my band, and there are a number of others where people can go out and gain experience. But I think what's really interesting is that the education has moved down the rung. NOCCA, the arts high school that we came from, and then that other school in Houston, Texas, where Jason Moran and Eric Harland and Kendrick went, seemed to be where a lot of things changed on the high school level. The bar has been raised a great deal. A lot of these kids seem to be entering college extremely prepared, and they are coming to these professional situations well-versed in the history of jazz, well-versed in your music, and extremely capable and inventive. It's been really fascinating to watch the development of it. I remember there was a period after Jeff [Watts] and Smitty [Smith] and Ralph Peterson, where there was a bit of a drop-off—a little bit. But now you see this whole new thing. You've got Eric Harland, Jamire Williams, Kendrick, Marcus Gilmore. The bar has been pushed extremely high.
You've composed over a dozen movies for Spike Lee, most recently Miracle at St. Anna. Are you working on anything new with him now?
Not with Spike. I'm doing one called Red Tails with a young director named Anthony Hemingway. It's a George Lucas production, a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. I haven't seen anything yet. We had to do some prerecords for three scenes. Well, three songs. They may not all be shot. They've finished shooting. He's just starting to edit now.
This is another question you've been asked eight million times. Under what circumstances did you begin to associate with Spike Lee?
I owe my career to two people, [saxophonist] Harold Vick and Spike. Harold Vick was the guy who contracted me to play on School Days, and then Do The Right Thing. The first session I walked into, I was a Lakers fan, so I had the hat, I had the t-shirt (I forgot which championship that was), I had the Converse, purple-and-gold.
Spike Lee was not a Lakers fan.
No. And I didn't know that, man. I didn't know him. I'm walking into the session, and he's standing at the door, greeting everybody, and he sees me walk in with this stuff, and he looks at me up and down and goes, 'Lakers' fan, huh?' I go, 'Yeah, man.' I didn't know he was a Knicks fan. So we started off on that type of footing.
Then he remembered my playing. I played a few solos. Then we had to do Mo' Better Blues. I always think it was just fate. We took a break, and I sat at the piano and started playing a tune called 'Sing Soweto' that I was going to record on my first solo project for Columbia. He walks over and says, 'Man, what is that? Can I use it?' We recorded it just as a solo trumpet thing. Then he asked me to write a string arrangement for it. I looked at it as an opportunity, because I'd always wanted to write for bigger ensembles, and I figured I'd gain some experience by doing this, and then it would allow me to take that experience and maybe write something for a jazz record. His dad made me conduct, too. Bill said, 'You wrote it, you conduct it.' I went, 'What? No!!' Spike walked up to me right as I stepped off the podium and said, 'You have a future in this business.' I said, 'Thanks.' I thought he was just being nice and encouraging. Well, literally a few months later, he called me up and said he was doing a movie called Jungle Fever, and he wanted me to write the score. That's how our relationship started.
What do you think the affinity is?
He loved melody, and he fell in love with that first tune so much that, when we did Jungle Fever ... If you watch the scene in Mo' Better Blues, that's the same theme. He gave me the direction when we first started working together, and I've followed it ever since—it's probably why I'm still working with him. He said, 'I don't need the music to hear the door closing. I don't need the music to be that specific.' He said, 'I love melody. I want people to be able to walk out of the theater singing the themes from the film.'
So in a certain sense, he wants the music to brand the film.
Oh, yes. He may say that. He says some of his favorite films, Godfather, On The Waterfront, when you hear that theme, you immediately think of those movies. So that's the philosophy we've followed throughout the years, but at the same time, always trying to do something different. Always trying to change the scope, the color, or the sound of the orchestra. Always using an orchestra. On one film, Bamboozled, the movie about blackface, we started without an orchestra. The movie started in black-and-white, and I said, 'Why don't we start with a small ensemble, and let's bring in more color when you bring in color.' So that's what we did.
Do you think cinematically about your records?
How does that factor into your albums? This album, say, which to me had the quality of an imaginary soundtrack.
I've always viewed music that way. Even when I would listen to Trane, when I'd listen to Miles, I'd always conjure up certain images, whether it be images of them playing live, or images ... Once in Perugia, David Chertok was doing video presentations, and he showed a film of Trane playing 'Alabama.' That image stuck with me for the longest time ever, every time I would hear the song. Then Spike used it in Malcolm X—then those images stuck with me. So I've always related music to imagery. On Tale of God's Will, that's obvious. But in much of what I do with music, it has to have that sense of drama. It can't just be an exercise. It has to tell a story, basically. What good is art without having a story? Even when you listen to John Cage's one-note piece, that's a story being told, in some form or fashion.
Or what in academia is called a 'narrative.'
A narrative. There you go.
Your personality seems to be such that when you decide to study something, you go whole hog. In 1995 we did a radio show on which you played and described music that had influenced you, and you sang every part of every song that you presented. Did you do the same when it came to addressing the art of film scoring? There's that very interesting recording, Jazz on Film, that addressed iconic film themes.
I felt I was so behind the 8-ball. You know, I have a certain concept of teaching jazz. A lot of first-time students are told to listen to the breadth of the music. But I think that can be a daunting task for young folks. I tell them, "don't do that—get one CD." For me, it was one album, Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine Live [My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis in Concert]. I listened to it over and over and over and over again. I'd listen to it one time, and just listen to Tony [Williams] play. Then I'd run the same tune back and listen to Herbie play, run the same tune back and just listen to Ron [Carter].
You told me that you thought there must be a formula.
Right. 'I've got to figure out what it is. What is this thing called jazz? I don't get it.' But I learned a lot by doing that, and that springboarded me to go out and experience the breadth of the history of this music. But initially, I needed to engross myself and just delve into this one thing. Anyway, that's what I did with the film thing. Spike loved the score of Glory, and, man, I picked that thing apart. I listened to it over and over. There was no physical score for me to look at, but I would take down some of the passages ... Well, let me back up. Prior to that,. I started studying The Rite of Spring, which is one of my favorite pieces. Well, I got the movie, Jungle Fever, when I was studying The Rite of Spring, but none of that stuff would really work on that film! So I said, 'Wait a minute; I've got to approach this another way.' After I had done the movie, and it was time to do Malcolm X, that's when I listened to Glory a great deal—wrote down notes, picked it apart, and extracted certain things. Then I went to the premiere with Denzel Washington, and that was eye-opening. By then, I knew the music, and I could see how the music was being used. That helped me a great deal.
Then, from that point on, I just would study other composers. Thomas Newman is one of them. I still do it to this day. Harry Gregson-Williams is a guy that I really love. I think he's a very inventive composer. Cliff Martinez is another one. He doesn't score a lot of films, but he's very inventive. The thing is, I listen to them because I just appreciate their ingenuity. It's the same thing in the jazz world. I listen to Ambrose play, and I think, 'How the hell did he come up with that? Where did he get that from?' It's that same sort of thing.
You and Branford and Wynton and Donald are roughly the same age as President Obama. Could I ask you to retrospect (which perhaps is apropos to do in light of Choices, which was animated by such self-reflective impulses) and reflect on the position of your music within the broader intellectual and cultural currents of your time, those that shaped Obama, too?
What we probably put out is that it was cool to deal with your own history. Over the period prior to our appearance on to the scene, there was a certain forsaking of history—although not totally. When we came on, we were called ... what's the term ... 'neoclassicists' or something ... Somebody mentioned that term to Donald, and he used it as the title for a tune. I think that was probably the first thing, where you saw young African-American males who were articulate. That's the thing that was constantly spoken of with us, that we were articulate and that we knew our history, that we were well-studied, and we were craftsmen.
Always appearing in suits on the stage.
Quite a difference from standard attire of the '70s.
I know. With us, race was still an issue in the jazz world, but from what I see with these younger guys, it doesn't exist like that now. Somebody asked Wynton whether he thought white people could play jazz. Who would ask that question today? And why would you ask that question? But I remember somebody asking Wynton that question in the '80s, right when he had left Art Blakey, before the Lincoln Center thing. I forgot what he said. But I the reason I remember is because I was talking to Ron Carter about it, and Ron said, 'What you guys have to learn is that they're trying to sell magazines and they want to bait you into some things.' But still, the question stuck in my mind as being irrelevant. But race was still talked about in terms of this guy achieving this, or this guy not getting that, etc. You don't see that too much these days. These young guys here, it's all about 'can you play?' I don't hear them speaking of race in the same way. I don't hear them having the same issues. The same thing is true in terms of the cultural lines, the cultural divisions in music. As we alluded earlier, I don't see this notion of pop and hip-hop and R&B being over there and then jazz being over here. I don't see that existing in that way any more either. There's this constant cross-pollination. You see Q-Tip, you see Mos Def, Common, all of these guys, working with these young guys in various musical associations.
It's interesting that a lot of the younger black players who are doing interesting things in jazz emerged from church experiences that had them perform in public when they were very young. Maybe that's one way that race still does play into musical production today.
I do think so, in terms of their development. That's part of our culture. I grew up playing in the church, too. Not a gospel church, but I grew up playing in a church, too.
In Catholic church?
Ah, you went to a Catholic school, so I thought ...
Yes, I did, but no. That was a deep thing, too. Going to Catholic school and being a Congregationalist, two different philosophies.
So you had concrete experience with that tension you described to me before.
Oh, yeah. I remember the first time the Catholic priest told me that to think a thought was just as bad as a sin, so therefore it is a sin. I went, 'Excuse me?' That never made sense to me. But that's something that was taught to me in religion class, and something I never experienced in the church that I was going to growing up.
But one thing that we brought to the world of music was a sense of pride and a sense of ownership. I see that being exhibited in this current generation of political leaders. But I think it's really about to explode.
Do you mean a truly multicultural, perhaps creolized way of thinking about the world?
It's interesting that each of you who emerged from New Orleans with Art Blakey in the early '80s—you, Wynton, Branford, Donald—went through a process of finding your identity, and it seemed to involve first associating with other people from your background, and later branching out.
Definitely. Initially you associate with people from your background because it's your comfort zone. It's what makes you feel really at home. You want to carry that with you wherever you go. But then you start to feel secure in yourself, and you realize, 'Well, maybe I want to branch out.' That's when you start to see true exploration. It's a maturation process for all of us. But the thing I think that's key to it all is the daring to engage in the process. Because a lot of times, society is telling you the exact opposite—that you're not the norm. When I was growing up, man, I constantly heard that I was going to starve being a musician. I constantly heard, 'You need to think about this; how are you going to support a family,' all those kinds of things. To me, that seems so weird, because it seemed like you'd be setting yourself up to be unhappy, because you would be doing something for the wrong reasons—you'd be doing it just to make money. I never wanted to live my life like that. Still don't want to live my life like that. I want to do things, and I want to enjoy life. Our time on this planet is short. You may as well enjoy it. Jim Brown said that in a documentary that we did with Spike. It blew me away, man! The way he said it, too, blew me away. He said, 'It would be a shame to go through this life and never really find out what turns you on.'
You seem to have found a way through your film scoring both to make pretty good money and also keep the creative side going with the band. You also talked about this ten years ago. You said people accused you of giving up jazz, but you spent 35-40 weeks on the road that year. Do you still want to stay on the road? You have two kids, you have a place in Los Angeles, a place in New Orleans ...
I gave up the place in Los Angeles. The Monk Institute's not out there any more.
I'd have thought that would helpful for the film scoring.
We did, too. I kept a rig out there, the whole nine—but no-no.
Well, over the next period of time, do you see yourself continuing to do what you've been doing over the last decade?
Actually, that is the road that I'm going down. I still feel there's a lot more to say. I'm still having fun playing live on the road. It's still a learning process. I feel I'm just breaking the surface of some things. That tour with Herbie last fall blew me away. It retooled my thinking about being an artist. It started with a conversation I had with Wayne [Shorter], too. We constantly put shackles on ourselves, thinking that we need to accomplish A before we get to B. Well, the thing is that we make A insurmountable. I think that's a defense mechanism because of fear, and the fear is that B is totally unknown. But as long as we stick with A and we say we know we have to cover this ...well, we're secure in having something concrete to deal with. The thing I've learned is that Herbie and those guys have always gone to B and C, and they've always been pushing ahead.
I guess Miles made that possible for them.
Oh, definitely. He told us that it definitely came from Miles. He didn't talk about Miles that much on the tour, but when he did, you could see how much impact he had on all of them.
So your association with the Monk Institute has afforded a lot of collateral benefits.
Apart the process of teaching—aside from giving you an institutional position, and having the stature of a major cultural figure in your home town by dint of that institutional position—has made you reflect on choices you've made.
The process of teaching. The process of having these conversations with Herbie and Wayne. During the auditions, we would have these conversations. The first one was really bizarre. We were having the conversations in the conference room, and then I'd have to go out and judge these kids, but then I'd think, 'no, wait a minute; I need to reflect on some shit you all just said.' So I felt like I've been growing, too—a lot. It's been a great experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I don't feel like I should have gotten this kind of exposure to those guys earlier in my career. I think I would have responded differently to it. I'm glad I'm getting it now the way that I've been getting it. Watching Wayne on a lot of events that we've been part of together has been a real learning experience, and it's been amazing to observe that information trickle down through me to the students and see how it impacts them.
Once at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Wayne was talking to me about this violinist whom he'd read about someplace. You know how Wayne is. He goes, 'Hey, man, you heard about this violinist?' I said, 'No, Wayne, who is it?' He mentioned the name, and he said, 'She had this real aggressive playing style, and every time she auditioned for an orchestra, she lost the audition, and she got to the point where she was real despondent, depressed, and she was at the point of committing suicide, and she had a conversation with her mother about everything that was going on in her life, and her mother said, "Well, baby, you know, it takes courage to be happy."' It blew me away when he told me that, because right at that particular moment I was being the 'jazz musician.' I was being what I thought a jazz musician should be in terms of what I thought I should be doing creatively. There some things I felt really sincere about that I was not bringing to what it is that I was doing. When he said that, it turned my life around. I wrote a tune about it called 'Passionate Courage' on Bounce. Then also my conversations with Herbie. Certain things they said to me were just like opening a door—that simple. Then other times, Wayne would be talking about some far-out shit. He said, 'Man, you hear about this guy? The government was after him, they were following him around, they were shooting at him.' 'No, Wayne, I didn't. What?'—then he pulled a book out of his case. It was some science fiction.
So I feel very blessed to have had the experiences I've had—I've gotten a chance to meet all of my heroes who are still living, and to have amazing experiences learning about music.