Hot Young Altoists: Ten Future Stars to Watch

By Ted Gioia

Earlier this month, I promised to serve up a list of hot young alto players. The spur to do so came in the context of my article on altoist Grace Kelly—a teenager who has benefited from an aggressive (and, in my opinion, somewhat heavy-handed) publicity campaign. I mentioned that there were other young alto players on the scene who might be at a more advanced level and more compelling soloists. Ms. Kelly will no doubt mature into a fine professional performer, but what about the players who have already arrived?

Sax with Green Curtain by John C. Smith

                     Sax With Green Curtain
                (Artwork by by John C. Smith)

Lists of this sort are popular with readers, but devilishly hard to make—especially if one wants to keep them relatively short. There is so much good music in the jazz world these days, and lots of it is often easy to miss, given the glut of self-produced CDs on the market. So I won’t promise that the ten musicians below are head and shoulders above the rest of their contemporaries—one could come up with ten or one hundred more names. But I do feel that jazz fans won’t go wrong taking the time to track down the work of any of these deserving artists.

Each of the saxophonists on the list below is under the age of forty. This cutoff point eliminated many outstanding candidates, but allowed me to focus on the rising stars of the music. A few of the musicians here are already becoming well known, but even dedicated jazz fans will probably encounter some new names on the list. They are presented below by age, starting with the youngest.

Happy listening!

Francesco Cafiso (born 1989) celebrated his 20th birthday earlier this week. But he is already a seasoned veteran, who began playing at age nine, and earned the praise of Wynton Marsalis when he was just thirteen. Sometimes the media is too accommodating in accepting the hype about “child prodigies,” but Cafiso is the real deal, an exciting, assertive soloist who has the potential to go far.

 Francesco Cafiso

Featured track: “Louisiana”
From the CD Happy Time

Joris Roelofs (born 1984) is one of my favorite young altoists. His CD Introducting Joris Roelofs, released last year, was an impressive debut. I especially like this artist’s ability to create solos that are simultaneously emotionally deep and intellectually solid—traits that do not always come hand-in-hand. Born in Aix-en-Provence (France), Roelofs has been a member of the Vienna Art Orchestra and Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, but currently is living in Brooklyn. (Here is a MySpace link for a little taste.)

Joris Roelofs

Featured track: “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
From the CD Introducting Joris Roelofs

Loren Stillman (born 1980) exemplifies what I have called elsewhere the “new way of phrasing” in jazz. Each note is played with digital clarity, and no analog ambiguity. His improvised lines are sharply etched and the phrases have an atomistic quality, in which the individual tones stand out like free-floating melodic molecules. I’m not sure this way of playing will ever attract a wide audience, but musicians will find ample sustenance here. Stillman has been described as “Lee Konitz on steroids”—a clever quip and not without some merit.

Loren Stillman

Featured track: “Happy”
From the CD How Sweet It Is

Jaleel Shaw (born 1978) is one of the more impressive members of the Berklee contingent popping up everywhere one looks on the current jazz scene. He has made his mark as a sideman with Roy Haynes and the Mingus Big Band, but his name is still not as widely known as it should be. Shaw is first class soloist with an emphatic style in the tradition of Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean.

Jaleel Shaw

Featured track: “Grand Central”
From the CD Perspective

Sharel Cassity (born 1978) definitely resides in the retro camp, showing her clear allegiance to the bop idiom with every ii-V change she makes. She comes out of Juilliard, but you will be forgiven if, upon hearing her, you think you are having a flashback to the days of 52nd Street. There is nothing laid back about Cassity’s playing, which throws caution to the wind; but even in the heat of barn-burning solo, she still has a sweet, full tone. No, this is not The Shape of Jazz to Come, but if you don’t get a kick hearing a soloist of this caliber flying over bop changes at a breakneck pace, you need a jolt of digitalis before they let you back into the iTunes store.

 Sharel Cassity

Featured track: “Cherokee”
From the CD Just for You

Miguel Zenón (born 1976) was given a MacArthur “Genius Grant” last year, and some jazz fans complained about the award going a relatively unknown younger player. I can only assume that these critics hadn’t heard Zenón play, because he is a knockout performer. Check out the clarity of his double-time passages—dreams of playing like that are what keep practice room habitués working on their scales. But Zenón is anything but a showboat. His solos are pointed and probing, and my only complaint is that sometimes Zenón seems almost too much in control. But it’s hard to carp when someone plays this well. Thumbs up for the MacArthur judges, who made a daring call and picked a deserving candidate.

 Miguel Zenón

Featured track: “Camarón”
From the CD Awake

Géraldine Laurent (born 1975) will probably be a less familiar name to fans, especially in the US. But this French saxophonist has her own sound, and a daring style that stays inside the changes but strong-arms them with off-kilter phrases and a tone that can go from sweet to rough in a flash. Check out this YouTube video for a taste of this artist who reminds me of the late Art Pepper, another saxophonist who could play the most threadbare standard as if it were a matter of life or death.

 Géraldine Laurent

Featured track: “I Fall in Love Too Easily”
From the CD Time Out Trio

Myron Walden (born 1972) won the Charlie Parker Competition back in 1993, but he is probably better known for sideman stints (with The New Jazz Composers Octet and Brian Blade Fellowship) than as a marquee leader. Yet he is powerful player who knows how to mix up short, pungent horn howls with more complex lines marked by lot of internal motion and restless up-and-down interval leaps. I especially like his rough and raw sound—Walden is willing to bend notes until they break. He has a strong musical personality and deserves to be better known.

Myron Walden

Featured track: “Bad Alchemy”
From the CD The Turning Gate

Matt Criscuolo (born 1971) is probably one of the lesser known names on this list, but I was very impressed by his self-produced Melancholia CD, which came out earlier this year. Criscuolo’s calling card is his sound—in fact, I can’t think of a younger altoist who can do more with even the simplest phrases just by the way he shapes the notes. You can tell this even from his melody statements before he starts his solos; they are charged with lots of emotion. And my main complaint about Criscuolo’s solos is that they are too short. I fear the jazz world may lose this talent, who is also a successful entrepreneur who runs several pizzerias. I don't know much about pizza, but there must be more dough in dough these days than in the old do-re-mi. In any event, I'd hate to see Criscuolo put jazz on the back burner, for he is a very special talent.

Matt Criscuolo

Featured track: “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”
From the CD Melancholia

Rudresh Mahanthappa (born 1971), like Miguel Zenón, has probably outgrown the “rising star” label, and secured a place for himself as one of the acknowledged leaders on his instrument. His recent efforts to find a meeting ground between South Asian musical traditions and the jazz vocabulary have attracted a receptive audience, but what makes these projects click is not the world-fusion formula but the intelligence and musicality that this artist brings to his craft. When jazz polls pick the best altoists, the usual suspects—Ornette Coleman, Lee Konitz, Phil Woods—tend to be players who are either in their 80s, or soon will be. Mahanthappa may be the most likely under-40 candidate to break into the top ranks on his horn.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Featured track: “Apti”
From the CD Apti

May 28, 2009 · 19 comments


In Conversation with Joe Lovano

By Stuart Nicholson

                       Joe Lovano by Jos. L. Knaepen

Folk Art, Joe Lovano's latest release on Blue Note with his band Us Five, is the tenor saxophonist's twenty-first album for the label. It's also the first time Lovano has made an entire album comprising his own compositions. In so doing, he continues a tradition begun by Blue Note's founding fathers Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who, as Lovano points out, made a practice of helping the label's artists realize their original compositions. "They gave these incredible players the green light," says Lovano. "[They] gave them the forum and outlet to record, and opened the door [for them] to develop as composers. It certainly happened for me. Carrying-on in that tradition of being a player/composer is the legacy of Blue Note." Lovano knows as well as anybody, given his encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz history.

This thoroughgoing awareness of jazz tradition is also reflected in his playing. As his one-time collaborator, the late pianist John Hicks, once pointed out in the pages of The New York Times: "He plays modern ideas, but his sound encompasses the entire history of the tenor sax." The very richness of that history is embodied in his playing and has endeared Lovano to musicians and fans alike, who recognize him as one of the great tenor saxophonists in jazz. As Gunther Schuller—who composed and arranged three pieces for Lovano's classic Blue Note album Rush Hour—says in the liner notes, "Whether in mainstream be-bop or free jazz, whether couched in ‘tonal' changes or free association ‘atonality,' Joe immediately and effortlessly heard his way into the music, not matter how complex, no matter what context and whatever its demands. This, coupled with a sovereign command of his instrument made it a joy and deeply moving experience to work with Joe."

Lovano developed the music and ensemble for Folk Art over a two-year period, during which time he also performed with other projects, including his nonet, his trio, and his collaborative quartet and duo with pianist Hank Jones. His busy schedule during this time also included work with the McCoy Tyner Quartet, the Paul Motian Trio, and the critically acclaimed Saxophone Summit with David Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. These joint experiences proved to be a valuable source of inspiration for the Folk Art project, as he later recalled: "I've embraced Coltrane's music for a long time and I've had a chance to explore his free flowing harmonic-melodic late-period ballads with Saxophone Summit. That and the strong spiritual feeling of playing with McCoy and Hank gave me a strong grounding in my compositional approach for this date."

Lovano began our wide-ranging interview by reflecting on this latest project, and by talking about how he formed Us Five and how he hit on its two drummer configuration. The possessor of an instantly identifiable saxophone sound, he explains how he achieved it, and, more particularly, outlines steps students can take in achieving their own sound. Since Folk Art is his twenty-first album for the Blue Note, it seemed appropriate to talk about his distinguished association with the historic label, and to discuss a couple of key albums. What gradually emerges is a slice of contemporary jazz history, viewed through the eyes of one of its key participants.

Folk Art is the first album you've made of your own compositions, but even as far back as 1989 and Village Rhythm—one of your earliest records—you came pretty close. There was only one composition on it that you hadn't composed.

A lot of my records have been mostly my compositions through the years. I've thrown a ballad in here and there to fill out the programme, but I guess this is the first album that's all my own compositions. Trio Fascination, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, was all my compositions except for 'Ghost of a Chance,' one tune. My last album, Symphonica—arranged for a full orchestra by Michael Abene—was all my tunes except for 'Duke Ellington's Sound of Love.' But this recording Folk Art was really put together for this particular ensemble [Us Five] in mind. I wrote all the pieces and arranged them to explore ways of playing together.

Could you talk about your approach to composition, and whether you work towards a composition as a thing in itself or for its utility as a basis for improvisation?

It kind of goes both ways. I like to write tunes or pieces that are vehicles to explore, that give you a lot of foundation harmonically and rhythm-wise that are springboards for improvisation, ways to explore the inner structures, or create inner structures. So that's one way of approaching composition, for me. Another way is trying to write a song and play it with interpretation, so I approach it from a few different angles.

I think from my experience of playing in a lot of different settings—playing with Hank Jones, for example—you explore beautiful songs and create your own interpretation of them. [You can do that with] other vehicles as well, but there is that approach to your improvisation on a beautiful song that you've heard other people play. Then playing with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden and other people through the years, you're exploring original compositions that are simple little folk songs that are truly vehicles to improvise on and create your own structures. So there are a couple of different angles that I've experienced playing in great bands that influence the way I try to put the music together. This particular album has a combination of those kinds of approaches.

Related Links:

Joe Lovano Selects Essential John Coltrane Tracks
Jazz Music with Strings Attached
Reviews of Joe Lovano's Recordings

The personnel of Us Five—you first played together in 2007?

As a full quintet.

How did you bring them all together?

Well, the band came together in a really nice way. Esperanza [Spalding, on bass] … was one of my students at Berklee College of Music from around 2002-3, and for a few semesters she was in a few of my ensembles. Francisco Mela [drums and percussion] teaches at Berklee, also. I met him around that same time and we started to play some trio gigs together around Boston. Once Esperanza graduated, I'm not sure when that was, 2005 maybe, she started to teach at Berklee also, and we started to play together. At the same time, James Weidman [piano] was a part of my ensemble with my nonet and was working with me in some quartet situations, so we did some quartet gigs—Esperanza, Mela and James, and I.

Now, Otis Brown [drums and percussion] and I met at a Thelonious Monk workshop out in Colorado. I went to play there with John Patitucci, Lewis Nash, and Herbie Hancock. We were doing a workshop there and Otis was a young student that was in that program, somewhere around 2000. So from the moment he started to play—he lives around New York—I met with Otis and he started to make some gigs with my nonet that Lewis [Nash] couldn't do … I also started to play to quartet gigs with James, Esperanza, and Otis. So by 2007 I really enjoyed playing with Otis and Mela and I decided to have a quintet with the two of them!

They both played so different. Mela's from Cuba, but he's been in the States and he's a real jazz drummer also, [yet] because of his Cuban roots he has so many different flavours and ideas. Otis is a real New York drummer with a real funky background, so I thought it would be really interesting to combine drummers. But they both were a part of my quartet gigs and knew some of my repertoire and the things I've been doing through the years, so the communication was really nice when we started to play together. We played the Village Vanguard and some gigs around the States. [In] 2008 we did a bunch of different things—played the Vanguard again and recorded Folk Art. So a nice little history developed around this group.

So how did you get the double drummer situation to work so well? It could have turned out to be extremely muddy in the rhythm section.

Well, I've had experience of double drummer groups through the years. It's all about getting the right personalities and getting the right players who can share the same stage, like two horn players, you know? It doesn't matter what instrument you play, you have to play with a certain attitude, and an egoless approach. Yes, you're challenging one another, but you have to be willing to open the door and let someone else play their ideas. You have to play as a percussion section.

Now the way I have arranged this music with cueing things … different melodies cue things; if I switch horns in the middle of the music it can cue someone to lay out or someone to come in, or the bass to drop out, or the piano to drop out, or have a moment of just trio—two drums and a horn. If I switch horns again, that might cue one of the drummers to stop and the piano to come in, and it's a trio moment for piano and one of the drummers. I cue Esperanza and she comes in and the drummer that was just playing with me, he stops and the other cat comes in …

So lots of different textures through shifting the ensemble balance?

Yeah, a lot of ways to arrange and orchestrate. With a double drummer quintet you have a lot of possibilities; you have the quintet, then I have four quartet possibilities, ten trio possibilities, nine duets, and unaccompanied voice! And throughout this recording we call on quite a few of those. In live performances it's really fun for the audience to watch all this unfold, to hear what's happening—and fun for us, too.

That is the fascination of the album, for me: the varying textures through these permutations of instrumentation. Some albums can end up sounding a little monochrome, to me, at least.

Yeah, right! And a little bombastic, too. I want to go intimate, go a little deeper into sharing space, and there are some moments the way Mela plays are pure sound and colors, in the way he tunes his drums. He and Otis can play like a percussion section, like in an orchestra, when you have all these instruments happen. And when they're both playing together they're playing for each other, not at each other. A piece of music has to lend itself to that kind of approach, too. On 'Drum Song,' when I play the taragato, they play as a percussion section, and I play some gongs as well. It's a really beautiful undercurrent full of rhythm and colors that's happening

This is your twenty-first album for Blue Note. Did it surprise you when you realized this?

Sure. It's quite amazing; time moves along. From the very beginning, each recording is a summation of who you are as a player—where you've been—so each recording for me is really important. Be as honest as you can and each recording, I feel, stands on its own throughout my catalog.

Yes, and this leads neatly to my next question, which is that someone once said, 'The one thing that's worse than not having a record contract with a major label is having a recording contract with a major label,' meaning there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with conceptualizing a new project every time you enter the studio.

This is a real challenging thing. The thing is, on each one of my recordings you have the recording date, and then the whole year afterwards I would be playing all that music and presenting a band that represents that record. And people like Bruce Lundvall would come and hear me, and hear that I was playing the music from the date, with an ensemble that represented each record. I think that's what captured him even more than the record, he would come and hear the music live. Even when I did Rush Hour with Gunther Schuller, I put an ensemble together that scaled-down some of those larger orchestrations—there were some concerts where I added a few woodwinds—and we presented the music from that record. I did a lot of concerts with that band. We toured, we played Verona and had a beautiful concert—this was 1995-95—and as I would do each recording, I would put groups together representative of that music.

The trio record—Trio Fascination—I had Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. I couldn't really tour with them, but I had a trio with Idris Muhammad and Cameron Brown, and for about two years we were playing trio gigs all over the world. Each recording along the way, I put together a band that represented that music …. Now this year we have a lot of gigs with this quintet, starting in May in Europe, and I'm real excited at the prospect of going on tour to play the music from Folk Art.

Can we talk about a couple of tracks on the album that impressed me? Maybe we can we start with the very first piece on the album, 'Powerhouse.'

That's a kind of real straight-ahead tune inspired by Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk and Coltrane, from the hard bop era into today's way of playing, harmonically and form-wise—a real swinging tune

Could you explain that in a little more detail?

It has a song-form structure harmonically, and it's a combination of things I've studied through the years—playing Coltrane's music and Charlie Parker; Wayne and Thelonious. There are written parts for the rhythm section and the two drummers in this piece. When we play the theme we play as a full quintet, and then it breaks down into a quartet. For my solo each drummer switches every chorus. On my first chorus Otis is on drums. On the second chorus Otis drops out and Mela plays. They do this ping-pong through the whole track, behind all of my choruses and then behind the piano choruses, so when the piano plays you get two trios; the two drummers continue ping-ponging chorus-by-chorus and it gave a beautiful flow and energy to this piece. I was really happy with the way that worked out. And you can hear the different drummers switch at the same tempo, and there are different rhythmic accents that happen because they're free to play. With Otis there are certain things that happen and then when I'm playing with Mela other things happen.

And 'Song for Judy,' a rubato ballad, which is interesting because rubato is not often used in jazz.

This is a real 'song' that I wrote, and rubato is a way of playing through ballads that hasn't been explored that much. It was something Coltrane was touching on in his last period. On the recording Expressions he plays though some beautiful structures, and his tune 'Peace on Earth,' also. This later period of Coltrane, he was touching on ways of playing ballad-like pieces and harmonic sequences played in a very free manner. Piano players have been doing this forever in solo piano explorations of any song. Hank Jones, for example, does this free-flowing interpretation of whatever song he wants to play. But to have groups play like that, that's different.

And as a specific writing technique, that's unusual in jazz.

Right. I tried to write a song that had that kind of flowing harmonic movement. It goes through three different keys in a chorus, and also the last phrase of the song doesn't really end the song; instead of ending, it just leads you somewhere. Keith Jarrett, his group has explored ways of playing like that, and you hear it often. Playing with Paul Motian influenced me a lot—that trio we have with Bill Frisell, the way we play a through a standard song or sequences of harmony in a more free-flowing way. So this song came together with these influences in mind, and also an inspiration from my wife Judy Silvano. Her approach also applies. Now that's played as a solo piano moment at the beginning. I enter, and we play as a full quintet throughout the piece. Esperanza is echoing some of the melody, as well as playing harmony. The two drummers are free to both play. Sometimes one is playing mallets and the other is playing brushes. There are a lot of different colours and textures happening in the percussion section on that.

You briefly talked about 'Drum Song.' Perhaps we can talk about that and 'Dibango,' which go nicely together. For me, both are album highlights.

Well, these pieces do go together, like a little suite. I play the taragato, a Hungarian folk instrument, on 'Drum Song.' That's a very simple little melody that we arrive at from the beginning. We don't start with the theme; we develop into the theme, different combinations of sounds. I play gongs, and there's different combinations of the groups we explore on our way into the theme. Once we hit the theme, then we play freely around it. The tempo changes and everything that happens within is very organic, cued by the way we feel, so it's a real development throughout that whole piece. When we end it, 'Dibango' begins with me on aulochrome [a chromatic woodwind instrument that resembles two soprano saxophones connected side-by-side], the first horn that's really been made to harmonize. It's a funky kind of tune with a blues-like structure in an odd form. The rhythm section just plays a repetitive part and I'm free to create my own melody on top, and that's a real fun tune to play. 'Dibango' is inspired by Manu Dibango, a saxophonist from Cameroon. I play a little tenor moment in the middle of that, too. I switch horns, and it kind of cues a different accent to things that happen behind the tenor.

Which leads us neatly to when you actually took up the tenor, which I guess was in the late fifties, early sixties?

I was pretty young, yes, and when I was really young I started on alto. By the time I was eleven or twelve my Dad got me a tenor, that's when I really got into to trying to find my sound.

You have developed a very personal approach and I wondered what you think about many young players today who seem to have difficulty moving out the shadows of what has gone before to find their own voice.

                       Joe Lovano by Jos. L. Knaepen

Well, you know it's a matter of awareness. It's hard finding your sound, but it's also about developing within the music. I think a lot of young cats today may play in one direction or another, and not play in a lot of different ways. I was really lucky, as it's much better to hear people live than study them on record. I was really lucky my Dad played saxophone He had a great sound. He was coming from Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker and Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and I heard him playing all the time. Practicing and trying to blend with him really sent me on my way. Also, he had a great record collection—all these great players.

Living around Cleveland, there were a lot of clubs, and cats would be coming through all the time. I would be there, hearing them play live—hearing James Moody live when I was fifteen years old, and Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons. Rashaan Roland Kirk, sitting in a room with him when I was seventeen. It all sent me to the woodshed and made me realize everyone had their own sound and played with their own energy and approach. That inspired me. To be able to execute your ideas technically is one thing, but to really play within a dynamic range, the beauty of your tone was always important.

And then playing in bands and standing toe-to-toe with some great saxophone players: David Young with Jack McDuff; Frank Tiberi with the Woody Herman band when I was in my early twenties. I joined Woody, and in the first three months I was playing on a concert with Stan Getz and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims [The 40th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert: Woody Herman and the New Thundering Herd November 20th, 1976]. I was twenty-three years old and I had to play my part on 'Early Autumn' and support Stan Getz playing the lead. I was ready to do that because of the way I came up, and not just stand there and play, you know, 'I'm Joe Lovano!' Man, I had to blend with Stan Getz, you know? [laughs] I had that attitude to give support, to blend and I was ready to do that, and once I did it I realized how beautiful it was and I didn't having him glaring at me, telling Woody, 'Where d'you get him from?' [laughs] I had Stan give me a smile, and that meant a lot!

A lot of younger cats, they might not play that much with other saxophone players these days. Our situations are different. I came up on the very tail end of that big band thing. You had to play in the saxophone section. When I left Woody I joined the Mel Lewis Band from 1980 to 1991, played the Village Vanguard every Monday night. Even during that whole period when I was with Paul Motian, Carla Bley's Band, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, and in that whole period in the 1980s leading up to my Blue Note contract, I was playing in a lot of great bands sharing the stage with other saxophone players.

You learn a lot about yourself and your tone when you play with other people. Like our group Saxophone Summit with Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker; we started playing together in 1999 or so. Mike had his sound, his approach, and his way of playing, but he hadn't played in an awful lot of bands with other saxophone players. You can't find too many records with Mike on and other saxophone players. He never really played in too many big bands. Some bands were more fusion and he was the star soloist. Mike came up in a whole other way, and he's influenced a lot of players through the years with his directness and way of playing. But I know with this particular group with Dave and me and Mike, Mike loved it because we played with our own sounds, yet we would come together and create a three tenor sound—a three-saxophone ensemble—and he really loved that setting, as he hadn't done it that much.

So everybody has their own development. If you could draw from your personal history and play and put yourself in any setting, you're going to develop a wider approach—as an improviser, and as someone who has developed their own sound. The early cats, they all had their own great sound. Don Byas, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley … you name every name and you can hear their sound. They all played in a lot of bands; Dexter Gordon played in Billy Eckstine's band, he played with Basie. They were all part of a lot of bands. They had their personal sound, yet they had a sound that was wide and open enough to blend with others. You hear Ben Webster in a saxophone section, you don't hear him stand out by himself, yet he had a tone that was incredible in the Ellington saxophone section. That might have been one of the first sections that had five saxophones when Ben Webster joined Duke Ellington in the early 1940s.

So you can say to kids, 'This is the way I did it,' but how do you get them to start working towards their own sounds?

Well I try and get them to play together, that's the first thing. And sometimes play just two saxophones, no rhythm, accompany each other. Play through the tune and share the space. Somebody has to outline the chords, and somebody plays the melody. Share playing through a tune together. That's really important. Not play at each other. Try to play with each other.

I do a lot of unaccompanied playing in my class and I get a lot of cats to try it. And even though you practice alone, I find that most of the young players of whatever instrument have a hard time playing unaccompanied and playing a piece right through by themselves. Piano players do it all the time. Just play and accompany themselves and just play alone. Guitar players, also. But a lot of horn players—single note players—they're not sure how to do it. 'Well man, what do you do when you practice?' A lot of times they'll be playing patterns or something out of a book, or I don't know what. But playing through a song, or play three or four chords from a tune you love to play, that's what I tell them, and half the time they stand there and they're wondering what to do. Man, play a song you love. What do you love to play? That question takes a lot because to answer that as a young player, you have to dig deep. You have to start and think about, you have to start to think about, 'Wow, what do I really love to play? I love to play page 36, exercise 14.' [laughs] you know?

Well that's a serious point, isn't it? So many young players do rely on patterns to get from A to B, and so improvisation becomes more of a process.

Well, do you know why? I think a lot of teachers at some of these universities are cats who have studied music and can play, but they have learned from playing patterns, so that's what they teach. These days there are more and more situations for people like myself to have opportunities to share their approach, to give people confidence to play with interpretation. I mean, Dexter Gordon can play the same song twenty times in a row, and it'll be the same song, but he would play it with interpretation. Let's say Miles Davis, he could play the same song all day—let's say twenty, thirty times—and every time it will be the same melody, the same chords, but his imagination, his approach is what it's about. To develop your own approach takes a lot of confidence. There are a lot of cats today who would play that same song and you wouldn't be able to tell whether it's the fifth time they played it or the twentieth. They'd play it the same way every time, as far as their rhythm and phrasing and so on.

Can we take a long look at your Blue Note career, now that you've done your twenty-first album? Maybe you can begin by saying how it all came about.

I first started recording as a leader in the 1980s for Soul Note records. I did two Soul Note records, and I recorded a record for Enja with Ed Blackwell and Anthony Cox. I did a live recording with my wind ensemble; I recorded a European Quintet I was working with in Belgium. I had about five albums under my belt before Blue Note. I was playing in a band with Peter Erskine that had Randy Brecker, John Abercrombie … Don Grolnick played piano … anyway, we played in New York at Sweet Basil, and Peter invited Bruce Lundvall to come and hear the band, maybe '88-'89. So Bruce came and heard us, and we took a break and he came up to me and handed me his card and told me to call him. I had never met him. I didn't really know who he was, so I said hello to him, took his card and put it in my pocket. Couple of minutes later, I took it out and looked at it: 'Blue Note Records, Bruce Lundvall, President.'

So the next day I called him up, said hello, and he invited me to come to his office and have a talk. He told me that he had been hearing me. Later on I found out that he was at that Carnegie Hall concert of Woody Herman. That was recorded live by RCA; that was 1976 and Bruce was still at Columbia. He knew my name and heard me on the radio and with different groups, and we had beautiful meeting, and I didn't bring him a tape or anything. We just spoke about who I was playing with, and this and that. That led to my first Blue Note recording, Landmarks.

At the same time [1989], John Scofield was negotiating with Blue Note. John and I had been colleagues and had been playing together. We'd met each other in Boston. John at this moment was putting a record together called Time On My Hands. Originally it was supposed to be Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden and John. Before this happened, John called me to play some gigs [with his] quartet. He wanted to put a group together to play the music before the record date. He told me 'I'm doing a date, Wayne is playing, blah, blah, blah, would you like to make some gigs?' So I said, 'Yeah, man. Beautiful. Okay.' He had a trio at that time; John Riley and Anthony Cox were playing with him. Then Wayne couldn't make John's date …. John had everything booked: Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, studio, engineer, the whole thing was in the works. So John got a little nervous. He called [Lundvall] and told them Wayne couldn't make the date, what shall I do? And Bruce says, 'Call Joe Lovano.' It was funny, because John had called me already to make the gig, so it was all in the wind and I ended up doing that date with John, his first record [for Blue Note]. And that was basically right before I did my date, Landmarks.

John and I went to Japan together, and John actually co-produced that date. I put a quintet together that had Kenny Werner piano, John Abercrombie on guitar, Mark Johnson on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums. Bill was a student at William Patterson [University] where I was teaching, and Bill was in my band. John first heard Bill playing with me at Visiones [a now-defunct Greenwich Village jazz club] and around New York, and Bill joined John's band after that. So a lot of things were happening. I think Bruce realized this—that I had these relationships with all these different players playing some of the most creative music in town. Bruce was on the scene. A lot of times you might not know he's even in the room, and he might not even hit on you, but he's checking you out along the way. He surprised me when I first met him! And once I executed a few ideas, the trust starts to happen one thing leads to another.

Much as I'd like you to talk about all twenty albums you did before Folk Art, there's only time for a few, so I've chosen some of my favourites to indicate the variety of projects you have undertaken with the label. Perhaps we could start with Quartets.

Yeah! Well my working group at the time was Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart. We played and recorded live at the [Village] Vanguard. That was going to be my next release, and that particular quartet was on fire at the time. We played a lot of gigs, and I was playing with Tom Harrell a lot at that time, and collaborated with him on a couple of his recordings, too. We were in each other's bands at that time. My recording Tenor Legacy I had done. That was one of the ideas before we recorded live with Tom [Harrell]. It had Josh Redman, Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, and Don Alias percussion. So that record was in the can; that was going to come out. But my working group was the quartet with Tom, and we played the Vanguard, recorded live. That was going to be the next record.

Now, in between, Tenor Legacy was released, so I had a week at the Vanguard, and I was going to play that music with Mulgrew, Christian, and Lewis. But Josh couldn't make the gig. He was just beginning to emerge as a leader. This was almost the beginning of Josh Redman's career; Josh had some other gig and couldn't play that week. I decided to do it as a quartet and he was going to come and sit-in—special guest, that sort of thing.

So opening night I played the first set with the quartet, and Bruce and Michael Cuscuna and all the people from Blue Note were there. We had a great night. I come off the stage and Bruce says, 'We have to record live and put out a double CD!' That's what he says to me! I had no plans to record that week with that second quartet. My recording with Tom was already done and scheduled for release, so Bruce hears us play, wants to put out a double CD and I was like 'Really???' I was playing music from Tenor Legacy, so I didn't have the repertoire together for another record … So the next day I asked him if he was serious, and he said, 'Yes! Let's do it on the weekend.' So throughout that week I put a whole other repertoire together for that band—some of my originals, and I touched on a couple of classic tunes like Coltrane's 'Lonnie's Lament,' 'Little Willie Leaps,' Charlie Parker … like that.

[On] Friday and Saturday night we recorded live, and then I had a double contrasting quartet album. When they put that out I was thrilled, that was beautiful, because it happened in a real organic way. It wasn't planned, but it gave me the opportunity over the next year to be able to present two different groups: one with no piano and trumpet and one a standard quartet with sax, piano, bass and drums. So over the next period I was playing a lot with those two combinations. Different gigs, different situations. Tim Hagans was playing trumpet at that time also; that led to my recording Universal Language which had Judy [Silvano] and Tim. A three-horn sound: voice, trumpet, and saxophone.

Just jumping about a bit … Another favorite is From the Soul with Michel Petrucciani, who is gone and sadly almost forgotten.

I know, man. Michel was one of the most poetic, beautiful musicians of our time. He was one of the first people Bruce signed when he started Blue Note again in 1984-85 … so in my very first meeting with Bruce we talked about ideas and things that I would like to do, and one of them was to do something with Michel. I was playing with Michel during that time as a guest with his trio. He had a trio at that time with Palle Danielson on bass and Elliot Zigmund on drums, and I was playing a of a gigs with him, guesting with his trio a lot. We were very close. His birthday was December 28th; he was born in '62. Mine is December 29th and I was born in '52. So we were ten years apart and had these birthday parties together a bunch of times around here in New York. That was a lot of fun.

So my first official record for Blue Note was with Michel, because Landmarks—which Blue Note put out first—was originally produced in Japan for Toshiba/EMI. In that early period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ralph Peterson, Geri Allen, Ron Carter, Don Pullen and George Adams were signed to Toshiba/EMI, who produced the recordings, and Blue Note would put out the records here. But then I signed directly with Blue Note right after Landmarks, and From the Soul was the first project for Bruce.

At the time I was playing a lot with Ed Blackwell. My recording on Enja called Sounds of Joy was with Anthony Cox and Ed Blackwell … [Blackwell] played with me at the Vanguard, the first time I played there as a leader, so to put him together with Dave Holland and Michel [on From the Soul] was a beautiful, magical thing. Dave and Blackwell had played together a lot. Michel had never played with Blackwell; that was the first time they played together. That day was a special day. We pretty much recorded that in real time; there are hardly any double takes of any tune. The only tunes I had multiple takes of were the duets I did with Michel. All the group stuff was one take! So that was like a really beautiful exploration, the music just unfolded.

It also takes a lot of courage to say 'that's it,' rather than go for another take.

Yes. When you play with people as mature as Blackwell, it's so happening, it's like 'Oh, man!' I wanted to go for more takes, but I knew … and when we heard the playbacks—like that piece 'Evolution'—it was the most magical session I had ever taken part in up to that point. And Blackwell, he was on dialysis, going through changes health-wise. He'd walk over to the drums—that was a lot of energy. But when he sat down and played, he played like a kid. That recording was maybe one year before he passed. He was one of the most inspired, incredible drummers I ever knew. And you could hear it on all those Ornette Coleman records and every record he's done. There's not many takes of those tunes. Those are like—boom! They played. Ornette doesn't have multiple takes of those incredible recordings they did; those records were done in real time. Like some of the Coltrane records, too.

And finally, Rush Hour. You've already touched on this before, but maybe you could talk in a little more detail about Gunther Schuller, a leading exponent of Third Stream—a term he coined. He contributed to that album.

Well, this record was pivotal in my catalogue, for sure—for producing something, executing it, and going and playing the tapes for Bruce the next day. I played him rough mixes of what we had just recorded. He couldn't believe how that unfolded. There was hardly any post-production. We laid everything down, and that was pretty much it.

The whole thing with Gunther goes back to when I was in Berklee in the early 1970s. Gunther was president of the New England Conservatory at the time. I met his son Ed Schuller at a jam session; he was going to New England [Conservatory] and there was a bunch of cats going there at that time, Ricky Ford [for example]. I met Eddie at a jam session, and he invited me to come and play at a jam session at New England. I went over there … I guess this must have been '71 or '72, and I played and Gunther kind of peeked his head in at this jam session. This is where he first heard me play. Of course, I was in awe. Not only was he president of New England, but I had recordings of things that he had done on Columbia: things he did with Modern Jazz Quartet, Jim Hall, John Lewis, and there was this one recording that had Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy on it. Anyway I knew all those. Jim Hall was also from Cleveland and a friend of my Dad before he split, and my Dad had stuff that Jim had done and one of them was one of these records. Anyway, that was the first time I met Gunther in the early 1970s.

And then throughout that whole period I began to play a lot with Eddie. I went to their house, met his Mom, stayed over, saw his library—an incredible library of music and record collection. Gunther produced a couple of recordings I played on with Eddie. Tom McKinley the pianist (who is also teaching at the New England Conservatory), we did a quintet record that Gunther produced—Billy Hart played, Tom Harrell and I—on Gunther's label Gunmar Records. So that was the first time I worked with him in the studio … Then Eddie put out a recording called Lifecycle; this was all in the late 1970s, early 1980s.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Gunther started to do a workshop in Standpoint, Idaho, up in the mountains. It was a chamber music seminar and symposium. Milton Babbit was there; a handful of Gunther's associates he had on the faculty, they were attracting chamber music students and symphony players from all over. Some conductors who had come to talk to Gunther … it was an amazing workshop. And he had a little jazz component in this workshop. Around 1990 or '91 he asked me to come and take part in the jazz workshop, which was me, Eddie on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. So we went. There were like 70-or-so participants in the chamber music side, and maybe 15 or 20 in the jazz, so it was small—basically an ensemble workshop. They all played together in different combinations. I [taught] student projects and private lessons; Wynton Marsalis came, it was an amazing situation. It lasted about ten years, from 1985 to 1995, so there were two or three years when we went up there, Judy came with me. Gunther was conducting all kinds of ensembles, from little quintets to you name it—real contemporary music.

I was in one of his concerts, and I thought how I'd love to improvise and play along with some of this. Imagining some things that could happen led to Rush Hour. I called Bruce to let him know what I was doing. I didn't even ask Gunther, and I was kind of imaging something with woodwinds and I kind of laid something on the phone and Bruce immediately said 'Let's do it!' So, I hadn't even asked Gunther. At the time we hadn't talked about doing a big project, so I painted a little picture for Bruce and he gives me a green light to go with Gunther. I remember asking Eddie's Mom, Marjorie, she was making some dinner and I asked her, I said, 'I'm thinking of asking Gunther to write something for me.' And she got real excited. Gunther hadn't done anything in jazz for years as far as a composer or arranger; he hadn't recorded or done anything, no one had asked him. So she got real excited and pushed me to ask him, so I walked over to him and told him how I loved the concert [they'd done together], and told him I'm recording for Blue Note and did he have eyes to arrange a couple of pieces for me. I mentioned Ellington, Mingus, Ornette, and Thelonious Monk—those four pieces that are on the album: 'Prelude to a Kiss,' 'Peggy's Blue Skylight,' 'Crepuscule With Nellie' and Ornette's 'Kathline Grey'—I mentioned those composers to him and he had relationships with them all, and immediately he was in. He didn't talk about money. He said, 'I love to!' And it came later—why hadn't he done anything in jazz for years—and he simply said 'Nobody ever asked me.' So it was one of those magical things that happened.

Then he wanted to write some original things. He said, 'I'd love to do that, but I want to compose some stuff of my own.' Which he did: 'Rush Hour on 23rd Street,' 'Headin' Out, Movin' In,' and 'Lament for M,' which was for Marjorie. Shortly after that meeting with Gunther, while we were putting this together, she got ill and passed, so he wrote that amazing piece for her. I didn't want him to do the whole record, as I wanted to somehow participate in some of the compositions, so he wrote about 40% of the pieces. 20% was where I could write and put a group together that had Judy in it, and some other folks—smaller groups, to offset the larger groups. So that was a challenge for me to write some things that would be within the structure of the recording, and that was really great. Once we did it, we went into the studio, rehearsed the main takes, and recorded in two days, laid it all down. Once I executed that whole project, I think Bruce really appreciated that—like trusting, realizing I wasn't just 'a saxophone player,' that I could execute things like that.

So it was quite a major album in more ways than one.

Yes, for sure.

Just one final question, the credit crunch … How do you see it impacting on the jazz economy? For a start, there are now more and more money-for-the-door gigs.

That whole door gig has been going on for years, that's for sure! But I hear you, it's happening at an international level now. It's difficult around New York. It's an international scene and a lot of tourists come in and support the clubs. It's going be tough for everyone during this economic period if that slows up. The whole thing about the record industry—that was happening before all this: the internet, downloading, trying to figure out how to deal with publishing, free music, file-sharing all over the world. Why go buy a record?

Well, yes. The corollary of that is a project like Rush Hour, with a much larger budget than a small group session. Are companies are going to say, 'What is the point in funding something like this if people download it for free?'

I know, and the problem is we can always produce and record our little projects, like a lot of young cats on the scene today are doing their own little thing, but you would never be able to do a project like Rush Hour unless you did have a record company involved to support you, so that's fact. So in the future, what's going to happen if record companies are not involved in producing large projects—not just in jazz, [but] for symphony orchestras, the whole industry? I don't know. Some beautiful things have been created that way, and if you had to rely on just individuals going and recording you can only do so much. My projects, some of them, I could not have recorded myself. Like my last album Symphonica, a full symphony, that was incredible. I was thrilled to do something like that. My nonet projects, like Streams of Expression, where Gunther wrote three pieces called the 'Birth of the Cool Suite,' I wouldn't have been able to do stuff like that without a big label behind me. So let's just hope for the best [laughs], that people in authority have trust in artists to do things they think is worthwhile …

Joe Lovano, thanks for such a great interview for

A pleasure, thank you.

Dates of Joe Lovano's Folk Art tour with Us Five can be found on

May 25, 2009 · 3 comments


In Conversation with Fred Hersch

By Ted Panken

                                Fred Hersch by Jimmy Katz

During the decade-and-a-half before 2008, pianist Fred Hersch's documented musical production was second to none in the jazz world. His pace slowed in 2008, however, and at year's end, he sent a harrowing letter to his wide circle of friends explaining why. The missive described an "extraordinary, challenging, and scary year," in which he had been comatose or semi-comatose for a total of eight weeks, suffered a seven-week bout of "full-blown AIDS dementia," lost his voice, and, to cap it off, spent a week in the hospital with pneumonia and a gall bladder infection. In summary, Hersch wanted to reassure the jazz community that he was ending 2008 in 'much better shape' than he had been, and hoped to "put all of this behind me."

In mid-April, Hersch demonstrated the great strides he had made towards achieving that stated aspiration with a five-night run at Manhattan's Jazz Standard. The gig featured a new ensemble, the Pocket Orchestra, featuring Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Jo Lawry on vocals, Richie Barshay on percussion, and, of course, Hersch on piano. The group performed the ten originals that comprise Hersch's latest release, The Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra Live at Jazz Standard on Sunnyside. That both his speaking and musical voices are back in play was evident throughout our conversation, held the afternoon after closing night.

On a purely aesthetic level, let's talk about the dynamics that led to this new body of music.

I've had a trio since the mid '80s, and of course, I've done a lot of solo concerts that have been sort of a specialty. I have a Trio+2 as well. I had performed in England with Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, and a percussionist, Paul Clarvis, about eight years ago. The band was called 4 In Perspective. (I never liked the name, but it wasn't mine.) This band [the Pocket Orchestra] allows me to play solo, since I'm the orchestra and I'm responsible for the texture. I can build things, or I can take it dynamically or texturally anywhere I want, but I also have the fun of playing with Richie Barshay as a duo most of the time, so I'm not totally out there alone.

The other thing is that my catalog as a composer of jazz or jazz-related material has grown considerably, and this particular configuration—with Jo Lawry being able to sing lyrics superbly and also is a great improviser and a good team player (unlike many singers)—it enables me to do songs that are almost contemporary art songs that I've done with different poets. [It] allows me to do a lot of my tunes that Norma Winstone added lyrics to, and it also gives Jo a chance to be a member of the ensemble in a wordless way. Ralph Alessi is incredibly quick and creative and intelligent and challenging. For the run at the Standard, he was not available, so we had Avishai Cohen, who fit right in—wonderful player, great vibe; he really got into it. Then, Richie Barshay—who is sort of a new person for me to play with—is one of those rare people who really can play a drum set and also Brazilian percussion, African percussion in a very authentic way.

I've been writing some new pieces. The CD is largely things that I have recorded before, in different contexts. Some are first recordings. There's one piece called 'Free Flying' that's new. That's a dedication to Egberto Gismonti. 'Valentine' I've recorded ('A Wish,' it's known as) with Norma, with words. Jo re-records that. 'Light Years' is a setting of a poem by Mary Jo Salter. She and I collaborated on a song cycle about photography that we never finished. So this piece is about light and memory, and it's half-spoken, half-sung. So to be able to present that alongside something like 'Stuttering' or 'Lee's Dream,' which is really jazzy, or also things that are very Brazilian-sounding or African-sounding ... I couldn't do that in a normal configuration with a bass player. On the other hand, other than one Monk cover, this band does my compositions exclusively. When I play with the trio, I play Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter—those are the big three for me—and I play my own music and the odd standard.

I got CDs of a recording of my first gig as a leader at the Village Vanguard with a trio of Tom Rainey and Drew Gress in about '97, and it was very interesting to look at the play list. There were very few originals, mostly standards and rearranged standards and other jazz composers.

At the time, hadn't you just recorded a date for Chesky where you did one tune by each of ten composers?

The kind of jazz composer hit list. No, that was probably around 1993. At that point, I was recording with Nonesuch, which was my label from 1996 to 2001. But it's interesting how my confidence in my own music has grown. I enjoy playing standards and I enjoy playing Monk tunes and everything else like that. But I feel like an evening of my own stuff, there's enough things that are accessible, enough things that are challenging, hopefully enough things that are memorable, that I don't feel compelled to prop it up with totally familiar things.

You now have more than two-dozen recordings as a leader cited on your website, and another dozen or fifteen as a co-leader. Did you first record as a leader back in 1984 or so?

Yes. The first one was for Concord Jazz. It was called Horizons.

And you had been recording as a sideman on Concord dates with Art Farmer and ... well, Joe Henderson didn't record for Concord.

No. It's one of my great regrets that I never recorded with Joe. But I did two with Art for Concord and two for Soul Note. I played with Joe off-and-on for ten years, and we never recorded—because Joe wasn't recording then. I mean, nobody was recording then, hardly. The Blue Note record label was basically defunct—it hadn't restarted yet. Verve was also not restarted. Columbia was just getting into Wynton, into the putting money into jazz thing. So people didn't have 'record deals,' other than Miles or Stan Getz, people like that. The climate is, of course, very different now. We went through that period where every kid with a nice haircut was getting a 'record deal.' Fortunately, for the most part, we've gotten past that, although there's certainly some of that going on.

I didn't make a record on my own until I was 30. I had a lot of seasoning, playing as a sideman in the studio and on the road. From people like Art Farmer, I learned about programming a set. His book was unusual. It contained a lot of interesting and obscure tunes, and the way he put a set together. He encouraged me to write. He recorded my first compositions. So I've really been through a lot of apprenticeship. Sam Jones was a very important apprenticeship, just in terms of how to play time, and how to rhythmically connect, and how to be patient as a player. He was tremendous. I never really recorded with him, which is also a shame. But the young players I hear and have taught ... I taught Brad Mehldau, I taught Ethan Iverson, I've taught a lot of the young and not-so-young players, like Bruce Barth and Rachel Z ... It's very hard to tell when somebody is very young, obviously, where they're going to go.

I look at, say, the career of Joe Lovano as more of a model for me. His was just a general snowball, until all of a sudden, it was the year of Joe Lovano—whatever year that was. The Grammy, the cover of Downbeat, the artist of the year. Everybody looked around, the dust cleared, and there was Joe Lovano. I'm not sure if that will happen to me. It may, if I hang out on the planet long enough, which I plan to do. But I can say without being an egomaniac that what I do is distinctly different than what anybody else does. Nobody would be putting out this kind of music but me. I think I have a defined style as a leader-composer-conceptualist. I don't think anybody would have done Leaves of Grass, or that it would sound like that. This new Jobim album that's coming out in August on Sunnyside, which was actually recorded for Nonesuch in 2001, and it was to be the fourth disc of the three-disc set, Songs Without Words ... I'm glad that it's coming out now on Sunnyside. If I was a young player, this would not be the first statement I would make, but I think it's a very nice addition to my catalog.

I was wondering when you'd recorded it, because the technique and playing is on such a high level, and you've been ill over the last year.

Yes, but I'll tell you. The Pocket Orchestra CD was recorded last May. That was before my big bout of physical illness. I was suffering from dementia early in 2008, and that took me off the grid for a couple of months. The AIDS virus basically attacked my brain, and I was pretty psychotic. But when I went in the hospital with pneumonia, I was essentially in a coma for two months, and when I got out, I had to learn how to walk, how to swallow (I had to have throat surgery, because they paralyzed one of my vocal cords when they stuck a tube in my neck), and I've had to learn how to play again. But I feel that I'm really playing pretty much at full strength, and many people have commented that I actually have more energy and more focus now. Sometimes you go through a trauma, and all of that ... having to lie in a hospital bed for weeks at a time, or having to endure various medical insults .... They say the shit either kills you or makes you stronger, and I think in this case it made me stronger.

Well, let's go right there. In the new film, Let Yourself Go: The Lives of Fred Hersch, you address your health and existential condition full-on. You say you were diagnosed in '86.


Which coincides with your first recording as a leader.


So it would seem that this full-on confrontation with your mortality, with all the existential ramifications entailed, has been part and parcel of your documented career as a musician/composer/leader—of your musical maturity, we could say.

            Fred Hersch by Matthew Sussman

You could sort of look at it that I've had this cloud hanging over me for a long time. Fortunately, until 2008, which was a year from medical hell, I'd been basically able to do anything I wanted to do. Certainly, there have been times that I've been very rundown. I've been hospitalized for minor ailments, and I've had various difficulties in terms of just day-to-day quality of life, some due to side effects of medication, other things. But I feel the worst of it is behind me, and I'm in better health now than I've been in many years—according to my blood numbers, my weight is stable. I have projects to look forward to. Things are really good right now.

Well, it's a very healthy way to lead your life.

Sure. I always like to look to the next thing. I'm already looking ahead to the summer. I have trio concerts and Trio+2 concerts in Europe. I have a duo concert with Norma Winstone in Europe. I'll start teaching seven times a semester at New England Conservatory, starting in the fall, going up by train, spending the night, then coming back. That's something I really enjoy doing.

The movie is intelligently structured. I like the idea of having the main content, and then modules which delve into the different 'lives' more thoroughly. I thought we could frame the discussion around each of the modules. I'd like to start with 'Hersch The Jazz Musician and Composer,' which is very nicely treated. Let's recapitulate the path by which you went from ... I don't know if you'd call yourself a child prodigy or not, but from a child in Cincinnati who was studying classical music and so forth—certainly someone who recognized as having a gift—into someone who became obsessed with applying that gift towards jazz expression.

Who knows whether I'd consider myself a real prodigy or not. But I do know that when I got out of school and arrived in New York at age 21, there were not tons of music schools turning out schooled jazz players.

Although you had gone to New England Conservatory, and there was a cohort of students there who were interested in jazz.

Oh, sure. Now they call them jazz 'programs.' It was the Jazz Department, and it was there because Gunther Schuller believed that jazz should be treated equally with every other kind of music—ethnomusicology and classical music. So he put together a faculty with Jaki Byard, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, various other people. I predominantly went there to study with Jaki, I ended up studying with him and with a classical piano teacher, and playing in a bunch of different ensembles, and getting lots of great experience. So when I came here to New York, I was ... Now there are kids, a dime a dozen, who play great, who have all this knowledge, who have already composed a lot of music. But I was a rarity then, and especially since I knew a lot of tunes. Being around Cincinnati, I really learned tons of tunes. You had to.

When did you start playing publicly or professionally in Cincinnati?

When I was 18 or 19.

On summer vacations.

I started school at Grinnell College as a freshman at age 17 ...

Where Herbie Hancock and Gary Giddins matriculated.

I know. I hardly knew who Herbie Hancock was, let alone that he'd gone there. I did have one Miles Davis album, Miles Smiles, which I bought chiefly because I liked the cover, but even to this day there's stuff on that album that I can't figure out. I only lasted a semester there, and so, when I was 18, I moved back to Cincinnati, took an apartment, went to the conservatory to appease my parents, although my heart wasn't in it, and I started hanging out in clubs, playing my first gigs, and getting tough love from the older players. Back then, nobody read charts or had arrangements or had fake books. It was just like, 'Ok, let's play this. What do you want to play? Let's play that.' So it was kind of sink-or-swim.

There was a great used record store, Mole's Record Exchange, and I still have dozens and dozens of LPs from there that I bought for 2 or 3 bucks. Basically, I took all my money and kept buying sides. There were a couple of older (I say older; maybe five years older) jazz musicians, one of whom is on the New York scene—Barry Ries, who is a trumpet player and drummer. I knew him as a drummer. He was roommate with a bass player named Bob Bodley, who ended living in New York and playing with Art Farmer. Now he's passed away. They were sort of older brothers. Each of them were married, they had this great house, they had tons of record collections, they had great weed. So basically, I just hung out with them as much as I could. They were very generous. We'd spend all night listening to sides and getting high—it was fabulous.

That was '73, '74, '75 ...

Sure. It's the peak. Then I realized at a certain point that if I didn't get out of there, I was never going to get out of there. I wanted more. So Boston was a really great halfway stop. I got used to public transportation, what it's like to live in a big city on my own. I got an incredible education at NEC, and made some lifelong musical friends, mostly Michael Moore, with whom I still play, and Marty Ehrlich, who's a buddy, and Jerome Harris, who's a buddy. I was there at the same time as Anthony Coleman, but we didn't have too much to do with each other. So it was a really great bunch of players, and everybody shared everything with everybody else. It wasn't like a jazz program where you have to take all this Jazz 101 stuff. You were just sort of allowed to partake of the conservatory in whatever way we chose.

I read an interview on the Web where someone was trying to discuss influences, and you were reluctant to go there. But let me try. During these years in Cincinnati, were you patterning yourself after one or two people, or trying on different hats at different points, then picking and choosing? How did vocabulary accrue for you?

I didn't have a jazz teacher. So I just kind of checked out everybody. Herbie, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Earl Hines, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Keith, Chick, McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson. What I would do—it sounds kind of stupid now, but maybe not—is I would get into one particular player for a while, listen to a bunch of their stuff, and then, when I played, I would try to channel them. I might play a tune that I'd heard them play, or that I had on a recording. I was just trying to think the way they thought, that's all. In the case of pianists who have a great sound, I'd say Ahmad Jamal has had a profound influence on me, just in terms of here's a guy with an incredible touch. Those early trio records ... just the sound that he got was remarkable. Sometimes people would pass through town. I met McCoy Tyner, spent an afternoon with him. There was a jazz club in Dayton that brought people in. I saw everybody from Sun Ra to Teddy Wilson to Bill Evans. There was a local kind of ghetto lounge called the Viking Lounge, and there I saw a lot of great organists—Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff. I actually saw McCoy with Azar Lawrence and Billy Hart. I saw Yusef Lateef with Kenny Barron. So there was enough going on.

There was still the urban circuit.

Yeah, there was still an urban circuit. Like I said, the older musicians were very good with me. I was probably a pain in the ass, but there weren't that many young kids wanting to join the club, and they seemed to realize that I had a gift, and encouraged me to get my time together. That's when I first began the tiny little process of trying to arrange things ....

There weren't really any singers to work with. That came later, and that's also become kind of a specialty, collaborating with all kinds of vocalists. Frankly, when I got to New York, I got a lot of calls from singers and learned how to do that. Working with singers, in terms of creating an environment for them to do their thing, is very interesting. Also with singers, you learn a lot of tunes that you're not going to learn if you're playing with just horn players. You play in odd keys. Things like that. So it's good training. I recommend to all my young pianists that they get a chance to do that.

Can you pinpoint why jazz was appealing to you?

I can tell you exactly. I liked the environment. I liked the club environment. I liked the socializing. I liked the fact that I was spending time with people my parents definitely did not approve of. The pianist Ed Moss. There was a bass player named Alex Cirin, who called himself the Dancing Bear. I just thought that was cool. Cal Collins, a great guitar player, who started recording for Concord and playing with Benny Goodman. He was what I called 'swang with a twang.' So I loved the social milieu. I loved the fact that it was music played with people, in front of people. Playing classical music alone is obviously solitary, and I prefer to play with people and in front of people. Not that I don't play a lot of solo concerts. But that appealed to me.

Also, I was freed from the tyranny of some sort of imagined technical standard. You must play the Chopin Etudes, all of them. You must learn this-or-that concerto. I improvised, though, from the time ... I was composing in third grade, so I was always an improviser. In high school I used to kind of improvise on James Taylor tunes or Joni Mitchell tunes or Motown tunes, play them by ear, kind of my own way. I used to improvise stuff that sounded like classical music, because that's what was in the house, for the most part, other than show tunes or cast albums. So the combination of the scene and the fact that I ... of course, I worked at my jazz playing, but I was doing it for me. I wasn't doing it to win a competition or get into a Masters program or give recitals. That didn't intrigue me. I think fundamentally I'm not that disciplined. I'm not a big practicer now. I've gone through periods where I have been. But at this point, I feel if my hands are working right and I'm engaged in what I'm playing, something will happen, and it will be fine.

So you got to New York in '77.

June 1, 1977.

Right after school ends, here you come.

Like, one week later.

Did you set yourself up? You had a place?

Yes. I had a loft on 11th Street between University and Broadway, conveniently around the corner from Bradley's.

That's how you found Bradley's.

Well, I would have found Bradley's anyway, if I lived in the Bronx. But it was very convenient, and I was there many nights a week.

Let's go into a little detail on these Bradley's years. Do you remember your first night there?

Yes, I do. I actually had come down from Boston, and I read about it in the New Yorker, the little 'Goings On About Town' thing, so I went. The upright piano was still there. Paul Desmond had not yet willed his piano to Bradley's. Peggy Stern was playing with George Mraz, and frankly, no disrespect to Peggy, I thought, 'Hey, I can get a gig in here; she doesn't play that much better or worse than me.' So I started hanging out incessantly. Jimmy Rowles was very kind to me, taught me by example, and showed me some great tunes and let me sit in now and then, and sometimes on a Sunday night he would be too hung over to make it, so I'd go in and play with Major Holley or Bob Cranshaw or whoever it was. But basically, I approached getting a gig in there very tactically.

By hanging.

By hanging, sitting in. I sat in once, and played with Red Mitchell, and Red was the one who said to Bradley Cunningham, 'Really, you should give the kid a gig.' At that time, there were no young players playing there. I was maybe 22. So I had either the good fortune or good karma to hire Sam Jones, and from that second set of playing with Sam, we were just hooked up til the day he died. Sam recommended me to Art Farmer. Through Art Farmer, I met Joe Henderson. So-on and so-forth. Once you worked at Bradley's, you could work at the Knickerbocker, one thing or another. Of course, it was a great showcase, because every musician in town would come by late for a drink. They'd hear you play. You were kind of on people's minds. So I started to get a lot of sideman work. I was definitely a regular. I spent many early mornings in there. There was a lot of bad behavior of all kinds, but it was all pretty harmless. Once again, it was the scene. It was just interesting to me. At a certain point, when everybody is drunk or high or both, it's like I'm talking to Tommy Flanagan, and I forget that he's fucking genius. He's just this really nice guy who's drunk and hanging out. It's kind of the common denominator ...

It melts away.

It melts away. I met Roland Hanna there. He was very encouraging; he encouraged me to develop my solo piano playing. Joanne Brackeen. I played in there with Buster Williams, with Ron Carter, with Charlie Haden, with George Mraz.

Was there a Bradley's style? Was it the sum total of the people who played there?

It was funny. The first set was the dinner set, so I wasn't supposed to play Wayne Shorter tunes or Billy Strayhorn tunes. We had to play what Bradley called 'fifty-dollar tunes'—Cole Porter, Harold Arlen—for the people eating dinner in the back. Then as the night grew on, it turned more and more into a jazz club as the kitchen closed down. It was hard work. You played four sets a night, six nights in a row. That's 24 sets in a week. Of course, the pressure was the greatest on the last set, when every musician and their mother was hanging out there. You'd look down the bar, and, oh, there's Art Blakey, and there's George Coleman, Joni Mitchell is in the corner with Don Alias ...

Sam Jones very nicely took me aside one night when Mingus was wheeled into the club (Bradley had suggested he come down and hear me), and I freaked out. It was like God was in the house. I flipped. I cut the set short, and barricaded myself in the office. Sam came back there and he said, 'Look, all these people that come in here, nothing you do or I do is going to blow them away. They've heard it all. So think about this. This guy came out of his house in a wheelchair to hear you. Go and talk to him. And moreover, just do what you do. Don't worry about who's who and whether or not you're being judged. Just do what you do with all your heart. Some people are going to like it, and some people won't. Not everyone is going to come up to you and say, 'Hey, man, you sound great,' partly because they might be insecure, or they might feel you're taking their job, or they might just not like you because you're white. Who knows. But don't take it personally if you don't get a lot of juice from these people. Just be a nice guy and play your ass off, and that's all you can do.'

As you mentioned, you were a white musician involved in a predominantly black scene, and although Bradley's kept an integrated booking policy, race was impossible to avoid. It could be said that you were operating as an outsider on two levels, first as a white musician, and then also, as a gay musician who probably had a parallel life.

Definitely. By the time I was working at Bradley's, I had a lover. I had moved into this loft. I've been here thirty years, since June 1979. I was living with my first lover, and I had another life. You're absolutely right about that. There was certainly a tension between one life and the other life. That was probably more of a tension than being white. I felt very accepted by the older black musicians. I mean, a couple gave me an attitude, that was ok. Look, once Sam Jones gave me his stamp of approval, I was totally cool. I was in within that kind of scene. A lot of the music that I play today sounds recognizably like jazz. A lot of it doesn't. But at that time, I was playing jazz with a capital J. I had not started composing much yet. But I was learning tons of tunes, with sometimes Tommy Flanagan or Kirk Lightsey showing me changes to this or that Billy Strayhorn tune. It was like grad school. It was fabulous.

So I spent most of my twenties, up until '85-'86, serving apprenticeships. I did all kinds of crazy stuff. I worked in the Catskills. I played private parties. I accompanied singers of dubious merit. I took odd arranging jobs. I didn't do anything that was horrifying, but ... That's another thing about young musicians. They get right out of school and they think they're going to get a record deal and be a jazz star. When I was living in Cincinnati I went on the road with a Mexican family circus. I wore a sombrero and a poncho. All of these crazy things that I've done for money and just to do them, and to stay busy, I don't really regret any of them. Certainly, when I play at the Village Vanguard or Zankel Hall or whatever, I'm fully cognizant of and grateful for what I have now—not that I haven't worked my ass off to get to where I am both musically and on a business level. Those experiences helped form me.

In '86, you do your first recording, and in the '90s you begin to record prolifically.

I can give you the basic chronology. I did Horizons. Then my second CD, which I sold to Sunnyside with me and Joey Baron and Charlie Haden, called Sarabande. I recorded a duo album with Jane Ira Bloom for JMT. Then my third trio album for Sunnyside with my then-trio with Mike Formanek and Jeff Hirschfield. I recorded a Bill Evans tribute CD [Evanessence] somewhere in there. Then I got signed to Chesky. I did three discs for them, got my first Grammy nomination. Then I floated for a year or two, got a Grammy nomination for a solo disc of Johnny Mandel tunes [I Never Told You: Fred Hersch Plays Johnny Mandel]. Then I signed with Nonesuch in 1996, and I was quite prolific. I did six projects in five years for them, including a three-disc box set and a duo with Bill Frisell [Songs We Know]. Then with Palmetto I did also six discs in five years. Now with Sunnyside it will be two discs this year.

The Nonesuch projects seemed primarily devoted to repertoire, and the Palmetto dates more devoted to original music. I'd like to talk about the way you address repertoire. I recall reviewing one of your Nonesuch records, and I wrote that it seemed each interpretation seemed akin to performance art, that you had a distinct point of view on each song.

Well, I've done Bill Evans, Johnny Mandel, Cole Porter, Jobim, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Monk, Strayhorn. I don't think it's any less creative to play great material by somebody else. It doesn't have to be an 'original' piece. Although when you write something, you bring a certain something to it. To me, I'd like to study whoever's work I'm about to record, go through lots and lots of tunes, and find the ones that speak to me, and then find my way in. Sometimes it's through the lyric, sometimes it's through the harmony, sometimes it's by an arrangement that I do, taking a faster tune and slowing it down, or changing the meter, or putting it in another key—so that it resonates with me. I don't feel that I'm in any way compromising when I do that.

I do think that Bob Hurwitz's vision for me at Nonesuch was repertoire-driven. He was not interested in recording my trio. He just said, 'We don't really make jazz records here.' At that time, that was true ... unless you call Bill Frisell a jazz musician, which he is sometimes and isn't sometimes. I mean, he is, but ...

Well, it's Bill Frisell music.

Exactly. So when I got to Palmetto, we started with the trio, Live at the Vanguard. It was a new trio with Nasheet Waits, and it really took off. I hadn't done kind of a more meaty, muscular, get-on-into-it disc in a long time, and I was ready for that. Matt Balitsaris at Palmetto has been tremendously supportive, even taking a chance on Leaves of Grass, which for a small label was a very big project, [and] which actually did very, very well. But he's always believed in: What do you want to do? Let's see if we can make it happen. My projects for him have varied. There's been the [Fred Hersch] Trio, Trio+2, Leaves of Grass, In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhuis, which got me an Instrumental Composition Grammy nomination for 'Valentine'—that made me very happy. So I have a pretty diverse catalog from Palmetto.

Likewise, Francois Zalacain at Sunnyside is very supportive, and we have a long history. Not only did I do those two trio albums for him, but I did duos with Norma Winstone and Jay Clayton. Also, MaxJazz did the duo with Nancy King.

At this point, is there a difference between playing repertoire and original music for you?

I'd say there's not that much difference. In each case, I want to be responsible to the composer, whether it's me or Monk. I want to play his music from the inside, the best way I know how and in my own way. So I don't think there's any substantial difference. The main thing is that whatever I'm playing, I just need to be connected to it. Sometimes it can be just 'jazzy' more than others. But I like a lot of different kinds of music. I grew up heavily with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor and that kind of singer-songwriter music that was so incredibly great in the late '60s and early '70s, and the beginnings of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Motown. All that music really formed me, in addition to my lifelong study and appreciation of classical music.

And all of those flavors certainly come forth on this new Pocket Orchestra record. It's an interesting vehicle to bring forth all the food groups that comprise your tonal personality.

Right. But the thing I'm most proud of is that, yes, there are all these different kinds of music, but I think they live together well. There's a through line, so that it doesn't sound like a pu-pu platter …. But I think it shows really the range of this kind of ensemble, which I am very pleased about.

You've had working trios, trios you've kept fairly busy for quite a while.

Busy is relative. But there have been four, basically. The first was Marc Johnson and Joey Baron—we didn't work very much, but that was the first one. There was Mike Formanek and Jeff Hirschfield, when I was first starting to tour as a leader. Then there was Drew Gress and Tom Rainey for quite some time, and then Drew Gress and Nasheet. John Hebert has been stepping in for Drew a lot of the time, because Drew is insanely busy.

Your trios are very interactive. There seem to be feedback loops going on all the time, tridirectional playing—very independent. Can you speak to what you're looking for from your musical partners, not just vocabulary, but the intersection of personalities?

Well, if we're just talking about trio, which I think is a good thing to talk about, the first thing I look for, especially with a bassist, is the sound—the sound they get from their instrument. Of course, where they place the beat. Also, I don't want to play with musicians who would look down their nose at playing a slow version of 'Mood Indigo.' I don't want to play with players who think it all has to be in seven and a science project. I want people who are bringing their wisdom and experience to whatever kind of music I choose to play, and, whatever it is, really playing that. I also look in a bass player for whether or not they've done their homework in terms of harmonic understanding, and I need somebody who really understands my phrasing. The drummer … I look for a sound, and also quick response. Of course, where they place the beat is very important. Nasheet and Tom are certainly very different drummers. At the time I made the switch, I felt that I wanted to go in a really different direction. That was important to me. Nasheet has a great grasp of the tradition and is a very strong stylist. Drew is completely remarkable. He's a first-rate composer and really a great jazz bass player, I think among the very best, and he's got a fantastic sound. John has a good sound, too.

The other thing that is important to me with everybody I play with is who they are as people. When you're on the road with people, and eating meals with them, and schlepping them around and having to deal with their emails and the schedules... I need people who responsive, responsible, and nice to be with. It's really nice when you can feel that your personal attraction is continued on the bandstand, instead of it just being the gig, so there's a flow between the bandstand and the personal relationship.

Are you looking for them to surprise you on the bandstand?

Absolutely. I do love to be surprised. That doesn't mean I want things to be trampled on. I want them to play whatever I choose to play from as deep a place as I am. That requires maturity and depth. With horn players, it's the same. I want players who are going to really connect and take it somewhere. There are certain trios that are working a lot right now, and some are very manicured and some are very loose. I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle. I think I have definitely leanings toward the left, but I also love to play melody. I don't mind playing a ballad or a standard or a cover.

Another major component of your activity is solo performance. Perhaps your solo recordings are the most consequential source of your reputation in the broader musical market.


You did a Maybeck

That was my first solo album.

But I don't think you were really thinking of yourself as a solo pianist then. Though I guess playing all that duo at Bradley's would have been excellent preparation.

I've done a lot of work in duos. But I played my first formal concert up at Saratoga for what was called the Kool Festival, around '82. So I've been doing it a little while. The Maybeck think I still feel is a very good album. Frankly, I think it's one of the best in the series. That certainly encouraged me to go further in. Particularly Nonesuch's support of my solo playing ramped that up.

Do you see solo playing as an exploratory medium? Are you subject to different influences in your solo playing?

Certainly. That's definitely true. I still pretty much operate within the world of tunes or song, song forms. Most of my music is song form or tune form; that is, it repeats, with variations. And I am comfortable with that, with theme-and-variations. So in solo concerts, I do tunes, or pieces. When I play with a trio, I obviously have two people to react to, and I also have the audience. When I play solo, since I need something to react to, and audiences are unreliable, I'm more attuned to the acoustics of what I'm playing and the particular sonority of the piano, and sonority and sound is something I've worked hard for. People say they know me very much by my sound, the way I get a tone out of the piano.

That's something I work on a lot with students. Pianists are often very intent on pushing the levers down and playing very fast, without really thinking about how to use sound as a tool—that it's not just slick harmonies and lots of stuff. People who taught me about sound were people like Jimmy Rowles, who got an incredible sound. Ahmad, as I mentioned. Certainly, in my early days, comparing the sound of Keith and Chick and McCoy and Herbie. They all had the different eighth note, a different attack, a different rhythmic sense. So I encourage young musicians to really study their eighth notes, just like a drummer would study Ed Blackwell's cymbal beat, versus Billy Higgins', versus Jack DeJohnette's, versus Tony Williams'. The eighth note and the sound is our signature. I can spot Tommy Flanagan pretty much nine times out of ten because of the way he plays his eighth note. I can almost always spot the big guys, and I can also usually spot Brad Mehldau, and a lot of piano players, just by the way they play eighth notes. That's something to which I've devoted a lot of time and thought.

And with solo piano, just building up sound and creating a soundscape is really for me what it's about. I'd never consider myself a chops player in the traditional sense. I don't play burning single-note lines. But I have a technique that enables me to play the piano perhaps more like a drum set or an orchestra with lots of things going on rhythmically and harmonically, and moving parts, and kind of complex things that might seem even, hopefully, more ... I hate to use the word 'amazing'... that people who know would understand more. I'm not like your flashy, put-me-on-a-jazz-festival-stage kind of piano player, even though I do that sometimes.

On his website, Do the Math, Ethan Iverson gave you and Christopher O'Reilly, who you play piano duos with, a quiz, and one question was about your favorite rhythmic feel. You just mentioned Higgins, Blackwell, DeJohnette, Williams—but to that question you responded Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, and a Brazilian thing as the rhythmic feels you like the most. Not a jazz feel.

When it comes down to it, I like music that makes me want to move. Sometimes jazz music does that. Sometimes it's cerebral. With Earth, Wind & Fire or Peter Gabriel or great Brazilian music, it makes me want to get up and dance. In other cultures, music is very natural and a part of everyday life, and of course, there are professionals, but there are a lot more amateurs in the true sense of lovers of music. Here and in the West, if you have talent, you go to music school, you do this-and-that-and-the-other. But I think that rhythm is sometimes not emphasized.

Sophia Rosoff's genius as a teacher is that everything is about rhythm, and when you're looking at a piece of classical music, you outline it and find the basic underlying rhythms and then fill in the details. Well, that's what jazz musicians are doing with chord symbols. That's an outline. A melody and a chord symbol is an outline. So we're outlining it and filling in more and more detail. I've used the analogy that what I do, or what jazz improvisation is, is if you take the analogy of a tune being like a glass mixing bowl, you can put rocks into it, take out the rocks, put a goldfish into it, take out the goldfish, put in jello, take out the jello—but the container stays the same size and it's transparent, but it's solid. That's what tunes are to me.

My love of non-jazz rhythm might have surprised a lot of people. I could have said Miles Davis' Live at the Blackhawk, Wynton Kelly—that's pretty slammin' rhythm-wise. Or Sonny Rollins' Alfie or Night at the Village Vanguard ...

Four to the floor.

I recommend every piano student of mine buy Sonny Rollins' Night at the Village Vanguard and Way Out West. That's jazz improvisation at its highest level, in my opinion, when you're dealing with tunes.

There's also your art music—the music you perform on Thirteen Ways, or your duos with Norma Winstone, or what Jo Lawry does on Pocket Orchestra. It's very much coming out of cabaret traditions and lieder, modern classical music with voice. It surely places you firmly as a contributor to what used to be called Third Stream.

First of all, to me, music is music, and each set of words that I work with, if I'm patient enough, it will tell me what to do with them. Like, 'Light Years,' for instance, ended up being half-spoken and half-sung, just because I lived with the words and that seemed like the best way to express them. The same thing with 'Leaves of Grass.' It took me months and months to whittle down 'Leaves of Grass' into a manageable text.

You've described the process. You typed them all out, put them on the floor, and cut and shuffled them.

Right. Once I had that, I wrote the music very quickly. 'Cabaret' is kind of a dirty word, especially for a gay jazz musician. Look, I've worked with some of the great 'cabaret' singers—Sylvia Syms and people like that.

Did you work the gay circuit at all in the '70s and '80s?

No, and I never sang. So I didn't do the cocktail bar thing. I never needed to. I think it's possible that I decided not to sing just so I wouldn't end up as a typical gay ...

Gay pianist as opposed to pianist who is gay.

Right. But I feel the same as with my classical music. My album Concert Music 2001-2006 is through-composed piano pieces, virtuosic piano pieces that I don't play, and a piano/violin/cello trio. At this point, it's kind of what I call Fred Music. You talked about Bill Frisell Music. This is Fred Music. I'm not competing with Stravinsky or John Adams. I'm writing from my heart and what I think, and hopefully with good technique and craft and taste. I don't feel any pressure. Likewise, when I write songs, I don't feel any pressure. I'm not trying to be the next Stephen Sondheim. There's a part of me that figures, 'Oh, I should write a musical.' That's something I haven't done yet. But it's not strong enough. I wouldn't say no to it if I had a great collaborator and a great set of words. I've been to some recent Broadway musicals, and they're frankly crap, and I think if that's the level, I could certainly do better than that.

In the education module of the film, you're shot with a piano student, and you say something very interesting, which I'll paraphrase, to the effect that even though you might wish that you were operating at a certain place, you have address with exactly where you are at the moment. You're not there, you're here, and you have to deal with that reality. It seems that this could equally well be extrapolated to your philosophy of life outside of music.


Is that remark in some way emblematic of a philosophy of jazz?

I believe so. When I teach, I use a lot of tennis analogies. Like, if you're in the back of the court and you've hit the ball, and the opponent drop-shots you right over the net, you can't say, 'Hey, stop, can you hit it to me.' You have to be prepared to get there. You can't wish you were there, because your opponent is trying to hit it away from you. Jazz and tennis are both reactive things, and a tennis player can't think two shots ahead. You can think maybe one shot ahead. But if you start thinking about the score and you're up 5-2 in the third set, then you lose. A match can turn around in no time. One sloppy game, and the guy gets back into the set against you.

With jazz, I don't play stuff that I've figured out in advance, for the most part. Particularly for young players …. Look, it's basic Buddhism. Being in the moment; this is the only moment you have. For instance, when you're playing, if you get all wrapped up in what you played two phrases ago that sucked, then you're not able to concentrate on playing what you're playing now. So according to Thich Nhat Hanh, who is my favorite Buddhism guy, a Vietnamese Buddhist priest, he says, basically the only hope you have for a better future is taking care of the present and doing things mindfully and whole-heartedly, and when you're playing … if I'm way up here, well, yeah, I can move down here, but is that necessarily the best choice? Where my hands are, I try to just … well, like a chess match. You want to move your pieces in some logical way. Maybe that's not the best analogy.

Well, in chess you are thinking three or five or eight moves ahead.

That's true. It's easiest for me to compose when I have a framework. In the case of 'Leaves of Grass,' the words were the framework. Or if I say to myself, 'Gee, I need to write a ballad,' I make myself an assignment, and whether I write it that day or the next day or the next week, my subconscious is thinking ballad. I just plant the seed. Then when the opportunity is right, something will come out. It may not be great, but something will come out. Jazz is very much in the moment, and when I'm playing with the level of players that I play with, who are so alert and present, that's even more incentive for me not to get wrapped up in my own shit, for all of us …. To me, the greatest thing in jazz music is for all of us to be kind of spontaneously composing together, to take something somewhere and take the audience with us. That's like the pinnacle. If my batting average is even .300, I'm thrilled.

Within the film, you reveal yourself full-on in a way that I've never seen in a documentary about a jazz musician. Why did you decide to be so open about the nitty-gritty of what you've been going through? This is different than coming-out.

Yes, I came out in a big way in '93. A big, big way—about having HIV and being gay. I think at this point, I feel like to be open and honest is the best thing for me psychologically, and it's also something that other people might find hopeful or inspiring, to say, 'Yes, I deal with this every day,' 'No, it's not a death sentence,' 'Yes, I take a shitload of medications every day,' 'Yes, I have side effects,' 'Yes, I've had a terrible year of health problems'—having to completely rebuild my body. I think it would be dishonest of me not to talk about things.

The filmmaker, Katja Duregger, is a gay woman who is a jazz writer and documentary filmmaker, and she sent me an email that said, 'I've really been following your music; I know you're gay; I would like to make a story about you and your music and your health.' I said, 'Yes,' and then we started. I think, if anything, the film, to me, focuses a bit too heavily on my health. I don't think it presents as wide a variety of my music as I would probably like. Part of it was due to rights clearances—it's very expensive to have Monk or Vernon Duke or whatever on a DVD. They couldn't afford it.

That's why it's all original music.

Right. The other thing that I think would have been helpful would be to have had an Ethan [Iverson] or a Brad [Mehldau] as a voice to plant me in the jazz world. Not just my engineer and my piano teacher, but somebody from the jazz world—maybe a critic, maybe a musician, maybe somebody I taught—to assess my position in the jazz world. I'm probably not destined to be everybody's critics' poll winner, although stranger things have happened. But I think—and I thought as I was lying in rehab, unable to walk or eat, with a tube coming out of my stomach, very dark times—I thought, 'Well, if this is how it's going to be for the rest of my life, I don't think I really want to live at all.' But even more, I thought, 'Well, if I never play again'—and that seemed a very real possibility, either for mental reasons or physical reasons—I thought, 'Well, I think I've made an impact' … as a player, as a composer, as a teacher, as a role model in some ways. I think I've made an impact. At least I felt good about that. Of course, now that I'm back at it, I want to keep doing even more and more. I don't think I'm being egotistical in saying that. There are a lot of amazing musicians on the planet, and I pay all due respect to them. But I think I have a certain thing that's mine.

You were mentioning that the Fred Hersch moment might arrive, as it did for Joe Lovano. If health reasons inhibit your touring, it might hinder that level of recognition. But it seems to me that you've attained a very privileged position over the last 10-15 years. You have a lot of records, you're able to do what you want, and to anyone who's aware of jazz, your name is quite recognizable.

Ironically, for years and years (I think I said this in the film), I just wanted to be heard, to be sure that if I hopped off, I wouldn't be forgotten, that I'd left something behind. So every record I was doing was my last record …

Because of AIDS.

Yes. I think I've achieved that now. Now that I care less and less, actually more things are coming to me. I'm the subject of a very large Times Magazine article that David Hajdu is doing, which is four pages and a gigantic picture. More and more, I'm playing at the big festivals. I think when the dust settles, if I live long enough into my sixties, I become sort of an old master, and I think I have more than enough opportunities. I don't want to be a road rat, but I don't have, for some reason, the high-powered management behind me that a Joe Lovano does or a Brad Mehldau does or a Bill Frisell does, who would get me those high profile gigs. I work plenty, and I do lots of other things that I enjoy besides playing jazz music, so there isn't a whole lot that's lacking in my career right now.

Are there ways in which being identified as gay has been injurious to your career? What are the pros and cons, business-wise, of being out, of being a gay jazz musician?

Well, in some cases, it's an incentive for people to hire me. I'm sure people have said things behind my back that are probably not that nice. They haven't gotten back to me, so I don't know what they are. But the bottom line when you're working for a presenter of any kind is whether or not you can put the butts in the seats. They don't care who you sleep with.

And you do that?

Yeah, I'd say I do. So that's the bottom line really. If your music is good and you're easy to work with and you keep coming back with different and new interesting projects, and people show up and pay their money, then that's really all it's about. I've been doing that now for a while. So I've got to think that it's going to at least continue at this level, if not get a little better. It's a non-issue. Being gay is about as interesting as whether or not you wear glasses. It really doesn't make any difference. Now, it's not like I walk up to somebody and say, 'Hi, I'm Fred. I'm gay. I'd like to be known hopefully as a good person and a good musician who happens to be gay—and incidentally has AIDS. That's kind of how I'd like to …

And who, incidentally, is out and very forthright about it.

Right, and I consider myself an activist, and I've raised lots of money and I do benefits, and I work with organizations and do what I can.

I should also mention my partner, Scott Morgan. We've been together now for almost seven years.

A central theme in the film is your relationship with Scott.

Right. During these three months of the summer of 2008, I was literally helpless. I was in a coma for two months and rehab for a month, and he just dealt with everything so magnificently. He dealt with my two months of being completely psychotic earlier in the year, which he said was actually scarier, even though I was in no danger for my health—it's just he never knew what to expect. I was really nuts. But he's not only thoroughly competent and with a great sense of morals and decency, but to be in a relationship with somebody who I care about so deeply, who so deeply cares about me, and would do pretty much anything, is an incredible blessing. I've never had that before. He's seven years younger than I, so he's 46. To get involved with somebody who has HIV (he's HIV-negative) takes some … well, you've got to think about that, the potential of having to deal with what eventually he had to deal with. And he did not flinch once. He has just an incredible character. He's very musically astute, he has an excellent ear, and we go out to clubs a lot together. When we had our commitment ceremony, we got our picture in the New York Times Style Section like everybody else. I'm as married as I need to be. I suppose if New York City legalizes gay marriage and our accountant thinks that it would be an advantage for us to file taxes together, we'll get married. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm married, and we are protected by the City of New York Gay Rights Ordinance, and we have powers of attorney for each other. But I would also get married if I thought that my getting married would make some kind of statement. If I could somehow have an impact. If, for instance, they found that a lot of people were like me and Scott, not getting married, even though we could, I would go down to City Hall and do it, and then go out to dinner.

You seem to be very conscious of your public position. I get the sense that a good chunk of your decision to come out had to do with your sense of yourself as a role model, as well as the fact that a certain honesty is needed to play jazz, or to improvise, that …. It probably would be even harder for someone who does what you do to be closeted than for someone else.

That's a very good point. I realized early on that you cannot be honest on the bandstand and dishonest off it. It's very difficult. And the further you get into it, and the more creative you get, and the choices that you make, whether it's who you play with, or what kind of music you write, or where you play, or how you live your life, you have to be honest. As I said, that doesn't mean that I throw anything in anybody's face. But the price of being in this closet is just too heavy.

It was very heartening, actually kind of overwhelming, the concern and everything from the 'jazz community' when I was so ill last summer. Obviously, I didn't know it, because I was completely out of it. People called, people sent letters. This was not long after Dennis Irwin had passed, which was just a completely unnecessary thing—it didn't have to happen. I'm lucky that I have insurance, and that I have a great doctor, and that I stay on the case and I take my meds, and I don't do recreational drugs. So I take care of myself the best that I can.

What does the remainder of 2009 and 2010 hold? Perhaps we can tie that to the notion of thinking of the future, as a person with AIDS.

Well, I certainly think at least a year ahead. At this point, I'm 53, and all things being equal, I fully expect to be 60. The longer I stay with my medications, the larger chance there is that I'll die of something as a result of all the medications—a heart incident, or my kidneys will go out, or my liver. It's hard to know what's just aging, and what's the disease, and what's the drugs. But I have a busy summer. I'm playing Vancouver and Halifax with the trio. I'm playing Paris with the trio. At Northsea, the Trio+2. Ghent with the Trio+2. Amsterdam with the trio, and we're going to show the film, because the Bimhuis is part of it. Then a duo concert with Norma Winstone. At the end of June, I'm bringing in Nancy King for a weekend at the Kitano. In the fall, nothing is really set, but in December I'm hoping to go to Argentina and Uruguay for the first time, and then I'm supposed to be part of a big event at Disney Hall in L.A., which is Jazz and Beat Poet evening. So I may be doing some things with Kurt Elling … it will be kind of an all-star thing with Christian McBride … John Adams programmed it. It's part of their East Meets West series. Plus teaching at New England Conservatory every other week, and being a Visiting Professor at Western Michigan University twice a year.

It's a busy schedule.

It's a busy schedule, and I make a very decent living, and I have a nice, cheap apartment, and Scott and I have a lovely place out in Pennsylvania—it's good.

Ted Panken interviewed Fred Hersch on April 22, 2009

May 19, 2009 · 4 comments


A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks (Part 2)

Edited by Ted Gioia

We continue with our history of cool jazz in 100 tracks. Below we present the final fifty recordings, which span the period from 1958 to the present day. (For part one of this article, click here.)

I again offer my thanks to the following writers whose work is included in this survey: Scott Albin, Thomas Cunniffe, David Franklin, Steve Greenlee, Bill Kirchner, Walter Kolosky, Alan Kurtz, Todd S. Jenkins, Chris Kelsey, Matt Leskovic, Stuart Nicholson, Thierry Quénum, Mark Saleski, Judith Schlesinger, Jeff Sultanof, David Tenenholtz and Brendan Wolfe.

Happy listening!

A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks
Part Two: 1958-2008

 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
Summertime (1958)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"Gil Evans was a master of orchestral color, and even these simple instrumental groupings are interesting because he shifts them unobtrusively. . . ."

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 Jimmy Giuffre

Jimmy Giuffre:
The Train and the River (1958)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'The Train and The River' is one of the finest 1950s jazz compositions. . . ."

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Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal:
Poinciana (1958)
Reviewed by Steve Greenlee

"'Poinciana' ranks among the loveliest upbeat numbers in the jazz canon. . . ."

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 Bud Shank & Laurindo Almeida

Bud Shank & Laurindo Almeida:
Little Girl Blue (1958)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Long before 'Girl from Ipanema' hit the charts, Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida were exploring ways of combining Brazilian music with the ethos of cool jazz. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
My Man's Gone Now (1958)
Reviewed by Scott Albin

"Serena's lamentation for her slain husband Robbins, 'My Man's Gone Now' as reworked by Davis and Evans is mesmerizing from beginning to end. . . ."

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 João Gilberto

João Gilberto:
Chega de Saudade (1958)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Four years would elapse before the U.S. market discovered this sound, but when they found it, they didn't need to know a word of Portuguese to realize that something special had been hatching down in Rio. . . ."

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Chico Hamilton

Chico Hamilton:
Blue Sands (1958)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'Blue Sands,' composed by flutist/saxophonist Buddy Collette for the original Chico Hamilton Quintet (1955), was part of a long tradition of jazz exotica dating at least as far back as Ellington's "Caravan" (1936). . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
Flamenco Sketches (1959)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"With gloriously lucid solos all around (especially Coltrane's), 'Flamenco Sketches' lasts 9+ minutes, but you want it to go on forever. . . ."

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Shelly Manne

Shelly Manne:
Summertime (1959)
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

"In 1959 producer Lester Koenig had the good sense to record Shelly Manne & His Men for four nights at San Francisco's Blackhawk. . . ."

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 Lee Konitz & Jimmy Giuffre

Lee Konitz & Jimmy Giuffre:
Palo Alto (1959)
Reviewed by Thierry Quenum

"This collective effort by Konitz, Giuffre and their colleagues is definitely one of the major achievements of the so-called cool school. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
So What (1959)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"This is the coolest hipster's shrug of all time. . . ."

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 Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller:
Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"The underlying structures are full of interesting twists, such as the fresh take on 5/4 from the opening movement or the unconventional 13-bar blues of the 'Passacaglia'. . . ."

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Art Pepper

Art Pepper:
'Round Midnight (1959)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Due to what the 1950s jazz press euphemistically called 'personal problems,' the once-prolific Art Pepper made just one recording session between late 1957 and early '59. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio) (1959)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'Everybody in the whole studio,' participant Elvin Jones recalled, 'including engineers, janitors, and everyone else—they were just awed. . . . '"

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 John Lewis

John Lewis:
Sketch (1959)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"MJQ + string quartet = one felicitous match. . . ."

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 Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan (featuring Zoot Sims):
Come Rain or Come Shine (1960)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Make no mistake, this is among the finest gems of Zoot's 45-year career. . . ."

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 Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan (featuring Bob Brookmeyer):
You Took Advantage of Me (1960)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Brookmeyer's arrangement takes advantage of the CJB's superb ensemble, and the trombonist himself delivers a droll, choked-valve cornucopia of smears, burrs, sputters and gusts. . . ."

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 Bill Evans

Bill Evans:
My Foolish Heart (1961)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"If the beats were any farther apart you might doubt that there was any strict tempo on this track. . . ."

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 Art Farmer

Art Farmer:
Goodbye, Old Girl (1961)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Art Farmer set a goal for his swan song as a fulltime trumpeter: ' wanted it to sound as if I were sitting and talking to someone with the horn, talking to just one person'. . . ."

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 Stan Getz

Stan Getz:
I�m Late, I�m Late (1961)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Stan Getz's completely improvised playing on two 4-minute takes proved so remarkable, they were spliced to form a continuous 8-minute track. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"These opening feints—forty seconds of sweetness and light—are worth the price of admission alone . . . but then Miles enters and shows how he can put his stamp on a song just by playing the melody. . . . "

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 Jimmy Giuffre (with Paul Bley & Steve Swallow)

Jimmy Giuffre (with Paul Bley & Steve Swallow):
Emphasis (1961)
Reviewed by Mark Saleski

"With the opening phrases so full of angular passages from Giuffre, and with all of those clattering chords from Bley, the listener can be diverted from the truth: this is a blues. . . ."

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 Stan Getz

Stan Getz:
Desafinado (1962)
Reviewed by Judith Schlesinger

"'Desafinado' first appeared on the 1962 Jazz Samba album that launched the bossa nova craze and stayed on the charts for 70 weeks. . . ."

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 Vince Guaraldi

Vince Guaraldi:
Cast Your Fate to the Wind (1962)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Alternating pedal point and Latin beat before breaking into 4/4 jazz, combining a funky left hand with Floyd Cramer-style right hand, Vince shows the virtuous simplicity of less is more. . . ."

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 Stan Getz

Stan Getz:
The Girl from Ipanema (1963)
Reviewed by Judith Schlesinger

"One of the most recorded tunes of all time, it's also been Muzaked deeply into the public mind. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
Summer Night (1963)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is a hidden gem in the Miles Davis discography, a dark and moody ballad performance that got lost in the shuffle. . . ."

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 Henry Mancini

Henry Mancini:
The Pink Panther Theme (1963)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"if they ever crown the king of the cats, Mancini's chart will be used for the coronation march. . . ."

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 Vince Guaraldi

Vince Guaraldi:
Linus and Lucy (1964)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'Twelve drummers drumming?' suggested Linus. 'Don't be ridiculous,' snapped Lucy. . . ."

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 Steve Kuhn & Gary McFarland

Steve Kuhn & Gary McFarland:
St. Tropez Shuttle (1966)
Reviewed by Bill Kirchner

"McFarland wrote with deep understanding of the pianist's gifts—particularly his often austere lyricism. . . ."

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 Dave Holland

Dave Holland:
Conference of the Birds (1972)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Do I detect a Celtic tinge? Am I crazy when I actually hear the birds singing in this piece?. . . ."

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 Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman

Bill Evans & Claus Ogerman:
Symbiosis (1974)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"The result is one of the neglected masterpieces of the decade, and a high point in Evans's discography. . . ."

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 Stan Getz & Jimmy Rowles

Stan Getz & Jimmy Rowles:
The Peacocks (1975)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"It was a great decade for this journeyman musician, but the high point came on this session -- with a major label in his corner, and Stan Getz producing and stepping out of the booth to join in as a sideman. . . ."

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 Jim Hall

Jim Hall:
Concierto de Aranjuez (1975)
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

"Jim Hall's 'Concierto de Aranjuez' unites three of the purest melodists in jazz in Baker, Desmond, and the guitarist himself. . . ."

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Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond:
Wendy (1975)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"If cool jazz got any cooler than this, you would need to wear parkas to the gig. . . ."

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 Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett:
The K�ln Concert: Part I (1975)
Reviewed by Walter Kolosky

"Any description of this music that does not contain the word 'inspired' is a lie. . . ."

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Cal Tjader

Cal Tjader:
When Lights Are Low (1977)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Cal Tjader recorded prolifically for Berkeley's Fantasy label, but his last project is my favorite. . . ."

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 Stan Getz

Stan Getz:
Blood Count (1987)
Reviewed by Scott Albin

"Stan Getz had not heard the classic Ellington-Hodges recording of 'Blood Count' from August 1967, and had never played it until the Pure Getz session in 1982. Yet Getz outdid Hodges and pretty much 'owned' the tune from that point on. . . ."

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 Chet Baker

Chet Baker:
Stella by Starlight (1987)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Here is a live recording made less than a year before Baker's death—at a Tokyo date much prized by Baker-o-philes—that finds the trumpeter improvising with unbridled creativity. . . ."

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 Art Farmer

Art Farmer:
Soul Eyes (1991)
Reviewed by Scott Albin

"Farmer's long solo is beautifully sculpted, and with his dreamy phrases and surging lines succeeds in capturing the tune's essence. . . ."

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 Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan:
Deception (1992)
Reviewed by Scott Albin

"In 1991, original Nonet member Gerry Mulligan decided it was time to record a new version of Birth of the Cool. Miles Davis was interested in participating, but his untimely death resulted in Wallace Roney taking his place. . . ."

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 Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider:
Evanescence (1992)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Maria Schneider honors her mentor Gil Evans—whom she assisted in various musical pursuits during the last three years of his life—with her glorious composition 'Evanescence'. . . ."

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Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn:
You Go to My Head (1995)
Reviewed by Scott Albin

"After the track ends, you might not even realize that neither Horn nor [Joe] Henderson soloed. Their subtle shadings and the collective impact of their miniature commentaries are so overwhelmingly absorbing as to require no extended individual elaborations. . . ."

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 Diana Krall

Diana Krall:
S'wonderful (2001)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"I once thought that all the great bossa nova singers were from Brazil, but Krall has forced me to alter my opinion. . . ."

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 Tomasz Stanko

Tomasz Stanko:
Soul of Things I (2001)
Reviewed by Stuart Nicholson

"What do you play after Kind of Blue? It seems to consume the space before and after it, diminishing anything that follows. Here is one answer. . . ."

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 Norah Jones

Norah Jones:
Don't Know Why (2002)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Everything clicks here—the wistful melody, Jones' impeccable phrasing, the understated accompaniment. . . ."

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Madeleine Peyroux

Madeleine Peyroux:
Between the Bars (2003)
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

"While Peyroux's smoky vocals and behind-the-beat delivery are heavily Billie Holiday-influenced, in this case the fit is perfect. . . ."

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 Enrico Rava & Stefano Bollani

Enrico Rava & Stefano Bollani:
Estate (2006)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"The performance moves from introspective lyricism to rhapsodic rubato, but never strains for effect. . . ."

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 Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider:
Cerulean Skies (2007)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"We have come to expect grand things from Maria Schneider, and she delivers again on 'Cerulean Skies'—a 22-minute track that shows off the full range of her aural palette. . . ."

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Marcin Wasilewski

Marcin Wasilewski:
Cinema Paradiso (2007)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"What remarkable patience Wasilewski shows in constructing his performances! Hearing his music is almost like watching the replay of a great sporting event in slow motion. . . ."

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Teddy Charles

Teddy Charles:
Nostalgia in Times Square (2008)
Reviewed by Chris Kelsey

"Teddy Charles might well be the only jazz musician to have given up a successful career in music to become a sea captain. . . ."

Read More

May 16, 2009 · 4 comments


A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks

Edited by Ted Gioia

Night at the Club by Thomas Andersen

                    Night at the Club
           Artwork by Thomas Andersen

The term "cool jazz" was rarely used by jazz fans until the middle of 20th century. In earlier decades, the phrase itself would have probably struck most listeners as a strange one. Back then, jazz was often simply called "hot music" by the public, and the idea that it could also be "cool" went against the grain.

Yet almost from the start, a few musicians were experimenting with ways of tempering the intensity of jazz. They did this by a variety of methods. Sometimes they tinkered with the beat, or imposed tight formal structures on the music, or worked on new ways of constructing phrases. They might adopt cerebral poses or confess their deepest emotions with heart-on-sleeves intimacy. But no matter the stratagem, the goal was always the same: to lower the temperature of the music and bring out different qualities in jazz—expressive elements that might be lost in a hotter, more unfettered performance style.

Today jazz is still hot music—at least, most of the time. The cool sensibility has never been dominant, although for a period in the 1950s it seemed to be on the brink of establishing itself as at least equal to "the hot" in terms of influence and popularity. Those glory days of the so-called "cool school" proved to be a short-lived moment of prominence, although it is worth pointing out that many of the most beloved (and biggest-selling) albums in the history of jazz were the result of this flowering of a less extroverted sensibility.

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

Despite its importance, cool jazz has never been defined with any great precision, and many have debated which artists should be included under this rubric. Later this year, I will publish a book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, that studies "the cool" as a cultural force (check out the photo, and excuse this shameless, self-serving plug). But a history of this sort, deserves a required listening list, which I have compiled, drawing on the extensive review database at and the work of 18 of our contributors.

In this survey, we look at 100 tracks that capture the full range of the cool aesthetic in jazz. These performances span 85 years, with a clear concentration in the 1950s—the "golden age" of cool. There will certainly be some debate about what has been included (or excluded), and the list makes no pretence at closing the book on the subject. Yet anyone who takes the time—several hours of listening—to get to know these works, will have a working knowledge of the role of cool in jazz that no book or article can ever hope to match.

I offer my thanks to the following writers whose work is included in this survey: Scott Albin, Thomas Cunniffe, David Franklin, Steve Greenlee, Bill Kirchner, Walter Kolosky, Alan Kurtz, Todd S. Jenkins, Chris Kelsey, Matt Leskovic, Stuart Nicholson, Thierry Quénum, Mark Saleski, Judith Schlesinger, Jeff Sultanof, David Tenenholtz and Brendan Wolfe.

In this installment, we include the first 50 tracks. These recordings cover the period from 1923 to 1958. (Click here for part two, which highlights another 50 tracks and brings our story up to the present day.)

Happy listening!

A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks
Part One: 1923-1958

 Frank Trumbauer

Frank Trumbauer:
I Never Miss the Sunshine (1923)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"We can see this record as a key moment in the birth of cool jazz, although that term didn't exist back in 1923. . ."

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Ferde Grofé

Ferde Grofé:
Mississippi Suite (1925)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"It is hard not to be charmed by this period work, but ultimately it is jazz light—an especially polished example, to be sure. . . "

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Bix & Tram

Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke:
Singin' the Blues (1927)
Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe

"Here was jazz's first balladeer. His solo, though improvised, feels like a finished composition . . ."

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Bix & Tram

Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke:
I'm Coming Virginia (1927)
Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe

"In this, his longest solo, Bix is at the height of his powers . . . employing what Richard Sudhalter rather dramatically described as 'Caravaggio-like shafts of light'. . ."

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 Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke:
In a Mist (1927)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This early example of cool jazz gets positively chilly at certain points . . . There is no sentimentality here, rather a glittery crystalline quality, shiny and alluring even in its remoteness. . . ."

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 Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington:
Black Beauty (1928)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"There remains something deeply affecting about Duke, alone at the piano, playing one of his loveliest tunes. . . ."

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Red Norvo

Red Norvo:
In a Mist (1933)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Bix Beiderbecke had passed away only two years before this session . . . Norvo resurrects Bix's 'In a Mist' in an ethereal performance that rivals Beiderbecke's own memorable rendition. . . ."

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Red Norvo

Red Norvo:
Dance of the Octopus (1933)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is no mere novelty number, but true jazz chamber music of the highest order—and proof that the cool aesthetic pioneered by Beiderbecke and Trumbauer in the 1920s still had adherents during the FDR years. . . ."

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 Benny Carter

Benny Carter:
Nightfall (1936)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Jazz history books will tell you how Lester Young single-handedly forged a more lithe and fluid approach to the tenor sax. . . . But check out Benny Carter's tenor solo on his 1936 recording of 'Nightfall'—recorded a half-year before Young's first session.. . . ."

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Count Basie & Lester Young

Count Basie (with Lester Young):
Oh, Lady Be Good (1936)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Pres glides atop the Gershwin tune for two glorious, untethered choruses, as effortlessly graceful as an eagle out for a Sunday cruise. . . ."

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young

Billie Holiday & Lester Young:
I Can't Get Started (1938)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"In the long lineage of cool jazz, we constantly find the creative bursts coming at us through the work of couples -- Bix & Tram, Miles & Gil, Getz & Gilberto -- almost as if music this sensitive required some sort of magnetic, mutual attraction. . . ."

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Billie Holiday & Lester Young

Billie Holiday & Lester Young:
All of Me (1941)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"The collaborations between Billie Holiday and Lester Young still speak to us today . . . their influence on later popular music can hardly be over-stated. . . ."

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Claude Thornhill

Claude Thornhill:
Snowfall (1941)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this music anticipates the 'cool jazz' revolution of the 1950s, and it comes to no surprise that many of the artists associated with that movement either worked with or were influenced by Thornhill. . . ."

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Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole:
Straighten Up and Fly Right (1943)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'That's the filthiest song I ever heard in my life," declared comedienne Lucille Ball, rejecting this track for one of her movies. . . ."

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 Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano:
I Can�t Get Started (1946)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"If there is a jazz piano track from this period with a more advanced harmonic conception, I haven't heard it. . . ."

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 Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck Octet:
Curtain Music (Closing Theme) (1946)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octet—a short snippet from 1946—predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. . . ."

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Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole:
Route 66 (1946)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"In olden times (pre-Interstates), U.S. Route 66 was the main highway from Chicago to L.A. It was lawful to travel in the opposite direction, but. . . ."

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Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker:
Embraceable You (1947)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Here Parker contributes one of the finest ballad performances in the history of jazz, a solo that redefined how slow, moody songs could be performed by a small combo. . . ."

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Claude Thornhill

Claude Thornhill:
Yardbird Suite (1947)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Claude Thornhill tinkled amiably along to Gil Evans's arrangement of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite." It's a remarkable chart, with an especially distinctive solo by Lee Konitz—seemingly oblivious to Bird's otherwise pervasive influence. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Moon Dreams (live) (1948)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"This live recording comes from a broadcast at the Royal Roost during the ensemble's only extended live gig. . . . "

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Stan Getz

Woody Herman (with Stan Getz):
Early Autumn (1948)
Reviewed by David Franklin

"During the 1950s, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz became the most popular of Lester Young's followers. But his breakthrough came as a result of his probing solo on the Woody Herman Orchestra's 1948 recording of Ralph Burn's gorgeous ballad 'Early Autumn'. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Boplicity (1949)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"Evans was an orchestrational and contrapuntal master. 'Boplicity' provides further proof. . . ."

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Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis Nonet:
Venus De Milo (1949)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"Mulligan was a major compositional voice, and Gil Evans convinced him to move to New York and got him a gig writing for Claude Thornhill. . . ."

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 Shorty Rogers

Shorty Rogers:
Popo (1951)
Reviewed by David Franklin

�This early recording of a simple riff tune scored for a small band similar to Miles Davis�s earlier Birth of the Cool groups, exhibits an infectious swing. . . .�

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Birth of the Cool 2

Shorty Rogers:
Didi (1951)
Reviewed by Todd S. Jenkins

"An early sample of California cool, 'Didi' hews very close to the spirit and instrumentation of Miles� nonet. . . ."

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 Lars Gullin

Lars Gullin:
Silhouette (1952)
Reviewed by David Tenenholtz

"As Gullin progressed in the early 1950s, his command of the "Cool" sound begun by the Miles Davis Nonet made the baritone saxophonist the recipient of many ovations. . . ."

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Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond:
You Go to My Head (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is the quintessential cool jazz duet. . . ."

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Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan Quartet (with Chet Baker):
Bernie's Tune (1952)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"The bright, upbeat music of his pianoless quartet with 22-year-old trumpet phenom Chet Baker was noticed even by Time magazine. . . ."

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Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond:
Over the Rainbow (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Brubeck pulls it off through the sheer brilliance of his reharmonization, and the shifting chiaroscuro textures of his reconfiguration of the Arlen standard. . . ."

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Chet Baker

Chet Baker:
My Funny Valentine (1952)
Reviewed by Matt Leskovic

"Baker's treatment of 'My Funny Valentine,' painfully romantic and hauntingly beautiful, thrust him atop the trumpet polls in 1952. . . .�

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Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano (with Warne Marsh & Lee Konitz):
Out of Nowhere / 317 E. 32nd Street (1952)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"When Marsh and Konitz enter with Tristano's melody line, the effect is angelic. . . ."

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 Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington:
Reflections in D (1953)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"To some extent, Ellington anticipates the later work of Bill Evans with his thick and juicy chord voicings here—no wonder Evans recorded this piece himself 25 years later. . . ."

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 June Christy

June Christy:
Something Cool (1953)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'Something Cool' is incisive storytelling, as June enacts the first-person narrative of a self-deluding barfly. Think Blanche DuBois as lounge lizard. . . ."

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Gerry Mulligan

Gerry Mulligan Tentette:
A Ballad (1953)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'A Ballad' is deficient only in its title—rather like naming your newborn 'A Baby.' Otherwise it's three minutes of perfection. . . ."

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The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet:
Django (1954)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Miles Davis likened the MJQ to boxers 'fighting in tuxedos.' If so, 'Django' wins the undisputed world championship for pugilists in evening dress. . . ."

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Chet Baker

Chet Baker:
But Not for Me (1954)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Not since Lester Young accompanied Billie Holiday had a jazz soloist managed to add such melodically succinct interludes to a vocal date. . . ."

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 Shelly Manne

Shelly Manne:
Pas de Trois (1954)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"Giuffre's 'Pas de Trois' takes full advantage of Manne's melodicism, integrating his drums into an extraordinary tripartite fugue. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
'Round Midnight (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Miles Davis almost missed the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, and was only added at the last minute to a jam session. Davis selected Monk's ''Round Midnight' for his feature number, and his haunting muted trumpet work left the audience mesmerized. . . ."

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 Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday:
What's New (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Do you prefer to take your Holiday earlier or later? Hard choice. . . ."

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 Ahmad Jamal

Ahmad Jamal:
Pavanne (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Any discussion of the precursors of Davis's modal style needs to take this spirited 1955 performance into account. . . ."

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The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet:
Concorde (1955)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"'Jazz fugue" . . . the very name sounds oxymoronic. One wonders: are there country-and-western fugues or hip-hop fugues? . . ."

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Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette

Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette:
Lulu's Back in Town (1956)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Only the Velvet Fog could squeeze so many syllables out of the name "Lulu" -- turning it into a veritable Lulu-ululation. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
My Funny Valentine (1956)
Reviewed by Thomas Cunniffe

"Miles's first recording of 'My Funny Valentine' was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. . . ."

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 Teddy Charles Tentet

Teddy Charles Tentet:
The Quiet Time (1956)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This 1956 track finds Charles and company in fine form on a cerebral mood piece scored by Jimmy Giuffre. . . ."

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 George Russell

George Russell:
All About Rosie (1957)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"George Russell's contribution to the 1957 Brandeis University Jazz Festival of the Arts is his masterpiece. . . ."

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 Miles Davis

Miles Davis:
My Ship (1957)
Reviewed by Alan Kurtz

"'My Ship,' helmed by arranger Gil Evans to a port of pure bliss, is the most sublime 4+ minutes in all of music. . . ."

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 Gil Evans

Gil Evans:
Jambangle (1957)
Reviewed by Jeff Sultanof

"As with all of Evans's work, what seems impossible is not only possible, but works brilliantly. . . ."

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 The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra

The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra:
These Foolish Things (1957)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is more a tone poem than a big band chart. You will find no battling horn sections here, no kicks in the pants from the rhythm section. The attitude is sweet and cool, rather than hot and harried. . . ."

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 Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday:
Fine and Mellow (1957)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"This is generally acknowledged as the greatest jazz moment ever broadcast on national television. And with good reason. . . ."

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 Bill Evans

Bill Evans:
Peace Piece (1958)
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"A pastoral improvisation built on a gentle two-chord vamp, 'Peace Piece' is more a mood than a composition. . . ."

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Click here for part two of our survey of cool jazz, which features another 50 tracks and continues our story to the present day.

May 14, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation With Pedro Giraudo

By Tomas Peña

         Pedro Giraudo by Juan Carlos Hernandez

Bassist/composer Pedro Giraudo and I have communicated with one another via e-mail since 2002, so it was a pleasure to catch up with him and speak to him directly. During the course of the interview it quickly became apparent that Pedro was still reeling from the impact of becoming a parent. And in large part, that’s what his new album El Viaje is all about: his personal journey, from the moment his child was conceived to the moment she was born. But his music also speaks to the human condition and the complexities of the world we live in. Ultimately, Pedro’s goal has always been to create music that speaks to everyone. With El Viaje, he does just that.

Congratulations on the release of El Viaje (The Journey).

Thank you!

How does it feel to be receiving such glowing reviews? The great bassist Ron Carter wrote some nice things for your album's cover.

Hearing those words from Ron Carter is a great honor. Ron is someone who I admire deeply on a personal and musical level. He was a mentor to me and he changed my life. A lot of who I am today, as a musician is because of Ron. Among other things, he taught me about discipline commitment and formality.

Ron is a master.


You were born in Cordoba, Argentina and your father was a symphony orchestra conductor.

I was exposed to music, performance, and instruments at a very young age. I started playing the piano when I was three. At four, I was doubling with the violin. At six, I took up the piano. When I was a teenager I had a teenager crisis [laughs]. At 16, I started playing the electric bass in rock bands. From rock, I gravitated towards fusion. After that, I auditioned for colleges in Miami and New York, but I realized that the New York was definitely the place for me.

You moved to the states in 1996.

That’s correct. And I switched to the acoustic bass, which was a very nice move for me. I fell in love with the instrument. I did my undergraduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music. The most significant thing about the school was the students. My classmates were Miguel Zenon, Luis Perdomo, and Hans Glawischnig, among others. They were very inspiring. Also, I had some very good teachers. In fact, that’s where I met David Berger, took classes in arranging, and met the members of my band. I didn’t start writing music until my graduation recital.

Given the complexity of your music, that’s pretty amazing.

Actually, my charts were pretty complex from the beginning. I discovered that I had this odd meter thing. Anyway, I did my Master’s at City College, where the scenario was quite different from the Manhattan School of Music. The level of the students wasn’t as good, but Ron Carter and Dr. David Bushler were there. I took the history of symphony with Dr. Bushler. It was a very demanding class, we had to write a paper every week, deeply analyzing different movements, form and orchestration and all kinds of compositions. It was an excellent class. David Bushler is one of those people who really made a difference in my life.

I can’t tell you how many musicians have told to me that they didn’t appreciate the music of their country until they came to the U.S. Isn’t that what happened to you?

That’s completely my case. I had no idea about the music of my own country, because the music the young people like to listen to in Argentina is pop and rock in Spanish. I grew up with that. So I learned about the music of my country here [in the U.S.], and I love it. In my band I don’t play Tango in the traditional sense, I incorporate the 'feeling' of Tango in my music.

The feeling meaning …

The nostalgia and the emotion, I use that in my music.

When you arrived here you didn’t know much about North American jazz either. In fact, you confused Dizzy Gillespie with Duke Ellington!

I studied jazz on a deep level at the Manhattan School of Music and I transcribed every instrument you can imagine. On the other hand, I gradually started to realize that it was amazing music but it wasn’t my voice. The music that moves me the most doesn’t come from there. So I think it was good. Coming back to my childhood I was exposed to mostly classical music but my father was a big fan of Pink Floyd, Quincy Jones, and Joao Gilberto, so I was exposed a lot of good music.

Yes, a lot of musicians mention the influence of their parents and the music they played around the house. It’s bound to have a tremendous impact. It’s the first music you hear.

El Viaje has a lot to do with your personal journey and the recent birth of your daughter.


Tell me about the experience of becoming a parent and how it inspired you to write the music for El Viaje.

When my daughter was born it was the most moving moment in my whole life. The death of my father (in 2002) was moving, but there is nothing like the miracle of life.

It was during the time that I was arranging this piece that my wife Marianela realized we were going to start traveling with an extra person. The piece, which features the bass, describes the deep excitement, fear, and anxiety. El Viaje expresses the range of intense feelings from the time I learned my wife was pregnant, to the birth of Vera, and our first experiences with the miracle of life. I remember being amazed at the way my daughter looked at things, the way she slept, being scared … I don’t know if you are a father [Laughs] …

No, I am not.

I mean, here you are taking care of the most important thing in your life and you're clueless.

Children don’t come with instruction manual, or so I hear!

Exactly! [Laughs] No, they don’t. So the music reflects that kind of tension, and things that refer to my wife’s hormones going crazy. I have a running conversation with my agent, where I tell her that I try to describe all of these things with my music, and she always says, 'Don’t say that, just say "describes!"' [Laughs] But I still feel kind of humbled by the whole thing.

Tell me about the track, 'Hiroshima.' Having been there, and having stood at Ground Zero, I can certainly relate to the horror you must have felt.

I went there, but the strongest impression I got was from the museum. I was completely silent for two hours, looking around with horror at how people just like you and me suffered. Also, I had just become a father and I realized that there is nothing worse than being in that situation—of knowing that your kid is dead, or knowing that they are suffering. I was also very impressed with how people reacted, how they began picking up the pieces within a matter of days.

You had been calling your group Mr. Vivo. Where did the name Mr. Vivo come from?

One of the reasons I stopped calling the group Mr. Vivo is because there is no foundation for the name. In Spanish Vivo means 'alive' but in Argentine slang it sometimes means that you are a smart ass. To make a long story short, I outgrew the name.

How do you describe your music? What category would you put it in, if you absolutely had to?

            At the Jazz Gallery (Photo by Juan Carlos Hernandez)

In the beginning, we had no idea how to describe it. My agent and I interviewed a number of publicists and they couldn’t describe it either. Then we met publicist, Don Lucoff, who said, 'It depends on who you are pitching it to,' and we knew that he was the guy for us.

Personally, I don’t know where to put it. It has so many elements. However, if I had to choose one category, I would say that it’s big band jazz in a very general sense. But there are so many folkloric and classical elements, counterpoint, etc. I don’t know. I can tell you that my main influences are Carla Bley and Duke Ellington. Another guy whose music I love is Guillermo Klein. I am a huge fan of his music. I think he is amazing. In the beginning I was trying to follow in his footsteps, but now I have my own style. The emotional thing is always happening with his music. Astor Piazzolla is another influence. He taught me about the economy of writing, or how much you can say with so little. I also studied a lot of Bach. The list just goes on and on.

I read somewhere that you performed in China recently. How was your music received there?

Very well. The concert was a complete success. I had no clue as to what was going to happen.

Where in China?

It was actually in Macau, which was both the first and last European colony in China. It’s like the Las Vegas of Hong Kong. It used to be a Portuguese colony. It was a huge outdoor festival, with screens for people in the back. We were required to play for a long time—like an hour-and-a-half with no intermission. I thought people were going to leave after an hour, but they stayed until the very end and they reacted beautifully. In fact, I am still in touch with some of the people I met there.

You are off to Japan next.

The Japan thing is very nice. I am going there by myself, and I will be performing with Japanese musicians. I am going to have some very serious rehearsals, and it will be with some of the best Japanese musicians. I can’t wait.

And you will be performing at the Jazz Gallery this week.

Actually, tonight and tomorrow night I will be presenting a piece that was commissioned by a grant I received from the Jazz Gallery. And then we have the CD release on April 21st and 22nd at the Jazz Standard.

You started playing the bass professionally after you graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998. All things considered, you have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Congratulations to you on El Viaje. I look forward to catching up with you in the near future.

Thank you, Tomas.

Pedro Giraudo’s Web Site:

Recommended Listening:
El Viaje (2009, Pedro Giraudo)
El Desconsuelo (2005, Pedro Giraudo)
Mr. Vivo (2002, Pedro Giraudo)

May 04, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Jeff "Tain" Watts

By Ted Panken

Seven years ago, I interviewed drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts upon the release of Bar Talk, his second album as a leader. In the resultant Downbeat article, I wrote that Watts as was in the process of morphing "from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision." In our conversation, Watts speculated on the next phase of his career.

"Dave Holland said that he writes tunes, records them, [and] plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them, and uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later," Watts said at the time. "I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing."

Over the next five years, Watts would present his own projects with increasing frequency, continuing to refine his compositional and group concepts. In 2007 he took the next step toward achieving his goals by releasing Folk's Songs on his own label, Dark Key. The repertoire comprised seven of his own diverse compositions, as well as tunes by Keith Jarrett and Kenny Kirkland. Watts called his band "Tain and the Ebonix." Its core consisted of the young saxophonist Marcus Strickland, who frequently tours with Watts; veteran pianist Dave Kikoski, a long-time colleague; and bass megastar Christian McBride. The group plugged-in on several tunes, adding guitarist David Gilmour and keyboardist Henry Hey. On other tunes Watts expanded the beat palette by adding the Afro-Panamanian percussionist Samuel Torres.

This year Watts released another project on Dark Key, the eponymously titled Watts. The all-acoustic affair employs the talents of three of the most prominent instrumental voices on the scene: Watts' long-time employer/associate Branford Marsalis on soprano and tenor saxes, Terence Blanchard on trumpet, and McBride on bass. Watts gives the musicians plenty of space to stretch and interact on a suite of tunes that make use of a host of musical strategies—burnouts, blues, stomps, bebop, funk, and quiet storm. As seems always to be the case on Watts' projects, the results are incendiary.

"I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician," Watts told me. "Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what's raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can."

This March I sat down once again and talked with Watts—about his latest project, his approach to composition and playing drums, and his relationships with colleagues like Branford and the late Kenny Kirkland. We also talked in some depth about his time with the band that put him on the map: the influential Wynton Marsalis Quintet of the 1980s.

By what process did the Dark Keys label develop? What inspired you to take the plunge?

I recorded Folk's Songs right before Christmas in 2006. At the time I started thinking about [recording] it, I wasn't formally signed to anybody, but I'd done a live recording for Half Note and did have a loose thing with them. I approached them with my concept for this record, and asked if they would consider doing a studio recording. They said, 'Yeah, ok,' but then they offered me X amount of dollars. At the time, the idea of maybe doing it myself was running through my head. So I said, 'How about if you give me X amount of dollars, and I match your funds, and then license it to you for four or five years, but I own the master?' They said no.

At the same time, Branford was considering signing me to his label, to Marsalis Music. He gave me a timeline, and 'we can sign you in September of '06, and you can do something maybe in the middle of 2007.' Now, the main thing about this label is I can write music and I can put it out when I want to put it out. A lot of these pieces, like 'The Devil's Ring Tone,' I have to get out into the air so I can move on and write some other stuff. So I told Branford, 'The latest I can record is November or December of 2006, because I just want to get this stuff out, get rid of it and get it off my plate.' But they weren't able to do that.

I also had a meeting with Eli Wolf at Blue Note. But all the while, I was fully prepared and ready to try to do it myself. I'm happy I did.

How did you set it up financially? Was it out of savings? Did you get investors?

I simply wrote checks. One thing that freed things up for me is that, despite the ups and downs of the economy, I was fortunate enough to pay off this apartment six years ago, so apart from a small rent payment, my expenses are small. So I had the money lying around, and I figured I'd go for it. The first one, I didn't stretch out that much—I got my friends to do favors for me. It worked out. I was skittish about putting out money, but at the same time it's very, very real, because you're investing in yourself. You play music. You want to make records. Put your money where your mouth is, and pay for it, and see what happens. It's been a really cool experience. With the help of Laura Kahle, we see who's buying the music and also take a hand in trying to sell the music, put it out there, and get people to come to the site—all that little stuff.

The two records have very different sounds. Did you approach each project with a certain overall intent?

On Folk's Songs I wanted to redefine people's conception of me, to have some music that was open and straight-ahead, but also music that had a bit of electronics, some beats, and so on—to be more stylistically open. So Folk's Songs is more of a mixed bag. Now, in trying to do this label thing, I pay more attention than I normally would to what people write about my stuff and whatever. Some people are really into having a lot of different music on a recording, and I thought it was a really cool time to do that because of the way people listen to music now. Everybody has some kind of iPod set on shuffle, so in one sitting they're accustomed to listening to some classical music, then some funk, then some bluegrass, and some Coltrane, and whatever. But some writers had an averse reaction to this, like, 'What kind of record is this? It's all over the place.' Whatever. So I decided my next record would be an acoustic jazz record. We'll see what happens with that.

People gave you trouble on the grounds you stated?

Not a lot of people. But it was like, 'It seemed like it was going to be an acoustic record, and then this guitar kicks in, and then there's this-and-that.' I didn't see it as being that radical at all, but some people did. I'm just trying different things, trying to please myself, yet I'm conscious of a consumer, of people knowing what they're going to get. So I made some kind of decision that I would make 'Jeff "Tain" Watts' records and have them be kind of jazzy, and I'll make 'Tain and the Ebonix' records that could be more diverse.

On Watts, the new record, you're representing yourself with an 'all-star' band—Terence Blanchard, Branford, and Christian McBride.

A lot of my intention with this label is to document a certain amount of stuff with McBride. Although we're very friendly and we've done a few things, we haven't recorded a lot together. So I'm trying to challenge myself and see what we can accomplish together. Also, I feel that a lot of people look at swinging like it's old, like 'Oh, that's already been done.' A lot of people are trying to get away from swinging, like if you're doing that, you're just recreating some past stuff. But I feel that if people really, really swing hard, it's as fresh as anything. There's still new music to be written, new songs to be written, new vibes to be put out there. So by hiring Christian I'm trying to give myself a very good chance of swinging hard.

On Watts, the players happen to be famous people, but I've developed a certain level of a relationship with each of them. I've known Terence for years. I'm on his first Columbia CD. I didn't do a lot of gigs with him, but he's one of my better friends in music, so I felt like we would have a rapport. What makes Branford really cool is that he's got this voice and this vibe, and his sound, and a great relationship with rhythm, but also that he's a really intuitive, selfless accompanist. He's a good person to play along with somebody, and he respects the whole. He knows when to lay back, and he can be a point man and support. Eric Revis pointed something out to me on the version of 'Blutain' at the end of Citizen Tain, with Branford and Wynton and Kenny Garrett. Wynton's personality is being reasonably strong, Kenny Garrett is standing his ground, kind of aggressive, and Branford is just in the corner, playing some really clever stuff in a really understated way. It would be interesting to transcribe just what he played. He rarely took the lead. I used to be amazed at how he and Wynton could play together and phrase together, but now, in later years, I think that's a result of Branford's ability to be really complementary.

You've also said it's because they shared a bedroom as kids.

They shared each other's farts for many years. A little synergy there. I mean, it's an all-star group, but, as I've said in other interviews, the reason why these cats are well known is because they really love music. They get excited listening to music and talking about music. They live music.

It also occurred to me is that Terence and Branford are the same age, both from New Orleans, with a lot of shared experience, and they attain their own level of polyphony. A lot of the tunes here seem to be set up for that type of dialogue to happen.

Mmm-hmm. I definitely wanted to take advantage of that. As far as the written music, there's a lot of specific information, but there's also some stuff that's open and subject to their interpretation and doing what they feel like doing, a little bit of text just to describe a vibe. So I definitely leaned on that little New Orleans relationship they have.

How long did it take for the repertoire to come together?

It came together over the past year—as soon as Folk's Songs came out, I started thinking about the next one.

Then you could let it go.

Exactly. The first piece, 'Return of the Jitney Man,' the opening bass line and the opening trumpet figure had been laying around since I lived in Los Angeles, and I knew I wanted to do something with them. 'Jitney Man' is about my dad, who did construction work, but whenever the holidays came around he would drive a jitney cab to make some extra money for Christmas. I wanted to get a vibration like cars and traffic, so that pushed me in the direction of having a couple of horns, and having them be in close intervals and then moving farther away. You hear them together, then one takes the lead and passes the other one, and then passes back off to the other one. I started working on it within the past year-and-a-half. As soon as the previous recording came out, I started thinking about the next recording.

The blues, 'Brekkie with Drekkie' is about a year old. But it's really simple. I wrote it in probably a week-and-a-half. My girlfriend is from Australia, and she was talking with a friend and she was like, 'Yeah, we're gonna go and have some brekkie.' I was like, 'What is "brekkie"?' 'It's breakfast in Australia.' One of the kind of underground nicknames for Michael Brecker was 'Drekkie,' so I thought, 'Ok, I'm going to write a tune for Michael.' I remembered that on gigs, he enjoyed playing 'The Turnaround' by Ornette Coleman without piano. So I tried to write us a stylized version of that. There's a variation on it, and also a brief instant with some funk superimposed over the melody. I wanted to inject that part of Michael's vibe. Eric Revis was around Michael, and he played with him on Bar Talk, on 'Mr. J.J.,' the tune with Michael and Branford. But even before he was around Michael, although he had a certain amount of respect for him as a jazz musician, he really revelled in the fact that he had such a close association with George Clinton, and with Larry Blackman in Cameo, and Rick James, and these people that were dead up in the funk. There's Randy Brecker and Michael Brecker, but in the 'hood everybody knew about the Brecker Brothers. 'Yeah, the Brecker Brothers are on this record. This is bad. Let me get this record. The Brecker Brothers.' So the bass line that is concealed inside of that funk, inside of that blues, is a variation on 'P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up.' I just decided to stick that in. That's for Michael.

'Katrina James.' [The time signature is] 15/8?


James Brown horn line?

James Brown horn line, basically ... almost ... based on this tune, 'You Got the Move' from In The Jungle Groove, twisted around. I started playing my version of the bass line on my acoustic bass one day. I come up with all these odd types of things, I play them, then I figure out what they are, and then they just happen to be odd—and it's cool. Ok, we got a groove and we got a line. That's all we need. Once in a while, to write something like that, it's not seriously rocket science. It's just a groove, just a thing.

'Owed' is just cool and sweet. I like to write something pretty. I like ballads. I feel like if I have an entire recording that Branford Marsalis is on, I am at fault if I don't have something pretty for that soprano horn. That's all that's about. It's one of the great voices in music.

Followed directly by 'Dancing 4 Chicken.'

How appropriate! Most of this stuff was within a year of doing the recording. But with 'Dancin' 4 Chicken,' I thought about the term and the concept ... I had the tune written, I started playing it on gigs, and I started trying to engage my audience. 'This is about the concept of the Uncle Tom.'

Oh, you talk about it.

I have talked about it. I talked about it for maybe five or six gigs, but it made people very uncomfortable.

Were these white audiences or black audiences?

Mixed audiences. I've had black people be uncomfortable. An older black woman was like, 'Man, I didn't want to hear the song after you started talking about it, but then I heard it. It's a nice song. You don't have to talk about that no more. Why you gotta talk about that?' Then I asked the audience, 'Who's an Uncle Tom these days?' People would try to indict people. But then a lot of the time they wouldn't necessarily try to indict a black person. It would be a blanket sell-out designation or something. Some people said Tom Cruise. That's kind of refreshing. Tom Cruise is an Uncle Tom. But in general, either people didn't want to dig up the past representation of that, or didn't care to venture a guess on the present. So I just started to look at it as a thing about our time. The Man is a brother now. It's like you can't sell out to the Man. For a lot of people, selling out is almost cool if you have some goal. It's like, 'Ok, I'm compromising myself a little bit, but wait, I'm going to get this from this person and this person, and I'm going to do something with it.' It's part of the consciousness. So it's there. It's not really a putdown. In general, the politics of this is not to take some big grandstand or whatever. It's just a moment in time.

Were you thinking of any musical antecedents as well? I was thinking of some of Mingus' things.

That, too.

Because McBride digs in, and Mingus did stomps with that kind of feeling back in the day.

That's in there, too. One of the earliest Mingus things I heard was 'Eat That Chicken.' That whole concept was just so funny to me. That's swinging hard, and with the two horn voices, it's like Branford's voice is dominant and Terence's voice kind of scurries to co-sign him, to agree with what he's saying. That's the function of the two horns on the melody.

'Wry Koln' is an old Tain hit.

I just made it a drum solo, with the horns accompanying me here and there. Two things led me in that direction. There's some little piece that Roy Haynes plays. I don't know what it is. But he'll be at the Vanguard, he'll finish a tune, and he'll give the guys a cue, they'll play a line, then he'll play some stuff, and whenever he gets tired of playing, he'll play something else, and they'll play a line. I wanted something in my book that fulfilled that function. I adapted 'Wry Koln' for that reason, and also there's that tune 'T&T' on which the horns provide a backdrop to Ed Blackwell that's on that blue-and-yellow Ornette record, called Ornette.

'Dingle-Dangle' sounds like you reworked 'Trinkle-Tinkle.' Am I correct?

Yes. I was playing with somebody who wanted to play 'Trinkle Tinkle,' but they hadn't practiced.

They didn't play it right.

They didn't play it right! And nobody ever plays it right. I mean, it's hardly ever really, really played right. So I decided to write an easy one for lazy people. 'Dingle-Dangle' is a lazy man's version, so you can just do it, get to the song, and take your solo. Otherwise, I would have spent a lot more days.

And hence, spent more money.

That's right. I sold out the music to save some studio time.

Then there's the showpiece, 'Devil's Ring Tone.' This was originally composed for a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert that didn't happen.

Yes, I was going to have a chance to do it live. Everything's a joke with me, so I thought about the concept of the Devil having a ringtone, and I started writing this thing. Originally, it was just going to be an instrumental piece, but then, as I got into the recording, I started thinking about Mingus and about 'Fables of Faubus' and things like that, and I wanted to incorporate some spoken word into the music.

You cast a well-known actor, who remains nameless, as the two male voices. Was he improvising, or did you write a script?

I wrote a script. I might expand upon it. Whenever I wrote the vocal tunes in the past, and wrote quasi-pop songs, and sang, I'm just trying to challenge myself and have fun! So I wanted to do something with spoken word, and I foresaw performing it later on, and having people do the parts, and perhaps go to different areas of the club, and have the music come down and do spoken word and things like that.

You've done comic, ironic things on every record that have the quality of an in-joke, like 'J.C. Is The Man.' But this isn't an in-joke. What brought you there? The Presidential campaign?

I guess so. Once again, I don't completely indict our past President. I never truly say that it is him. It's close enough that anybody knows it's probably him. But at the same time, it's not even that heavy or scathing or anything. It just marks a moment in time where 20 or 30 years from now, if people look back, it's like, 'Ok, I guess things were bad enough in the United States at that time where this guy wanted to just say something about it.' It's like, 'How did this person even get a second term? I guess he made a deal with the Devil.' That's basically it. It's not heavy or anything like that. I got into the challenge of constructing the music so that certain sections could be longer and shorter to accommodate the dialogue, and that certain things would go with the vocal effects and the phone effects and so on.

'M'Buzai' is a drum solo. I wanted to do something mellow with the mallets. It's almost kind of for some Deadheads or something like that, how they like to meditate in the middle of a show. Or people relaxing at home; after they hear 'The Devil's Ring Tone,' then they can reflect.

What component of the information in your compositions comes from the drums and what component comes from the other areas of music? Is that something you can separate?

Probably except in ballads, the rhythmic awareness I get from the drums enables me to write stuff. Certain tunes ask for a certain amount of rhythm, and on certain tunes hopefully the melody is strong enough that it doesn't require very much fluctuation of tempo or whatever. I'm sure by this point it's integrated for me.

Let's discuss how you came to composing. You've said that when you were in Wynton Marsalis' band, you weren't particularly confident, but he kept suggesting that you bring things in, and that started you off.

I guess that's so. In 1983 and 1984, he was putting together recordings, and he tried to encourage everyone to contribute. He'd tell me, 'Man, you can write something for this, and if it's halfway done, we'll play it and make it right.' I think part of it was so that he'd have stuff to learn from, some other viewpoints on composition, some other directions in the music, but also to have some other people contributing music to the record to take some of the load off of him, like it's not all his vision. He was trying to share the contribution, but at the same time share the burden.

Did you contribute any compositions to the band?

I co-wrote a very simple blues that's on Live at Blues Alley, which was completely a joke. I was just afraid to write.

Why were you afraid to write at the time?

I didn't feel like I knew enough rules. Then later on, Kenny Kirkland said, 'maybe you don't need to know all those rules; just write and don't worry about that; you can hear, you've got really great ears, and you know what music sounds like—just write it, and don't trip on it.'

Describe your early encounters with Wynton, how the music of that quintet started to take shape.

He brought in the bulk of the tunes, and the music emerged from what his original repertoire needed as well as the tunes from the lexicon. I guess the early band was supposed to try to pick up the threads and move forward from where he felt the music had stopped, with the exception of the pure avant-garde free music. Maybe at the time there was a vibe from him that people had been seriously playing music, seriously playing jazz, that Ornette's band was there, and Trane's band was there, and Miles' band was there, and some other stuff was going on, but then it stopped, and then there was this evil fusion, and then there was all this free music with people that can't really play trying to play, and that this made people not really serious.

His initial jumping-off point was Miles' quintet, and then he started to introduce Ornette Coleman's music. Logical extensions of what was happening in the '60s. Not so much Coltrane until much later. We were just checking stuff out. Wynton's focus is very systematic, and whatever he's checking out at a given time, that's what's going on. So Miles' group in the '60s—at that time, that's what it is. I know he had an appreciation for John Coltrane's music and that quartet, but because of the way his mind worked, he only had room to appreciate Miles' group back then. I can honestly say that we were in Europe somewhere, on a bus, and we actually got into an adolescent comparison of Miles' group in the '60s and Coltrane's classic quartet. I'm sure everybody has conversations that they would like to take back ...

From Wynton's perspective, his thing was, like, 'Work on your instrument, really try to play it on a high level,' and a good percentage of his criteria at that time of what it takes to play an instrument felt like it was based on the European aesthetic. So when making the comparison of Miles' band and Trane's band, he felt like Miles' band dealt with that European standard more. There was more harmonic sophistication. The way that Tony Williams played the drums, there's more overtly European type of techniques being used as opposed to Elvin.

Was it acceptable not to play in some form or variation of Tony Williams' language, or were you welcome to put forth your own voice?

Pretty much the primary assignment he gave me was to try to find some things that Tony Williams didn't play. Which was very difficult, because he played so many things! So while that music was a template, and we played some of it and got ideas from it, it was definitely important to be working on a voice. Work on all your instrumental criteria. I'm sure he would have liked it if everybody was truly dedicated and in the practice room all the time. But it definitely wasn't like that! It was just fun.

How much collective input entered into the musical production of the Wynton Marsalis Quintet? You were all pretty talented, strong-minded musicians.

It was a collective. Everybody contributed through the ensemble stuff. There was a big, unspoken emphasis on connecting, just from the connection he and Branford had in breathing together and playing off each other. Branford and I developed a certain vocabulary with each other—when Wynton took his solo, we'd be in a certain space, and have a certain type of connection with him, then when Branford took his solo it would take the rhythm section into a completely different zone. Of course, Kenny Kirkland was just a swinging fool, and you couldn't help but connect with that. This was around the time when the Plugged Nickel recordings were becoming available, so everybody started trying to experiment with playing in different times over forms, and so on. We would experiment with that, and with playing very open, trying to come out of Wayne's conception, where you're playing the song, but sometimes it almost sounds like you're ignoring the song, and the validation comes through how you resolve back into the sound—to sum that up without being too technical.

The first band had challenges just from the individuals. There's a certain instrumental challenge to deal with Wynton, because he played with so much facility and a certain amount of imagination, and he could go a lot of places. Branford had a very creative thing, and we developed our styles together. My vocabulary as a jazz musician was pretty small, so there would be situations when he would try to predict what I was going to play, and he would play along with what I was going to play. That made me get into the thing that I still do, as far as displacing things, initiating big chunks of melody and terminating them in funny places, taking a familiar object and putting it up here so it's instantly abstract, even though it contains something familiar. That was basically trying to trick him. But that's one thing that gave us our sound.

Kenny Kirkland was a whole other thing, because he was the best musician in the band. He was already a very mature musician, more mature than everybody in the group. He had already arrived at a place where he was very, very comfortable. Any kind of issues regarding music, he had already resolved them. He had internalized a very broad understanding of music. That's partly why he was able to swing so hard, because he was very comfortable with his musical world and his relationship with it.

Did he and Wynton interact a lot? In your opinion, did he have an influence on Wynton?

Completely. A lot of Wynton's compositions, he had a certain amount of traditional harmonic information. He had a certain amount of stuff that he got from being around Herbie Hancock: 'What is that voicing? How did you figure that out?' But during the time that our group was together, I'm sure almost every day he was asking Kenny Kirkland, 'How do you get that to sound like that? How do you make the band swing like that? What's going on?' Kenny knew what everybody should know, that none of this belongs to us anyway. So he was very free with music. But I can definitely say that one of the great things about the group is that people could have an opportunity to hear Kenny Kirkland playing some music that's pretty open. If that group didn't exist with that visibility, with the allure of being able to play together with some people and make a good living and try to play some creative music, we wouldn't have that much of a taste of Kenny Kirkland in the open court.

Wynton once said that a lot of the rhythmic characteristics of his playing evolved through playing with you. Maybe you only think of this in retrospect, but over those six years how did you see his sound and style evolving, apart from just getting better?

He got better. His initial stuff sounds as though he's the cockiest person in the world, but he was constantly second-guessing himself, questioning himself, 'Am I doing this?' or 'Does my sound sound cheesy?' or 'I wasn't really swinging on that phrase,' or 'Why did I play this' or 'Why did I play that?' He was always asking for anything he didn't quite know about. 'What is this rhythm?' 'What is that rhythm?' 'Where did you learn this?' He just got better and better. He focused on all the aspects of his playing. He always had flexibility and facility and velocity. Over the years, his sound has gotten warmer and warmer and more broad. There's a lot of people who can move around. It's the difference between Bill Watrous, for example, and someone like Slide Hampton or J.J. Johnson. They can all move around, but two of them move around with a really big-ass sound. That's the difference between Clifford Brown and Doc Severinsen. It's easier to play some fast shit with a small sound. I think so. On any instrument, the acoustic bass or whatever. On the drums, too.

He's probably one of the most artistically responsible people that I've been around. Just with the initial thrust of his popularity and people being amazed by him at 17-18-19 years old, he could have been like the wunderkind, and relax on that and play some amazing stuff, and do that for the next thirty years. Nobody would complain substantially. Some people probably would like it more. People are more comfortable, I think, when your style doesn't change that much. It's like they know where to find you in a supermarket and all that stuff. It's cool like that.

But he challenged himself. He tried to do a Michael Jordan type of thing and bring more things into his game. Also with the band. The band's focus definitely started out being about Miles in the '60s and about Ornette Coleman's various groups and a little bit of Coltrane's influence, but then after a while he started transcribing Monk. He wouldn't be satisfied just to cover a Monk tune. He would learn to play it at the piano and learn a percentage of what Monk played on it, and then put an arrangement on it, and then he started to attack the standard repertoire more and more. So he made sure that every standard that he was trying to do, he would learn it at the piano, learn the lyrics and listen to different versions of people singing the tune and instrumentalists attacking the tune, and then put an arrangement on it. It wasn't just like, 'Okay, these are the changes and let's play it.' He was very respectful to tunes.

Is it your impression that a lot of people were aware of that group and listened hard to it? Did these groups have a palpable influence on the sound of jazz in 1990 and 1995?

Definitely. Musically it was in a kind of middle ground. With each recording, there would be a little bit of material that you can trace back to the tradition, but it was being interpreted in a different way—a little flavor, a little rhythm, a little voicing or comping device from the piano or whatever. Part of it is because the stuff was fresh and part of it was because the records were kind of pervasive in jazz terms, routinely selling 80,000 or 100,000. Chances are if people were buying jazz records during that time, they'd probably buy one of those—people that actually try to listen to jazz. So I think a certain amount of role model thing came out of it just because the group had so much exposure, which made it a little more palatable than usual to a young musician to actually study and consciously pursue a career in jazz. It made it kind of cool, in a way, just that suit-and-tie imagery that rolled through, that made it a viable alternative or whatever ...

You yourself actually had quite a bit of formal training on your instrument and in music before you even started being aware of jazz, much less playing it. You started playing snare drum maybe in fourth or fifth grade, and then classical percussion in high school, which you majored in at Duquesne before you matriculated at Berklee.

I had a lot of structured education about music. I definitely had to take a certain amount of theory classes and counterpoint, which [at the time] I wasn't good at. I guess it required me to be a little meticulous, and I wasn't set to do that yet. I had to study a certain amount of piano, but I didn't really take any of it to heart. Whatever semi-formal training I had in classical music, I didn't know that I could mix it; I didn't consciously realize that I could cross the line and utilize it in my 'jazz composition.' I didn't make the connection. Just by not worrying about jazzy rules and things like that, it allowed that part of me that knew something about music [and] that knew something about harmony, to come out organically.

You also once told me that you initially wanted to be a studio percussionist in the vein of Ralph McDonald.

Yeah, or like Harvey Mason or someone like that, putting down a drum part, and then going back and putting down two various percussion parts, tympani or mallets or whatever was needed. I wanted to be versatile, and my initial pursuit of jazz was part of that goal, just to be able to sound authentic if someone needed some jazzy-sounding stuff for a soundtrack, or for a commercial or something like that—just like a style to cop as opposed to a way of life or a lifestyle.

What happened?

Jazz turned me out. [Laughs] Jazz turned me out! I got really connected to it. The more I found out about jazz, the more I felt like I should try to make some kind of contribution to it. As I got into jazz drums and started discovering more and more about bebop, I perceived there to be a lot of black people involved in this music. I was like, 'Wow, there's a lot of brothers that did a lot of stuff in this music, and they were really smart and they could play their instrument well;' they really worked to create some stuff. So I felt connected to it on that level early on, definitely.

You also became close to a very good drummer in Pittsburgh, Roger Humphries. Also, Joe Harris and Cecil Brooks, III.

They were all around.

Did knowing them have an impact on your leaning towards jazz during those years, or did this happen at Berklee? Because when you got to Berklee, there was a critical mass of young black men and women who were interested in jazz. Any speculation on that?

Some kind of curiosity was in the air. People were there: Osby and Branford and Smitty Smith and Donald Harrison and all these people. Everybody could play decently when they got there, but there was just a real curiosity—trying to really really deal with recorded music, trying to come up with a voice. People putting together bands; people reinvestigating and recreating their version of stuff that had been documented, trying on different hats and different styles. A lot of people tell me—people who went to Berklee before us and people who went after us—that there hadn't really been a time like that, and that it's definitely very different now, that there's much more emphasis on music production. Everybody's trying to be Diddy or something like that.

The time with Wynton, for all the ups and downs, sounds like a very intense period of research and development. He gave you assignments, which you might have bridled at, but in the long run it seems that the process helped you come up with a lot of stuff.

True. Wynton had his viewpoint on where the drums could potentially go, based on his experience working with mainly Art Blakey and Tony Williams, so you have ...

Wasn't James Black in there, too?

James Black also. Something about the contribution of New Orleans music was important to him, so I tried to research that. I made some tapes of guys playing with Louis Armstrong, older stuff, also Baby Dodds, and I tried to fit that in. Knowing that he worked with Art Blakey, and definitely he tried to swing hard, and that he worked with Tony Williams, I was trying to be creative and come up with stuff.

Some of the stuff I play is very specific stuff that I studied, and some of it is stuff that I've figured out and created, little systems and things like that. Towards the end of my time with Wynton, in the quartet with Marcus [Roberts], when we started interpreting standards and interpreting Monk and those kinds of things, I started to institute a lot of my ideas about time. These were asymmetrical improvisational cycles that work over standards and blues. They're almost like exercises. A typical one would be to play in the normal 4/4 tempo, and then to play in the tempo dictated by the half note triplet, which is a slightly slower pulse, like three to a bar, and then in half-time, and then to go from the half-time to the pulse implied by the dotted quarter note, which a lot of people confused with the strict triplet pulse. It's different because it overlaps on the bars. It's not like 3 beats to a bar. It's kind of the time divided by three eighth-notes and whatever. So it has a certain flow that's close to the triplet pulse, but it's different. I'd give them those four phrases to play over something like a blues, which only has three phrases. So by the time they would get back to the beginning of the blues, they would have to attack that harmony with a different rhythmic schematic. So the cycle would be asymmetric to what the music was.

These ideas are a means to an end, a strategy to give maximum flexibility to deal with the harmony but be free with the rhythm, so that whenever you play, you're not limited by how you've worked your eighth notes out over a particular chord structure. It's just something to loosen things up, to make you free. Anyway, Wynton was looking for a direction for the band and asked me if I had something for them to do, so I volunteered these ideas. He gave it to the band, and we would rehearse it, and then we'd experiment by playing standards and so on, and everybody would go their own free way, and resolve together, or not. It developed into a thematic architecture that went across the band.

The R&D continued during the '90s with Branford and with Danilo Perez. It's been a constant process.

Over the years, I've been trying to function in jazz and function in a lot of the swing idiom, but I've also tried to study a certain amount of ethnic stuff—Indian and Afro-Cuban things, and also bring in vocabulary that's more directly linked to Africa—and add that to the music. At the same time, I've also tried to be as well-versed as possible as far as polyrhythm, both from a European standpoint and from an African standpoint.

What do you mean by polyrhythm from a European standpoint and polyrhythm from an African standpoint?

With African polyrhythm, there's a basic heartbeat which kind of morphs. It's how you can superimpose the 6/8 rhythm of African music on top of just 4/4 music, and it's almost basically the same. I feel in that music that the 2-and-4 and 3-and-6 and are almost basically the same thing. Also, it's about you feel. There's also the dance aspect of that, and how that affects the musicians. Then the life aspect, how all the different rhythms influence life and vice-versa. That's the African aspect of polyrhythm.

The European aspect is a really clear thing. A lot of it I got from Eastern Europe, the gypsies and Bulgaria, where people dance in 9 and dance in 13. Then, if you examine contemporary classical music and Bartok's music, the things that would later have an influence on Don Ellis and on Frank Zappa, and people like that, you get into something that I call the European style of polyrhythm, like taking four beats and clinically fitting five beats in the space where the four beats are, or seven beats in that space, and really having an understanding of that. Basically, I've been trying to find a balance between those schools so that I'm comfortable with the time. I'm trying to have a lot of options for where I choose to place a beat.

Overall, I'm striving for the freedom to play in form, but to be able to get to the texture of playing free, but with control. The R&D is going to keep going. I need to do some traveling. I need to actually go to West Africa and North Africa and Central Africa. I'm trying to study stuff from, like ... where is it ... Tain-zania! I'm looking at Tanzania right now, right around Congo and Tanzania, and writing some interpretations of that music.

Your R&D was influential on many drummers who came up after you emerged with Wynton, as far as finding ways to swing and flow in odd meters. Not that you were the first to do it, but your solutions had an impact. Does 'swinging' mean something different today than when you were a young guy?

It seems that a goodly portion of new improvised music, if it's not free music, then it's often a kind of update on the Euro style of straight-eighth feel. It's a really artsy thing, not really based in any kind of groove. It's just straight, and people find color in it, and people find a language within that—and that's cool. But it's almost like guys, whenever they decide to swing, they're putting on their swing hat, as opposed to trying to play swing like it's alive now. It's like, 'Oh yeah, let's do some of that swing stuff; yeah, ok, we're swinging.' It's not just drummers. It's horn players. I mean, the blues is not everything, and I don't want to sound old at the same time, but I feel there should be some way to inject some of that skank or some of that heart and melody from the blues into these newer styles that people are trying to play. But it's kind of separated. Guys are playing good, and they can swing, but a lot of people don't do it like it's music that's alive today. That's important for me, and that's why I continue to try to write something swinging that's different, so that it's not just, 'ok, we're playing swing, so we're regurgitating Monk or Coltrane'—although I have those influences in my music. There're many stories to tell. A lot more stuff to do with it.

You also heavily investigated Afro-Cuban music.

Yeah. It just helps to connect the dots. I mean, Max Roach and Elvin Jones both had a certain amount of influence from Africa. Max's thing was probably more North or East African, in terms of the linear type of speaking thing, whereas Elvin's thing and probably Art Blakey's thing has more of the ground rhythm, more of the earthy kind of West African type of thing, where you establish that heartbeat, and then it frees you to play all this other stuff, but you still have this ground thing in there. It helped me to understand Elvin more, because I would listen to his drum solos, and even if he was playing over a standard, it would sound like he was playing free. But the more I understood about Africa and about Afro-Cuban music, then I could see that he was choosing different points of resolution than the standard European-based up-and-down type of thing. He's not just playing eighth notes and quarter notes and sixteenth notes and conventional triplets. It's stuff that you can't write, that you have to feel. So it opened that door for me.

Now that you've recorded the material on Watts, what are your plans? What's happening over the summer and fall that you can tell me about?

I have a European tour in March and another European tour in July. Branford is also putting out a recording, on which 'The Return of the Jitney Man' is also the first tune, but with piano. So I'll be touring his record this year. Basically, I want to fill up the year. I'm not thinking about recording anything at all for a year, or maybe more, but we're making a plan to tour the Watts Project with this group in 2010. So I'm letting everybody do their projects. Terence just recorded; he'll probably have a CD out in the fall. Branford's record drops now. McBride always has something going on, and he has a couple of things coming out. I'll try to tour this thing next year, but I want to make it like a real ensemble, so I'm composing more music for this group in addition to my regular stuff. Everybody's kind of looking at it like this is an all-star group or whatever. No, it's one of my bands. We're going to do gigs, and we're going to develop a body of music, and I'm just going to keep adding to it, and it's going to get crazier and crazier. I want it to be just like the Art Ensemble 2K.

Ted Panken interviewed Jeff Watts on March 10, 2009.

May 04, 2009 · 2 comments