A Conversation With Mike LeDonne

By Tomas Peña

                   Mike LeDonne, by Gene Martin

I caught up with the pianist and organist Mike LeDonne upon his return to New York following a successful tour in Italy. Mike was grappling with the untimely death of his colleague and friend, drummer Tony Reedus. Although he was still a bit shaky, he agreed to talk with me about his life and career.

What a career it's been. Speaking to Mike is like taking a crash course on the history of jazz. It seems as if he's performed, recorded, and/or rubbed elbows everyone in the world of jazz at one time or another. Now it's his turn to shine, and that he does—whether he's ticklin' the ivories or cookin' on a Hammond B-3. Five Live, LeDonne's 2008 release on the Savant label, was recorded at Smoke, a very happening jazz spot on New York's Upper West Side.

Congratulations on the release of Five Live.

Thanks, I am very happy with the recording. I like the sound quality, and the fact that it didn’t get degraded. You really get the feeling of being there.

Yes indeed! And speaking of being there, I recently had the opportunity to catch your group at the Jazz Standard. I really enjoyed it.


Before we speak about the recording, tell me about your formative years. You grew up in a musical environment. In fact, your parents owned a music store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and your father was a jazz guitarist. Was your father a professional musician?

Yes, he actually recorded and spent some time on the road.

With whom did he record?

He had a trio that was kind of like the Nat King Cole Trio, except that he had a vibes player instead of a piano player.

What is your father’s name?


What kind of impact did growing up in that kind of environment have on you, and what prompted you to take up the piano?

I was always in the store, so the instruments were like my toys. My father was the first person to get electric guitars, a Fender Rhodes, a compact organ, and all of these electronic things, so it was great. I remember that the compact organ came with a small Leslie speaker, and I put a band together with a guitar and drums. I played the bass lines on the organ. We used to rehearse in my basement, and leave the window open. The kids in the neighborhood would come by and dance outside. As far as gravitating towards the piano, my parents always had a piano and an organ in the house. I started playing blues stuff and anything I could pick up by ear, when I was five. Eventually, I got to the point where I could pick out tunes and improvise a little. I played with my first group when I was ten.

I understand that your father was also your booking agent.

Yes he was. We gigged at junior high school dances, high school dances, church things. I played through junior high, high school, right up until the time I went to college.

And he bought you your first Hammond B-3 organ.

I have always loved the sound of the Hammond B-3. I loved any record that had a B-3, whether it was a rock group or jazz. My father had a lot of recordings by [organist] Jimmy Smith. Anyway, I bugged him until he found one at a repossession sale. My basement was like a mini-music store and workshop. I had a trap drum set, a guitar and an organ. I used to have some serious sessions down there.

I don’t think there is an organ player alive who hasn’t been influenced by the great Jimmy Smith, in one way or another. You've been playing the Hammond B-3 on Tuesday evenings at Smoke for nearly a decade.

Yes, I still perform at Smoke, but [in the beginning] I kept the organ thing in the closet. I was more interested in having fun than in creating a situation where I was in competition with others, or putting myself under a lot of pressure.

As for Smoke, I have a friend named Jim Snidero, who played [sax] with Jack McDuff’s band, and he invited me to sit in. When I came off the bandstand, Jack shook my hand and complimented me on my playing, and encouraged me to continue pursuing the organ. And I did. In fact, I went out and bought an organ the very next day. From there, I started doing gigs around Harlem with a tenor player named Percy France (who recorded with Jimmy Smith) and a great drummer named Joe Dukes (who played with Jack McDuff). Together, we formed a trio and performed at a place called Showman’s for three years. Percy France was the person who really helped me to reestablish myself and get reacquainted with the organ. When Charles Earland—also known as the 'Mighty Burner”—-died, Paul Stash [of Smoke], who was a Charles Earland nut, organized a tribute for him. He invited me to sit in with the band. I don’t remember what I played, but he invited me back, and I've never looked back. That was nine years ago.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. Before you moved to New York, you studied at the New England Conservatory?

Yes, I met Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory, and he was the reason I stayed there. I got into the Conservatory as a classical pianist, which is really something, because I only studied classical music seriously for about two or three years. Before I studied with Jaki, I studied with a guy named John Mehegan, who wrote books on music theory. After that, I really decided to get serious about classical music, and I went to Manhattan Prep. That’s an interesting story, because I managed to put together enough of a repertoire to do some auditions, and I was accepted. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life, because I didn’t listen to classical music and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Later I found out that the school had a jazz program, so I split my time between classical music and jazz. Jaki was fantastic. He knew everything about jazz: the history, the new stuff, and everything in-between. I could not have asked for a better teacher, and he was a great guy, too.

Then I moved to New York and attended Barry Harris's workshop. After that, I studied with a guy named Nicolas Rodriguez, who was a real character—a Panamanian guy and a theoretician who knew piano technique and had a very unique way of teaching. In fact, it was under him that I learned what real technique was. I teach his methods to my students today.

I arrived in New York in the late 70s, which was a very fertile time. Guys like [pianists] Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Ray Bryant were playing at small clubs like Bradley’s. Back then, there was no cover-charge. Anybody could just walk in to a club and listen to music all night. The audience was usually college students who talked through the entire set. But I got to see back-to-back giants like Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, and Hank Jones, to name a few.

The days of just walking into a club and listening to music all night are long gone.

Those days are totally gone. Right down the street from Bradley’s was a place called Knickerbocker's, and not far from there was 1 Fifth Avenue, where I saw Al Haig. I saw Tommy Flanagan and Teddy Wilson play duo at Fat Tuesdays. Johnny Griffin and Roy Eldridge were playing at Jimmy Ryan’s, where I ended-up working. It was just a magic time. On the average we played six-hour gigs, six nights a week.

Just to backtrack again ... Before you moved to New York, you were a member of the Widespread Jazz Orchestra?

I met those guys when I left school. They had a band that performed the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines, which was music that I was interested in but had not 'devoured' yet.

It was a swing band, correct?

Yeah, it was mostly the music of the black bands, the prime stuff. They were a bunch of young guys who were transcribing the arrangements and playing the music, and people liked their sound. I remember that we received a salary of 120 bucks per week, whether we worked or not, so it was priceless. Also, it gave me an opportunity to develop an appreciation for the music of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Nat King Cole, the guys that created all of that swinging music back then.

From there you went on to play with the Savoy Sultans.

Drummer Panama Francis called me. That was a big moment, because it was the real deal. The Widespread Orchestra was a bunch of kids having fun and playing the arrangements with good spirit, but Panama had a band that was the equivalent of a Basie small band. The musicians were all African-American veterans in their late 60s and early 70s. At the time I was twenty-three!

Who were some of the veterans?

Let’s see … Bill Pemberton, who played bass with Art Tatum; Howard Johnson, who played alto with Dizzy's big band; Irvin Stokes, who played trumpet with Buddy Johnson and Thad Jones; and Francis Williams, who played trumpet with Duke Ellington. That's to name just a few.

Did they take you under their collective wing and school you?

They totally schooled me. Not only that, but I got to sit inside the real pocket. We played jazz, but we also did extended gigs at the Rainbow Room. That was a real society gig; they were very strict and the schedule was grueling.

Let’s talk about your experiences at Jimmy Ryan’s.

Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s were both located on 54th Street. Eddie Condon’s charged $1.25 per drink and stayed open until the last drink was served. Everybody—and I mean everybody— hung-out there! At Jimmy Ryan’s and Eddie Condon's I played with Roy Eldridge, Papa Jo Jones, Ruby Braff, and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, among others. It was one hell of an experience, because we played Dixieland music for the melodies, but when we took our solos we were allowed to do anything we wanted. That was Roy Eldridge’s innovation. Jimmy Ryan’s was a good education, and I am glad I did it.

There's no substitute for on-the-job training.

All of those guys were there when I arrived [in New York]. There was another place uptown called the West End Café. All of these old dudes like [guitarists] Al Casey and Tiny Grimes used to hang out there, they were still active. There was still a lot of history in New York back then. As a young guy, you never spoke out of turn and you were always very respectful. When you sat-in, you always wore a jacket and tie.

I remember the days when jazz musicians prided themselves on being 'sharp.' In 1988 you joined Milt Jackson’s quartet. In fact, you played with Milt for eleven years. Tell me about that.

With Milt it wasn’t a complicated thing. Either he liked you or he didn’t. He liked me, and he liked the way I played, and he never stopped liking me. We became beautiful friends, even though at first I could barely speak to him because I used to get tongue-tied. He was my idol, but when that broke-down, we became like family. It was a tremendous experience. Milt never played a bad note. I learned so much from watching him play. After he died, I organized a tribute for him and during the process I worked with a lot of vibes players. With all due respect to their talents, none of them can touch Milt Jackson. Actually, that’s not true; Bobby Hutcherson has it.

I was just about to mention Bobby Hutcherson. In my view, he's Milt’s successor.

Jazz, swinging, and playing the blues is a special thing. It’s something that you can’t really learn. Milt had all of that, but he never got the recognition he deserved. Everybody knew who he was, he would always win the Downbeat polls and that kind of thing, but he was never a superstar on the level of say, Oscar Peterson. He worked like crazy, but he never achieved superstar status with the public. Mention Benny Goodman’s name to anyone and they know who he is. Not so with Milt, and that’s a shame.

I blame a lot of that on the demise of radio. When was the last time you heard a tune by Milt Jackson or the Modern Jazz Quartet on the radio?

That is so true. Plus, the powers that be, the recording people haven’t done a great job of supporting this music. When Milt died, [renowned festival organizer] George Wein and I produced a great concert in his honor at Symphony Space. We had Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Slide Hampton, Mickey Roker, Bob Cranshaw, Steve Nelson, Etta Jones, and Stanley Turrentine. It was a knockout concert and it raised the roof off of the place. Afterwards, I put together this same package for a recording and took the idea to Blue Note records. All the musicians gave me a special price because it was for Milt, and the fee was very reasonable. I thought they were going to jump at it, but instead they turned it down. They told me that they weren’t interested in recording 'straight-ahead' classics anymore. I was shocked, because I really thought it would be a hit. No one had done anything like that in a long time, and we had all of these great musicians …

What disappoints me most is the fact that the event was not documented for posterity.

If it has to do with jazz music, it can’t just be a bottom line business. Jazz music is like a mutual fund; you put money in, and you make out over the long term. All of the record companies and all of the club owners need to know that. Take my gig at Smoke. When I first started playing, there were a lot of empty tables. Nobody knew what was going on, but in six months the place was packed. In other words, it takes time to develop a 'scene.' I've been going strong there for nine years. That’s the way jazz music is. What the record companies fail to realize is, when you put money behind someone like Milt Jackson, it's money in the bank.

Amen to that. On another topic, I was looking over the reviews for Five Live, and I couldn’t help but notice that a number of the reviewers seem to be under the impression that you are primarily an organ player.

Yeah, I noticed that, it’s like 'Wow! He plays the piano too!' (Laughs) I have made all of these records, played all of these great gigs and have traveled the world for thirty years, and I still get that. More power to Joe Fields and Savant Records for getting the records out there and getting them played a lot.

It’s your time.

I feel good. I still want to improve, and I want to get to another level. There are always guys that you listen to—guys like Mc Coy Tyner—and say, 'Wow! I would like to be able to play like that.' I am just happy that I haven’t faded away.

Fat chance! Let’s talk about Five Live. Tell me about concept, and how you went about choosing the material.

This is the record I have always wanted to make. I needed to make a record that has live power, and not what I call the 'studio daintiness.' There's something about recording in a studio that takes some of the energy away.

Or makes the recording sound too perfect.

Yeah, you get into things like … how short does a track have to be? Or, you don’t get to stretch-out; or you err on the side of trying to be radio-friendly. I know that when I play at Smoke, it’s always powerful, and it’s always a great experience. So I thought to my self, 'That’s what I want on my record.' So I did that; I wrote some tunes—things I've been playing around with for awhile. I'm always writing tunes, and I picked a couple of things that I've always been interested in. I wrote a tune for my little girl, Mary.

That’s 'Little M.'

Yeah. And I did a pop tune, 'You and I' by Stevie Wonder, which helps people to connect with the music.

I like your rendition of 'Manteca.'

Thanks. The album was meant to be swinging and powerful, but I wanted it to also have some pretty moments. I always end my sets with the blues—real blues, not a warped-out, rethought, re-harmonized blues, but a regular old blues.

That’s 'Bleeker Street Theme.' I understand that you close your shows at Smoke with that tune. Let’s talk about your band. Is trumpeter Jeremy Pelt a new addition to the band?

I liked Jeremy from the first time I heard him, so I decided to include him in this record. He’s got all the stuff I like. He plays the advanced chord changes, but he can also get greasy when he has to.

He looks like someone who shows up to go to work …

He’s also sharp, and a very nice guy. He just takes care of business.

Who are the other members of the band?

Eric Alexander on tenor sax, John Webber on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. They're all great musicians.

You also teach at Julliard?

I taught at Julliard for four years. I left in 2006.

And you co-authored Jim Snidero’s Jazz Conception for Piano (Advance Music).

Yeah, I worked on that with him. We put out a play-along CD and a comping book.

Name five recordings that have influenced you in a big way.

That’s hard, but right off the bat, Relaxin’ by Miles Davis. That record was made on the day I was born. Also, Miles Davis's Live at the Black Hawk, My Funny Valentine, and Duke Ellington, anything in the Columbia series. And there are two records by Coltrane: Crescent and Ballads, as well as The Dynamic Duo, by Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith.

Over the years, you've received countless accolades and awards. What’s next for Mike LeDonne?

I hope to get more work as a leader. I have tours of my own coming up, and I look forward to doing more of that. Right now my main gig is with Benny Golson. I've been with Benny for twelve years. I love Benny; he is the greatest guy in the world, and his music is outstanding. He just put together the New Jazztet, and we just completed a new recording.

How did you feel when the great Oscar Peterson singled you out as one of his favorite piano players?

That was a real shocker for me! Someone I know mentioned that he'd been listening to Marion McPartland's Piano Jazz interview with Oscar on WBGO [the Newark, New Jersey public radio station that specializes in jazz], and when she asked Oscar who his favorite pianist from today was, he said my name. I couldn't believe it. He said it again in a magazine interview, as well. What an honor.

I must get down to Smoke and catch you on the B-3.

Yeah man, come down.

Good luck with Five Live. It’s a great recording.

Thank you, Tomas.

Mike LeDonne's Web site: www.mikeledonne.com


Then and Now (Double-Time, 2001)
Bags Groove: A Tribute to Milt Jackson (Double-Time, 2000)

Remembering Clifford w/Benny Golson (Milestone, 1998)
Sa Va Bella (For Lady Legends) w/Milt Jackson (Warner Bros., 1997)

February 27, 2009 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Lionel Loueke

By Ted Panken

                           Lionel Loueke by Jimmy Katz

A consistent pleasure at this year's edition of Umbria Jazz Winter at Orvieto was the presence of Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke's superb trio with Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth. The band used their six-night residence to great advantage, stretching out and developing repertoire from Loueke's 2008 Blue Note release, Karibu.

The intense simpatico of this trio—heard on Loueke's leadership debut, Virgin Forest, and twice as the collective unit Gilfema (Gilfema and Gilfema +2), is the result of long acquaintance. They met as classmates at Berklee School of Music at the end of the '90s. The brought their friendship to the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles, and have flourished in the pressure-cooker that is New York City, where they all now reside.

Their experience as a working trio coincides with Loueke's fast-moving career since he left the Monk Institute in 2003. His itinerary has included steady touring with Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, numerous solo concerts, and, until about two years ago, frequent sideman and collaborative gigs at workshop-oriented New York venues like the Jazz Gallery, 55 Bar, and Fat Cat, with emerging artists like Gretchen Parlato, Yosvany Terry, Jeff Ballard, Jason Lindner, Robert Glasper, and Avishai Cohen (the trumpeter), as well as established stars like Jeff Watts and Richard Bona.

Loueke's calling card is his singular ability to transform a nylon-string, hollow-bodied, electrified acoustic guitar into a sort of virtual, real-time Afro-Western orchestra. He writes traditional-sounding songs in Fon and Mina dialects and sings them with a resonant tenor voice. He improvises with cat-like, off-the-grid phrasing, creating harmonic progressions from an up-to-the-second lexicon, and articulates his lines with self-invented fingering and looping techniques that elicit the timbres of such indigenous homeland instruments as the kalimba, kora, and djembe. And he executes it all with enough virtuoso authority to bliss out the most demanding guitar-head. King Sunny Ade meets Pat Metheny meets Derek Bailey might be the Hollywood pitch.

The 36 year-old Loueke is now international presence, thanks in large part to Hancock's willingness to showcase his skills in extended unaccompanied features, and to conceptualize these tours de force as a major component of his own presentation. In 2008, Loueke spent so much time on tour with Herbie, the trio performed infrequently. Their relative absence added to the allure of hearing them stretch-out in the intimate venues assigned to them by Umbria Jazz.

As I recall, three years ago you said that if you could only take six months off ...


... you could work on this thing you were hearing, and reach the next level. I have a feeling that hasn't happened.

It hasn't happened, and I'm still looking for it. Now I'm not looking for six months. Now I'm looking for like a month to stop.

How are Gilfema and the Lionel Loueke Trio different entities?

We use Gilfema when we play music from everyone. When we play the Lionel Loueke Trio, it's only my music, or maybe I play their tunes, but I'm the one calling the tunes. Herbie is not keeping me busy this year, so I have more free time to do my own thing. Basically, from March to May, we'll be touring—all of March in Europe—as the Lionel Loueke Trio.

I can't pinpoint this assertion, but Karibu seems more layered than your previous recording. Of course, having Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on it doesn't hurt. But it's not just them.

I always like to take different directions. It all depends on the moment, what I'm working-on, or how I feel connected to the music. Karibu definitely is different than Virgin Forest. Virgin Forest was a more produced record. I recorded some tracks with musicians in Africa, and even overdubbed some of the stuff. But Karibu is all played in a live context. The idea was for me to have the CD sound pretty much the way I play on stage. Just the organic part of it. It's not perfect. It's just what it is.

Did you write new compositions for it? There are two standards, of course—'Skylark' and 'Naima' with Wayne Shorter.

Yes, because the Blue Note people asked me to do it, but also I wanted to play standards because I like them. The title [track], 'Karibu,' was new. 'Xala' was new.

A lot of your work over the prior two years was in the context of Herbie Hancock's various bands. When I saw the band this summer, you did a solo feature on 'Seven Teens' before 10,000 people, and you were playing before these large audiences constantly. I don't think Terence Blanchard was playing in those kind of venues.


Is it a challenge to do what you do in these less intimate contexts?

It's a big challenge. Every gig Herbie gives me space to play a solo piece. So to play a solo in front of 20,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 is a big difference, especially when the audience is far back. I like to feel the vibe from the audience. Obviously, Herbie knows how to manage those big rooms. One thing I learned with him is that once you're out there, you have to focus and do the best you can, whether there are two people or 15,000. I'm learning so much musically with him. That's one reason I don't want to stop playing with him—plus he gives me so much space, and also the way he carries the whole band and the way he plays differently night to night is a real lesson. Besides that, just who he is as a human being and what he's been doing. All those things affect my playing and my writing, as well.

Give me an example.

My writing lately has been very different. Especially on the last tour, we played music by Wayne Shorter, and Herbie also did a new arrangement of 'Speak Like a Child,' on which he did an introduction. It was inspiring to hear how he developed that introduction every single night. It opened my ears. I'm trying to get that same kind of vibe when I compose, not think too much, but at the same time get that freshness.

I didn't see the fall tour, but I heard a concert from it, and it was very different from the summer tour, which was almost like an arena show.

As I said, we're always playing something different. The summer was a tour for his record, The River, and pretty much my role was more to color things, not always playing, but always trying to find the right moment to interact. But on the last tour we had no singer, so it was more playing-oriented. My function was similar to what it was in the summer, but more open. But playing with Herbie is the greatest thing. When I finish playing with Herbie, it's hard either to listen to a piano player or play with a piano player, because I start hearing some stuff naturally, and then I realize it's not him. I don't know how to describe it. The only person I listen to who makes me feel the same is Brad Mehldau. Mehldau is very strong, he has his own thing, but after Mehldau or McCoy or people like that, it's very hard.

In 2005 you played trio with Herbie and Wayne in Japan, which must have factored into your concept for Karibu.

Yes, it helped me a lot. Because of it, I wasn't nervous, and already had some ideas of where this can go within my own thing. I had them both in mind when I wrote 'Lights Dark.' Very open.

Did the title denote in any way your sense of the way they play, the contrasts?

Exactly. Wayne Shorter is one of my favorite composers of all time, and if you listen to Wayne's melodies, you can sing them all day long. The harmony may be complex, but supports the melody in the right way. That's exactly what I tried to get on that tune. The melody was very simple and the harmony can go anywhere.

Last night it was my impression that you only prepared the strings once. You took out paper, inserted it on the fretboard, and got a kalimba sort of sound. But other than that, all the sounds were extracted from the pedals and your hands. Are you preparing the guitar less now?

I just feel like people start thinking about me in one context, but I don't want to lock myself into one thing. Most people think about the way I play the African thing and the paper—which is great. That's what I do. That's who I am. But I don't want to lock myself into just that one direction. I still want to play standards, still want to do everything, but still be me.

But it seemed you were getting those sounds without preparing the guitar.

Oh, yes. The paper thing gives me one sound. I want to be able to switch between the normal sound and the mute sound, so I've been working on how to mute without the paper, where the sound won't be the same, but it will be close.

You were pointing to your palm. Apart from being interdependent with both hands, do you have interdependence between the muscles in each hand?

Exactly. That's where I'm getting to now. I can come from legato, I can go to staccato and mute, everything, without putting paper in. If I need the paper, like I did yesterday for one tune, I do it. But the rest, I can do it in a different way.

When you say that you need time off to work on your concept, don't you have a fair amount of free time when you're on the road with Herbie Hancock?

Oh, no! Herbie's fall tour, the last one, was a little easier, but most of the tours we play five, six, sometimes nine gigs in a row in different cities, so there's no break, meaning you have to wake up at 5. There's no time to practice. We had a day off in Istanbul, and some people went out. I preferred just to lock myself in and write music, because that's really the only time I have. But even if I go out, I always find time to write music.

If you had that ever-elusive month off, how would you practice? How much is physical? How much is thinking?

I think definitely it would be more physical. I am thinking constantly anyway. The way I hear my playing, I want it to be close to the piano context, where I support my playing harmonically at the same time; I want to have the right technique to play melody and harmony, and make them sometimes very clear, sometimes very confused. But that requires a lot of practicing. Since I have a different tuning, I have a lot to learn to execute that. I can hear those things in my head, but they're not in my fingers. I need to put them in my fingers.

Let's talk about your background. You went from Cotonou [Benin's largest city] to Ivory Coast when you were 17 to study classical music.

I stayed in Ivory Coast for three years, and there I studied the harmony of classical music. Before that, in Benin, I was of course playing a lot of traditional music and African modern music which involved the guitar, but a different way of playing. So Ivory Coast was the first music school where I could learn how to write music basically, but not jazz.

Are you from a musical family?

Yes, because my older brother was playing music professionally. My Dad was not a musician, but he played a little bit of guitar. My grandfather was a traditional singer back in the village.

So you grew up in the city, but your grandparents had been in the village before that.

That's right.

You use a lot of traditional music forms in your compositions. Was that something you heard a lot growing up? Was it part of your daily life?

Definitely. I always have these colors which come from my background... The colors in my compositions come from Africa in general, but mostly from Benin, because I know more music from there.

Did you study it systematically, or is it just part of you?

I think it's part of me. Until I moved to Ivory Coast, I never really studied music, but just was playing extensively with friends or with my brother. Even when I studied music, I always tried to find what was natural and what I needed. I don't believe that you have to pass through a school absolutely to play music. I always keep that natural aspect of music.

What sparked your interest in guitar? I gather that one time you transformed bicycle brake cable into strings and put it on a frame.

Since my older brother was playing guitar, it was the first instrument in the house I could touch. Second, it was easier to get a guitar compared to a piano at that time. Once I got my guitar, the second problem was how to find strings. Even now it's hard to get guitar strings there. One day I had to play somewhere and I broke the string, so I used the brake cable as a string. But the thing is that the tension is very hard for the instrument, especially in Africa where it's so humid, so I broke the guitar neck after two weeks.

This is the '80s, a lot of African musicians were recording for international labels, and African guitar was becoming a distinctive entity in the West. King Sunny Ade was getting big, Ebeneezer Obey. Ali Farka Toure was making his first records for the West. Was that something you were thinking about or listening to?

Yes, I was listening to it. In Africa, I put together a band that was playing African music, so we were transcribing all that stuff—Sunny Ade, Fela, music by any of those musicians. That gave me a chance to know more about how to approach African guitar playing. At the same time, I was checking out other instruments, like kora or sanza, the thumb piano. In my mind, I love that sound, and I always thought about how I could get it playing guitar. I could be a kora player, but the problem is it's not chromatic, so you only can play in a certain key or a certain scale. But guitar is completely chromatic; you can play anything. So I always tried to learn those scales on guitar, how I can get it on there.

Were you listening to things other than African music at the time?

Yes. Before I played guitar, too, but especially when I started playing guitar I started listening more to the guitar players from America or Europe. The first guitar player I listened to was Django Reinhardt, and then I discovered a blues with B.B. King. I checked it all out.

Sometimes you hear music, and it touches you directly although you don't know what they're doing. You just feel something. That's how I got involved in Occidental music, playing rock and blues. It was new for me—completely new harmony. As an African musician, I didn't think they were improvising, especially in the blues, for example. I thought everything was just part of the song, because the way we do it in Africa is you sing, and then you play, and then you have the verse ... So my mindset was more about it's not improvisation, until I discovered otherwise. I thought, 'Oh!' So I got more curious …

When you played Afropop in your teenage band, were you improvising, or were you playing verbatim what Sunny Ade or other people were doing?

Yes, it was more repeating the phrases from Sunny Ade or stuff. It wasn't really improvisation. I was more improvising by playing percussion, which was more the improvisational aspect of the African music I was playing at that time.

Your style is very much about the guitar as a sound-making instrument. Did this interest begin during that time as well?

Not really. That came after I studied harmony, and learned more about sound harmonically. Then I started returning to my background as a percussionist, back to the sound of the percussion, how I can mix both. You go deeper and deeper into sound instead of just the notes.

Why did you go to conservatory in Ivory Coast? Not everybody who makes money playing music moves to classical music. They just stay with popular music, and play in bands and can live pretty comfortably. You were more ambitious.

Yes, definitely. I didn't want to lock myself into only playing African music. The first reason I moved to Ivory Coast was that Ivory Coast was the only country in West Africa where I could study music.

Western music?

Just music. But that was the only place that had a conservatory at that time. So in Benin I couldn't study, in Nigeria I couldn't study. My first thing was, 'I want to study; I want to be able to write music.' That was the first reason I moved to Ivory Coast. Then the classical music helped me a lot for my writing and even my ears, because I hadn't been exposed to that music at all. Now, when I was in Africa I was playing with some great musicians, and I could have just stayed there and have my life. Even on Ivory Coast, when I finished, they asked me to stay there to teach, but I said no. I knew that I wasn't ready. I knew that I wanted step-by-step to move to France and study other stuff that I couldn't get on Ivory Coast.

Did anyone help you intellectually towards finding that path, or was this just something within you?

It was more in me. My father is an intellectual. He's retired now, but he was a professor of mathematics. He came to Europe, studied in Canada. He wanted me to become a lawyer or something …

So he's of the first generation of post-colonial Africa, of the new nations?

Exactly. My mother was a teacher at the high school.

So you're not coming from the village. You're coming from a cosmopolitan, sophisticated family within an urban environment.

Definitely. Cotonou. Then I went to France. In France I studied at the American School. All the teachers were American. It was perfect for me, because I wanted to study jazz. I didn't want to go from Ivory Coast to the States, because I had the language barrier. I couldn't speak English at all, so it would be an easier transition to pass through France.

So this is a very systematic process. You knew exactly what you wanted to do.

Oh, yeah. It was very clear in my mind.

Tell me about the Paris scene. It's noted for the influence of Sub-Saharan and North African musicians on the total sound.

Oh, yes. There are a lot of musicians from Africa in Paris. I guess the first reason is the language. Most other countries in West Africa where there is African music are old French colonies, so they all speak French. As a first step for us, it is easier to go to France and be able to speak the language at least.

The music scene over there was great. The jazz scene was big. I think Paris is probably the biggest jazz scene in Europe. I was studying, but I wasn't playing in the scene. I was more locking myself in after classes and practicing.

Is that when you developed your technique?

Exactly. Because at that moment, I had the materials and I had the harmony. Everything I'd been looking for over the years, I had next to me. So I could work, practice ... Anyway, I wasn't ready to be playing on the scene.

But were you listening to the Paris scene?

Yeah. I was going out a lot. Bireli Lagrene ...

The Django guitar players.

Yes. There were so many.

Were you listening to any of the avant-garde folks, like Steve Lacy? Certain things you do remind me of a European post-jazz approach to guitar.

The funniest part was that Steve Lacy and all this kind of avant-garde stuff was in Paris, but I wasn't listening to it. Actually, when I moved to the States, after Berklee, I went back to listen to that stuff. When I moved to Paris, that's where I discovered, for example, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock. I heard about Miles before, but not really his music. Everything was new for me. I had to study all that music and understand what's going on before I go to the avant-garde stuff.

By the time you left Paris, was the style we hear now in place?

I think the style was already inside me, but it wasn't out at all.

You weren't able to articulate it.

No. I knew that once I got the vocabulary, I would go to that step. But I need to have the maximum information before I do that. So it was clear, but it wasn't clear like it is today. So I was dealing with different stuff, like putting paper or a comb through the strings to get a sound—but nothing compared to what I'm doing now.

But you weren't doing that by inspiration from avant-garde European music. You were doing it to get the sounds that you heard as a kid.

Exactly. For me, it was more about the kalimba or the kora, to try to get a djembe, or different sounds. But not thinking avant-garde at all.

So then, in 1999 you come to the States and study at Berklee.

I got a scholarship to Berklee, so I went to Berklee for three years. That was a great experience. It was still the same jazz, but completely different in energy—and even between the students, how we were playing. I didn't have that experience when I was in France. It was perfect to be playing like three sessions per day, six hours a day just with friends.

You arrived in the States in the middle of this great movement to the States, especially New York, of musicians from around the world—Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, Pedro Martinez from Cuba, Miguel Zenon from Puerto Rico, other musicians from the Southern Americas, the Israeli musicians, etc. Was the imperative to mix genres, styles, and cultures in place at Berklee?

Exactly. For example, I met my trio at Berklee, and we were already trying different stuff, playing traditional music from Hungary, where Ferenc is from. At Berklee, I had a lot of Brazilian friends, and two or three of us were from southern Africa. So yes, we were listening together, playing together, sharing all our cultures—it was the place where all the cultures were mixing. Plus the harmony and the real jazz repertoire.

Then came the Monk Institute.

After Berklee, I was thinking of coming to New York, and one of my teachers, Hal Crook, asked me, 'Did you hear about the Monk Institute?' I said, 'No, what's that?' He explained to me that it's a music school where they pay your tuition, they give you a stipend, they pay your housing. I said, 'Boy, that could be good.' He said that the board are people like Ron Carter, Herbie, Wayne Shorter. I said, 'Oh, that could be a good transition.' So I went for the audition. You send a tape, and they choose three per instrument, and they fly us to L.A. for the final audition. We played in front of Herbie, Wayne, Terence, Charlie Haden, all those guys. That's how I met them.

You played with all the judges, didn't you?

Yeah. Lucky. I was there from 2001 to 2003. I studied with Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, Terence … After my first year, I started playing with Terence, but I couldn't play other gigs, because the school's rules stated I had to be there every day, and they didn't want to let me go on the road because the other guys would say they had other stuff to go to, too. It was tricky. I wasn't too happy about it, because I was thinking our goal is to play with those guys, to learn from those guys on the road. At the same time, I understood what they were saying. So I had to go on the road with Terence on the weekend, or during the break. So I wasn't playing with Terence full-time

You seem to fit very nicely with the ideas Terence was working with, and your ability to conceptualize African melodies and rhythms and textures gave him a sound that hadn't been in his groups before.

I think he has great ears in terms of conception. He told me before that he checked out some African music, and it's hard to have an African musician in his band because most of the African musicians don't deal with deep harmony. They play very well African music, but when it comes to jazz harmony they're kind of lost. I was the guy who could do both. I could sing—try to sing—and play, and it was perfect for him. And for me, too, to learn to be in a professional band. He gave me plenty of room to express myself, which was remarkable.

Once you started studying jazz, who were some of the jazz guitarists you drew vocabulary from? You don't really sound like anybody else.

Yeah, but I did check it out. Still, up to today my favorite guitar player is Wes Montgomery. Just how he was dealing with new concepts at that time was exceptional, and also knowing that he became famous very late. I'm sure it took him years and years to develop that concept of playing. But I like them all. I'm a good friend of John Scofield; I like John. I like all the Pats [Metheny, Martino]. I checked all of them out just to understand where to go with the instrument, what they're doing with the instrument. Then when I started focusing on what I wanted to do, I knew exactly where I want to go, or to where I can build myself.

Then in 2003, you move to New York.

Yes. While at Berklee, I came to New York maybe two or three times for gigs. Nothing big. Just friends from Berklee. After the Monk Institute, I had more confidence in myself.

You felt prepared.

Yes …

You look like a guy who probably 20 people can tell you you're ready, but you won't come until you think the time is right.

Yes. Of course, the concept still wasn't too cool. But I had to go to New York and be ready to learn, because so much was going on. I came here in May. I'd played with Bob Hurst in L.A., and he came to town for IAJE and invited me to play with Jeff Watts and him in trio. Then things just started coming. I started playing with Tain, and then I had my own gig to which I invited Tain and Richard Bona, which was fun.

You recently did a concert with Richard Bona. Had you met him in Paris?

Here in New York. He was in France when I was there, but at that time I wasn't really talking to anybody—I was just practicing.

It was interesting, because your personalities are so different.

Oh yeah. We're very different. But it works because the African element is very strong. We both know the rules. That concert was fun for me, because it was two different musicians with their own thing but at the same time with something in common. Usually, when you play that type of music, you have to explain to people, 'This is one.' they have their one, I have my one, and it doesn't matter—it works. But with him ... [laughs] We have the same one! We feel it the same way.

Anyway, in New York I started playing with different people—Jeff Ballard, Avishai Cohen. Through Avishai, I met Jason Lindner, Greg Hutchinson, all those people.

In your opinion, what links these people? What are the common threads of interest?

I think it's the originality. All those young, well-known guys have their own way to play. They don't sound like anybody. For me, from playing with all those people and playing with Herbie, the thing people like about my playing is probably that. It doesn't sound like Wes or Pat Metheny or Scofield, but it's just different. Different means you may like it or you may not, but it is different. All those guys have their own personal sound. Guys like Herbie and Wayne and Pat love to play with young musicians, but the problem, they think, is that there aren't that many young players trying to be themselves. Herbie told me that, for example, if there's a great guitar player who is playing like Pat Metheny, why would he hire him? He'd better hire Pat. Pat told me the same thing. I think all those guys are looking for people who are not afraid to try different things and be themselves.

But you probably could have played professionally while you were in France, or at least at Berklee. For someone who's as careful and prepares as much as you, it must be challenging not to judge yourself, to be in the moment and improvise, to give up the idea of self-criticism.

Yeah, exactly.

I'll bet you're very self-critical.

I am. But I just try to be myself, and go for whatever I'm hearing. I don't question myself twice. It's almost like the information comes in and goes out. I think that's how those guys think. It's almost like you learn and you forget; I learned all that stuff, and now I put them in my bag and go to play without... Like Wayne always said, every time he blows his horn, he's thinking it's the first time he's touching the instrument. So it becomes new. Everything you play is going to be fresh. Basically, you don't know what it's going to sound like.

I hate to harp on your thirteen years of study before hitting the scene, but your patience, your unwillingness to do something before its proper time, is exceptional. The temptations must have been great. I'm sure there were times you were just eating noodles because you weren't working.

Oh, yeah.

It's hard for people to talk about their own character. But have you always been this patient?

Yeah. There are two things. First, I always want to push my limit. I always want to get to something else. Even if I take a month off, even if I take six months off, I still want to find something else. The second thing is, I am always looking for new things for myself, because somehow on standards I get a little bored. I always try to find a new direction harmonically, melodically, technically, on the instrument. Now I'm less patient than I used to be. Before I knew that this is my goal, and I take whatever time it takes. I'm going to get it. Now I have more pressure, doing gigs on my own, I have two kids—so I have less time to accomplish those things. I feel more like I don't want to waste my time.

You could eat noodles, but you can't make them do that.

Exactly. But at the same time ... For example, I'm here for a week. Normally I would come by myself, and that's the perfect time for me to do something. But I haven't seen my family for three months. So I am less patient than I used to be.

But also, you're playing with someone who is a great virtuoso, but seems not to unduly sweat over the things you worry about.

Yes, definitely.

I wonder if that's had an effect on you.

Definitely. I've asked Herbie many times how he does it, and he always tells me he used to practice a lot. He said, 'I practiced for hours and hours. Of course, now I don't practice, but I practice a lot in my head.' I practice in my head, too. But he is able to just put it out, because he has practiced for many hours and has it in his fingers. I don't.

Well, your concept is also about extended techniques. Trying to be interdependent with your thumb and fingers involves muscle memory. Herbie Hancock's muscle memory has been there since he was six. He's not playing like Cecil Taylor.

Yes. He's thinking more harmonically and melodically and of different types of colors. I'm thinking of that less, but thinking more about the technique, how I can divide the whole instrument like mutes, be able to get the bass strings, the four lower strings, and open the higher strings—or vice-versa—so that when you hear my playing you hear something very legato and mute at the same time. Even if I haven't heard anybody do it, I know it is possible, because when I try, sometimes it comes out. But not every time.

Now, of course, it's becoming natural for me to do it. But I think in my life there was a moment where I had a click between my background as a percussionist and all this stuff I learned. I found finally the way to mix them; finally it became the same thing. Before, it wasn't the same thing. When I was playing as a kid, I knew all those rhythms, but I never really used them in a jazz context or an improvisational context. But then I realized, 'Oh, okay, all these rhythms go together; I can play them through my lines and I can support them with the harmony.' So everything came together and became my vocabulary. I grew up with the rhythm, it's more natural for me, but I spent much more time on the harmony and melody. So when I put them together, it became something.

As a kid playing percussion instruments, did you study the rhythms in a codified way? Systematic? Did somebody teach you to do one rhythm this way, do another that rhythm that way? I know that in Africa, different rhythms have different functions, different meanings. Did you learn it in that manner?

I learned more like that at the beginning. You play with older guys, people who grew up in the villages who know the name of the rhythm, and they tell you exactly how it's supposed to be played. You have to follow them. When we were kids, we were like a group of 9 or 8, and everybody has a different pattern, basically. Someone is going to have bells, and they just play that pattern through the whole song. So I learned all different patterns to make the one rhythm, and I know the name of the rhythm. When I was 14, when I know more about the rhythm, then I started getting more liberated, because in each rhythm there's a soloist, basically. There are a lot of accompanists doing the same groove while the lead is taking the solo. Once I started playing the lead, it becomes more interesting for me, because I can try different stuff.

Also in traditional African culture, music tells a story because it comes from the context of ritual. Does that stick with you? When you play, is there some sort of narrative, something beyond just musical ideas going on?

Yes, definitely. That's the reason I called my solo CD In A Trance, because it's beyond just a musical concept. It's more about ... Well, it's the trance. I think it happens to every musician. Maybe it lasts two seconds or three seconds, but you get that zone where you feel everything or nothing. It's almost like you're taking off. In Africa, I went through a lot of different cults and learned the music. If you hear the drum like this, it means this. In the old school, it's how they call people; the talking drums was kind of the language. I did basically some ethnomusicology, as well, when I was in Ivory Coast, going to the different villages and recording it.

I once did a radio show with Richard Bona, and he said that when he first heard Ray Brown play a walking bass line, he could trace it to a village near where he grew up in Cameroon.


Does that happen for you here listening to American jazz?

Yeah, I've got that. Even being in Africa, I remember the first time I heard B.B. King. I was like, 'Man, this is the north of Benin, where they have a special way to play ... there's a three-string instrument that sounds like ....' Of course, in African music is a lot of pentatonics. But the way he bends the notes, just three notes, it reminds me so much of Africa, because I can hear where that comes from. I have tapes. I can play B.B. King and then play the tape from Africa, and you say, 'Man, it's almost the same thing.'

You played on Charlie Haden's Land of The Sun, where Gonzalo Rubalcaba arranged a suite of boleros, and you've also played a lot with Cuban musicians. Is that a natural fit?

Yes. Every time I play with Cuban musicians or Brazilian musicians, it's very natural, because they have a lot of African influences in the culture. Yosvany Terry told me that in Cuba they have a special place for Benin when they play. He was singing me even a song in Yoruba, which comes from Benin. It's all related. That explains why I feel natural. My Mom's last name is Monteiro, which is Brazilian. Benin is an old colony of the French and Portuguese, and we have last names in my Mom's village like Santos, DeMenderos, all those. They play a rhythm called bourian, which is pure Brazilian music, and they sing in Portuguese. In my Mom's village, people still speak in Portuguese.

So it's a natural fit. I once read a comparison of your approach to Egberto Gismonti.

Yes, I think I heard. It was funny, because I knew the name but I didn't know his music. I went to listen to his stuff, and I said, 'Yeah, definitely it has some elements.'

What music are you listening to lately?

Lately, mostly classical. If I go to jazz, I will listen to Wayne most of the time. But I'm listening a lot to classical lately—Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, all the contemporary composers. When I listen again to my heroes, Wayne and Herbie, I start hearing those elements. Lately, if I listen to Wayne, what he's been doing to classical music and classical instruments, complete with the quartet, it's very inspired.

Do you ever go back and listen to African music, or is it something that's just there because it was so much of your early ...

I can't say that I listen to it that much. If somebody gives me CDs, I'll put them on my iPod. I have tapes from back home that I listen to, but it's mostly pure traditional, percussion-and-voice or just percussion. I listen to those things. The last six months, though, I haven't.

You mentioned learning the jazz canon, including Herbie Hancock's work, in Paris. When you were a young guy, assimilating influences, were you listening at all to Herbie Hancock's music?

I heard something when I started music, when I was doing the break dance thing, but I had no idea it was Herbie Hancock. I was playing 'Cantaloupe Island' or 'Watermelon Man,' but I had no clue who wrote them.

Were you playing those songs with African bands?

Exactly. My older brother was playing those songs in a band. When I started learning, they taught me those songs, so I was playing without knowing who wrote them.

Because of time constraints, you haven't been able to play as much on the New York scene as you used to. You were playing with Avishai Cohen's African project, Yosvany Terry, Gretchen Parlato, so many people.

I miss that, I have to say. The main reason I moved to New York was to do that, but I knew that if I started getting busy it would be hard to do it. Plus, once you start playing the clubs, playing a gig at the Jazz Standard under your name, they don't want you to go back and play at the Jazz Gallery under your name. I didn't really think about those little things before, but now everything is contract. You have to wait six weeks to play. That's one thing.

But also, I'm not there any more like I used to be. Between Herbie's tour and this week, I was home for a week. After here, I go home for not even a week, and then I'm out again to play in Boston with the Gilfema project. Then I'm going home, taking ten days to see my parents in Cotonou. Then, when I'm in New York for three or four days and I haven't seen the family for three months, it is hard to tell your wife, 'Ok, I am going into the city to play.'

So in 2009, you won't be out so much with Herbie, and you'll be touring in March and April with the Lionel Loueke Trio.

Yes. In February we go to New Orleans for some dates for ten days or two weeks, and all of March we'll be in Europe—Spain, Greece, U.K. Then back in the States touring in April as well. So we start getting busy. Miles Winston, my agent, is keeping me busy.

Will Gilfema do things in 2009?

No. We started with Gilfema, and now Gilfema is kind of dying. The last CD is very much because we owed an optional CD to ObliqSound. We had to do it. We don't have any more projects. Everybody is busy, and if I cannot keep them busy, they have to work. When they are not working with me, Massimo is working with Ravi Coltrane or Paquito. So they're all busy doing their thing, and they all have their own CDs, so that they have their own project. In May we're going on the road under Ferenc's name with other people. So they have their own projects as well. One thing about those guys is we really love each other besides the music. We hang a lot together. Even if I'm on the road, we call each other. It's a real family. That comes out in the music every time we play.

You're someone who thinks in the long term. Probably ten years ago, you half-envisioned what you're doing now, maybe not that you'd be on the road with Herbie Hancock ...


Where do you see yourself five years from now, when you're in your forties?

There are a lot of different projects I would love to do.

You were thinking about a string project a few years ago. I haven't seen that yet.

I want to write something for string quartet plus the trio, and it will definitely be the result of all of the classical things I'm listening to now. I want to find guys who can at the same time improvise in a way that there's a real interaction between the trio, or duo, or whatever it is going to be, with the quartet. What I hear most of the time when people do that project, they write something especially for the quartet, and then hear the quartet comping. I don't want that. I want it to be no one is comping for anyone. That project definitely will come out.

I'm also thinking to do another African project—acoustic guitar with African instruments—kora, kalimba, djembe.

And because African instruments aren't chromatic, the orchestration would be the challenge.

Exactly. My job will be to find a way. Because one thing I don't want to do when I use those instruments (that's why I don't use them that much) is to have just one scale and one sound that everybody recognizes. But I've started hearing some young African musicians, especially in Paris, who are starting to play on a chromatic kora. A friend of mine now is playing chromatic balafon. For a long time I've been looking for somebody trying to play those instruments in a different way.

So it's a new instrument.

It's a new instrument, because it's against the tradition. He cannot play that in the village! But that's the way I'm seeing African instruments anyway. One thing is to keep what's already done, what's there. But now I think it's time for the young musicians to take it to a different level.

What kind of response does your music receive in Africa? Are people in Benin hearing Karibu or your other records? Also, let's talk generally about how you address the different attitudes or mentalities that are expressed in African cultures and Western cultures, which operate on very different suppositions, have different core aesthetics behind them.

People in Africa are starting to hear my music. Every time I go to Benin, I play a concert, so they start getting familiar with it. But there is always a new element for them. I did a tour last year in I think 15 countries in Eastern Africa, just solo guitar. I went to Kenya, Tanzania, and down. People see the African element in my playing, then they see the element they are not familiar with. Just like when I play in Europe or in the United States, they can find their way to what I'm doing that's new for them with some of their limits. I like it that way, because my interest is to bring something different as well. I don't want to do something that is already done for both worlds.

The second element: I never lost the way we play in Africa—how the music is related to everyday life and the context, and what you play is definitely to your heart, first of all. When I was in music school, at one point I almost lost that, started becoming very intellectual in everything I was playing. But the good thing is, I found the right moment to say, 'Wait a minute, I don't want to lose this natural thing I have from the beginning without understanding anything about harmony.' So I found my way to go back. Anyway, at this point I'm never going to be able to be the musician I was before, even if I was the most organic musician ever at that time. But now I can't even be that organic, because I have some new elements.

You opened the box.

Exactly. I just don't want to lose that. Anything I'm doing has to come from inside, deeply inside.

What were some of the core principles in the intellectual culture of the West that were fundamental to you as a young person?

For me, it definitely was communism. I grew up seeing my mom making ... I don't know how they call it in English ... They call it defilés, when you see the military walking, like a march, and you see all the teachers, every ... I was a kid, I was doing that, too. If I go to the movie theater, I have to stand up and sing the revolutionary ...

The Internationale.

Exactly. The funny thing, sometimes Ferenc and I make a joke and we sing. He sings it in Hungarian and I sing it in French. The same melodies. We both grew up under communist governments.

Interesting. You seem more like a son of the Enlightenment.

I found my way out quick. I think communism definitely has a good point, but there's a lot of things that didn't work with my ...

Well, you have to conform to the program, among other things.

Yes. It wasn't easy. That's actually how I started music. When I was in high school, we had a band, and at the same time we had two hours per week, every Friday to play music. or, if you choose, to do painting—different activities. But they all related to communism. Before you studied, you had to sing and do the military march and everything. Every day. So before you got in the classroom, you'd have to be in line, sing, do the military march, take your seat...

Was the regime Maoist?

Yeah, it was Maoist.

So when you got to Paris and saw the French intellectuals who'd been Maoist in the '60s, you might have had certain thoughts about that.

Yes, exactly. I don't want to get into that. But once I got to Paris, it was a different story. I went to Paris in '94. So it was gone!

Was the regime interested in retaining traditional culture, or were they trying to eliminate traditional culture?

Well, they were confused. For the traditional singers and musicians, the government was asking them to compose using those lyrics. So all they were singing was revolutionary words ...

But with the same rhythms and melodies.

Yeah, it still was traditional. But then we had the other side, where we start learning all the revolutionary songs from Eastern Europe, and I know many of those and play them. I could do a record! I still remember. It's amazing.

Do you have a contract for more recordings with Blue Note?

Yes. I think I have four.

Hopefully, one will be the string project you described.

Yes. One hopefully will be a string project. One will be the same project with African instruments. I'd also love to do a record just playing standards, the way I hear them, but swinging. Even if it's swinging in seven or nine or whatever, it will be swinging.

Ted Panken talked with Lionel Loueke on December 31, 2008, in Orvieto, Italy.

February 21, 2009 · 4 comments


In Conversation with Eliane Elias

By Tomas Peña

The pianist, singer, and songwriter Eliane Elias is best known for a distinctive and immediately recognizable musical style that blends her Brazilian roots, alluring voice, and impressive jazz, classical and compositional skills. I was fortunate to catch up with Eliane between tours recently. Despite feeling a bit under the weather, she was very enthusiastic about the upcoming release of her new Blue Note album, Bossa Nova Stories, and happy to ‘school' me on the finer points of the Bossa Nova. Elias' talents as a composer and multidimensional instrumentalist have been recognized by her peers and fans alike. As one reviewer wrote, "The beautiful, Brazilian-born New York-based pianist vocalist Eliane Elias is still delivering soft and swinging music, hip and hot enough for North and South America. Whether the groove is acoustic or electronic, jazz or samba, it’s all Eliane Elias, and it’s all good."

Congratulations on the release of Bossa Nova Stories. I understand that the album has already been released in Europe and Japan. When can we look forward to hearing it in the U.S.?

The album will be released in the U.S. on January 13th.

The album coincides with the 50th anniversary of Bossa Nova, and the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records.

‘Bossa Nova Stories’ is just a title. I have been paying tribute and giving continuity to this music for years!

Before we talk about the album, I wonder if you might take a few moments to enlighten me on the finer points of Bossa Nova. Over the years, the Bossa Nova has become part of America’s soundtrack, yet I get the feeling that a lot of people don’t understand how deep the genre is, and how revolutionary it was when it was first created.

Let me give you a little bit of history, first about me. I was very fortunate to have grown up in Brazil during a time when Bossa Nova was on the streets, on the radio, on television—it was everywhere. I often say that Bossa Nova is part of my DNA, because the music was so strong, and growing up during that time was fantastic. Brazil is such an incredibly musical country.

This was during the late 50s and early 60s. Correct?

I grew up during the 60s but the first Bossa Nova tunes, like ‘Desafinado’ and ‘Chega de Saudade,’ were launched in 1958. What most people don’t know is that they weren’t quite liked immediately, because they had all of these twisted harmonies and melodies. If you think about it, it’s no coincidence that ‘Desafinado‘ means ‘off-key!‘ In fact, at first the music was booed, because it was really different from anything that was happening in Brazil at the time. Composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Donato were influenced by the great American composers and jazz musicians. For example, Jobim, who is like our Cole Porter, loved the music of George Gershwin, and Donato loved Stan Kenton. In fact, he had a portrait of Stan Kenton hanging in his bedroom! They were also influenced by musicians like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, as well as the songwriters who were writing standards. Those rhythms mixed with our rhythms. The result was sort of the way a Brazilian might hear jazz and Bebop.

Jobim was also influenced by the impressionists like Ravel, Debussy, and Chopin, as well as nature, love, poetry, and things that everyone can relate to emotionally. Add the melodic aspects of Bossa Nova, and you have this beautiful combination of ingredients and a new groove called the Bossa Nova. I have been reading books and listening to interviews, and I found out that when they created the Bossa Nova they were trying to create a new groove that would appeal to younger people (thus Bossa Nova or New Bossa), but in their wildest dreams they could never have imagined that it would become so universal and eternal, and leave such an indelible mark on Brazilian music and the world. So when the Boss Nova finally came out, there was this incredible combination of pleasant, sensual rhythms sung in this beautiful, soft language (Portuguese), combined with these beautiful harmonies and melodies. It was really fantastic.

I feel like I just completed a course in Bossa Nova 101. Thank you!


How is the Bossa Nova received overseas?

Music is such a universal language. Right now, I am touring Bossa Nova Stories and it’s doing wonderfully, people just love it. It’s great to listen to; it’s uplifting, and it’s the kind of music the world needs. I love to perform, these days I get up and sing, go back to the piano …

I recall that in the early part of your career you were a bit shy about singing.

(Laughs) That’s an interesting comment, because on Amanda [Passport, 1985], my first recording, I sing throughout the entire record.

That’s the one recording by you that I don’t have.

It’s no longer available. Randy (Brecker) loved my voice, so I just went along with him even though I just wanted to play (the piano). After Amanda, I continued doing instrumental things, and eventually I began to sing. Last night, I saw a video of myself on YouTube that was filmed around the time I was just starting to sing, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s not me anymore.’ Since then, my voice has really opened up. I hope that you can make it to Dizzy’s [at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City] in January [2009]. When you do, you are going to say ‘Wow!’ For me, it’s so beautiful to see the development of my ‘other’ instrument.

So it’s a whole new you!

Yes, it’s a whole new me, and it feels great. After all these years, the possibilities have really opened up, and there are all of these songs that I want to sing.

Let’s talk about your years as a child prodigy and budding pianist. You were born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As I understand it, your mother played the piano.

She was not a professional musician. She played classical music, loved jazz, and had an amazing collection of jazz recordings, which were very influential to me … I fell in love with jazz as a child, and started transcribing music at a very early age.

Your father used to bring you records from his travels.

At the time we couldn’t import records [in Brazil], but by the time I was thirteen, I had lots of jazz records, and tons of things that I had transcribed. Eventually, I was accepted by one of most prestigious schools in Brazil. After graduation, I taught in the piano department and performed with a trio by night. When I was seventeen, I was playing in a club, and I was approached by Vinicius de Moraes, who was Jobim’s co-writer. They loved my playing and invited me to join them on an international tour. I accepted. I toured with them until Vinicius died in July of 1980, then I moved to New York. Although I was much younger than the creators of Bossa Nova, I didn’t learn about it second-hand. I witnessed, lived, and breathed the music in the presence of greatness. The importance of keeping the continuity and authenticity of the music has always stayed with me.

Tell me about your current group, and how you are keeping traditional Bossa Nova alive.

I am fortunate to have Oscar Castro-Neves—an incredible Bossa Nova guitarist—and Paulo Braga, who was Jobim’s drummer for twenty years. [Also] bass player Marc Johnson, who has lived this music and is such a virtuoso and an incredible musician; I couldn’t imagine a Brazilian bassist playing the music more authentically and beautifully than he does. Traditionally, Bossa Nova recordings have always had big orchestras, and though it’s a big expense, I feel very fortunate that am able to do It, because it’s such a beautiful and an important part of this music. Essentially, that’s how we created Bossa Nova Stories: by recording some of the very first [Bossa Nova] tunes that came out, and doing what has always traditionally been done [by] including standards—especially my favorite tunes by Frank Sinatra, like ‘Too Marvelous For Words,’ ‘Day In Day Out,’ ‘Day by Day,’ ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ all of which are great vehicles for the Bossa Nova.

You also pay tribute to some of the more contemporary composers, like Stevie Wonder and Ivan Lins.

I wanted to add something new, because there are so many great songs that can be done this way.

Just to backtrack for a moment, after you worked with Jobim, Vinicius and Toquiñho, you relocated to New York. As I understand it, the transition from Sao Paulo to New York was a breeze.

Sometimes I look back, and I say to myself, ‘How did I do that?’ I didn't speak English, but somehow I was able to communicate what I wanted to do (laughs). New York was not intimidating to me. Quite the opposite; it felt very tiny.

In some ways it is.

It felt like a little Disneyworld, and I felt very safe compared to Sao Paulo, which is a very crazy, cosmopolitan metropolis. After that, things started happening very quickly for me. I went to a few jam sessions and got noticed right away and was offered a number of good opportunities early on.

You became a member of ‘Steps Ahead.’ Does the group ever reunite?

We did two reunions … actually it wasn’t quite a reunion because Michael [Brecker] wasn’t there. It’s hard for me to hear that music now because I either hear Michael or Bob [Berg], both of whom are no longer with us.

The group was very popular.

Wasn’t it? How I got into the group is an interesting story. I went into the studio to do a demo tape. Bassist Eddie Gomez recommended Peter Erskine and Michael Brecker, and Mike Mainieri volunteered to produce the demo. Anyway, they heard me play, and they asked me to join the band. It was fantastic, because it gave me my first taste of international exposure. We played festivals, and we were the first and only acoustic quintet with four guys and a diva on the cover [Steps Ahead (Elektra, 1983)]. They included, ‘Introducing Eliane Elias’ in the title, which was a very nice beginning (laughs). After that, I got married to Randy Brecker and I had my daughter (Amanda). Then Randy and I worked as co-leaders and we recorded Amanda. After that, I signed with Blue Note Records and began my solo career.

How many recordings have you made thus far?

If I am not mistaken, Bossa Nova Stories is my 20th album.

Congratulations! By the way, your daughter, the beautiful and talented singer-songwriter, Amanda (Brecker) is all grown up now. In fact, she just recorded her first album called Here I Am.

Yes, she is doing really well! She is also the only non-French teacher who teaches French at the United Nations.

I heard that at one point her recording climbed to number one on the Japanese charts.

It was so cute, because when Bossa Nova Stories was released in Japan it went to number one, then she bumped me and it went to number two!

You must be very proud of her.

Yes, I am very proud of her. That’s what I like to see!

What kind of music do you like to listen to when you are not rehearsing or performing?

You are not going to like the answer …

Why not?

I am actually listening to my rehearsals.

Fair enough. You just returned from the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where you performed as a duo with Marc Johnson. Tell me about the festival and seeing the great Bebo and Chucho Valdes perform together.

It was wonderful. Actually, I was a bit embarrassed, because they insisted that I sit on the stage. I was sitting eight feet away from Bebo.

How was the performance?

It was wonderful. After the concert, we all went back to the hotel. When we arrived at the hotel I was exhausted and ready to go up to my room but, Bebo wanted to drink champagne and hang out. [Interviewer’s note: Bebo Valdez was born on October 9, 1918.]

What’s next for Eliane Elias?

I am looking forward to performing at Dizzy’s from January 6 to the 11th [2009], and to the release of Bossa Nova Stories on January 13th. After that, I will be performing in Boston, Seattle, Korea, and Singapore.

Thanks so much for taking time to speak with me, and best of luck. It has been a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you Tomas, I hope you can make it down to Dizzy’s.

Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it!

Something for You – Eliane Elias Sings and Plays Bill Evans (Blue Note Records, 2008)
Dreamer (BMG Music, 2004)
Impulsive: Eliane Elias, Bob Brookmeyer & the Danish Jazz Radio Jazz Orchestra Play the Music of Eliane Elias (Stunt Records)

ELIANE ELIAS WEB SITE: elianeelias.com

February 18, 2009 · 1 comment


Jazz Drummer Louie Bellson Dead at Age 84

by Ted Gioia

Louie Bellson, who passed away on Valentine's Day at age 84, made his mark as a leading jazz drummer during a career that spanned eight decades. On January 28, Bellson had been released from a hospital, where he had been recovering from a broken hip, and was reportedly undergoing physical therapy as part of a rehabilitation regimen. Bellson had also suffered from Parkinson's disease for the last eight years of his life, and complications associated with this ailment were given as the cause of the drummer's death. Bellson died at his home in Los Angeles. A funeral is planned for Los Angeles, and Bellson will be buried in his home town Moline, Illinois.

Duke Ellington lauded him as "the world's greatest drummer” and jazz critic Leonard Feather singled him out as “one of the most phenomenal drummers in history.” In short, Louie Bellson was the quintessential swing percussionist, gifted with a remarkable technique, and a flair for the visceral and dramatic elements of jazz performance. Whether driving a big band, accompanying a singer, or pulling out all the stops with one of his extended drum solos—which might take center stage for up to fifteen minutes—Bellson was a consummate professional, an artist of the drumset, yet also a skilled entertainer who knew how to wow an audience.

Louie Bellson

Drummer Louie Bellson was born as Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni on July 6, 1924 in Rock Falls, Illinois. He started playing the drums at the age of three. While he was still in high school, Bellson won the Slingerland National Gene Krupa contest—rising to the top in a competition that drew more than 40,000 drummers. At age 15, he adopted an innovative double bass drum set-up, later emulated by many—from jazz stars such as Ray McKinley and Ed Shaughnessy to rock icons Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of the Who.

Bellson recorded and performed with a who's who of jazz and pop royalty, including Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Harry James, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Joe Williams and the drummer's late wife Pearl Bailey. He was a six-time Grammy nominee, and in 1994 was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 Zildjian honored Bellson as one of only four “Living Legends of Music”—alongside Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Max Roach.

But he also made his mark as a clinician and educator, an author of more than a dozen books, and a wide-ranging composer whose works include a Broadway musical (Portofino, which featured Bellson’s music with lyrics by Ney and Sheldon Harnick), symphonic works, sacred music, a jazz ballet (The Marriage Vows), and many big band charts. Bellson reportedly wrote more than 1,000 compositions over the course of his career. But his mystique was perhaps best celebrated in a very amusing composition about the drummer, "The Louie Bellson Song" (performed here by Jay Leonhart).

Bellson came to the attention of the wider public in 1941 when he joined the Benny Goodman band. Bellson was already appearing on screen while still a teenager, making his film debut in The Power Girl (1942) alongside Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. After a stint in the military, Bellson worked as drummer with many of the leading big bands of the era, including those led by Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. From 1951-1953, Bellson worked as drummer in Duke Ellington’s band. His performance on "Skin Deep" from this period stands out as one of the defining statements of big band drumming. Bellson was also a frequent presence on various Norman Granz projects, holding down the drum chair on many seminal recordings as well as at Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic performances.

Louie Bellson & Clark Terry

Bellson was the only white musician in Ellington's band during this time of pervasive segregation across virtually all spheres of American life (reportedly inspiring Duke to tell people the drummer was a Haitian in order to avoid problems on a Southern tour). But Bellson crossed an even more controversial racial divide when, in November 1952, he married singer-actress Pearl Bailey in London. The couple decided on an location outside of the United States, because they felt that their interracial wedding might meet with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. Their marriage lasted until Bailey’s death in 1990. Bellson remained active even in his 80s. His CD Louie and Clark Expedition 2, made with trumpeter Clark Terry, was released in 2008, although the disk focused more on Bellson's composing skills rather than his drum work. On his 80th birthday, when asked whether his advancing years might slow him down, Bellson quipped: "I'm not that old—I'm 40 in this leg, and 40 in the other leg."

Bellson is survived by Francine, his wife of 16 years and MIT-trained engineer, and two daughters, the singer Dee Dee Bellson and Debra Hughes, as well as two grandchildren and two brothers.

February 16, 2009 · 3 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Barbara Carroll

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

Our subject this month is pianist/vocalist Barbara Carroll.

by arnold jay smith

                           Barbara Carroll by Suzanne Cerny

Unlike Billy Tipton, the infamous musician who hid her gender because she couldn't get work as a woman, pianist Barbara Carroll (born Barbara Carole Goldsmith in 1925) knew she could play the piano, and was not ashamed or afraid of anything—least of all, about being a woman. Why even bring that up in this day and age where there are entire female bands and groups? "They told me that jazz was a male thing," she stated matter-of-factly. One of her bios states that after graduating from the New England Conservatory, she hired an all-girl trio for her initial gigs on a U.S.O. tour during World War II. We now set the record straight: "In the 1940s I worked with an all female trio called—now get this—'Eleanor Sherry and the Swing Hearts.' Sherry was the leader/singer, and I remember that the guitarist was Marian Gange [pronounced like the river in India w/o the final 's'], who had been with Ina Ray Hutton. There were various bass players. Unlike today, it was hard to find female bass players. We were unique."

Not unlike her other pioneering female colleagues, pianist/arranger Mary Lou Williams, vibist Marjorie Hyams, guitarist Mary Osborne, and her close friend Marian McPartland [see a previous OctoJAZZarians] Barbara soon ventured onto 52nd St. with a trio that included guitarist Chuck Wayne and bassist Clyde Lombardi. "It was never easy. The guys would simply dismiss me before I even played a note." It didn't help that she was a tall, willowy redhead with drop-dead good looks—and a brain to match. Need I reiterate that she could play? You could say that the bebop cats were threatened. Nah! That could never be, not on 52nd St., just because many were returning from armed forces duty looking for work. Nah! "When they did hire me it was a lure; [again] you were unique."

Barbara's first gig on The Street was at the Down Beat opposite the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band that included such stars-to-be as John Lewis, Ray Brown, James Moody, and others. "[Having just come from Massachusetts] I was overwhelmed to be on 52nd St. working opposite Dizzy, who was one of my idols."

The Tipton analogy might be a bad one, in that Tipton did it in the Mid- and Northwest, where women didn't do such things as play jazz. This was New York City; there were other avenues to travel. Society listeners caught-on, and during an extended gig at the Embers, a white tablecloth-ed boîte, she met and married bassist Joe Shulman, who became part of her trio.

Other chic gigs followed: the Hickory House; Bemelmann's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel for a quarter century; and, since 2003, Sundays at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. She's there with two added pieces of ammunition: some years ago she added vocals to her repertoire, and bassist/vocalist Jay Leonhart.

"The Carlyle started as a two-week gig; then two months; then two years. I didn't work all year 'round. Eight months a year, always taking off for the summer. Bobby Short was across the hall at the Café Carlyle. I loved it. Twenty-five years is a lovely run." Ms. Carroll seems to be given to understatement. Playing solo piano for a barroom crowd in NYC—no matter how chic—for that length of time is far more that "lovely;" it's a bloomin' Guinness Book miracle. After a while, she took off Monday nights and hired subs such as Mike Longo. Good taste seems to be her signature not only in the material she chooses, but in the people she hires.

And the people who hire her. Barbara did a Broadway show for no less than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. I made the mistake of calling "Me and Juliet" something less than one of their usual successes. After a moment of (I hope) faux umbrage, she explained. "It was a show within a show, or rather a show about a show, [based on that British, "West Side Story"-thing, Romeo and Juliet]. I took the part of the on-stage rehearsal pianist for the characters who appear in the show."

Carroll Back-story: "I was new to New York, working at the Embers, when a representative from the William Morris Agency came in and told me that Rodgers & Hammerstein were looking for a pianist to be on stage, and even say a few lines." She demurred, saying that she was a jazz pianist and very happy playing at the Embers. "He kept coming in and bugging me about auditioning for them, so I did, early in the morning. You know how jazz musicians are about doing anything early in the morning."

Carroll went with her trio to the Majestic Theatre, where on a bare stage in the glare of a rehearsal light, she managed to see three people in the audience: "Mr. Rodgers, Mr. Hammerstein, and George Abbott." She pronounced the names dramatically, slowly pausing for effect between each one. My own stomach felt her nervousness. "You know, I wasn't even nervous because I didn't even want the gig," she said with a twinkle. "I figured it would be wise to play a Richard Rodgers song, so we played 'The Lady Is A Tramp' sans the Lorenz Hart lyrics. Usually they stop you after 16 bars or so. But they let us play on for a chorus or more."

What's not to love? They knew a good thing when they heard it. The gig was theirs. The whole trio was hired: bassist Shulman and drummer Herbie Wasserman. The show ran for a year on Broadway, and left us a memorable song. "No Other Love" was originally used in Rodgers' symphonic poem for the epic television series about WWII, "Victory At Sea," with lyrics added by Hammerstein. Barbara played it in the show; it was later sung by Isabel Bigley ("Guys and Dolls") and Bill Hayes (The Arthur Godfrey TV Show), who had the hit single.

Remnants of her brief Broadway sojourn remain in her Algonquin shows. While she has always been a jazz player, she still favors the Great American Songbook, which she infuses with her first musical love. "Jazz is jazz. I play improvised music influenced by bebop. Everybody caters a little to their audiences. But that does not necessarily mean that I don't play what I want to play. What I play may just be what they want to hear."

At the Carroll performances personally witnessed, I find no pandering to what she might think her audiences want to hear. True, she stretches a bit more at jazz festivals and/or concerts; and, yes, there's more Tin Pan Alley at the hotel room dates. But in the end, it's all Carroll, and all personal. "At Bemelmann's bar I took requests. When you're a solo pianist that happens. And if you want to play it, you play it. Or not. I do not have set shows. Jay [Leonhart] and I share a wonderful rapport, an extraordinary musical marriage, if you will. I treasure it, because it's different all the time. I have total freedom, and he goes along with it. He has the talent, knowledge and the enthusiasm, so I never have anything written-out for him. What's more, he inspires me and maybe once in a while I might inspire him." [There is now an entire Leonhart musical clan: trumpeter son Michael, vocalist daughter Carolyn, and son-in-law reedman Wayne Escoffery.]

Because of the freedom Carroll offers, other bassists desire to (and have) played with her: Joe Benjamin, Aaron Bell, Rick Petrone, Frank Tate, Sean Smith, and sometimes Steve LaSpina. While there have been requests by sitters-in at the Algonquin, Barbara does not encourage them. She did go on tour with Kris Kristofferson. "My then-husband [Bert Block] managed Kris, so I went out with them. We didn't have much in common, but the middle ground was the blues so we played together a little.

"[Bert] managed and booked Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday." [Block was also a talented photographer, and many of his photographs adorn the Carroll apartment walls. The domineering grand piano is covered with family photos, mostly of the grandkids.] "But, as you know, the '60s were bad for jazz. The Beatles phenomenon happened; music went in that direction, and for anyone playing jazz it was a hard time." As if by divinely perfect timing came the birth of her daughter, Susan in 1962. "I took a break," she said.

Carroll is stoic, yet optimistic. "Jazz has always had a tough time," she said. "But it never dies-out completely. There's been a dumbing-down of culture in this country, music included. Generally, I listen to what I like, and that does not include hard rock, hip-hop and rap. I feel there's nothing for me to get from that area. That does not mean that there aren't talented people doing those things, but they just don't appeal to me. On the other hand, there are composers like [and Richard Rodgers' grandson] Adam Guettel ('Light In The Piazza')." Sometimes the sheer volume level of contemporary music upsets Carroll. "It's too loud for me; I just can't handle it. Why does it have to be at that volume?!" I opined that it's for the young and perhaps they can't hear anymore.

[Our meeting took place prior to the Obama election.] "At present the country is in a very bad mess. When people are hurting financially, they will not be going to Broadway shows. They will not be going to the Algonquin, or to jazz clubs [with high cover-charges]. When personal budgets get cut, it's the entertainment dollar which goes first." [My dentist says they are the first. Go figure.] "Let's hope the election will be favorable [so far so good] and we'll come out of this. The executive branch has got to surround itself with advisors who will help dictate the direction: the cabinet, the Supreme Court. I remember the Great Depression. While we weren't starving, I remember my mother going to work for the first time in her life. She worked on the W.P.A. [an F.D.R./New Deal job creation program] as a seamstress. It was not a pretty time."

It has been said that hard times benefit jazz. When I put that to Carroll she laughed, to these ears a bit nervously, and said that times haven't been that bad yet. "There is a theory that movies do benefit. But I feel that people do need help during bad times in the form of some kind of therapy, which music certainly is."

During the 1950s, a high time for jazz, Carroll was a highly visible presence. For instance, Dave Garroway, a Chicago TV host who began the Today show, loved jazz. Barbara was on camera a great deal. "On one occasion they had Billie Holiday booked as well as me. Billie's accompanist was indisposed, so they asked me if I would fill in. I was young and thrilled to play 'God Bless The Child' with her, as well as three others: 'Lover Come Back To Me,' "You've Changed,' and 'Easy To Remember.'" Barbara remembered them as though it were yesterday. Imagine that happening today, when every guest is promoting their latest recording, loudly? She saved the audio which was sneaked to her. "It was unusual in that I rarely played with others. I usually had my own groups. I'm not a jam session player. I do remember a place called Georgie Auld's Tin Pan Alley on West 49th St. in NYC. [Auld was a swing band saxist who taught DeNiro to play in New York New York and Poitier in Paris Blues.] We all sat-in there, including Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett, and Georgie, of course."

A quarter-century in one room, then five years in another, is some kind of record in The Apple. Barbara sums it all up by saying, "Playing the piano has never lost its appeal for me. I love singing, which I recently do more and more. I always knew all the lyrics, but I was afraid to open my mouth, as I don't have strong pipes and I lacked the confidence. When you're doing solo piano someone will always come up to you and say, 'I love that song. Do you know the words?' So little by little I began to sing and gained more confidence. The point is that I don't worry about it anymore; I'm no longer neurotic about not being able to sustain notes. Now I try to impart the story of the lyrics. It's all about getting the people to understand what you're singing." I reminded her that Nat "King" Cole would have remained among the most influential of jazz pianists if he hadn't begun singing, which made him rich and famous as well.

Along the way Carroll met some of the Golden Age composers. Among them was Harold Arlen. "Talk about your singing piano players! [I knew him when he was] Hyman Arluck from Rochester, NY—a son of a Cantor who wanted him to become one like himself. Harold found his way to Harlem; the combination of Jewish Cantorial music, jazz, and the blues gave his compositions that special poignancy. You can see his influence on people like Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Ethel Waters."

Then there were Barbara's affiliations with Johnny Mercer and Cy Coleman. "Mercer [who did not play] could get into his cups, and some nastiness and racism ensued, but he wrote and sang his own songs like no one else save Cy. Cy and I were close. He was a remarkable jazz pianist who had a trio which played some of the same rooms I did, at different times." Coleman, who wrote and played the theme for the Playboy Penthouse television show, became its house pianist for guests. He was good enough to have affiliated himself with great lyricists, Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh among them. He wrote hit tunes as well as Broadway shows, winning Grammy and Tony awards along that way. "Cy was always upbeat and had that great sense of humor. He was a very positive force in our business." I personally found him to be conversant on any topic you chose.

Although Carroll is always singing and playing jazz, she has become a darling of the "too precious" cabaret crowd. "I think the word 'cabaret' has become an umbrella term for people who sing and/or play [in certain venues]." Still, there are those, such as Bobby Short, Mike Renzi, and Barbara Carroll, who crossed over. "I hate those categories," she concluded. Duke made it easy for everyone. He called it "Beyond Category." Barbara Carroll fits the genre.

Regrets: "I would have liked to have had a better education. I would like to have gone to a liberal arts college. And the fact that I'm not a ballerina … Next life."

"By the way, I have no qualms about people knowing how old I am. I love what I'm doing and pleased to be still doing it."


Mike Longo: "When I was a young man starting out as a jazz pianist, I came across a recording of a jazz pianist by the name of Barbara Carroll. I was immediately impressed by her and listened to her records frequently. Back in the 1980s I received a call from an agent by the name of Max Cavelli. He asked me if I would be interested in subbing for Barbara Carroll at the Bemelmann's Bar in the Carlisle Hotel on Monday nights. Barbara apparently wanted to take Mondays off. I took the gig and played there for 11 years. Barbara would send me a check weekly, and I got a chance to talk with her several times over the years. She is a real sweetheart, and I was grateful to her for turning me on to that gig. She remains to this day a formidable jazz great."

Jay Leonhart: "Ah, I remember it well. Sort of …

"The first time I remember working with Barbara Carroll was in 1974, the year my son was born. In fact, I was performing with Barbara at The Cookery on University Place (now the site of yet another much-needed pharmacy) on the very night my son [trumpeter/pianist Michael] was born. I informed Barbara that I needed to get to the hospital to be with my wife. She sent me flying to New York University Hospital.

"That same son will soon be thirty-five, and Barbara and I now revel in our grandchildren. We have become the very best of friends over the years.

"It's so easy for me to sing the praises of this remarkable woman. We all celebrated her 80th birthday a few years back, and we watch as she continues to relentlessly grow as a pianist and an artist. I perform with her almost every Sunday afternoon at The Algonquin, and she's always coming up with surprises and new songs to play. Her improvisations on these songs are stunning. And she continues to swing her [tail] off—probably more than ever. She has an almost encyclopedic memory for the words and music of every song she's ever heard. I once sat down with Barbara and paged through a fake book and mentioned songs. She seemed to know the music and lyrics to every song in the book and to have a personal story about every great composer in there, except for Stephen Foster (she claims her nanny's grandmother was the Stephen Foster expert).

"I watch how Barbara deals with audiences, and the distractions and interruptions that invariably occur, even in these high class saloons (to quote her pal, Bobby Short). I can brag that I have worked with many of the greatest performers of the last fifty years, but I swear that nobody handles an audience like Barbara—so effortlessly and graciously. She could have performed on the Titanic and pulled it off. 'I'll do the last couple songs in lifeboat three. We'll wait for you.' She would have made it work. Unflappable!

"Barbara Carroll is my pal. She is a lovely and generous woman. She is also a national treasure and one of our finest interpreters of the great American song, and I get to see and hear her almost every week.

"As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, "Getting to know you, getting to know what to play!"

Barbara Carroll on Jay Leonhart: [The following was written by Barbara and read by Jack Kleinsinger at his Highlights In Jazz salute to Jay in December. She had re-injured her foot and could not be there. Herewith is a slightly edited version of her letter.]

"It was 1974 and Jay and I opened at the Cookery on University Place [the Greenwich Village club was booked by Barney Josephson of Café Society fame]. After the first set, Jay came to me and said, 'I'm so sorry but I have to leave; Donna [Jay's wife] is in the hospital giving birth.' It was an auspicious opening night, but that was the start of my musical relationship with Jay.

"We have performed together so many times through the years. For me, it's always been the greatest joy to play music with Jay. As a bassist he provides that wonderful velvet cushion for a soloist. His bass solos are always creative and surprising and swinging, as is anything he does.

"His songwriting is unique and so is his singing. And, oh yes, he is a bon vivant unparalleled. I use Stephen Sondheim's words to say, 'Here's to Jay. Who's like Jay? Damn few!'"

February 15, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Stefano Bollani (Part Two)

By Ted Panken

This past January, jazz.com's Ted Panken attended the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival in Orvieto. Besides hearing a lot of great music, he was able to interview the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani at length. This is the second part of Ted's two-part article. Part one can be read here. C.K.

                         Stefano Bollani by Jos. L. Knaepen

You seem to have a very young audience.

I do in Italy, which is very good, of course. I do like that. Actually, I lost some jazz fans, jazz maniacs—the Hard Bop Taliban! But I’m not missing them too much. I don’t understand why. As I told you, I am not feeling I am an avant-gardist, but most of all, I don’t feel I’m strange. I understand I’m a bizarre guy, because people are always talking about me as a bizarre guy. But I feel perfectly in a line which is part of a jazz thing—I mean, Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller; or in Europe, Django Bates and Misha Mengelberg. But every time I read something about me, it’s always, like, 'Oof, Bollani could be a very good piano player, but he is doing weird things.'

As though you’re not quite serious.

Yeah, exactly. I am not serious enough.

It’s interesting, because face to face, you’re ...

More serious.

It seems that when you make jokes, it’s very serious fun.


It seems more like performance art than comedy.

Actually, I don’t know. Especially in cases like the duo with Antonello [Salis, the accordionist-pianist], everything is totally improvised, so the jokes are improvised, too. I don’t know where they are coming from.

You couldn’t be more serious. But there’s a certain comic personality that you project on the stage.

No, no, no, actually not. Maybe I’m serious with you because I’m speaking in English, or because I’m tired or whatever, and because I am doing an interview, and of course we are talking about Postmodern or whatever. But I would say that out on the stage, I am exactly the same guy. It’s not something that I thought about. In the period I was playing, at the beginning with Enrico Rava, I was not doing that—but that was not natural, that was on purpose. Then the Victor Borge or Chico Marx thing or whatever, it came out ... When I was 8 years old, I was doing imitations of famous actors to my friends at school. I was always like that. Of course, I have my serious moments.

How does it translate outside of Italy? Do people respond the same way?

Absolutely, yes. Of course, the audience is not so big. Jazz critics appreciate more the humor thing, usually. Not the French ones. All the other ones.

The French ones are very serious.

Exactly. More serious than the Italian ones. My problem sometimes is that I am reading an article about a concert of two hours, and in that concert I talked for six minutes, and the article is about those six minutes.

Can you talk a bit about how you met Rava? If you have a musical mentor it would seem to be him, and his attitude to music seems to have rubbed off on you.

Yes. I met him in 1996. He was a guest of my trio. My drummer knew him, so he called him for a concert in the theater close to Firenze, and we played together. You have to know that one of my first concerts in the old days, when I was a kid, was [either] Enrico Rava, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and probably Woody Shaw at the same time. I don’t remember who was the first one among these four in Firenze. So to me, Enrico Rava was together with them. It was the same. It was not an Italian trying to play as the American one.

So when he came on stage, I was really happy to play with him, and we immediately found out that we could play together, because I was comping for him, and I knew his music a little bit. It was a mental link, because I understood what he was expecting from the piano player. In fact, still, after ten years, I don’t think that we rehearsed so much to make these twelve records, or a lot of concerts, or any of the different projects. We just play. We don’t really need to talk about the music, even after the concerts. It’s something I cannot explain which comes probably from the fact that we like a lot of things in common, like Chet, or Joao Gilberto—a way of playing the melody which I think is common for me and Enrico. We talk about books all the time. We are good readers, but we don’t talk about music.

He went to New York at a certain time in his life. You didn’t. Were you ever tempted to do that pilgrimage?

I never thought about it.

You were working the whole time, I guess.

Yes. I’ve been always working, a lot, not only with jazz. I’ve always been quite happy about my work and about what I was doing at the time. I never dreamed of something else. Still, I am not dreaming, 'Oh, I would like to be Chick Corea,' or whatever. I really like what I’m doing at the moment. So I never thought about going to New York. Of course, a lot of my friends were doing that, so I thought about it for a moment, but then I said to myself that I don’t really like big cities, to live there. If I am going for four days, I’m hanging around, I like the atmosphere, I’m going to concerts, I’m going to buy records, whatever—but then I’m going home. I’m not really mad for big cities. It’s not only New York. Even London or Milano. I was born in Milano, but I don’t really like it.

When you met Rava, there’s a story that he told you, 'You don’t have to play pop music if you don’t like it; you’re young, you don’t have responsibilities, you can do this.' Just so I’m straight: You were playing keyboards in pop bands, particularly Jovanotti [a popular Italian singer-songwriter and rapper], which probably was a pretty regular, good-paying gig, and you were also playing jazz simultaneously.

I was playing in clubs. Nothing special.

But it wasn’t that you were only playing pop music and you were just pining to play jazz?

I was. You are talking about period which lasted two years, 1993 to 1995, when I was playing with Jovanatti, Fiolara Polzini, Irene Grandi. At the same moment I was playing jazz with my trio, but of course I wasn’t playing it so much, and I was going around Florence or Rome—that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal. I always knew I wanted to play jazz piano, not pop keyboards, so when he told me, it took five seconds to decide—because it was Enrico Rava telling me. He didn’t bring to the table a lot of gigs. He just said, 'Actually it’s February. If you say no to that tour with Jovanotti,' which was a kind of European tour, one year and something, 'I can tell you that we are going to play together this summer, but I cannot tell you when, how, and where. But I know that if you are available, I can find a lot of gigs.' Then we started playing. It wasn’t a lot of gigs at the beginning, maybe just seven concerts in one summer. But that was enough.

And you found enough other work to ...

Yes, immediately. I have to tell you that immediately I had no money problem. Because I wasn’t earning so much money from the pop. People think they are going to pay you a lot, but it wasn’t that much.

But did playing pop music have any impact on your tonal personality now? You obviously know your way around a stage and how to entertain an audience.

Nobody knows this, but in 1993 I had a band where I was also the singer, and we were comedians actually. We were having the kind of show where I was imitating all the singers, the Italian ones, Paolo Conte, whatever ...

I saw a YouTube video where you do that.

Yes. Sometimes I do that as an encore. The people in Italy know that. At the time we were just hanging around, doing a cabaret thing. So I grew up also with the idea of entertaining.

But talking about the pop thing, I don’t know about the music, but I have to say that it helped me understand that you need to be professional. Even if the songs are so simple, so weird, you just have to play one note, but that’s what the singer is expecting you to do. The first time I came to the first rehearsal with a pop singer, I was playing so much—I was playing chords. I thought, 'Wow, why doesn’t he like that?' But that music doesn’t need that. They are in need of something else. It helped me to understand that each music and each moment, each night, each band has different needs.

You mentioned that you and Rava talk about books. What sort of reading do you do? Does your reading and your writing filter into your performance attitude?

I’m reading a lot of novels.

All Italian?

No, no, a lot of novels from everywhere. Recently, I started reading a lot of American ones. I’m in love with a book by Donald Antrin, Vote Robinson for a Better World. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon. All the let’s call them young ones, who are in their forties. I’m reading actually Samuel Lipsyte, who wrote a book about himself writing letters to his old friends at college. It’s a very hard thing. Anyway, I love a lot of different writers. But usually, what is inspiring for me are those writers who are building their own world, pretending they’re building a world. People like Calvino or all the South American ones—Cortazar, Borges, Vargas-Llosa—where you pretend you’re living in a perfect world, or maybe in a real world, and then something always happens which reminds you it’s a novel. I really like to know that I’m reading a novel. I’m not interested in real life, because I can go and get it. But I like it, because after three pages, for example, there's a boat coming into the lobby of your hotel. You read that and you say, 'Wow, I was reading something which seemed real, and there is a boat at the lobby of the hotel.' When you read Calvino, or Cortazar, or Lethem, you think it’s real world, and then there is an alien. Jonathan Carroll is the same, a guy who wrote a lot of strange books with science fiction inside ... A lot of styles actually. I like them because they are changing style. Remember that book by Calvino? He was always changing his style. If On a Winter's Night, a Traveler.

Anyway, I love those people, and I love contemporary music which does the same, which is playing with the expectations of the audience. Prokofiev built Peter and the Wolf on this idea. You just take C-major and you do [sings opening 12 bars]. This is a perfect world. It’s a guy. Then there’s a note, [sings second refrain] which is really dissonant, which reminds you that we are joking. We are in the 20th century. This is not the time for C-major, because there is the wolf outside. I love this idea.

There’s also a structural quality. You can read Cortazar’s Hopscotch in two or three different sequences. That seems like a nice analogy for your performances.

That’s what I like, exactly. Like Queneau, or all these writers who are building structures, building cages, in a way. But what I like in these writers is that they are able to be poetic, even if they are so structured. So if you read it when you are 15 years old, you just think they are inventing things. Then you read it later and you understand that there is a very big structure. That’s what I would love people to say about my records. 'Oh, it’s so poetic, he’s improvising all the time, his melodies, etc.,' and then, 'Just a minute; that’s the same melody I heard ten minutes ago; that’s the same chord structure. He’s working on that. He’s not simply chasing birds.'

Is that what you’re referring to when you talk about jazz as an idea, rather than jazz as a style?

Yes, I think so.

How far away can you get from jazz, the style, and still be playing jazz?

I don’t know. The main thing for me is improvisation. Jazz is improvisation, first of all, and a certain kind of swing—but nobody can explain that, so I won’t try. I don’t know. But you can get really far away, I think.

Is there anything about your aesthetic that’s influenced by Surrealism?

Absolutely yes. Once again at 15, I discovered Surrealism, and I read all that Breton wrote, Queneau, Eluard, Dali, Tristan Tzara. That’s what I wanted to be at the time. After being the Taliban of Hard Bop, I said to myself, 'I would love to be on 52nd Street in the ‘50s or in Paris at the beginning of the century.' Because you had Poulenc and Satie at the table with Andre Breton and Max Ernst ... That was a dream for me. I love that. I really love the idea, the process of writing ... Also, the way they went at it. The fighting, these kinds of things. I like the intellectual idea of fighting for an idea.

I suppose there’s a connection between the notion of automatic writing and improvising.

Absolutely. I like that idea. Also, there is a big link I think between my idea of music and Breton’s idea of Beauty. He said to L’Autremont, the French writer, that 'Beauty is the casual encounter on the table of the typewriter and an umbrella.' Which meant, you just take two different things, put them together, and see what happens, and that’s beauty. Surrealism was like that. I take your hat and I put your hat on a duck, and I see what happens. Maybe I like that, and I’m going to paint that. That’s what I like in music. You take Beach Boys, and you put a chord which is coming from a Prokofiev sonata, but then there is a melody by Beach Boys. That’s what I like. That’s what jazz is about, because you take 'Yesterday' by the Beatles and you put weird chords. That’s what Frank Zappa is about, even if he’s doing that with his own compositions. He’s taking melodies, but after the melody there is something so weird. There’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much, but I love that idea.

To refer to the Taliban of Hard Bop is a clever phrase—but hard bop is a style that emerged from a deep cultural and functional root. Maybe you could compare it to opera in Italy. There are rituals, patterns, structures, a function, an audience. It evolves into an art music, and takes its course. It’s an interesting parallel.

Yes. Still, it makes me laugh when I see people pretending to be in that period. People in the audience talking that way, dressing that way. Still it makes me laugh. I understand that’s a culture, but it’s not your culture. You are living in Breccia, close to Milano, and you go to a club and say, 'Oh, man! Wassup! Hey. Go-go-go!' Maybe I did it, too. It’s the same when I play a phrase which reminds me of McCoy Tyner, as I said before. In my mind, I immediately start laughing because it’s not my cup of tea. It’s this kind of bluesy thing, and I immediately have to do something so different because it’s a kind of comment. It means that I’m saying 'I know that I did a McCoy Tyner thing. It happened because I listened to him. So please, forgive me. Now I’m doing another thing.' In a way, it’s a process I have in mind. Sometimes I laugh at myself playing, because I do something and it’s like, 'This is so weird, it’s coming from the ‘40s. Please, be serious.'

You wouldn’t think that if you played a phrase from Webern’s piano …

Also, also, also. The more the style is in my background, and the more I think about that ... Webern is not so much in my background. But it can be Poulenc or Ravel. In a way, I think that the surrealistic idea is playing with the audience, with the history of music. If I’m playing a ragtime phrase, it’s nice. But it’s even better if you heard about ragtime and know that I’m quoting a style. If you don’t know that, I hope you can appreciate the music just the same. But if you know that, if you know that this quotation is coming from Poulenc, or if you know that I am building a world in 'Antonia' which reminds you of Nino Rota, but as soon as I can I play a chord which is totally dissonant, so we are playing with Nino Rota but it’s not Nino Rota, I think you enjoy better my kind of concert. Because you understand that we are playing with the history. That’s postmodernism. You just play with styles. On some records (not the solo one), I took a precise style and I built the entire song on that style, but just with a strange note inside. Things like that. I remember Bernstein composing 'The Wrong Note Rag' for a musical. I think it was On The Town. It was a kind of ragtime, and the B-section was [sings it], and this note was dissonant. The two singers were singing a half-tone ... What was that? It was playing with the things you are expecting. I mean, the audience is expecting the ragtime, but this is the 'Wrong Note Rag' and it was wonderful. I love this kind of thing. Playing with what you are expecting.

Does your familiarity with so many musical languages in any way inhibit your creative process, or is it a magic carpet that lets you go in different directions? For example, on 'Do You Know What It Means' on the solo record, you sound like a reasonable facsimile of Earl Hines.

Oh, thank you. The idea, you mean.

The word 'idiomatic' would cover it.

Idiomatic, exactly. I am using the word. I am using the grammar. I think it’s really happening. I really think about that while I am composing, while I am playing. Sometimes I just compose a nice melody and let it flow and try to build a song. It’s not a game. But some of my compositions, you can tell it’s a game, or a style thing. For example, 'Promenade' is built on the idea of having two different tonalities for the ends, like Poulenc, and that’s it. But it’s extremely precise. That helps me in the creative process, but it’s also a cage. Sometimes in my solo concerts I’ve played a song by Morricone in two different keys. That’s a weird idea, but it helps me.

So sometimes you’re postmodern and sometimes you’re modern.

Yes. Sometimes simply I want to sing. As I told you, some of my heroes are Chet [Baker]and Joao Gilberto, which means the simple melody. I can listen to Joao for hours. I cannot do it with Luciano Berio maybe, but I can do it with Joao. I can go to a desert island with Joao’s Live In Tokyo. I love it. It’s fresh, even if it’s the same melody. I couldn’t do that, because after a while I’d get bored for myself. But I don’t get bored as a listener. I like the idea of a kind of mantra going on. 'Girl From Ipanema,' six minutes, always the same chords, the same idea. That’s unbelievable for me. Because it’s an idea of perfection—the idea of building something perfect, the perfect melody, the pure melody—that I have as a listener, but I don’t have while I’m playing.

Is practice important to you?

I’ve never been a good pupil, a good student. I never practiced so much. Maybe some days before examination. But otherwise, I never practiced so much—and I would love to! But my own way. I am not talking about practicing as a conservatory student.

You have to remember that I absolutely don’t remember myself without the piano. I started when I was 5 or 6, and of course you never remember the first period of your life. So I really don’t remember Stefano Bollani not playing the piano. I guess it’s peculiar, because a lot of musicians did other jobs, or had other interests, or imagined themselves doing other things. At least they imagined themselves. They dreamed themselves. I started thinking about myself as a performer, as a musician, as a singer, and I never changed my mind. So I cannot do anything else. Not because I am not able, but because I am not able to imagine myself doing something else.

Stefano Bollani was interviewed in Orvieto by Ted Panken on January 4, 2009.

February 09, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Roberta Gambarini

By Eugene Marlow

                      Roberta Gambarini by Ben Huggler

The history of jazz is replete with great male and female jazz singers. And why shouldn't it be? After all, it's been around longer than any other musical instrument. The voice began its long development around two million years ago, making it one of humankind's first vehicles for creative expression. That so many would master its use was an evolutionary inevitability. That such mastery would be adapted to jazz was only slightly less inevitable.

Singing is fundamental to religious worship, folksong, and more complex musical expressions, such as Broadway musicals and opera. Clearly, the human voice can draw-in a listener in ways a musical instrument cannot. It’s a different experience. It’s also not as easy as it looks.

Singing in the shower is one thing; holding an audience rapt for several sets in a major venue is quite another. Doing it with effortless ease and spontaneity is the mark of an artist who's mastered the craft. Roberta Gambarini is one such contemporary jazz singer.

Why don’t we start out by talking about your new album? It's due to be released in late-February/early-March, 2009. What’s it called?

So In Love.

Is there an overall theme to the CD?

Not really. I don’t like the concept album. I never liked it in general. What I usually do, I pick songs in a somewhat subconscious way, if you want. I pick songs that really strike me, or that I relate to very deeply, and then I write the arrangement and I do it. Oftentimes, at the end of the whole thing, when I see all the songs, then I find out, 'Oh, yeah, you know, there’s a theme in here somewhere.' But it’s never the other way around. Having looked back now at the list of songs I came up with, maybe if there would be a theme, it’s definitely a sentimental, romantic album. It’s about several aspects of love in a broad way too. I know it involves love of life, and it’s about love, definitely. Hence, the title, So In Love.

A subject that most people are very interested in.

Yeah, but the 'so' is very important. It’s not just in love, it’s about so in love. I think everything is brought to the extreme, so it’s an exploration to the farther, extreme regions of love.

What are some other tunes on the album?

We have a mix of the great American songbook, jazz tunes, and some [other kinds of] songs … for example, a Beatles medley. One is 'Golden Slumbers,' and the other is 'Here, There and Everywhere.' I arranged them so that it comes in a little suite. And we have a series of songs by Cole Porter that I can’t live without: for example, 'So In Love,' the title track, and we have 'Get Out of Town.' We have some Johnny Mercer lyrics—he’s my favorite lyricist—and 'That Old Black Magic.' We also have a Michel Legrand tune, 'You Must Believe in Spring.' We have more great American songbook tunes with 'I See Your Face Before Me,' which is a song associated with Sinatra that I’m very fond of. And at the very end, we have a medley from the soundtrack to the movie Cinema Paradiso, music composed by Ennio Morricone—the title track and 'Song for Elena,' which is this beautiful theme that you hear throughout.

                        Roberta Gambarini by Ben Huggler

Who’s on the album with you?

A lot of people. I decided to have all the people I have a history with, by being on the road and playing together. A history also of the personal friendships—and there are many of them, because I’ve played with a lot of people. Most of them are featured in different combinations. For example, we have both pianist Eric Gunnison out of Denver and Tamir Hendelman, a wonderful, wonderful piano player from the West Coast who plays with the Jeff Hamilton Trio and the Clayton-Hamilton big band. He’s very, very good—very, very great. He was on my first album, Easy to Love. And I have as a special guest a young piano player I really, really like: Gerald Clayton, who’s John Clayton’s kid. He’s 24 years old.

He’s from the west coast?

Yeah, but he lives in New York now. And on the bass, I have some tracks with Neil Swainson. Some tracks with Chuck Berghofer, another LA, great musician who worked a lot with Frank Sinatra. And we have also two tunes with the great George Mraz. And the drummers, wow, you’re going to love the drummers. We got the great Jake Hanna. We have Jeff Hamilton as a guest on one track. We have young Montez Coleman, who's originally from St. Louis, now a part of the New York/Brooklyn scene—a wonderful drummer. And then we have some special guest horn players: the great James Moody and Roy Hargrove, all combined differently.

Why did you decide to do it that way?

One thing is that I was on the road a lot, and I wanted to do it in LA with the great Al Schmidt, who's a dream engineer. But he's very, very busy. He works with Diana Krall and Placido Domingo. And every time I would be in LA I would go and record a few tunes—maybe an hour-and-a-half with Hargrove—and when I would come back I would do the others. But I don't mind, because it's like a kaleidoscope, and it's the way life works. You don't always have the ideal conditions. A lot of things go down not the way you planned them. And so I went along with that to see what we could do with it. I'm happy at the end.

What label is the album on? The label is Groovin' High, distributed by Emarcy/Universal. That’s our label: myself and Larry Clothier, my agent.

In the recording sessions, were there any surprises, things that happened that you didn't expect?

Yeah, there are always things that happen that you didn't expect. Like, for example, you pick one tune just on the whim of the moment and you find out if it works, which happened when we decided to do 'Over the Rainbow.' Just one take, one chorus—me and Tamir Hendelman. We were very happy with the way it sounded. A lot of things happen, but on this recording, fortunately, [they] were all good things related to the music. The human aspect went so easy, because all these people are very, very good musicians. And Al Schmidt is so easy to work with. All you have to do is play exactly as you were doing it live. So all the surprises came from the music, and they're generally positive.

When you're either choosing a song to sing, or when you're actually performing live, do you have somebody else's voice in your head? To put it another way, what concept do you have in either choosing a piece to sing or actually singing a song? Or is it a combination of all sorts of people you've listened to?

The way I choose songs is more of a non-conscious procedure. I might choose a song because I hear a great version, not necessarily by a singer. Most commonly for me is, I choose a song because of the story the song tells, which is told mostly in the lyrics and the melody. It has to mean something to me. Some people send me new songs, but I generally prefer to know about a song rather than listening to an MP3 of the songs performed. I prefer looking at the lead sheet and playing it myself, so I can see where it comes from.

                        Roberta Gambarini by Ben Huggler

Occasionally I might have some great versions in mind of [a song] that I maybe haven't thought about for a long time, and then I decide to do the song. But it can be from several sources. Anything that hits my imagination, my almost visual imagination. For example, the song 'Easy to Love;' I knew it from a long time ago, and of course you have all the voices in your head, instrumental and vocal. But what really made me think about doing it again, was when I was alone in a cheap hotel on a small tour in Glendale, California. They were renting DVDs in the hotel. And there was this DVD of a Mel Brooks movie called Life Stinks. It's about a millionaire who, by turns of chance, loses all his belongings and becomes homeless. There's a scene where the main character and his love interest—who's a homeless woman—end up in a big, big hangar, where there are all kinds of old clothes, like a Salvation Army depot. And they start dancing among those clothes, and the music is 'Easy to Love.' There's this crazy scene with old clothes flying and two people dancing. So I had this visual stimulus about this image of vitality.

It's not always the same thing. It's not codified. Sometimes you're attracted to something and you don't even know why. It goes much deeper. But you find out later why.

Do you ever look much deeper to try to find out why you chose a particular song, or does it matter?

No, because that's an intellectual process and I try to not use my intellect too much. I try to deal with another sector of myself, which are things that are not emerged in the conscious. What often happens is, I find out later why I made a particular decision. For example, there's a song I sing that I really feel involved with in a visceral way, and then maybe years after, in a circumstance where I'm alone at the piano playing through it and singing it, I say to myself, 'Oh, oh yeah.' I don't want things to be too present to my rational part.

I have the impression watching you perform that a good part of your set is spontaneous in terms of choosing the songs. Is that correct?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. With those musicians, they are so incredible. They know everything. You can do anything. For example, at one performance I forgot to put in a Porgy and Bess suite in the stack of music for the piano player. I don't know why. Maybe I was a little bit out of it because of a cold. I just forgot, so we did something else. When you have those types of musicians, you can do anything.

You seem to create a very relaxed atmosphere on the stage and you are very open to the audience. I've seen you in a couple of different circumstances now. The first time I heard you perform live was at the Blue Note with the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Slide Hampton conducting.

Yeah, we played there, both with the big band and the small group.

I have the impression you are a lot more comfortable with the small ensemble. It is a lot more flexible for you, as opposed to fronting a big band. Am I correct?

Well, no, it's different, 'cause with a big band, you have arrangements, so you're working in a fixed setting. You can't just go off and do something completely different. You have to stay within those arrangements, but I like them a lot because trombonist Slide Hampton and saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who are the head arrangers for the big band, they always write charts that leave a lot of space. There’s always some space for improvisation and for things to happen. But of course, you're in the setting of a big band. You have 16 people having to play, you know, a chart behind you, so you can’t change everything on the spot. It's a different animal.

How did you arrive at being so open and flexible and visceral in terms of your performance? Where does that come from? There are lots of instrumentalists in particular that have a very strict way of approaching the music, a very disciplined way of approaching the music. Everything is worked-out, bar-for-bar. There are a couple of singing groups I can think of that are like that. They're very good, and their performances are excellent, but you seem to take a very relaxed attitude to your performance. Did you start out that way? Have you always been that way, or how did it evolve?

I don't know. I thought that was jazz. That's my ideal jazz from what I saw. I saw Anita O’Day and I saw Ella Fitzgerald, and it seemed to me, since I was little, that that's what the beauty of jazz is. The difference from jazz and other music is exactly that—you can be open. You don't make things happen, you're just open because things happen. It's like a metaphor for life. Nothing in life necessarily goes the way you projected. You program it ahead, no? If you're open, then you deal with things one at a time. Some are good, some are bad, and you try to make some good out of the bad too, which, in music, would be the mistakes.

For example, [you can't] start trying to eliminate all possibilities for mistakes, [or] you don't have any life, anymore. That's a little bit of how I grew up with both singers and instrumentalists. That's the way they functioned, from what I observed. So that's how I modeled myself out of that philosophy of life and music. And yeah, it was very difficult, but I went through the whole process. And then later on, when I came to the United States and I had the immense honor of being befriended and mentored and to play with all these greats, I realized that's the way they function, too. And that's probably the way things function when you're a jazz player. It's not worked out. It cannot be all worked out.

I have to say one thing: It takes a lot of discipline to become free. That's the thing. It takes years and years of sometimes very tedious or hard, frustrating studies to get to the point where you can really do what you feel on stage. That's kind of the whole purpose of it.

This is like The Zen of Singing.

Yeah, yeah, it's true.

Like The Zen of Archery you have to forget about pulling the bow; you just have to let it happen.

Exactly. Absolutely. It takes a lot of discipline for that, but that all goes towards being free on stage, which doesn't mean doing anything that comes to your mind. It means something very different. It means you have gone beyond that phase where you need to program everything, and you can be open to what happens.

I think we’ll end on that philosophical note. Thank you Roberta Gambarini.

February 03, 2009 · 5 comments