In Conversation With Bill Charlap

By Ted Panken

"I’ve really been running the last two days," said Bill Charlap in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, a block east of the Times Square theater district. It was mid-afternoon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and Charlap was anticipating night five of the first week of a fortnight engagement at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, his trio partners since 1997.

Charlap, who looked none the worse for wear, was referencing a duo recording he’d made on the previous afternoon with alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, a close friend since both were classmates at New York’s High School of Performing Arts at the cusp of the ‘80s. "I drove out after the gig on Thursday, stayed in the Delaware Water Gap, recorded with Jon, drove back to Manhattan, and played three sets," Charlap said. "I was really hurting."

The trio was playing its first extended engagement since the end of 2008. During the five-month interim, Charlap had been on the road as band pianist and de facto music director of the Blue Note 7, an all-star group—Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Peter Bernstein, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums—assembled for the purpose of playing iconic repertoire from the Blue Note Records catalog in observance of the label’s 75th anniversary. Reunited with his trio, Charlap now was ready to return to his first love, the Great American Songbook, which was at its apogee during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when such classy writers and legendary wits as Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and S.L. Perelman frequented the Algonquin Roundtable.

A quick glance at Charlap’s recorded c.v. makes it clear how intimate a relationship he enjoys with this material. On the 2004-05 albums Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul, Somewhere, and Begin The Beguine (the latter made for the Japanese market), Charlap, now 42, celebrated repertoire, respectively, by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Cole Porter. Stardust, from 2000, is a vivid exploration of the world of Hoagy Carmichael, while Love You Madly, from 2003, is a kaleidoscopic tour of Ellingtonia.

On eight other trio albums recorded since 1995, Charlap has rendered incisive, nuanced interpretations of tunes iconic and obscure by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Alec Wilder, Jule Styne, and other luminaries of the period—including his late father, Morris "Moose" Charlap, who composed the score for the original Broadway production of Peter Pan. Each performance expresses an informed point of view, articulated---as no less an authority than George Shearing remarked in the liner notes for All Through The Night, documenting Charlap’s first meeting with Peter and Kenny Washington---with "touch, swing, sound, precision, and just about everything you need in a well-rounded, well-schooled jazz pianist."

"Usually, I will play a song at a tempo or in an arrangement where you could hear the lyric, because to me, words and notes are very much 50-50," Charlap told me a few years back. "The lyric doesn’t always inform my approach; sometimes I choose, as an arranger and improviser, to paraphrase the composition. But if the lyrics are good, they drip off of the notes. For example, ‘Where Or When’ has many repeated notes, but each note has a word, and those words inform the playing."

This is the trio’s first extended run in some time, its longest period of inactivity since it formed. Has this break had an impact?

Well, I can only say—and maybe it’s just part of getting older and part of our experience together as a group—that I feel the value of playing together with Kenny and Peter more and more each time. I never take it for granted, and it feels very high on my priority list.

So being away from them ... absence makes the heart grow fonder?

It’s not even necessarily about having been away, or working with the Blue Note 7, or anything like that. It’s that, as years go on, the things that are really important to you get more important, and things that are less important to you also become less important. I’m not saying that the Blue Note 7 was less important. That was very important, too. But the trio is central to my musical world, and continues to expand and deepen. While we're at ease playing together, it's still a challenge. If it's not, there wouldn’t be a reason to continue.

Are you bringing in new repertoire?

I recently brought in about seven new pieces, and that always helps. But also approaching things differently. Sometimes I’ll reassess a couple of things, or change tempos. I feel that it’s expanding in its scope—the organic qualities continue, and willingness to take things in maybe subtly different directions. The cues are very fast, organic and intuitive. That was always there, though. Chemistry is chemistry. We had chemistry right away, from the very first time we played. But the chemistry grows. Maybe sometimes when you rest on certain music for a little while, it does have a chance to gestate a bit. I’m sure that has something to do with it, too.

What’s the percentage of arrangement versus the percentage of improvisation, or the ways that they mix, within your concept of the trio?

To be honest with you, I never really sat down and thought about it. But as time’s gone on, I’ve realized that there is a side of me that is an arranger and loves to come up with concepts for the trio or myself—or ways of playing a piece. Sometimes an arrangement means a harmonic arrangement or a harmonic approach, maybe just a vibe. Sometimes it’s much more involved. Sometimes it does become a full arrangement inclusive of piano, bass, and drums, and counterpoint, and all that sort of stuff. So the answer is ... I don’t know the exact answer. I think it’s a balance of a number of things. Sometimes I’ll call some tunes or play something that there is no real arrangement of, although because of the way that we play and how well we know each other, these things can also organically become an arrangement or the point of view from which we’ll approach it.

What I find happening in the trio—which is very gratifying and fun for me and for us—is that even the arranged parts become more pliable, and more subtle, and more able to be renegotiated in terms of phrasing, chord disposition, bass notes, the drum arrangement. None of those things are set in stone. They change all the time, very quickly. It’s almost like when you hear a concert pianist, like Rubinstein, play a Chopin waltz he’s played 300 times—the idea is not to waste any moment of it. It’s what I’m talking about in regard to one’s priorities as you grow as a musician—it becomes more important not to waste. Each time you play is precious, in the sense that ... It’s that old song, 'For All We Know, We May Never Meet Again.' Nobody knows.

It’s really worth a lot each time you’re able to be in a situation like the Blue Note 7, which was very special. It would be wonderful if we should do something again, and I would not at all be surprised if we do. But you never know when you might look back and say, 'wow, we never had a time like that again.' so it’s good to really value it all the time. I think that’s part of what I’m talking about in even approaching the arrangements.

Back to the answer to your question. There are so many different ways of arranging pieces that I couldn’t say there’s a percentage. Certainly, though, I like having a point of view for each piece. Even if it’s improvised, I think the arranger’s aesthetic is there from all of the things that we have done with arrangement within the group. A quick nod or a quick musical cue could mean double-time now, or break the double-time, or all kinds of things. Kenny orchestrates at the trap set. He’s so fast at listening to everything, the right and the left hand, all the cues, that he’ll hear something, and tailor it. Right away. Sometimes it’s intuitive—often, as we know each other musically so well now, we’ll hear each other giving the cue, and take educated guesses that sometimes come out right. Even when they don’t, the pieces of the puzzle, at its best, fit like a good Swiss watch.

Let’s talk about Blue Note 7 for a bit. It was put together as kind of front group to market Blue Note’s seventieth anniversary, and probably a chance to make some good music. Tell me how it was presented to you, how you conceptualized it once the basic parameters were presented, how the personnel coalesced, how you interacted with the personnel. One thing, parenthetically: When I interviewed Bruce Lundvall after Christmas, he said he was impressed with the way you had focused an ensemble of musicians with different points of view, mostly leaders, strong-willed artists, towards your point of view, as he interpreted it.

I appreciate Bruce saying that. But I didn’t make anyone come to my point of view. You had six musicians and myself, who are accomplished and classy and respect each other, and they were very professional and gracious in being able to have someone to be an organizing force. But I was not forceful in any way. I do think that it’s useful in a band to have somebody who does that. It’s not always the easiest thing to have a group where you have seven heads of state. I’m not even saying that I’m the head of state ...

Well, you’ve made a similar comment about the trio as well.

Yes. Well, I think it’s good to say, 'What do you feel like playing tonight?' Or, if somebody says, 'Let’s do this,' maybe that’s not what you want to do that night, but figure out a way to make that work. You really should allow people to do what they want. That’s where they’re going to play their best. It’s not a solo gig, so it’s good to have some direction, but you don’t need to be a boss. Ever. I think there is a way of allowing everybody some space. That doesn’t mean there might not be a time when you say, 'Well, I really don’t want to do that right now; let’s do that the next set.' That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a leader.

But back to the Blue Note 7. The way that it worked was Jack Randall, who is my primary booking agent at Ted Kurland Associates, gave me a call. He said, 'We’re thinking of putting together a septet with a number of players, playing classic Blue Note material.' I said to him, 'What do you mean by ‘classic Blue Note material?’'—just trying to get him to clarify it. It was clear that we were on the same page, the page that pretty much anybody might choose, which is mid-‘50s to late-‘60s, essentially the great period of modern jazz when you’re talking about the classic albums of the great composers-players—Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Art Blakey. All the great ones.

Of course, right away it was an attractive idea to me, because it’s music I love to play anyway. It’s music I cut my teeth on, that we continue to be inspired by, that is the best rhythm section playing, the greatest jazz compositions, some of the greatest recorded music, some of the greatest small group music—it is still the paradigm of small-group playing in terms of all the music that’s there. And all of us in this group grew up with that music. We all grew up with Maiden Voyageand Blue Train and In and Out and Speak Like a Child and Ju-Ju and the The Real McCoy, The Amazing Bud Powell—all the records.

So that was attractive right away. I said, 'Well, that’s repertoire that I can certainly wrap myself around. Who do you imagine is going to write all these arrangements, though? This is a septet. We can’t just call these tunes. Plus, how do you pick it?' Then the obvious question: 'With over a thousand albums, and all of them great, many of them classics, how do you choose?'

Jack said, 'Well, we were hoping that you would do that.'

I said, 'Well, that’s very nice, but this is a group of very accomplished, important players, and I wouldn’t think of being the sole person responsible for that. But I could help organize it, and my idea is that we should probably spread out the arranging and probably spread out the choices of the pieces. What kind of pieces do you have in mind?' They thought it could really be anything that works, along with some commercial ideas, such as 'Sidewinder' and 'Song for My Father.' Later, Nicholas Payton wrote an arrangement for 'Song For My Father,' but it was very far afield from the original 'Song For My Father.'

That was very good, because finally, the idea is to pay tribute to those pieces without ... It’s a repertoire band, but not a repertory band. My idea of a repertory band is a band that almost plays the same original arrangements, maybe even some of the same solos (some bands are like that)—Smithsonian Institution type of things. That wasn’t the idea. You have seven players who are playing jazz in 2009 and should play the way that they play, and should approach the pieces the way that they would want to approach them.

However, of course, we want also to have the essence of those pieces. That’s very easy to do. After all, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are master composers. Their pieces are so strong, the aesthetic is there. Everything is there. All you have to do is start with the correct raw materials, and then, if you approach it your way, with taste, generally the pieces will speak. It has to do with taste and it has to do with experience. Any of these players could have done anything with any of the pieces. I think because of the respect for the material, they didn’t want to recompose them so much as illuminate what’s so beautiful about them in the first place, and not to get rid of the elements of swing and bebop and the blues and great rhythm section playing. That’s just a natural. Nobody was told, 'do this and do that, and don’t do this.'

So, the first thing was the idea that, ok, everybody can contribute. And the ideas of players made sense. I worked as a guide in some cases, and in other cases it was right on the money, just in terms of the musical and personal chemistry of the players. We lucked out. Seven equal members. That’s all that it should have been.

Finally, we made the album very quickly, with one or two rehearsals. We did it in May 2008, recording during the day while I was playing at Dizzy’s at night. I can’t do this kind of thing any more; it’s really getting too tiring. But we made it happen; everybody wanted to make it happen. The players’ mutual respect and love for this music made everyone stay late in the recording studio, to burnish these things and polish them to be the best they could be. The album is very good, in my opinion. It came out beautifully and naturally. But it was done before we went on the road. Of course, things grew organically, and if we had recorded the album in April, it would have been quite different. Anyhow, we actually did hire a recording engineer to record all six nights at Birdland, so I’m sure we will eventually have something. Those were our final performances, and we stretched out on things, so it will be interesting to hear those recordings in contrast.

Anyway, after thinking about what artists we had to represent, as I say, somebody had to be a guiding force so you wouldn’t have all up-tempos, or all ballads, or all swinging things—all just one aesthetic. You want to have a well-balanced meal. So I picked one or two things for each player who wanted to arrange something and asked: 'What do you think about this? It would be nice if we had a piece representing this musician, and I thought this would be a good piece to have.' Usually, the player said, 'Yeah, that appeals to me; that works for me; I’ll do that.' Or sometimes someone said, 'well, that’s good, but I like this a little better.' Always I would say, 'Yes, ok, that’s fine; sounds good to me.' Again, have players do what they want to do.

Certainly as an apprentice, you sidemanned with some quartets as an apprentice, worked a long time with Gerry Mulligan and Phil Woods, and have done a lot of duos, as well as leading the trio ...

And lots of singers early on.

But of your recordings for Blue Note, only on Plays George Gershwin is there a larger ensemble. Can you speak to the way you approach the flow of a piece when you’re not the lead voice?

It’s balance. Just like anything else, you make a concert, you want to make sure everybody’s got some space to shine and that everybody gets a chance to play enough. There’s a big band aesthetic, because you can’t solo on every piece. We had mature musicians who understood that and chose their moment to shine, and would always defer to each other. You might even have in the band a player who said, 'Hey, why don’t I give my solo to him? He hasn’t played too much.' That’s the type of maturity I’m talking about.

But as for me, I’ve certainly played plenty with horn players and in large ensembles, big bands. Maybe not recorded myself that way under my own name. I’ve been in that situation well enough times to know what to do. Like everybody else, I played every gig that was worthwhile that I could.

And probably gigs that weren’t so worthwhile.

Sometimes not. But they’re all worthwhile when you’re cutting your teeth. Play with a lousy singer who plays in the weirdest keys and can’t quite keep things together—because it will teach you.

You’re also artistic director of the Jazz in July concert series at the 92nd Street Y, and your fifth season is coming up.

Yes. This means putting together six concerts each year, each one with a different point of view, thinking about either a different artist’s work, or a different type of presentation (each one a presentation), and then, of course, putting together the music that the musicians will play, amassing the cast for each of the concerts. I play on every one of the concerts, and I am the Master of Ceremonies, and basically put the whole thing together, inasmuch as I can, and then allow the musicians to put the rest of it together. That’s what it’s about.

Dick Hyman did that for twenty years before me. He’s my distant cousin on my father’s side, and he’s always been a great mentor to me. When I was in my early teens, he took me around when he was doing record dates, or playing solo concerts, or film scoring, just about anything he was doing, and I would sit as a fly on the wall and watch him operate. He’s such a great artist and professional, I learned a great deal from that. Types of things you couldn’t learn at a traditional piano lesson. When he asked me if I would like to be artistic director of that series, he said to me, 'Well, if you want to do this, do it your way. Don’t feel like you have to do what has been.' I took that exactly in the spirit that it was meant, and it was very generous of him. Of course, I would do that anyhow. But to know that’s how he felt about it was very freeing.

Would you talk a bit about the role that this event has within the structure of New York City jazz life?

I can really only speak about it during my tenure so far, and I’m in my fifth year.

But you were a close observer of it before.

Yes. It’s a New York jazz festival, and what’s great about it is you have a very high percentage of some of the greatest jazz musicians. Just this year alone, we have Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath and Mulgrew Miller, Barbara Carroll—so many great people who are world-class on any level. Over the last five years, we’ve had everyone from Billy Taylor to Hank Jones, Wynton Marsalis ... In a sense, these are all New York players, so it’s really a New York festival. In fact, one of the concerts this summer is a New York concert. 'A Helluva Town,' is the title. That is cast across the generations and across some musical styles as well, playing everything from Joplin to Coltrane, and New York songs, too.

There’s also a concert devoted to Sondheim and Jule Styne. There’s a piano jam in tribute to Oscar Peterson, a saxophone jam, a tribute to Gerry Mulligan, and a Vince Guaraldi tribute. Were these all ideas that you had on the back burner?

It’s just music that I love.

Why Vince Guaraldi, for example?

I always loved Vince’s music. This is one of the places where jazz has gotten into people’s souls without them necessarily knowing it. It holds a special place in American popular culture, in that there is some real jazz playing that everybody knows. Everybody knows the sound of it. Vince had something. His music communicated. It was very hearable for maybe a non-jazz listener. But the feeling was really warm, with that little Latin tinge as well. It’s really soulful. There was a lot of optimism in his sound. Anyway, it’s perfect that it was the soundtrack for Peanuts. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the producer, Lee Mendelson. He heard 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' on the radio, which was a hit record, and said, 'I’ve got to find out who that guy is; that’s the music I want.' Well, both 'Cast your Fate to the Wind,' and then 'Linus and Lucy,' the classic that everyone knows, have a similar feel, both in the way that they’re played and the concept of it. But there’s a lot more Guaraldi music. 'Christmas Time Is Here,' which we’ll do, even though it’s summer in July at a Jewish institution. But that’s ok. It’s New York, like I said. I was born into a Jewish family, though we were never religious, but we always had a Christmas tree. What can I tell you? That’s what I mean by New York.

It would seem that only one of the concerts, 'Saxophone Summit,' doesn’t draw directly on some component of your experience. Sondheim and Styne is another layer of songbook repertoire, musical theater repertoire. 'With Respect To Oscar'—I don’t know how much you were an Oscar-phile in your youth, but ...

Oh, in a major way. Oscar was one of the first and foremost pianists, both the trio aesthetic and his overwhelming, comprehensive command of the piano.

Was he someone you were looking to as a young guy?

Absolutely. I still do.

The Mulligan Songbook is a major component of your musical consciousness as a professional, and several of his tunes are in your regular trio book.

That’s true. I love Gerry’s music. Something he used to say is, 'Well, I shot for 42nd Street, and I over-shot and ended up on 52nd Street.' What he meant by that is, of course, that his jazz compositions are just this side of popular song. They’re very tuneful. You leave the theater singing them, in a sense. So there’s a great influence there. Yet they’re certainly jazz compositions.

Apart from the visibility that you accrued by being with Mulligan when you were 22-23-24 years old, you also have spoken of the way that his expectations of the piano’s function in his group shaped your approach to piano playing and shaped certain aspects of your style.

I felt lucky to be with him. Gerry Mulligan was a really original arranging voice in jazz. Dave Brubeck said about him, 'You hear the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time.' He had an open mind, yet a love for bebop, but a love for Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford, and equally a love for Prokofiev. There was a lot of dimension to his music. And lyricism. So Mulligan the arranger was important, and of course, since he played the baritone saxophone, though often in the register of a cello, almost like Lester Young ... That was, I think, his paradigm of playing, unlike Pepper Adams, who was, of course, a super-virtuoso, and also one of the all-time greats. Very different aesthetic. Because Gerry played the baritone saxophone, you had to think a little differently at the piano because of range and register. Also, Gerry was an arranger who didn’t want the piano player to just comp along. He wanted a more orchestral approach. It got me thinking. That’s all. I also would pull his coat about some of his classic things, particularly Birth of the Cool and the tentet things that he did later. I’d ask, 'What are those voicings? What were you thinking? What were you doing? Will you write that out for me? Would you show me that at the piano?' And he did. He was generous about that. Just naturally, that probably opened up a lot of thinking for me. I realized it later. I’d start writing something, or playing something, or arranging, and say, 'Hmm, Gerry’s a piece of that.' I was lucky that before he passed away, I got a chance to tell him that he would be a part of every note that I play for the rest of my life, and I was grateful for that.

As far as Sondheim and Jule Styne, I’m trying to recall whether you have or haven’t incorporated Sondheim repertoire in your trio.

There’s one Sondheim tune in my book. It’s called 'Uptown, Downtown.' It was cut from Follies. It’s a wonderful tune, one of the few Sondheim songs that you can really swing. I’ve played Sondheim’s music before, but not with the trio. Actually, I did a Sondheim concert around ten years ago at the 92nd Street Y for Dick Hyman when he was the artistic director, probably coming into about ten years ago, where we played two pianos. I also played with Kenny and Peter on that concert. So I got to learn some more of that music there. I love Steven Sondheim’s theater music; he’s the logical extension of all of the giants.

It’s often been remarked that, perhaps because you’re so immersed in the lore and content of musical theater, you do something that many people find challenging, which is improvise upon that repertoire in a very open way, but also wrap your improvisations very much around the nuances of the lyrics. Can you speak to how you accumulated this knowledge? It couldn’t all have just been bloodline.

Born around it. Born around the aesthetic. Born around the love for it. My father, Moose Charlap, was a theater writer. Naturally ...

And I’m sure your mother knew a ton of songs [Charlap's mother is the singer Sandy Stewart].

Oh, yeah. So there is that. But I just loved it. It made sense to me. To me, it was important to know what makes Irving Berlin different than Richard Rodgers, different than Gershwin, different than Arlen, different than Kern, different than Porter. What was it about them, about their songs, that made a stamp? It’s not just a standard. To call it a tune is too small a word for these guys. They were master composers of the blueprints that they made. One thinks of what it is about Monk’s songs that makes Monk sound like Monk. Well, how can you recognize Rodgers? It was interesting to me. As I learned the composers, I started to see what their personal slants were, and all of the pieces started to fall into formation. This process continues; it’s not something I’ve mastered, by any means. In any event, as a jazz fan, as you get to learn the history of jazz piano, you understand where Earl Hines sits in relation to Bud Powell, in relation to Herbie Hancock. Well, you start to see where Jerome Kern sits in relation to Gershwin, in relation to Rodgers. It’s just another huge piece of American music, and a huge piece of the repertoire for jazz musicians. So to me, it didn’t make any sense not to have that be a very large part of my aesthetic.

Again, Mulligan loved the songwriters. He thought that way. It was nice to be around somebody from that generation, who was certainly a master jazz musician, who had that kind of awe of and respect for another way of thinking. This was my father’s world, so I knew what it was to write a score, and launch a show, and have an arranger, and have a producer, and out-of-town tryouts—and all of that world. But I’m a jazz musician. I am lucky to have had a window into that world. So that’s all.

But I think it accumulated both naturally, just amassing maybe a knowledge of the lyric and the song and all of those things. But when I say 'naturally,' it means listening to many albums and scores; and reading through many books on composers; talking to people; being around people like Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Jule Styne, and a lot of people who were around in my life when I was a kid.

At what stage of your life did you start to become obsessed with jazz? Someone like Michael Feinstein, for instance, knows everything about musical theater, but he isn’t a jazz musician.

Well, I don’t know everything about musical theater or everything about anything else. What I mean to say is that Feinstein certainly has a much more vast knowledge of that type of thing than I would.

That being said, you did your jazz interest run in parallel?

The whole thing is one giant, cross-related thing!

So you saw it always as cross-related.

Everything. Not to mention Bach and Schoenberg. They were in there, too! I was interested in what makes American music. What makes this repertoire? Why are we playing 'Rhythm' changes? Why do we play the blues? Why do we play these songs? Why do we keep going back to these songs? Then, in relation to that, what makes Monk’s compositions great? Not just in relation to that, but also its own thing. All of that. So it was a natural thing for me, I guess.

Also, in learning the songs (and frankly, this is not something unique in any way), I figured, 'Well, this is part of what you do.' One of the first gigs I did was at the Knickerbocker when I was in my teens—I was given Monday nights to play solo piano. A guy came in and asked, 'Do you play some Irving Berlin tunes?' I said, 'Maybe I do' or something like that. Or I knew maybe one or two. I thought, 'I should be able to rattle off fifty of them; he’s too important.' So a light went on in my head. I said, 'Well, you should probably be able to say yes.' But it’s never scholastic with me. Really I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Wayne Shorter and I’m a fan of Irving Berlin.

But the one point I wanted to make is, in learning the songs, to me, it’s learning the lyrics, too, because they’re part and parcel of the same thing. The lyric will inform you how to phrase a melody. Or, what it is that you’re doing in not phrasing the melody. I just want to have a full box of tools before I make the choice.

I’m trying to thread some of these themes along the New York idea.

300 East 51st Street.

300 East 51st Street. Jewish family. Part of a line of ...

Not that Jewish. Jewish in culture, but not Jewish in religion.

Like a lot of Jewish families of that generation.

Exactly. I wasn’t bar-mitzvahed.

But 300 East 51st Street. Town School. High School of Performing Arts.

Yup. New York.

But not that many New York based professional jazz musicians are actually from New York. Apart from a place to grow up, New York is also a melting pot. Can you speak to the challenges of being an aspiring musician from New York and the opportunities that it affords?

It’s both. When I was a kid, I could go to the Village Gate and hear Junior Mance, or go to Lush Life and hear Kenny Barron, or go to Bradley’s and hear Red Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was all ...

What do you mean by 'a kid'?

In my teens I was able to do that. So when you’re exposed to musicians of that level, as close as you could be in a place like Bradley’s ... You could sit right there. Geez! Tommy Flanagan’s playing right in front of you. What better lesson is that? I like what Ed Koch said about New York. I’m misquoting, but he said something like, 'If you’re one in a million, there’re ten of you in New York.' What I mean by that, of course, is that the level of competition is incredibly high. Even going to the High School for the Performing Arts, there were kids in my class in freshman year who could play all the Chopin Etudes, letter-perfect technique. I was never geared towards being a classical pianist. Not that I didn’t study classical music, but it was way later. I was already playing theater songs on my own, improvising, and whatever else I was playing—it didn’t really have a name. But the bar was set really, really high. And you know the energy of New York. Things go at the speed of light. The cultural milieu is huge! Jackie Mason said something funny when he said, 'Oh, I could never leave New York, because it has the ballet.' 'So do you ever go to the ballet?' He says, 'No, I never go to the ballet. But it’s there!'

So jazz always appealed to you.

My parents were listening to it, and it was always part of the sound around my house anyway. Not to mention that my father passed away when I was 7 years old, and my mother was remarried a number of years later to a trumpeter named George Triffon. He was my stepfather. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was a great trumpet player, not an improviser, but played third and second trumpet in Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, he was on the Merv Griffin Show—a professional in his generation who was always listening to Bill Evans and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan and Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer ...

So the template was there.

Yeah, it was all there. That’s what they were listening to.

Well, when [bassist] Michael Moore is telling Whitney Balliett that not too many kids your age have absorbed Jimmy Rowles, or when Balliett in this 1999 New Yorker piece describes you as having ' absorbed every pianist worth listening to in the past fifty years' within the flow of your improvisational thinking ...

It was nice of him to say, but it’s not true.

But the references are there, because you heard them.

There isn’t anyone that he mentioned that I don’t love. There are many more he didn’t mention that I also love. And I don’t remember what the short list was.

I can read it to you.

It’s ok.

No, I’ll read it. 'Starting with Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Rowles, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson, then moving through Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans, and finishing with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron.'

Well, there’s a lot more. Did he say Sonny Clark? Did he say Earl Hines? Did he say Red Garland? Did he say Wynton Kelly? Did he say Ahmad Jamal? There’s a lot more that I love, who are giants.

This morning I was listening to the dates you did for Criss Cross before the trio with Peter and Kenny, and it was a different sound. More abstract, different time feel ...

Different cats.

Different cats. But there was a difference in the way you were approaching material, it seemed to me.

I was growing, and you continue to grow. It also had to do with the chemistry between whoever those rhythm sections were, and then maybe what I was thinking about musically at that time. All of that stuff comes together. It gives your music dimension. I never thought of cutting away something. Maybe it’s a matter of you get more focused.

One thing struck me. I was listening to 'Confirmation' from the 1995 Criss-Cross record, Souvenir, and it was very abstract, almost 12-tone ...

At the beginning.

I don’t think you would do something like that with this trio, for instance.

Well, I might have some element of that existing in there. I wouldn’t say that I couldn’t and wouldn’t. Things have happened like that. It’s a matter of taste, that’s all, or whatever ...

Everybody grows, everybody crystallizes their ideas, everybody develops an aesthetic that suits them for the different places they find themselves. I’m just wondering if you can reflect on how your aesthetic has evolved over this last 12-15 years, or what role the trio has played in your aesthetic evolution.

It’s very hard to say that. It’s almost something I can’t answer without contradicting myself, without contradicting how I really feel about it. Because finally, I really love a lot of music, and appreciate a lot of people’s aesthetics. I don’t need them to be the same as mine to really appreciate them.

I’m talking about your aesthetic.

I wouldn’t even want to say I’m trying to do this or I’m trying to do that. Because I can’t think that way. Both Kenny and Peter have such a beautiful originality in the way that they play their instruments and approach their music, yet they are so deeply informed also by the history of the music and the focal players on their instruments. Their aesthetic is very mature, very experienced. The depth of their time playing is very high. Maybe there’s a purity to the aesthetic that appeals to me. I just like beauty. What can I say?

You’ve made that statement: 'Truth and beauty.'

Well, I didn’t invent it. It’s what Bill Evans told Tony Bennett before he died. I think that it’s right there in the music. If anyone wants to know what it is that means the most to me, all they have to do is listen. It’s right there.

You have another trio, the New York Trio, with Jay Leonhart on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, that you don’t perform with, but record with, which has made almost as many records, all for the Japanese market, as this trio.

I wouldn’t exactly say, though, it’s another trio that I have. It’s quite different, because this is a trio that has only existed in the recording studio on those albums. We did one gig once. So this is a band I’ve recorded with, but I still wouldn’t ...

But it’s the same three people over a period of years, and the musical production is documented, and the notes and tones come from you.

True. It has to do with a bunch of things. First of all, I know going in that we’re going to record an album. We’re not going to be working on this material over time. Also, if an album is brought to me, it may be the producer’s concept: 'We’d like to do a Richard Rodgers album.' Well, I think about these players playing this music, and maybe wouldn’t approach it the same way as I would with Kenny and Peter, and purposefully leave things in a way that allows the players to approach the pieces with ease. Because after all, we’re not rehearsing. We’re recording right away, going right to it, and letting it go. Often, it’s just a harmonic arrangement of a tune, or something like that.

Do you approach ballads differently now than you did 10 years or 12 years ago?

They mean more to me. They always meant something to me, though. I hear my mom singing them over the years. It’s the song. The song is meaningful to me. A ballad is not always a song. We played 'Search for Peace' of McCoy Tyner, which is gorgeous, with the Blue Note 7. I love playing that.

Now, the Blue Note 7 repertoire, for the most part, is not repertoire you would play with the trio.

Oh, it might be. We were playing 'Criss Cross' for a little while. Not to mention, Blue Note 7 really was a Blue Note 8, because Renee Rosnes, my wife, was the arranger of four of the pieces that were staples of our book. So she contributed in a very big way to the sound of the band.

She has the piano chair in another put-together-for-a-purpose group, the SF Jazz Collective, which has a very different approach.

That's true. They focus on original compositions as well as those of the composers they're focusing on that year. They're a great band.

Although the Blue Note 7 did come from a commercial idea, what appealed to me was the idea that we could have a group that would exist in a non-commercial way. Not that it’s not an honor to tout Blue Note, and not that we would not want to tout Blue Note. Forget about if I was signed or not. But the idea was that it be also not be just a gig. A band is a band. A band has to want to be a band. That’s what you want. As musicians, we are in the incredibly lucky position that we’re able to work and get paid for doing what we love doing. It’s been said many times before, but my idea is that I am lucky to do things that I really care about on a very non-commercial level. The records I’ve made for Blue Note with my trio are the exact same records I would have self-produced. I feel that way pretty much of any project I’ve done that hasn’t been done with somebody else’s idea of what it should be, and that’s very fortunate. So the reward is right there in the music.

With the exception of Live at the Village Vanguard, which documents a live performance, most of your recordings for Blue Note have been thematic. I’m wondering if you can speak to the benefits and pitfalls of doing repertoire-directed sessions where the repertoire is arbitrarily selected.

They’re all different; each one begs a different answer. There’s no downside to it. I wouldn’t call it a downside; it’s a challenge ...

I said pitfall.

There’s also no pitfall. It’s like doing Bernstein’s music. The only pitfall (and I wouldn’t call it a pitfall; I’d call it a challenge) would be how to approach this music and give it integrity within our context, and also keep the integrity from the context it comes from. That’s a challenge. But it’s a welcome challenge. The reason for doing a composer or a point of view? Very simply, it’s like a concert pianist doing a program of all Beethoven. It certainly helps to round out your performance and tie it all together, not just because they have their name signed on it, but because it has a personality. Hoagy Carmichael’s music has a personality. Gershwin’s music has a personality. Bernstein has a personality. So finding a program that works as a program ... again, it’s like the Blue Note 7. You don’t want eight ballads. You don’t want eight up-tempos. You don’t want all the same music. So you have to find a way to make that work. Then you also want to make sure that you feature the bass and the drums all the way around.

It’s music that has a personality, but then it also has to suit your collective personality.

That’s true.

It’s not like a cabaret performance of the repertoire.

Well, you try to do that as naturally as possible. Of course, these are things I give great thought to. But in an organic way. Not any other way.

Is there a contemporary songbook? Is there a songbook of the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s and ‘00s that you consider to be ripe for similar interpretation?

It’s different. Most of these songs, the great songs, come out of American musical theater, and there really wasn’t that much from American musical theater in the same way ... Our culture changed. It completely changed. People weren’t excited about, oh, the next Gershwin show or the next Rodgers and Hammerstein show. They were talking about other things. They were talking about the Jefferson Airplane perhaps.

Or they were talking about the choreography on Chicago or Cats. The theater may have become more about spectacle, for the most part.

Not in the case of Sondheim. But also, it’s the English infiltration of the theater when you’re talking about Lloyd-Webber and all of that. But the aesthetic changed, too. Cy Coleman and my father and a couple of writers continued on, and were at the tail end of the great theater writers.

Is there a songbook? Well, there are still some beautiful songs, certainly of Sondheim, although, because he expands the musical theater, he expands it a little bit away from us as song players. Like Bernstein, too, who was expanding things, and more through-composed ... With Bernstein, that was the challenge, I think, that you didn’t want to throw away all his underpinnings, all his orchestration, because they were as much a part of the composition. After all, he was a real composer from soup to nuts. That doesn’t mean that Kern was not a real composer. I don’t think Bernstein could have written a Kern song any better than Kern could have written West Side Story.

But the question is: Is there a contemporary songbook? There are beautiful things written by people like Stevie Wonder. There are beautiful things written by people like Michel Legrand—although you may consider him part of an older tradition of writing, and that’s probably true. Johnny Mandel. It’s different. Much of the popular music today wouldn’t appeal to me. Not that it isn’t good. Not that it’s not expressing something viable and real, and that its creators are not brilliant musicians. But certain things simply are not there for a jazz improviser, particularly in that they are triadic in nature, that they deal with three-note chords, not four-note chords—and that’s a big, big deal for us. You almost have to recompose them to make them right for us. Their blueprint is not a blueprint like 'All The Things You Are.' The blueprint needs to be rewritten. 'All The Things You Are' does not need to be rewritten. They also often rely upon the performer. I don’t think there’s a better performance of a Beatles song than by the Beatles themselves, whereas I do think that there are often more quintessential performances of some songs from, say, Oklahoma, though they’re quintessential in American musical theater in their original forms ... Coleman Hawkins playing 'Climb Every Mountain' means a lot more to us as jazz players than it does within The Sound of Music, albeit that it’s perfect within The Sound of Music.

So the answer is: I think they are few and far between. I believe that there is repertoire for us, but it’s very differently-built. That’s not necessarily bad.

So you would be coming from a different place than some people situated just across the border of the generational divide from you. Someone like Brad Mehldau, born in 1971, addresses Radiohead and Bjork ...

And he does great things with them.

I’m not asking you to judge what he does, but that sort of repertoire ...

It’s not for me.

You yourself are 42, and your teenage years, the years in which you developed most rapidly, coincided with the 'young lions' coming to New York, in ‘81-‘82-‘83 ...

Stevie Wonder’s pretty good! I’m sorry. I was still answering the other question. I’d like to play 'If It’s Magic.' That’s gorgeous.

In any event, did that development have an effect on you, or were you so tied into the older generation ...

I mean, I never was tied into the older generation.

You knew it intimately, though.

I guess so.

You have a certain time feel with this group, that’s very much a bebop time feel.


I’m sure that’s partly because of Kenny’s presence.

No, it’s not just because of Kenny. That’s the center of my musical world for sure.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the intuitive feel for most pianists born after the Baby Boom. For me, that’s also a New York thing, in a way.

Could be. But I think a lot of my generation grew up with that. Renee, Dave Hazeltine, Mike LeDonne ... There’s all different places within it, everywhere from Wynton Kelly through Herbie Hancock. But it’s still about swinging. It’s still about playing within a rhythm section. Maybe I happen to feel post-bop things and bop things—and beyond—all together. There’s a lot of that together. If you think about Oscar Peterson, he’s playing harmonically all kinds of things, but there’s a swing feel to his playing that’s not really like Bud Powell. It’s more Nat Cole. Then you just get into personalities. He had such a strong personality that it’s Oscar Peterson music. It’s just not categorizable any more.

But as far as the 'young lions,' when I was coming up I didn’t feel negative about it at all. I always felt, 'Well, that’s good; it’s good that people are immersing themselves in something that’s really valuable and some tradition.' Of course, the media was jumping on it as a way of promoting a way of thinking, and maybe there was a sociological current going on with that then. But I always saw it in perspective, even when it was happening, which was: Well, that’s for now, and that’s a good thing. That won’t last forever. Nothing else lasts forever. That’s a good thing, because finally, the bottom line is that it just forced players to learn how to play well. There was a criteria of playing well.

Now, I don’t really care too much for any idea that says, 'Well, this is the only way to do it' or 'this is not worthwhile because this is really the stuff.' I don’t feel that way. I don’t think most great musicians do. It just doesn’t interest me to think that way. But also, if you really, really love something, and if you’re an artist, there is sometimes some myopia. You have to have it. You have to be able to focus very finitely on something. So it’s a delicate balance. It’s personal. I just thought, 'Well, that’s another way to do it; that way is good, too.' That’s how I really felt. I never felt that it negated what somebody else who didn’t do that, did, and I didn’t feel that they negated what ... Quality is quality. That’s all.

You played with Jim Hall. You played for a long time with Phil Woods. You played duo with Michael Moore. You played duo with Gene Bertoncini. Real serious New York purists, and very demanding taskmasters. Can you make some general comment about your apprenticeship and the value of those sorts of gigs to what you do now?

Those guys are masters. You get around any master, they’re going to show you the path in ways that are technical, in ways that are very clear, and then in ways that are about being around their experience that you continue to learn from. It never ends. Things that you can’t put into words. There’s a feeling there.

Someone who was very important to me was Eddie Locke, the drummer, whom I’ve known since I was in grade school. He was always talking about the feeling of the music, the great musicians he played with, like Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. He’s from Detroit, close friends with Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna, whom he had a trio with. Eddie has lived the center of the music, and is about the human feeling in the music. He’s been like family to me over the years. There’s been a lot to glean from being around a person like that. I also was lucky that I had great teachers. Jack Reilly, a wonderful pianist, a composer, classical pianist and jazz pianist, and a great musical intellectual as well, very able to impart technical things about the music—a natural of a teacher. Eleanor Hancock, a great concert pianist who was a pedagogue of the pianist, Dorothy Taubman, part of a technical school of playing the piano that was valuable for me in terms of production of sound, getting me to think.

They all showed the way. From each person you learn some very special thing, or many special things. I’m lucky. I always saw that the benchmark was really high, and you know, just try to play better every night.

The another thing, which might seem obvious, is learning to play your instrument with command. All those players are virtuosos of playing their instrument. I think that it’s not too small of a point to make that a comprehensive approach to expressivity on your instrument is essential. One of the things that makes Kenny Washington’s and Peter Washington’s playing so great, is that they are virtuosos on their respective instruments—and Phil Woods, and Gene Bertoncini, and all those people. The bar is very high in terms of their command and sound production. None of that is wasted. I think that’s a key thing for young musicians to understand, is not to be satisfied with just the ability to do some things. There are so many colors out there. That’s what differentiates a Coleman Hawkins from a very fine, educated tenor player—all those colors, and then, of course, the personality. Which will come through. But you have to take care of making a full box of tools, and not cut corners.

That particular cohort of older musicians you played with are not the type to let things go.

They did not cut corners.

And you can’t either, can you.

You can’t. Not if you want to honor how great this music is—and also not if you want to keep the gig. And why would you want to? Finally, to me, it’s all just about being a fan. A couple of nights ago, I heard Barry Harris play 'It Could Happen To You.' It was a solo version. And he told such a story on it with so much nuance, it was inimitable. Of course, it was looking down from a lifetime of music and experience. But it was certainly educational, and certainly held up how far away that is.

Is there still such a thing as New York jazz that’s relevant to you?

Well, I don’t know. I only know what I know. Not to quote a lyric ... it’s in 'Time After Time.' Not Cyndi Lauper’s. But there probably is such a thing. Maybe it has to do with bebop and swinging. But I’m 42, so I’m not on the street with the 20-year-olds any more. I think things are changing a great deal. I don’t think it’s about bebop maybe as much. These days, it’s about odd time, changing time signatures, and not always about swinging. To me that’s a shame. Because if you’re missing that quarter-note and that feeling, you’re missing something very important to the sound of our music. Not to sound like an old fogey, but I think that’s absolutely central. The blues is central. Being part of a family tree musically is central. There’s no outsider art in jazz. It’s too high of an art form. It would be like being a great writer, and not knowing Faulkner and Melville and Thomas Mann. You have to be part of a continuum to say something original. I don’t think you can really bring something 'original' without being a part of the canon, and I don’t think you can seek out just being original. I mean, you can’t think of someone more original than Monk, but Monk wouldn’t be Monk without Duke Ellington and Earl Hines. It wouldn’t exist that way. Coltrane wouldn’t have sounded like Coltrane without Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.

I will say this. My mother and my father were very influential. I saw my Dad’s intensity. Even though he died when he was 7, I watched him at the piano, I heard him play his music. He had great time and he had a great expressiveness in singing and playing his own tunes.

Anything else to say about your mother, Sandy Stewart? You’ve recorded together.

She’s a beautiful singer. She really reads a lyric, and she’s a great musician. We’re going to perform next year again at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, as we have on a yearly basis.

After Jazz in July, are there any special projects, or is it primarily the trio?

There is. I’m going to record a two-piano album with my wife. Renee is a giant of a musician, and a perfect duo partner. She has perfect ears, brilliant time, and taste.

Ted Panken interviewed Bill Charlap at the Algonquin Hotel on May 23, 2009.

July 30, 2009 · 0 comments


Jazz Composer George Russell Dead at Age 86

Composer, theoretician, pianist George Russell passed away on July 27, 2009 at approximately 9:10 pm from complications due to Alzheimer’s. He leaves his wife Alice Russell, his son Jock Millgardh and three grandchildren, Maya, Kalle and Max.

There will be no funeral, but a memorial service will be planned in the future. The family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Memory Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Bio information:

 George Russell

George Russell was a hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music's only major theorist, one of its most profound composers, and a trail blazer whose ideas have transformed and inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time.

Russell was born in Cincinnati on June 23, 1923, the adopted son of a registered nurse and a chef on the B&O Railroad. He began playing drums with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps and eventually received a scholarship to Wilberforce University where he joined the Collegians, whose list of alumni include Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster. But his most valuable musical education came in 1941, when, in attempting to enlist in the Marines, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, spending 6 months in the hospital where he was taught the fundamentals of harmony from a fellow patient. From the hospital he sold his first work, "New World," to Benny Carter. He joined Benny Carter's Band, but was replaced by Max Roach; after Russell heard Roach, he decided to give up drumming. He moved to New York where he was part of a group of musicians who gathered in the basement apartment of Gil Evans. The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi and on occasion, Charlie Parker. He was commissioned to write a piece for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra; the result was the seminal "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop" the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947 and featuring Chano Pozo. Two years later his "Bird in Igor's Yard" was recorded by Buddy DeFranco, a piece notable for its fusion of elements from Charlie Parker and Stravinsky.

 George Russell

It was a remark made by Miles Davis when George asked him his musical aim which set Russell on the course which has been his life. Miles said he "wanted to learn all the changes." Since Miles obviously knew all the changes, Russell surmised that what he meant was he wanted to learn a new way to relate to chords. This began a quest for Russell, and again hospitalized for 16 months, he began to develop his "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization." First published in 1953, the Lydian Concept is credited with opening the way into modal music, as demonstrated by Miles in his seminal "Kind of Blue" recording. Using the Lydian Scale as the PRIMARY SCALE of Western music, the Lydian Chromatic Concept introduced the idea of chord/scale unity. It was the first theory to explore the vertical relationship between chords and scales, and was the only original theory to come from jazz. Throughout the 1950's and 60's, Russell continued to work on developing the Concept and leading bands under his direction. In the mid-fifties, a superb sextet, including Bill Evans and Art Farmer recorded under his direction, producing "The Jazz Workshop," an album of astonishing originality; the often dense textures and rhythms anticipated the jazz-rock movement of the 1970's.

 George Russell

During this time, he was also working odd jobs as a counterman in a lunch spot and selling toys at Macy's at Christmas; the release of The Jazz Workshop put an end to Russell’s jobs outside of music. He was one of a group to be commissioned to write for the first annual Brandeis Jazz Festival in 1957--"All About Rosie" was based on an Alabama children's song. "New York, New York," with poetry by Jon Hendricks and featuring Bill Evans, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer and a Who's Who of the New York jazz scene is striking in it evocation of the New York of the late fifties. From 1960, Russell began leading his own sextets around the New York area and at festivals; he also toured throughout the Midwest and Europe with his sextet. One of the important albums of this time was "Ezz-Thetic," which featured Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis and Steve Swallow.

Disillusioned by his lack of recognition and the meager work opportunities in America, he arrived in a wheel chair in Scandinavia in 1964, but returned five years later in spiritual health. In Sweden and Norway he found support for both himself and his music. All his works were recorded by radio and TV, and he was championed by Bosse Broberg, the adventurous Director of Swedish Radio, an organization with which Russell maintains a close association and admiration. While there, he heard and recorded a young Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, and Jon Christensen.

In 1969, he returned to the States at the request of his old friend, Gunther Schuller to teach at the newly created Jazz Department at the New England Conservatory where Schuller was President. He continued to develop the Lydian Concept and toured with his own groups. He played Carnegie Hall, the Village Vanguard, the Bottom Line, Newport, Wolftrap, The Smithsonian, Sweet Basil, the West Coast, the Southwest, and Europe with his 14 member orchestra. He continued to compose extended works which defined jazz composition. His 1985 recording, "The African Game,"one of the first in the revived Blue Note label, received 2 Grammy nominations. Russell has taught throughout the world, and has been guest conductor for Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, German and Italian radio.

In 1986, he was invited by the Contemporary Music Network of the British Council to tour with an orchestra of American and British musicians, which resulted in The International Living Time Orchestra, which has been touring and performing since that time. Among the soloists of stature are Stanton Davis, Dave Bargeron, Brad Hatfield, Steve Lodder, Tiger Okoshi, and Andy Sheppard. The musicians have developed a rare understanding of the music, astonishing audiences with fiery music both complex and challenging, but added to the dynamism and electric power of funk and rock. Russell himself is a tremendously visual leader, dancing and forming architectural structures with his hands.

The Living Time Orchestra has toured all over the world. Most recent projects included a performance at the Barbican Centre in London and the Cite de la Musique in Paris, augmented with string players from the U.K. and France, the Theatre Champs-Elyse¥es for the Festival D'automne in Paris, the Glasgow International Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tokyo Music Joy, the Library of Congress, Festivals of Umbria, Verona, Lisbon, Milano, Pori, Bath, Huddersfield, Ravenna, Catania, North Sea, and many more.

Russell has received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master, been elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Oscar du Disque de Jazz, the Guardian Award, six NEA Music Fellowships, the American Music Award, and numerous others.

Contact: Sue Auclair, 617-522-1394

July 28, 2009 · 0 comments


A History of the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano

By Jared Pauley

Many of us here at are also musicians and I am no exception. Even though I tend the think of myself as a pianist/keyboardist, I’m really at heart a Rhodist. The first time I touched the keys of the Rhodes piano and played a chord . . . I can never forget that feeling. I remember specifically what chord it was; Gmaj7/A, the Earth, Wind, &Fire, Marvin Gaye chord. Since that fateful day, I—like so many other musicians before—fell in love with the bell tone instrument and have never looked back.

 Fender Rhodes

The Rhodes has long been a serious topic of discussion in jazz music, given its historical role in the electric music of Miles Davis and others. Other than the grand piano, no other keyboard instrument has a more distinguished and cherished sound than the Rhodes keyboard. I’m sure that, when Harold Rhodes started designing pianos for injured war veterans during World War II, he had no idea what kind of musical revolution his invention would start some twenty years later. The place of electric instruments in jazz music is always going to be debated by some, but to me, the Fender Rhodes is the most pure, powerful instrument ever created. Let’s take a look at the history of the instrument and how it has impacted not just jazz, but all music for that matter.

Harold Rhodes was born on December 28th, 1910 in California. By the age of twenty, he had purchased a school from his piano teacher. Now called the Harold Rhodes School of Popular Piano, the school encouraged self-instruction on the instrument. During World War II, Rhodes was a member of the Army Corps where the first incarnation of his piano was created using aluminum pipes from military B-17 bomber wings. Originally the instrument was used by bed stricken soldiers for therapy and rehabilitation. The instrument ended up being a success and thousands were produced. Rhodes was awarded the Medal of Honor by the United States government for his invention.

 Harold Rhodes and his keyboard

After WWII ended, Rhodes established the Rhodes Piano Corporation, and produced a thirty-eight key version which was premiered at the first NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in 1946. This version was acoustic like the original but Rhodes soon modeled an electric version that featured tube amplification and 6"speakers. After two years of producing the Pre-Piano Rhodes, Harold dissolved his business and moved to Texas. Several years later, he invented a tuning fork concept, which he later patented and used this new concept as the basis for a new seventy-two note model. During the 1950s, as Rhodes was reinventing his own electric piano, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company began manufacturing their own electric piano. The Wurlitzer Electric Piano used steel reeds and a DC pickup system. Sun Ra was the first musician to record with an electric piano, the Wurlitzer, for his 1956 recording Angels and Demons at Play.

Rhodes combined forces with Leo Fender, the influential instrument producer of the 1950s, and they created the Fender Rhodes PianoBass. The model was released to the public in 1959 but, ironically, the seventy-three note version wasn’t released until 1965—after Fender was bought up by CBS for $13,000,000.00. The PianoBass was used heavily by Ray Manzarek for the bass sound of The Doors, one of most recognized musicians who incorporated the instrument into popular music.

 Fender Rhodes ad

Prior to the release of the suitcase Rhodes, there had up to this point been many instrument evolutions that drastically changed the musical landscape. 1960 saw the release of the Fender Jazz Bass, the Hohner Pianet arrived in 1962, and the Hohner Clavinet in 1964. Music making had greatly expanded by this point and the historical contributions of these innovations cannot be denied. During the years of 1965 and 1969, several different versions of the Rhodes were sold. The most common model sold during this time was the Fender Rhodes 73 note Electric Piano. The company also produced the less common Celeste version and a classroom system, both of which were made to order.

During the late 1960s, the Fender Rhodes electric piano became a revolutionary force in the future direction of jazz music. It’s often hard to point at an isolated innovations that creates a change in the sonic quality of jazz but the Fender Rhodes is one of those. Along with advancements in recording techniques and analog tape treatment, the Rhodes began making its way into the music of Miles Davis.

 Inside the Fender Rhodes

The Rhodes was also adopted by other musicians in other genres, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles. It was also incorporated into the work of jazz pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and Jan Hammer, among others, who helped shape the jazz fusion sound of the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the identity of the first major musician to record with the Rhodes is not certain, but one of the first jazz musicians to play the Rhodes was Joe Zawinul when he was in alto great Cannonball Adderley’s band. Zawinul used a Wurlitzer on the recording Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, recorded on October 20th, 1966. But Zawinul soon began using the Rhodes, after being introduced to the instrument by Victor Feldman, on live dates with Adderley. Zawinul can be heard playing the Rhodes on his solo recording The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream back in 1968, showing his permanent allegiance to the instrument.

On Davis’s 1968 recording Miles in the Sky, Herbie Hancock plays a hypnotic, funky driven Rhodes on the track “Stuff,” which also showcases the more straight ahead use of the instrument. “Stuff” was recorded on May 17th, 1968. On June 20th, 1968 Davis was in the studio with Hancock, drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. For this recording date, Hancock played a Rhodes and Carter played electric bass. Davis reentered the studio on September 21st, 1968 with bassist Dave Holland and pianist Chick Corea but Corea ended up playing an RMI Electra Piano instead of a Rhodes. Swedish Rhodes historian Frederik "Freddan" Adlers has noted that Harold personally gave Davis a Rhodes around 1970, as he had also done with the Beatles, who featured Billy Preston on the instrument for their Let It Be project.

By this time, Davis was using the Fender Rhodes not only as a mechanism for recording but also in composition. The sounds of the instrument and the unique textures that could be created with it were surly an influence on Davis’s compositional aspirations during this time. This is highly evident on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. In a Silent Way was recorded on February 18th, 1969 in New York City. On this occasion, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock were featured on electric piano while Joe Zawinul was featured on organ. The story goes that Larry Young was supposed to be on organ, but he was asked to leave right when he arrived at the studio. This album marked Davis’s first project built around a rhythm section that consisted exclusively of electric instrumentation. For Bitches Brew, Davis employed many of the same musicians from In a Silent Way, but added more players. The result is not as organic as before, but the album highlights the constant change he and his musicians were applying to their music.

 Bill Evans

Bill Evans, another early Davis collaborator, also began using the Rhodes during this time. In 1970, Evans recorded the album From Left to Right, which presented an elegant, but equally sophisticated usage of the Rhodes. Harold Rhodes even wrote a few words for the linear notes for the album, in which he praised Evans’s playing.

In 1970, Fender released the new 73 and 88 key versions of the Stage and Suitcase MK1 models. The electronics in the Stage model were passive and utilized four legs for support. The Suitcase model incorporated a cabinet amplification system, which also acted as the stand support system. These models were extremely popular among not only jazz musicians but also soul and R&B artists. Stevie Wonder used the Fender Rhodes beginning in 1972 with his classic album Talking Book. The most notable keyboardists to use Rhodes continued to be the performers who had recorded on Miles Davis’s albums. With the formation of Weather Report (Shorter & Zawinul), Return to Forever (Corea), Mahavishnu Orchestra (John McLaughlin) and Mwandishi and the Headhunters (Hancock), the sound of the Fender Rhodes was introduced to an entire new generation of fans and musicians.

 Bill Evans

Along with the development of the Moog synthesizer and the ARP 2500 and 2600, many more tools were available for musicians to use in sound expansion. When fusion took off in the early 1970s, the Fender Rhodes was an integral part of the sound along with the aforementioned instruments. The keyboard is heard in full on Return to Forever recordings, starting with Light As a Feather, in 1973 and on Herbie Hancock’s 1973 album Headhunters. Iconic jazz rockers Steely Dan were also using the instrument—it has been featured on all of their releases and is still used by the band to this day. Rock groups such as the Eagles also started using the instrument and composer/guitarist Frank Zappa employed George Duke on many recordings using the Fender Rhodes. Pianist Ahmad Jamal also recorded with the instrument, as did Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.

By 1974, the Fender name had been taken off of the product. The company continued to develop and release new versions of the instrument for the rest of the decade. In early 1981, the piano was briefly produced with plastic keys but was soon discontinued and replaced with original wood keys. By 1983, Bill Schultz, the head of CBS, had bought the Rhodes corporation and eventually released the Mark V version in 1984. It’s been noted that three versions of this keyboard were made with MIDI capabilities and that Chick Corea is the lucky owner of one of these three rare models. By 1987, Roland had acquired the Rhodes name from Bill Schultz. Waiting two years, the company finally released a digital version of the Rhodes calling it the Rhodes MK-80, but it was nothing like the real thing.

During the 1990s, the Fender Rhodes made a comeback, driven by the popularity of the suitcase models. British groups such as the funk band Jamiroquai and rock band Radiohead began using it in their music, while many American artists were also adopting the sound. During the neo-soul movement, artists like D’Angelo, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and the Roots, built sonic landscapes that fully relied on the nuances of the Rhodes. Today, the Rhodes is used in the jazz world, perhaps most notably by Robert Glasper, and continues to be an instrument of choice for others. Like many, I have to believe that it’s undeniably the sound of the Rhodes that has allowed it to endure for so long. The crunchiness, softness and the sustain are all distinctive qualities that have given the instrument a new breath of life in contemporary music.

Sadly, Harold Rhodes passed away on December 17th, 2000 at the age of eighty-nine. He never got to see the relaunch of the new Rhodes and I am sure that he would have been glad to know that the new releases were real pianos. In 2007, a new model of the Rhodes piano was premiered at the NAMM conference where pianist George Duke and others played several demonstration songs, including Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”

Currently, the new models are being made to order directly from the Rhodes corporation. Three different series are currently being offered; the S series, the A series, and the AM series. All of the models are available in white, red and black—and I must admit that they look absolutely exquisite. I think it’s very safe to say that Harold Rhodes would be very happy with the new models being manufactured. You can go to and check out the different pics and sounds of the new models. I haven’t had a chance to play one yet, but I suspect that they play wonderfully.

The Fender Rhodes has come a long way since its days during WWII but its impact on plugged-in jazz and popular music is second only to that of the electric guitar. I think that’s why I love history so much—because one thing leads to another, and all of a sudden something new and fresh has entered the arena. I still love to sit down and play my suitcase seventy-three. Nothing beats the warmth of a Fender Rhodes and I bet many of you out there, regardless of your opinions on jazz after 1970, like the Rhodes just as much as I do!

July 23, 2009 · 0 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Dick Hyman

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

Our subject this month is pianist Dick Hyman.

By arnold jay smith

                          Dick Hyman by Suzanne Cerny

To call Dick Hyman merely a pianist sorely underrates his mien. Closer might be calling him a chameleon that wears pants and plays the piano. But then again that reptilian creature blends in for protection; Hyman stands out.

A small sampling: There was a ragtime craze during the 1950s where record companies asked pianists to recreate or create tunes played in that style. Some put coins between hammers and strings to eliciting a tacky sound; others played harpsichords. Some purposely played out of tune. Still others recreated ragtime melodies made famous during the twenties. Hyman went the whole route. I asked for and received a list of the pianist nom-de-recordings Hyman used on various labels. He sent a list no fewer than 27, “of those I could remember,” he said. Among them were Rip Chord, Knuckles O’toole, Peter Parker –was he the forerunner of Spiderman?—Puddinhead Smith, and my personal favorite Slugger Ryan, the Bil & Cora Baird marionette pianist on a vastly popular children’s television show called “Lucky Pup,” who played and narrated with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

Dick Hyman was musical director for CBS’s Arthur Godfrey and others. There’s a famous Dumont TV clip we’ve all seen featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with Hyman at the piano. There’s Dick Hyman artist and arranger for Command Records during which period he recorded hyper-stereo for that new medium with stars like Doc Severinsen, Tony Mattola, Bob Haggart, the Ray Charles Singers plus a host of percussionists. It was during the Command period that Hyman took Robert Moog’s invention, the synthesizer, and created contemporary and swinging electronica unmatched to this day. The difference was the size of the contraption far from today’s miniaturization, the original resembling an old-time telephone switchboard.

There's Dick Hyman the musical director for George Wein's New York Jazz Repertory Company, where he re-imagined the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner and Scott Joplin, re-scoring solos, small groups, and large ensembles. Hyman did a set of variations on Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born," where he demonstrated how a dozen different pianists might read it, all the way to Cecil Taylor. For Joplin Hyman recorded the entire piano works in a multiple LP box plus an additional recording of his own interpretations. For Waller Hyman demonstrated his facility on pipe and electric organs recording the heavyweight’s music extensively on both. Hyman played Fats and others on the Brooklyn Paramount classic theatre organ –now in the gym of Long Island University, which took over the building— for its last airing, which was quite pungent, I might add.

Hyman’s depth of knowledge of the Great American and Jazz Songbooks is so extensive that his CDROM on the subject, now a five-disc + DVD box called Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano, is available on Arbors.

Dick and his wife of –gasp! — 61 years, Julia, live in Venice, Florida but he makes frequent forays north as his services are forever required.

(Backstory: Over the years Dick and I have been meeting or speaking on the phone just to schmooze. It was during one of those calls on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2007 that the seeds of this series were planted. “How many are you out there?” I asked, meaning musicians still active in their 80s. Before we were off the phone we had a half dozen names. By the end of that day the column had sprouted: it had a title, a stalk that continues to grow, and its first flower, the always-supportive Dr. Billy Taylor.)

To formalize those schmooze sessions is not the goal of this column. So we sat over your typical Apple brunch, talking with mouthfuls, avoiding clanking dishes, with a mini tape between us in the fall of 2008. Dick was in town to do, as he put it a “potpourri CD of South American stuff called Danzas Tropicales, which was recorded with Meral Guneyman on 2 pianos. “She is a wonderful classical pianist. I did most of the arrangements. This was our second album,” he said. “I’ve grown deeply interested in Argentine tango Nuevo,” as he spoke about its creator Astor Piazzolla. “Particularly his arranger Pablo Ziegler, who now resides in Brooklyn, I believe. We did some Brazilian music and we were honored to have Ziegler visit us in the studio.”

Other pianists Hyman has recorded with in recent times are Ray Kennedy, Shelly Berg, Chris Hopkins, Bernd Lhodsky, one with Roger Kellaway and an appearance with Derek Smith, his most frequent partner, with whom he has created Dick & Derek’s Piano Party at the 92nd St. ‘Y,’ for which Hyman was the premiere music director for 20 years. Bill Charlap currently holds that chair. As if this much eclecticism isn’t enough Guneyman and Hyman have also interpreted the Gershwin preludes as performed by Earl Wilde. “They are intricate and difficult but the brilliant pianist [Guneyman] performs them while I follow with jazz improvisations.” (On Playful Virtuosity, Rykodisc.)

While he was in town he did Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" for the third time. "I do it once very ten years," he quipped. The NPR show has been on the air for an unprecedented 30 years. Not a whole lot of people, or programs, can say that.

I brought up the subject of his revolving musical piano bench. In Hyman’s case it’s when the music starts that he’s in another place. About the CDROM-cum-CD box, “there’s also a DVD. We move with the times,” he said without breaking a smile. All are on Arbors, the Florida-based label that is preserving tradition. “They have been posted on YouTube for some years; I get a lot of interest from them.”

Hyman’s universality of the music was not an accident. “I was interested in doing that from an early age,” he said. His brother had given him his huge record collection. “In it were all the early pianists. I followed up on that; it seemed the way to go. While doing that I tried to get my own way going, and now I have.” There are those who would disagree saying that, while Hyman is among the great pianists, to quote a famous quiz show, would the real Dick Hymn please stand up? “Everything is a part of it, but it takes a while,” he explained. He has his limitations. “I won’t play bebop with a Dixieland band and vice versa, for example.” To these ears that's a small concession to Jelly, Fatha, Monk, Ellington, Basie, Garner, Tatum, Peterson, Bud and the rest, whose style and attack are inimitable to themselves.

About his now-famous appearance with Bird and Diz, Hyman spoke about the show on which they appeared. “It was part of a show I had for about a year and a half on Dumont,” Hyman explained. [An early network wannabee, Dumont was named for one of the pioneers of television, broadcasting and TV sets, Allen B. Dumont. The NYC channel, which was broadcast out of the Wanamaker Dept. Store, was WABD.] “The show was called Date On Broadway,” Hyman continued. “We usually had singers. We preceded the big hit [for kids like me] Captain Video. [Wagner’s “Overture to the Flying Dutchman” was its theme music.] They were setting up as we were finishing, live, by the way. It was all live in those days,” he said. As I remember it, Jackie Gleason’s first endeavors were on Dumont as well.

Dick explained that there were many other little shows on television in those days. “I played organ on some of them. I played with Milton DeLugg.” DeLugg, a composer (“Orange Colored Sky”) wound up as late-night television’s first bandleader. The show was Broadway Open House and it starred Jerry Lester and a host of characters including TV’s first blond joke, a tall buxom affair named Dagmar. Hyman was not DeLugg’s pianist on that show. “That was Mort Lindsey,” he pointed out. Lindsey went on to musical direction for stars most notably Judy Garland. “Mort was playing piano for an early morning show with DeLugg starring Morey Amsterdam, a cello-playing comic who became second banana on The Dick Van Dyke Show. [The Amsterdam show introduced singer Kitty Kallen and soon-to-be the Gleason Honeymooners sidekick Art Carney]. Mort decided he didn’t want to do that anymore so he recommended me to Milt.” Hyman was on staff at N.B.C. at the time. That followed a staff position at M.C.A. “There was a band there which featured (reedman and friend) Phil Bodner. It was a really good band. All those studio bands were crack musicians. It was a good living,” Hyman observed.

Studio work kept New York Musicians hopping into the 1960s. Bassist Milt Hinton said that he could work one gig after another virtually ‘round the clock. They weren’t all jazz mind you. “There was live music of every stripe,” Hinton said. “Everybody had live musicians, radio, television, classical, pop, background, commercials. You name it.” Hyman had it much the same way. He left NBC for the CBS. Godfrey gig, which was the most popular personality-driven show on the airwaves. The ultimate pitchman Godfrey had a variety show first on the radio, then a TV/radio simulcast and at the last television shows. The ukulele-playing host hated jazz until Hyman persuaded him to listen to some trad stuff. Then you couldn’t keep him away.

But Hyman didn’t stop there. He did quiz shows, such as “Beat The Clock” in the 1960s and 70s. “The point of the whole [music] game was doing as many things as you could,” he said. About that Bird/Diz TV rarity Dick remembered, “my regular bassist was George Shaw, who couldn’t make it. So we hired Sandy Block. [That answers a Lou Gehrig-type trivia question: Shaw into obscurity; Block immortalized.] We picked up drummer Charlie Smith for that show.” If chronology serves correctly, Smith, a left-handed drummer, was playing with the Billy Taylor trio, the house band at the original Birdland. Hyman said that Block became a band contractor for the likes of Sy Oliver and Henry Jerome. “Jerome was an a & r man for Decca Records,” Hyman said. “He led a short-lived band at the Edison Hotel and other places in New York which featured [arranger/composer] Johnny Mandel on bass trumpet, [Nixon’s legal eagle] Leonard Garment on clarinet and [former Fed chairman] Alan Greenspan, Al Cohn and, we are told, Stan Getz on tenor saxes.” Mandel told me that Greenspan sat in the back of the bus doing everyone’s tax forms. “You don’t think I’m going to be a jazz musician forever, do you?” Greenspan was once rumored to have said.

Hyman remembered that Jerome had another band that was so Mickey Mouse as to defy description. “The saxes were melodious to a fault [malodorous is more to the point] And if it didn’t have an accordion, it should have,” he said facetiously.

That was not Hyman’s only Bird encounter. “I was at Café Society where I was playing with Tony Scott and Bird sat in. Another time at Birdland Bud Powell was late so I sat in with the band, which included Red Rodney, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes. I was there with Lester Young, so I was around.” Hyman played that Birdland bill with a band led by trumpeter Max Kaminsky. “The host was WNEW radio personality Williams B. Williams. The idea was to cover the whole history of jazz from Dixieland to bebop. [Jazz] history was a lot shorter in those days. They asked me to stay over.” Dick not only played with Prez that night but also with tenorman Flip Phillips and trombonist Bill Harris as well as drummer Jo Jones.

During that entire long period while being with Godfrey Dick played as much piano as he could. “It was a lucky time, a golden time,” he said. “You could hardly walk down Broadway or 57th Street and not find a gang of musicians going to another studio. For awhile I was even doing ‘Sing Along With Mitch.’”

(Sidebar: New York Philharmonic oboist –that’s him on Bird With Strings—Mitch Miller, a & r at Columbia at the time, found gold in early TV. He gathered a group of bodies that mouthed choral singers and a network bought the idea. It was a phenomenal success for the small screen as well as selling LPs by the millions especially at holiday times. It was the perfect soundtrack to the burning Yule log, still a Christmas staple. Miller was a musical enigma: he shit-canned Frank Sinatra’s mid-life crisis career, but he also orchestrated Erroll Garner’s “Other Voices.” He promulgated the careers of Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford and Rosemary Clooney making them record the country music of Hank Williams and he turned Johnny Mathis from a jazz singer to the ultimate make-out recording artist. In was under his and George Avakian’s aegis that the 1950s Columbia catalogue thrived. A checkered career, indeed.)

Hyman played piano and organ for the Miller shows. “We hoped not to have to appear on screen after we recorded the track, because the taping was done in Brooklyn, and it took an entire day. Sometimes we sent subs."

Hyman elucidated on his organ-antics vis-à-vis his radio career: “The first time I played Hammond B3 was for [alto saxist] Alvy West who had been with Paul Whiteman. He was a great arranger who had a small band and added another member, me on piano and organ. It was because of that small entry on my resume that N.B.C. realized that I could be trusted to do soap opera. I also did some radio dramas such as ‘Front Page Farrell.’ I parodied one for the Woody Allen film ‘Radio Days’ called ‘Tales From The Crypt.’ Hyman had a long association with Allen being the auteur’s music director for many years.

I don’t remember playing the organ for any of those long-running shows like The Shadow, or Inner Sanctum. The longest run I had was As the World Turns. I once made the Hartz Mountain Canary Training record. I’m playing ‘Tales From The Vienna Woods’ and someone is playing marimba, or something. Then they added canaries. The idea was to have your own bird impersonate its peers. [Still on organ] I made an album for one of Enoch Light’s labels (Command, Project 3) called 50 Famous Hymns. Another was called Christmas Favorites: David Harkness at the Organ.”

Like the ragtime fad, there was an organ fad, not quite as large. If it was generic most likely it was Dick Hyman. The upshot of it all was three years on “Beat The Clock.” “I was probably the last organist on a game show.” His voice rose as he seemed genuinely proud of the fact that canned music succeeded him. Another interesting factoid is that the original Beat The Clock host was Mr. Red Lines, a/k/a the voice of Superman, Bud Collyer with whom Hyman did not work. Jack Naars had already replaced Collyer and the show had moved to Montréal , Canada. Thanks to technology and the ingenuity of Bing Crosby—Crosby had introduced taped shows to the airwaves so he could drink and play golf at will—it was already possible to tape many shows at once to be aired later. “So we went to Montréal for two days to tape two weeks of shows,” Hyman said.

With DeLugg Hyman joined vaudeville-cum-Catskills-cum-variety TV comedian Jan Murray. The sponsor was Mogen David Wine. “[At about that same time] I got to make the demos for ‘Orange Colored Sky’ and another of DeLugg’s hits, ‘Hoop De-Do’”

Beat the Clock allowed Hyman to utilize a Baldwin synthesizer, which he incorporated into his piano and organ playing for Light’s labels. Owner and music director, Light‘s first was Waldorf, then Command, then Project 3. Initially, it trended towards sound effects, Monte Carlo racing cars, bullfights, like that. The vinyl was heavy and the grooves deep and wide to catch all the aural information. “Light cashed in on all of them, Hyman said. “Especially Command.” The bands consisted of studio cats. “I didn’t contract the musicians; I just arranged for them. Trumpets were liable to be Doc Severinsen, Bernie Glow, Mel Davis, Marvin Stamm and Clark Terry. Light and engineer Bob Fine really invented the stereo market. The big companies followed their lead, but Enoch was there first.” It was Light who got Hyman started in the Honky Tonk piano mode as the second Knuckles O’Toole. The first was Billy Roland, Perry Como’s pianist.

Light was also a savvy marketing person. He pioneered the sale of records in places other than record stores. Hyman: “He had a line of Knuckles O’Toole records sold exclusively in Woolworth’s, for example. He then would take those same masters, the same masters [italics Hyman’s] mind you, put them on another label under the name of Rip Chord. Then on another label in another store changing my name yet again.”

Super Market Records, as they came to be known, could be found in your local A & P, Safeway, Finast, suburban Korvette’s, or Piggily Wiggily. Usually found at the check out, where the fan rag mags reside today, they were impulse items for a dollar or two. And I’ll bet you thought Starbuck’s started all that. It became a habit of mine to check out the personnel on those LPs where I found names like Carl Severinsen and John Haley Sims, and not their better-known monikers Doc and Zoot. They remain in my collection.

Dick Hyman was a hit maker on harpsichord, principally the very first instrumental version of “Mack the Knife.” It was recorded under its original Kurt Weil-penned German title, “Moritat (Theme from The Threepenny Opera)” sans vocal. “I was under contract to MGM and I was asked to do some recordings on harpsichord. The Threepenny Opera, was breaking attendance records off-Broadway. Louis Armstrong had recorded ‘Mack’ just before me with the vocal, of course. Bobby Darin followed well after that [as did Ella Fitzgerald]. I had a big [charted] hit with that. The ‘B’ side was an arrangement of another Broadway hit ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’ [Kismet] which I then rearranged for the Kirby Stone Four [and made it a hit].

“To make matters even more confusing, my alter ego Richard Hayman [who played the tune “Ruby” from the movie Ruby Gentry and went on to arrange for the Boston Pops] followed my ‘Mack’ with a harmonica version.” Keyboards, arranging and Command all came together when Hyman composed, arranged and played on two synthesized LPs, Concerto Electro and The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman. Concerto Electro was not on a synthesizer, per se. It was on a concert grand piano that produced its sound through a system of amplifiers. “The people at Command became interested in the synthesizer when they heard Walter (now Wendy) Carlos’ Switched on Bach. They asked me to create something like that.” Others aided his pioneering synth work notably Walter Sear. “The Moog was not all that you heard. We overdubbed three or four tracks, a process which was not fully understood then. The sounds you got were unearthly and beyond what any instrument could do.” “Minotaur,” from Electric Eclectics, became his second hit after “Moritat.”

Hyman’s association with Woody Allen began, as it should have, with his playing piano and organ for him in a Mundell Lowe-led band for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Bear in mind that Allen is a trad jazz clarinetist with large lobes, as Prez might have said. Woody liked his playing and he became not only a behind-the-scenes writer/arranger, but every now and again one might catch a glimpse of the piano player on-screen playing in the band. His last affiliation with Allen was Melinda and Melinda.

Hyman: “At that same time I had become associated with Twyla Tharpe. She had choreographed something called The Bix Pieces. The band was on stage and one of Woody’s people saw the dance and contacted me about doing the movie Zelig, which had that kind of period music in it.” Zelig remains Hyman’s personal favorite of all the Allen’s. “Although ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ is up there.” Writing for Woody Allen hardly seems a chore. “I write all the cues and the re-creations of the music used. Woody sometimes uses actual recordings. I do all the underscoring and wrote several songs which were actually used.” My personal favorite Woody Allen was the not very successful Sweet and Lowdown. Sean Penn played a guitarist dubbed by Howard Alden. “You would like that because of the jazz context,” Hyman remarked with a touch of irony.

While he was with the Tharpe Company Hyman subbed on her “Eight Jelly Rolls,” based on Jelly Roll Morton’s music that originally featured Bob Wilber. “The next time Tharpe did it Wilber was on the road with The World’s Greatest Jazz Band so I stepped in with Phil Bodner on clarinet this time. I rearranged them making them more exact. I also did a solo score for a Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith piece, which Twyla choreographed.” After having done it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music they reprised it when the Tharpe Company moved to Broadway. “It’s a very exacting piece. The piano was in a box in a corner of the stage. There were a series of red/green light cues. Red most of time nearly hypnotizing you then suddenly green and you began.”

(Aside: Dick had asked me to be a page-turned for one of the Tharpe’s. He said he would give me cues as to when to turn the music. I don’t read music all that well anymore, but he said that he had the music pretty well memorized anyhow. I humbly declined the invitation for fear that I would get involved in the dancing and pay less attention to the printed page. I pictured a Victor Borge musical train wreck.)

In addition to Terpsichore another Hyman muse is the classics. He had written a piano concerto in the ‘60s as well a Ragtime Fantasy, which is still performed with orchestras, not to mention the Concerto Electro. Lately, he has taken on chamber music. “I've written pieces for the Shanghai Quartet, and that association thrills me. Composing for me is an extension of arranging, which I did so much of. It’s another of my chameleonic traits.” We laughed at what was becoming the running gag of this long interview.

What else is in the pockets of Hyman’s coat of many colors? He quickly ran these down: “There’s a Sonata for Piano and Violin, some things for two pianos, a trio, a couple of string quartets, a quintet for piano and strings and several sextets with differing instrumentation.” Dick writes all his charts longhand. “I have tried Finale but it baffles me. I’m good with computers but Finale I don’t get.”

While researching I came across a cute title, which I’m sure had a story attached. “’The Longest Blues In The World’ is ideally a piece that goes on for an hour,” Dick began. “No, it’s not 12 bars and three chords. It’s more blues-y than real blues. I depend on the improvisations from the members of the band interspersed with the written stuff. In it’s shortened form it’s called ‘The Longest Blues In The World, Abridged.’ I’ve done it at the ‘Y’; I’ve done it with Ken Peplowski; I’ve done it a few times in Florida. It’s a fun piece.”

Speaking of having a good time, I asked about the New York Jazz Repertory Company George Wein’s 1975-6 attempt at preserving our music. “I had the idea of arranging Armstrong soli for three trumpets,: he said. “It was so successful that it led to two European trips, one to Russia. The original band had Mel Davis, Pee Wee Erwin and Joe Newman, trumpets, Kenny Davern, clarinet, Eph Resnick, trombone, Carmen Mastren, guitar and banjo, Milt Hinton, bass and Bob Rosengarden, drums.” There was a Jelly Roll Morton concert similarly re-imagined, but something interesting happened there. “The recording came first,” Dick remembered. “It was during the Scott Joplin craze when everyone wanted to record his music after it appeared in the film ‘The Sting.’ The producers thought that Morton was ripe for a similar revival. It was mostly a collection of small group things with some marching band arrangements.” The European and Russian tours of these shows were among the first jazz bus & truck tours. They had legs.

While on the subject of repertory, I asked about those 92nd St. ‘Y’ programs. “Producer Hadassah Markson heard me play on a couple of her Lyrics and Lyricists programs. She had the idea of putting on a jazz festival in the spring at the ‘Y’ but not on weekends.” On the weekends the ‘Y’ crowd [perhaps Bernie Madoff?] gets into their Cessna’s, roadsters and the Jitney and shuffle off to the Hamptons. Markson thought weeknights would work better. Hyman was musical director for that as well as another ‘Y’ series called Jazz In July for the next two decades. Bill Charlap has that gig now. “I’m down to doing only one a year with my friend Derek Smith. We call it ‘Dick & Derek’s Piano Party.’ It remains one of the most successful of the series.”

Hyman carried the idea clear to the upper left side of the country. For eight summers he directed the Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene. Peplowski continues that one.

We recently celebrated Benny Goodman's centenary. Hyman spent many years in and out of Benny’s presence. “I regret those uncomplimentary things people say about him. We got along and we did many things together. I was on that last big band he did on PBS called Benny Goodman: Let’s Dance.” It was really Loren Schoenberg’s rehearsal band that Goodman adopted. “Eventually, after many personnel changes Goodman dumped Schoenberg as well. Benny couldn’t make his mind up, his traditional four-sax section, or five with the addition of Danny Banks on baritone. In the end he had Banks play a fifth (really the fourth) sax part while Loren sat by playing only on the things I wrote.” (I guess it’s hard not relating uncomplimentary things about Benny Goodman.) "I was the musical coordinator of that show. I felt honored when Benny asked me."

While he continues to play and write, Hyman said that organizing those festivals “kept me up at night. Being artistic or musical director is a responsibility and that smacks of chore. I don’t want it to be that.”

Regrets: It took some cajoling but I got Dick to admit to something he had not done. “I would have liked to compose Broadway musicals. I just haven’t had the time. Ellington also wanted to do Broadway, but he didn’t want to do the hard work. You really have to be single minded. Cy Coleman [Little Me, City of Angels] said that every show from its inception takes five years. From the thinking to the stage, five years.”

After having composed “Oklahoma!” Oscar Hammerstein II asked, “What do I do next.” One wag responded, “Shoot yourself!” He was wrong, by the way.

Unfinished: “More writing. More playing. Jazz, chamber music. Here and abroad. More married life [there are three children and three grandchildren.] Still finishing all those.”

Check out the website of a man in motion:

Coda: Bill Charlap

“Dick Hyman has been a huge part of my musical life for as long as I can remember. –[Hyman is a distant cousin on Charlap’s father’s side, his father being composer Moose Charlap (Broadway’s “Peter Pan.”)] My mother [singer Sandy Stewart] set up a meeting with him for guidance when I was a teenager. Dick was not my formal teacher; Jack Reilly was. But Dick was incredibly generous. He would take me around to record dates, performances, rehearsals with a singer, working on a film score. I was the fly on the wall watching this genius at work, as it were. That was training you couldn’t buy.

"We played two pianos, just generally sharing his experience. And the variety: from Shostakovich to Gershwin to Art Tatum to McCoy Tyner. Dick is the most comprehensive pianist, but what you don't hear too often said is that he is an extremely original pianist. That gets lost in his diversity; he loves so much music and he embraces it all. The originality lies in his touch, harmony, the melodic lines, the elements of his linear playing that don't sound like anyone else. You can hear influences of Teddy Wilson, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Carter, Art Tatum and what emerges is his voice. Melodically, he does things I have not heard any other pianist do. He seems not to have lost the thirst to keep developing. He's always practicing, trying something new. Remember, he's over 80 and yet there's always a new concept, like James Moody, or Hank Jones.

“I find Dick Hyman to be among the most influential of pianists: the harmonies, the approach to the tune, the attack. He sets the benchmark really high. It’s the love for the song, the history, and the future. I find a balance of tradition and forward thinking. He’s not closed-minded.” In effect, it’s not about Dick Hyman when he’s working for, say, Woody Allen.

“He is informed not only by the material, or the piano. It could be a commercial, a singer, even a mariachi band that informs him. The concept and imagination. Something that has the sound of surprise.

“The 92nd St. ‘Y’ was an amazing time. Dick had to put together six or more different concepts and concerts every year for 20 years. He developed a rapport [on both sides of the proscenium] with the musicians and the audience. He allowed people to be themselves. I consider myself very fortunate to continue that legacy. He hired me to play on concerts with Marian McPartland, Roger Kellaway, himself and other major pianists. It was terrifying but you learn more from those experiences than from a book or in a classroom.

“As a solo pianist Dick Hyman is peerless. It was on a jazz cruise tribute to Benny Carter and someone was commenting on how great some heavyweight pianist was and Benny, who would never say anything bad about anyone, ever, said, ‘Yes, but my favorite is Dick Hyman.’ No small praise, that. Another time Tatum was being praised when he interrupted and said that there was a young pianist you’ve got to hear, Dick Hyman.

"In one chorus Dick can give a lesson in the history of jazz piano. In that 'Hot House' TV clip [the one with Bird and Diz] there's some [Lennie] Tristano lines, some [George] Shearing, Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, [the locked hands of] Milt Buckner and Nat Cole. And it's all in that one solo.

“Which brings up another point about his generosity: Dick Hyman celebrates the other artists who are with him. He shares unconditionally. His encouragement to me and others was always, ‘Do it your way.’”

Coda: Woody Allen (The New York Times, June 4, 1984, John S. Wilson Interview)—"He's a film director’s dream. He looks at the scenes and knows what works. He can do whatever you want. He can be Erroll Garner, or Bud Powell, or Fats Waller. He has a mastery of the tunes of Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke and the New Orleans Style that I Love (regarding “Zelig.”) I'm amazed at the scenes with music he has given us.”

July 20, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation With Brian Blade

By Ted Panken

"The way I was brought up, boundary lines were never laid on the ground between people or the music," Brian Blade told me almost a decade ago, not long before he joined the Wayne Shorter Quartet. As I wrote at the time, Blade, then 30, was "one of the few drummers with a distinct personality in hardcore jazz—credits include Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Mark Turner—who has also stamped his imprint on popular music through stadium gigs and recordings with Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Seal, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan."

At the time, Blade had just released Perceptual (Blue Note), the second release by Fellowship Band, on which the leader and his unit—Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Myron Walden, alto saxophone; Melvin Butler, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, piano; Christopher Thomas, bass—interpreted original tunes by Blade and Cowherd that drew on a range of heartland folk styles, with guest turns by Lanois and Mitchell punctuating the flow. Last year, after an eight-year gap, the same core personnel performed on Season of Changes (Verve), comprising a succinct, streamlined suite propelled by Blade’s singular ability to shape the flow through permutations of groove and drum timbre.

During that interim, Blade toured extensively with Shorter, Redman, Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, David Binney, Edward Simon, and other high quality jazzfolk of various predispositions. In the process, he burnished his stature as, in the words of Jeff Ballard, "the top cat around" among his generational peer group. In a Downbeat Blindfold Test a few years back, after remarking on Blade’s 'real old-school sound,' Ballard continued: "Brian’s choices are amazing. What he plays is all for the composition. His mix of texture and tonality is perfect for that moment in the whole tune. So is his matching of sound to what’s going on in the placement. Also, he’s got patience with the biggest 'P' on the planet. He forces things not to be automatic."

In a more recent conversation with, Chick Corea, fresh from several weeks interacting with Blade in the Five Peace Band project with John McLaughlin, Garrett, and Christian McBride, made a similar point. "After working with Brian for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time," Corea stated. "He thinks as a composer, and he’s very expressive. He carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming—but he also does what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly. Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He came in and the whole set turned around."

Blade himself presents what might be described as a full 360-degree turnaround on Mama Rosa [Verve Forecast], his 2009 release, on which he plays barely a beat on drums, but instead communicates primarily with his voice and his guitar, revealing himself to be a first-class singer-songwriter. The 13-tune recital includes ten songs that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on themes of faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. Blade sings them without affect, allowing the power of his words to come through with phrasing and nuanced articulation. Lanois, the date’s producer, counterstates Blade’s message with pungent guitar solos, and Kelly Jones provides eloquent vocal harmony. Fellowship colleagues Cowherd and Rosenwinkel also contribute to the proceedings.

"Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting," Blade stated in the publicity materials attendant to the release of Mama Rosa. "But I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer."

You’re in L.A. now playing with Fellowship Band, then with Wayne Shorter on Sunday; next week you’re playing in Canada with Daniel Lanois, and then in 12 days at Highline Ballroom launching the Mama Rosa album, en route to the summer season. A lot of activity mirroring your documented musical production.

Yes, it’s all coming together all at once. It’s bizarre. I’m thankful for it, but also just trying to keep my head about me, and be prepared for the next step.

On Mama Rosa you reveal a side of yourself that you haven't previously offered to the public. It’s a suite of music that includes ten songs you wrote while touring over the years. Can you tell me how the recording took shape? Is there an overall narrative arc, and did the songs fit cleanly into it? Was there a lot of production involved?

As you say, it has been running parallel to my writing for the Fellowship Band, but in a very private way. Everything on the record was recorded at home on my 4-track, and it gave me enough satisfaction just to know, ok, they exist, and I’m fine with that. I’m thankful that I’ve had a little bit of time to write down my memories and experiences, and thoughts about my family, and life in general, and connect them with music. Some of those original four-track recordings are on the record as I did them in my little room, or various rooms around the world. But then it got to the point where I’d share them with my friend Daniel Lanois, and he encouraged me to try and make an entire record of it. As we went through the process he’d say, 'Ok, I don’t think we can better this version from your home recording, so that’s on the record.'

How many of the tunes are home recordings?

Definitely 'Nature’s Law' is exactly how it came from my little machine at home, and 'All That Was Yesterday,' and 'You’ll Always be My Baby' as well. The others, as I said, I’d done recordings at home, but we thought we’d try to change them in the studio, or make a new recording.

Which is the first that you wrote, and when did you write it?

I guess 'After the Revival.' Yes, that's the first song. I want to say on guitar, at least 12-13 years ago, even before Fellowship music started to come to me. It was a song written from the perspective of my mother—say, 1964, when she’s about to have her first child, my brother Brady. I was trying to think of what she might have been feeling at that time. My father is a pastor, so he often used to go out to preach at revivals when we were growing up. He was trying to build a home and take care of his family, but also go forth with his own mission as a minister. It’s really all about my grandmother Rosa, who is my mother’s mother, and also my mother and brother.

Can you tell me something about Rosa? Is she from Shreveport?

Yes, she is. Basically, she always took care of people’s houses, like a housekeeper her entire life, and she ran several kitchens at Southern University and places like that around Shreveport, Louisiana. Actually, the cover photograph is from the Jaguar Grille, which is the Southern University kitchen there. She’s a sweetheart! So I felt it was fitting to dedicate the record to her, and what she means to me, and hopefully the songs embody the joy she brought to my life and to so many other folks.

I gather you’ve recently moved back to Shreveport.

I’ve been spending more time there since I gave up my place in New York, just to connect with them more than just Christmas every year, as I get older and they get a little older.

This happened about two years ago. Has living there had any impact on your musical production? You remarked in conjunction with this recording (and I’m paraphrasing) that in a certain way you feel it’s time to be more open about who you are.

Well, maybe so. I don’t think I was ever concealing anything necessarily. But particularly with this Mama Rosa music, they almost feel like diary entries to me. It’s kind of like, 'well, do I want the world to read my diary?' No, not really. But at the same time, it’s my music, too, which is something I love to share. So I felt, well, I have to let it go in order to move forward, and feel like I’m doing the right thing—not only for myself, but for the grand scheme of things.

When did you start writing songs?

I want to say ‘96-‘97, just before the first Fellowship record came out.

So the process begins during or right after the time you’d been on the road with master singer-songwriters— Emmylou Harris, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.

Exactly. And Daniel Lanois.

Who you met in New Orleans. Was writing something that had always interested you? Did it start to emerge for you at that time?

It did, particularly from being around my friend Daniel Lanois, and watching him in the process: how he would write down ideas and form them into poetry and connect them with music. Obviously, Joni Mitchell, too. She’s my hero and my greatest inspiration for this way of seeing a story unfold, and putting down your observances and experiences in some way that might strike against someone else’s life and experience. That’s why I think her music endures and keeps getting deeper and deeper, the more I listen to it. It’s always a privilege to be around her, and to be around Daniel or Emmylou or Dylan, and to see the attention they place on all the elements of storytelling.

Are you or have you been a big reader? I noticed in an old interview that you majored in anthropology at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Yeah. I always sort of wanted to be Alan Lomax in this life, just go around finding cultural significance through people’s music. In a way, I’m doing it as a musician, strangely enough, not necessarily documenting other people’s music, but trying to take in as much as I can, and having it distill itself in me. It’s a constant research, a constant study, and you’re never there—you’re just on the trip, I think.

You moved to New Orleans in ‘88. How soon after arriving did you meet Daniel Lanois?

It would have been around ‘91-‘92. Maybe a little later.

By then, he’d already produced Dylan.

Yes. The second record, For the Beauty of Wynona, was about to come out, and he was going to go on tour with Darrell Johnson, who played bass with the Neville Brothers at the time. Daniel made a record with them called Yellow Moon. But we met and rehearsed at a little theater in Algiers where he was holed up, and became fast friends. We went on the road for three months, and we haven’t stopped since. We’re bound as brothers.

Was he the person who led you to Joni Mitchell and Dylan and Emmylou Harris?

I was already very aware of their music and a fan.

I meant personally.

To Joni ... yes, I guess to Emmy and Bob as well.

Songwriting. Apart from the inspiration and the message behind the words, it involves a specific craft. Did it take a long time for you to develop the craft?

It’s a good thing that in my time off from the road, or even on the road, I put down every little fragment, or thought, or word, or chord that might be an inkling to something whole, something larger, a full song, a full idea. In those times, it’s almost like a meditation. You just try to stay in it as long as you can, to focus on the thought. Hopefully, I’m getting better and better at that. Same with the Fellowship Band music. I’m trying to write specifically for the guys in the band and for myself to hopefully get in on this story, to be able to deliver it and know it well. I guess the challenge is to do that ... well, not necessarily quickly, because you can’t rush it. The process is still a mystery to me. You’re still almost grabbing ... reaching out into the darkness for these little points of light, and you’re not sure where they’re coming from. But if you can just be in the moment and hold onto it as long as you can ... It’s hopefully getting better.

But from what you’re saying, storytelling has always been an abiding interest for you.


I’d imagine that your time in New Orleans perhaps influenced you to apply the notion of storytelling to the way you think about drumming.

New Orleans was my first time away from my family, starting college in a whole new community, one of the greatest places in the world, so unique in feeling and just the emotional vibe on the streets and the beat that lives there—and my teachers. John Vidacovich was very important. There’s a deep sense of groove, but also a deep concern with creating melodic motion from the drums, with moving and shaping the music. He's more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way. David Lee had me play out of books, and placed names on certain beats—one is a calypso, another is a merengue.

I guess along the way, my experience in New Orleans finds its way into all my music. Unconsciously, it’s just a part of how I go about making music.

Your creativity emerged on this very solid foundation. It sounds like a similar process was at play in your songwriting.

I must say that my teachers definitely gave me that foundation. You’re always grappling with that place between your head and your hands that you want to connect, and not have a gap between what you hear and what you execute. I used to go to Congo Square, where a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, to do this vigil and play the drum... There is storytelling in the instrument, but you have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you're only playing beats, then what is it for?

Now, with the songwriting, I felt I was a little on my own. But the thing is, even before I met Daniel or Joni or Bob Dylan or Emmylou, their records existed. What I definitely know is that when I hear something that touches me, then I go into the analytical process after it touches me, to say, 'Ok, what is it that touches me about it? And can I put it into words? What makes it so emotionally powerful?' So I try to step away from my own writing and hopefully have that objectivity as well. 'After the Revival.' What is this song trying to tell you? Who’s involved? Where are we? Is it in a specific place? Is it literal or is it more metaphorical? When you start to put words on things, too, perhaps it gets a little closer to the bone. Joni Mitchell’s influence also infuses the instrumental music, the Fellowship Band music, and it’s just as close to my heart as the Mama Rosa songs, but when the words enter the picture it’s maybe a slightly different trip, a more personal trip.

A lot of the songs on Fellowship Band’s Season of Changes sound like they could very well have lyrics. For all I know, they do, and you haven’t recorded them.

Some of the songs do begin with a lyrical idea, but then they end up living in the instrumental world. I guess I’m never so sure as to where a song is going to end up living. The process is that either I end up developing this one sentence into a full lyrical idea, or else that idea is just a starting point that will give me the instrumental story. I’m never sure. Maybe that’s the great thing about the mystery, too. It throws you into the process, and you just have to take the trip.

When did you form Fellowship Band? You’ve had a fairly stable personnel.

It starts with [pianist] Jon Cowherd. Jon was already at Loyola when I arrived in New Orleans in 1988, and we became fast friends and played all the time. That was the genesis of the band, actually—not knowing it, of course, until a decade later, when we made our first recording. A year or so after I met Jon, in 1989 or 1990, [bassist] Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to attend the University of New Orleans, to study with Ellis Marsalis. So there was this trio core in New Orleans that was the beginning of the band.

You must have met Myron Walden after moving to New York in the ‘90s.

Yes. I met Myron at Manhattan School of Music. I was playing with [bassist] Doug Weiss and [pianist] Kevin Hays, and Myron was there.

It’s hard to think of too many other bands in which I’ve heard the excellent tenor saxophonist, Melvin Butler. His sound seems perfect for what you’re trying to do.

It is. Melvin’s tenor voice, and how he delivers melody and emotes the feeling, the essence of what I feel the music is ... he’s just a gifted person. It’s in his heart and in his soul. He went to Berklee, and had relationships with Kurt Rosenwinkel and musicians in New York, like Debbie Dean and Seamus Blake, who were all at Berklee during that same period of time. I met Melvin through Betty Carter, when she hosted her first Jazz Ahead at BAM. At the time, Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn were in her band. Peter Martin, too. Melvin is a very studious man, very much on a mission. He’s a professor now. Ethnomusicology. He’s busy writing, but he’s got a dedication to the band, which I’m thankful for.

Do you hear the drum kit differently playing with Fellowship than with other people?

I don’t necessarily think it’s different. The vocabulary is all the same. Within each situation, I’m primarily trying to do the same thing—serve the moment, serve the song. Thankfully, I’ve been given that liberty in almost every situation I’ve been a part of. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’m back there, I’m looking at Wayne Shorter, and thinking, 'God, this is what I do!' There he is, the very man himself. When you encounter your heroes, it becomes even deeper and greater to you in terms of your reverence and respect for them, and love, just as people.

Are you composing or thinking of the overall sound of the Fellowship Band from the drums? Or are you thinking in a similar way as you would as a sideman, reacting to the flow around you?

That’s interesting, because obviously, I have a connection with Jon Cowherd. Whatever Jon brings to the table musically, I know I’m going to—hopefully—give the right thing for it. Myself, after I’ve written something, I then have to leave the guitar and sit by the drums, and it’s really kind of new for me at that moment, as if I’m playing someone else’s music. Especially when it’s in the hands of the people in my band, all of a sudden it becomes alive to me. So I have to create a part for myself in the moment. I suppose I’m always doing that. Insofar as how it fleshes out in terms of the group dynamic, I think everyone is sensitive to finding their thread and fabric, so to speak. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

As a working drummer in live situations, you always have to play the room. One week you might be playing the Village Vanguard, after spending a month playing concert halls with Wayne Shorter.

True. I think a lot of it comes from my earlier experiences, firstly playing in church in Shreveport, and doing many, many gigs in ballrooms and hotels and lounges, all these different environments, different musics. That has informed my ability to adjust, to adapt to the environment quickly and say, 'Okay, this is the sound,' and be able to fill it but not overwhelm it. It’s always a challenge. Every day is a different experience.

Also, on the road you may not always have your own drum kit, especially these days, with transportation being what it is.

I’m trying not to be diminished by all that. I would like to stick to my conviction of saying, 'This is what I do. My life doesn’t fit on a laptop, unfortunately, but here are my drums. Accept me.' With Wayne, thankfully it’s been possible to bring the drums. John Patitucci travels with his bass. So I’m thankful that we can have these constants in the ever-changing environment.

Can you speak to the band’s name, Fellowship?

I guess the big idea is what I hope to present with the music itself, this bond and this solidarity, not separatism or things that place boundary-lines between us. The music is perhaps not always easily defined, but I would call it our folk music, and it’s based on our relationships.

In a previous conversation, we spoke about the role of location being crucial to your broad conception of music—American heartland music. Shreveport is more or less equidistant between the Delta, the Bayou, and the Ozarks, which is the confluence of a lot of streams. I suppose you absorbed a lot of them as a kid.

I suppose I did. Gospel, of course, being at the core of it. But then, I heard so much music. Chuck Rainey and the Neville Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, this kind of cross-section of Soul and Country and roots music, as well as all the recordings I was trying to listen to. So yes, it is a curious place, right at that point in Louisiana.

Have your experiences with Wayne Shorter modified/morphed your views on presentation, or forms of tunes, or how you tell a story on the drums?

It’s definitely given me a greater degree of courage to take chances. That’s what I love about Wayne. He’s such a master, such a genius composer, such a funny man. So for him not to rest on what he’s already established, absolutely the bedrock of this music, his unrivaled compositions ... he’s still searching for new pathways and a different direction every night. So I try to do that myself. There is that unknown, which Wayne embraces wholeheartedly, and he’s brought us into that, like, 'Okay, flashlights on—let’s [go on an] adventure.' But then also, Wayne is always writing and bringing things in, and often, as a trio, Danilo and John and I will go through things at sound checks. We may not get to them for a while. But Wayne is always planting seeds, and the growth comes slowly but surely.

The concerts give the impression of being 60 minutes of collective improvising, with occasional references to the tunes. How does it function? Are there cues? Is it just that you’ve been playing together for so long that you have that mutual intuition?

Right. After nine years, that unspoken language develops, just from that immeasurable amount of time together. But beginning from nothing, there are points at which someone might actually play something that we are familiar with. 'Oh, I know that melody.' 'Oh, do you want to play that?' 'Okay.' You might agree, and everyone goes there, but sometimes four threads of thoughts are intertwining. So somehow, within all that variance, comes a singularity as well. Wayne loves that. He loves for you to make your choice and stick with it.

There’s a quality of real sound-painting, almost as though he’s seeing the sounds as colors and shapes as he’s creating them.

His imagination is so incredible, and you can hear it in his tone and his improvising. I think of it as always this cinematic view running. There’s also the symphonic aspect of everyone’s vision. It always seemed to exist in Wayne’s music, all the records I bought while I was in college, all of his Blue Note recordings, and later his Columbia recordings, and obviously Miles’ quintet with him, and also Weather Report. He always projects some other idea somehow, something bigger, something out of this world. Wayne is such a pictorial thinker, and he has such a cinematic, descriptive eye, and it’s great to feel like we’re part of that vision that can make his music. It’s perfect on paper. As far as I’m concerned, we just have to play what’s on the page and I would be so satisfied with that. But he wants to break out of that form almost immediately, before we even get to it, to create something that’s all of ours, so to speak. It’s been such a privilege with him to hear and just play one note, and what’s in that note is so profound and beautiful. But it’s also been great for me and for Danilo [Perez] and for John [Patitucci] to have played together for so many years now, where we can walk out on the wire, so to speak, with no script, and improvise—compose together for the moment. It requires a great deal of trust, and also simultaneously, ambition, and patience to put yourself in a vulnerable place, and hopefully have your instincts kick in and deliver the goods.

You mentioned how important the recordings that Wayne Shorter was on were to you as a young guy. Parenthetically, I once presented a track of yours to a veteran drummer in a Blindfold Test, and he mistook you for Tony Williams, which indicates your command of that vocabulary. Could you speak of the drummers you studied early on?

As to Wayne’s recordings, of course his Blue Note recordings with Elvin Jones, but I also initially tried to absorb Art Blakey as much as I could. Max Roach as well. Definitely Tony Williams. After I met Greg Hutchinson and Clarence Penn, they said, 'Man, you need to check out Philly Joe Jones, you need to check out Papa Jo Jones.' So obviously every thread connects. Then you start to look at the progression. You can hear Papa Jo in Elvin. You can hear Art Blakey in Tony. Even Tony at 17, you’re talking about a fully formed genius. He set the bar so high, and you can hear that he absorbed the history of not only swing, but how to command a sound at the instrument. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing. Those are my pillars.

Were you an emulative drummer as a kid? What I mean is, would you try to play as much like Elvin Jones as you could, or as much like Art Blakey as you could, or as much like Tony Williams as you could, and then form your own conclusions out of that to become Brian Blade? Or was it more an osmosis thing?

Well, at home, in practice, I would try to. I did a little bit of transcription, but also less writing of it and just sitting at the drums and trying to learn how to execute these things that I liked. But when you’re playing in a situation with people, you make music in the now and not play something that you ... it becomes a part of you, hopefully, and you can transmit it, but I know where it came from. I had so many opportunities to play all kinds of music. I was always listening to Steve Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, or Toto! Again, these connections. Like, I’d hear Jeff Porcaro play a beat, and then later I would come to hear Bernard Purdie, and say, 'Oh. Bernard Purdie!' I’d start to go deeper into the roots of where things come from. Sometimes when I listen back to things and hear myself, I think, 'Wow, there’s New Orleans!' It’s always there, that pulse and memory of that place, my teachers and heroes there. It all has formed my way of playing music and seeing the world to a certain degree as well.

Did guitar precede the drums for you?

No. Violin did, however. But after, I guess, junior high, the line got blurry—I started playing snare drum in the sort of symphonic band. But for me, the guitar ... I never had a great connection with the piano. So for me to be able to travel with this acoustic thing, and feel like, 'Oh, these little gifts are coming to me, and if I have 15 minutes somewhere as we travel along ... .' You never know. So I always like to keep it with me, and even if I get a fragment of an idea, who knows? It might develop quickly. But at least I was there to receive it.

Did any of the tunes on Season of Changes stem from guitar explorations?

Absolutely. 'Rubylou’s' and 'Stoner Hill'. The one song that I wrote at the piano is entitled 'Alpha and Omega.' John and Myron do this amazing improvisation that precedes it, and then connects to that little piece of music. I’m proud of that one. I fancied myself in my room, the electricity had gone off, and I’m at my little piano, and Laura Nyro kind of came into the room a little bit in spirit!

When you played at the Village Vanguard with Fellowship last spring, the distinctive sound of Kurt Rosenwinkel was prominent within the mix. Jon Cowherd sat stage left at the piano, Rosenwinkel stood stage right, and, as I believe you mentioned at the time, their sounds comprised the pillars through which you navigated. Speak a bit about the band’s texture, the sound you’re hearing from the unit in your mind’s ear.

Obviously, Kurt’s brilliance and expressive power and eloquence comes from this core love of harmony. Also John, the same thing. This interweaving conversation is happening within every beat. They’re constructing these, I guess, monoliths! As a band, when it all comes together, the lines move in a linear way, but then also move in blocks, as these stacks. I often write that way. Not so much long lines, but more sung, shorter phrases perhaps. Jon and Kurt are able to make those two chordal instruments not collide with each other, but create a sort of fabric, and we all are able to stand on and jump from these posts.

Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of so many consequential musicians who developed their musical ideas at Smalls from the mid ‘90s on, as is well-documented. At that time, you played there regularly on Wednesday nights with Sam Yahel—the ambiance was more a straight-ahead, kicking drum thing, signifying on the approaches of some of the drummers you mentioned before. Can you talk about those years?

I miss it. To go down to Smalls with Sam and Peter Bernstein, for a while, every Wednesday, helped me. In our development as people, but specifically as musicians, you hit these plateaus, where you feel, 'okay, I’ve been able to express these things, but I’m stuck there now.' So you have to place yourself in situations where you’re going to be challenged. With Sam and Peter, it was always a feeling, 'Wow, I have to raise the bar,' because they were really talking on a high level. It helped me so much. And it was fun. You’d walk out of there at six in the morning, and it was as if, 'Okay, we had an experience tonight.'

But it seems that towards the latter ‘90s, leading up to Wayne, you started to move from 'blowing' drumming to longer-form sorts of things. Now, this is a gross generalization, since everything goes on at the same time. But I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to this observation.

I suppose so. I feel my writing became much more compact on Season of Changes—little 3-minute statements, very short sentiments. But we’re also able to balance that with, say, Jon’s writing, 'Return of the Prodigal Son' or 'Season of Changes,' that are much more of a trip, much more of a landscape through the mountains and valleys. I don’t know. It’s ever-changing. Maybe I’ve got another suite in me somewhere around the bend.

You mentioned that you started playing snare drum in junior high school.

I started playing drums when I was 13. My brother Brady, who is five years older than me, was playing in church. At the time, he was leaving for college, so it just seemed it was my time to step into the seat in church once he left. It was an unconscious move, really. It just felt like, 'Oh, that’s your duty.' 'You want to play? Oh, great.'

You once mentioned to me that when you started playing drums in church, you were directly next to the chorus.

Yes. But particularly the organist—or piano, depending on which side and which church we were in. There’s been three locations of our church, Zion Baptist. We started in one part of Shreveport when I was very young, and for most of my life we were in a second location. Once I moved away to college, we moved to yet another location. So it was a different arrangement within each church, but very similar. The choir is always behind the pulpit, and the piano and organ are always behind the left and right, and the drums could have been on either side.

That’s a very dramatic context in which to play drums every week. Did those early experiences have a big impact on the way you think about playing drums now?

It is definitely the ground on which everything stands for me. Every situation which I’m a part of, that initial experience of serving the song, where it’s about praise and not some show or entertainment, but the rhetoric and being in worship service ... I feel like every time I play, I’m in that place, even in an unconscious way. I think it gave me a certain focus to hopefully get out of the way! Obviously, there’s a lot of practice that we all have to do to get better at playing and expressing ourselves. But those lessons and that experience is where I come from, I think, in every other situation.

Can you speculate similarly on whatever impact your father’s sermons or rhetoric may have had on the way you express yourself and tell stories?

Yes. Actually, I’m writing a song for my dad right now, because we’re going to make a record for him later this year. I guess a lot of times, people don’t necessarily see Biblical stories as being connected to their lives. But my father had this great ability to break down parables. Often in church, when something speaks to people, they say, 'Make it plain!' By 'making it plain,' it’s like, 'Ok, I see what you’re saying; it’s real to me in this moment, in my life.' I’m trying to do that with songs. My dad definitely has inspired me and influenced me so much in trying to make it plain, these things that sometimes can be heavier thoughts or seemingly abstract.

Does the 'Make it plain' notion have anything to do with the way you approach playing drums in the flow of things?

Perhaps it does. I remember my brother, when I was starting to play in church, would say, 'It’s all about the train.' Keep the train moving. Just the simple thought of CHUG-CHUG-CHUG, seeing my role as being the train, so to speak, or the engine of the thing. Then you find yourself in that description. Ok, maybe the train is a colorful train. Maybe the train makes little stops on its route. So I try obviously to express myself, but at the same time not lose my sense of responsibility in a situation. <./p>

Eight years ago, you told me, 'Jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I am not offended by the word ‘jazz.’'


Then you followed up with a remark that we get caught up too much in terminology.

I think so. Perhaps it’s so loose ... I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to define what jazz is. But maybe it was something much clearer to folks when it was somewhat popular music, say, from the turn of the last century 'til as late as the ‘60s. You could look to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, and just say, 'Ok, this is jazz.' But as things became much more combined and influences started to come together, those lines started to disappear as to clear definitions. But when I think about jazz, certain folks come to mind. Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington. Or hopefully what the Fellowship Band is doing I would call jazz—but other elements and feelings come into our music as well.

Hopefully, what we provide for each other is this trust, the confidence to take chances. We don’t want to rely on what we played last night, or any automatic rote actions. We want to be in the moment as well, and surprise ourselves, and surprise each other, to have that mutual connection and know that everyone is completely submitting themselves to the whole idea. I think the audience feeds off of that. I’m not comparing us to the John Coltrane Quartet, but they are the example of what great group interplay is and the power that comes from that. Each individual is so virtuosic and delivering such emotional power on their instrument, but then there’s even something higher that we can reach together, something unseen, something that is a grace that’s been given.

Ted Panken spoke with Brian Blade on June 19, 2008.

July 14, 2009 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Kurt Elling

By Ted Panken

                                Kurt Elling by Christian Lantry

Hardcore Manhattanites consider navigating Brooklyn a less daunting prospect than was the case some years ago. Nonetheless, on a rainy mid-June Monday, it was impressive to note that Kurt Elling, in Manhattan from Chicago on "creative sabbatical" for a year, opted to take the subway from a long rehearsal in Prospect Heights to a Fort Greene dinner appointment. Unprepared for the weather, Elling arrived soaking wet, precisely on schedule.

The rehearsal in question was for a four-night Birdland run in support of Elling's recent release, Dedicated To You [Concord], on which the 41-year-old singer and his working trio (pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood, bassist Clark Sommers, and drummer Ulysses Owens) plus guest tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts and the Ethel String quartet interpret the program navigated by tenor saxophone icon John Coltrane and baritone crooner Johnny Hartman on their classic, co-eponymously titled 1963 album, and on Coltrane’s companion album Ballads, from 1962. It's a reminder that Elling—who made his name during the '90s as a kind of highbrow populist by conjuring brainy lyrics that captured the essence of classic instrumental improvisations (by Paul Desmond, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Keith Jarrett), and singing them with immaculate craft and an on-the-edge attitude—is also a consequential interpreter of the American songbook. Elling has embraced the terms of engagement laid down by such core influences as Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Nat Cole, and even Frank Sinatra, and emerged with a personal voice.

Let's start with the genesis of your current project, Dedicated To You. You debuted it at the 2006 Chicago Jazz Festival.

Yes. They gave us a call—specifically, Neil Tesser, who is on the board there. They had a double bill with Josh Redman. Josh was going to do the Africa/Brass stuff, and they wanted a nice A/B. Neil said, 'I know you don't have much rehearsal time, but would you be interested in doing the Johnny Hartman record?' I said, 'I'm happy to have the gig and I'm happy to hit next to Josh, but to just reiterate a record isn't grabbing me so much. How about if I think about it overnight and figure something out?' 'Yeah, of course.'

At that time, I was doing some things with Jim Gailloreto. He's a saxophone player, multi-reeds, great arranger, and he's got some stuff out on Naim-Audiophile. At the time, he was writing arrangements for saxophone-string quartet-bass, and he had me on a couple of cuts. He was arranging Wayne's stuff, and his own things, and he had me pick out a couple of Rumi [a 13th century Sufi poet] things so that he could score it. It was such a beautiful experience. That's why you want to hit with other cats—they turn you on to ideas. So when they called, I said, 'Let me have Jim write some stuff and have Laurence write some stuff, and we'll have a string quartet on it. So that will be at least a different flavor.' They said, 'We don't have any more money, but ....' I said, 'That's never stopped me.' [LAUGHS]

So Jim wrote some things and Laurence wrote some things, and we had Ari Brown play tenor, and my regular rhythm section at the time, and then we had the Hawk String Quartet. It was at Orchestra Hall, and it was cool. It fell together well. Some other promoters from other festivals were there, and asked, 'Can we have that?' 'Yeah, sure.' So it sort of snowballed over a couple of years. Laurence and I found some more things for him to write, and we rearranged some stuff. When we were doing some of these arrangements, we had Bob Mintzer at Zankel Hall and a couple of other spots. We tried it out with a bunch of different cats. Then we were in transition from Blue Note to Concord, we knew we had Night Moves coming, but we needed something else to keep the train on the tracks. So I said, 'Why don't we just keep working on this; it seems like people like it a lot.' It's a very different experience for me just to sing these tunes as opposed to, 'Let's stretch out, and I'll do this gigantic, obnoxious, vocalese thing.' For once, why don't we just bite off as much as we can chew, as opposed to more than we can chew?

The material was obviously a pleasure. Laurence has written some beautiful things. Having Ernie Watts on it really completes the picture, because his energy takes it to a place I would not have expected. So much more hard-charging. Yet still, he references Trane in such an organic and easy way. Since I don't sound anything like Johnny Hartman, then the whole experience is different, which I think is great, because I was never that interested in sort of copping ... The whole tribute idea seemed a little antithetical to my overall project. But here's a way that we can I think legitimately touch on material that people love and that we love, but the way we're handling it sounds so different. I hope it's homage through innovation, which I think is the way jazz is supposed to be.

So by January, when you did the recording, you'd been working with the material for a couple of years. It had been gestating and marinating over that time.

More or less.

Why the string quartet?

Again, it's because I had it in my head from working with Gailloreto, and we didn't have that much time, and I'm thinking, 'Ballads record, Orchestra Hall—here's a nice thing.'

Will you be using the string quartet at all on tour?

We've used the string quartet on big festival dates, in Monterrey.

You won't use it, say, when you play the Jazz Bistro in St. Louis in December.

No. They've got a cat that we're going to use, Willie Akins, a tenor saxophonist. We also had Bennie Maupin with us over in London.

You were just referring to how involved a project Nightmoves was, in contrast to the way this project has evolved. Now, Nightmoves had a very explicit narrative arc. You described it to Jason Koransky in a Downbeat article that you placed on your website: 'Late night. Dark night of the soul. Only questions at the top of the form, and only beautiful answers at the end.' Dedicated To You is a suite of songs that were randomly put together, that have iconic status by virtue of the popularity of the album they appeared on. Does that quality exist on this album? Was it in any way part of your intention in putting it together?

Short answer. There's no story line as such. I don't think that's necessary for this. This record is more in line with the way that I plan a regular concert. I don't have a scripted storyline that I want people to be conscious of, but I do want to take them on a little bit of a journey—to say a cliche. You want to start them from some place, and surprise them, keep them occupied, entertained, engaged, keep them surprised, keep moving them around so that by the end of the concert they feel like they've had a substantive meal. The first thing that I have to figure out is what's the right thing to open with. What's the way that I want to close? Then, in between there, how am I going to feature everybody in the ensemble at least once—even the bass player, once—so that everybody has their time, and how am I going to balance that out so that even if you're thinking of it in the most dry, logistical, mathematical framework, there aren't two tenor saxophone solos back-to-back? That kind of thing. Tempo changeup. What haven't they heard in a while? Those sorts of things drive the way this particular show—or this kind of show—operates for me.

Also the original project, as you mention in your monologue on the second track, was done in a very impromptu way. For both Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, this music was in the air, almost vernacular music. Now, you just did a six-hour rehearsal, whether for this or some other project.

For this week.

Ok. But it seems to me (although I know you've done a lot of jamming) that you approach presentation in a way that's anything but impromptu. I'm wondering how you found yourself approaching the different tunes. Did each one require a lot of thought? Did they come forth naturally?

Let me address your premise first. The reason we had a six-hour rehearsal is because we have a different drummer, Kobie Watkins, so we had to get him up to speed for this week. He's from Chicago, and he was with us for a year/18 months, which was great. But he's sitting in this week for Ulysses Owen. Otherwise, we would have gotten together for a couple of hours, played through, and reminded ourselves.

But I think what you're noticing is, yes, I do think through sets and I do pay a lot of attention to the stagecraft of how an evening could go, but on a given night .... This is why having a regular band is so important. On a given night, the left turn could come. 'Oh, we should play this.' Or, 'this person's here; we've got to play this.' Or, 'Let's change this up tonight; let's go here.' So I wouldn't want to give the impression that I'm bound to too much forethought. I like to start from, 'Here's the plan, here's the way I see it, this is the way it all falls,' and then once we're on the stage, all bets are off, and it could happen based on any number of things.'

The second part of your question. In the case of the recording, we only had one set to get it. We played a 90-minute set, and then we came back and basically hit Dedicated To You once or twice more, because it was a brand-new arrangement. But everything else was as it happened. A different order for the record, because we didn't know what we were going to use. We probably recorded a third more material than is on the record. So when we saw what we actually had, then I had to make decisions about what made sense in the context of a recording.

Was the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman record an important record for you in your formative period? Does it have a resonance? Is it something you would have done if it hadn't been proposed to you?

No. I mean, I wouldn't have thought of it. And I'm glad that they did bring it to me, because I wouldn't have thought of it, and because we've had so much just joy from doing it, and I wouldn't have had the chance to tour with Ernie Watts. That in and of itself has been a big lesson in a whole lot of ways. But I wouldn't have thought to touch on any other than maybe to consider taking Speak No Evil and trying to write a lyric for all of it.

That would be a very different proposition.

That would be a very different proposition. That's the way my head naturally goes, though. 'Let me bite off this gigantic piece that I can't actually do.'

Was Johnny Hartman part of your influence tree in any way?

I can't honestly say that I had deeply considered it before this project. Because what do you say? The obvious beautiful sound, and the transparent emotional intent. If the gifts are that upfront, and that (again) obvious, then it's like, 'Yup, that's the lesson from that guy. Sound great and give 'em your open heart.' As opposed to Mark Murphy, where there are just so many potential lessons in a given performance on a given night or a given recording. Or Jon Hendricks. Or a Joe Williams—the sound, the emotional vibrant openness, but then the whole blues bag that he dips into. The room that he has to play in is a lot more varied. Small group, large group, etc. As opposed to Johnny Hartman, who seemed like you pretty much get the gifts that he had to give. I don't mean to say that in any demeaning way. But he doesn't seem like he was really a jazz person as such, or as we think of it. He wasn't an innovator as such. He was a beautiful singer.

He was probably coming out of Nat Cole in a lot of ways, and Billy Eckstine, I would think.

I don't know, man. Because I think if you're coming out of Nat Cole, then you're going to swing a lot harder, and you're going to be interested in stuff that's well beyond ballads, and you're going to approach the ballad in a little bit more chic way. I don't think of Johnny Hartman as very chic in his approach. It seems to me like he was a guy who loved to sing, who had a beautiful gift, and Trane put him in a context that was any singer's dream—and I'm not sure what more there is to say. Again, I don't mean to demean what he had. But Mister B, you know!? Picking cats for his band, who was going to write the chart, 'this is the way I want it to go, this is the material that I want.' Let alone just swinging his ass off, and the bandleader thing, and the showmanship thing.

And the swagger.

The swagger. But all these individual things that add up to what it was, being a mentor. A teacher. His thing with Sarah. All that stuff. Whereas Johnny Hartman has this little beacon of beauty that comes up in history, and was a little bit forgotten. And it seems like his skill set was obvious to him. He knew what he wanted to do, he came out, he did it, and he was fortunate to be given a gorgeous instrument.

I get the sense, though, that Coltrane was very important to you as a young guy.

I don't know how you can be a jazz person or a music lover and not pay what attention your mind can pay to Trane. He was a searcher. He was going for that which is beyond music. He was going for expression of soul and investigation of soul, and music was his tool to investigate his own soul. Mingus, right? 'My music is the evidence of my soul's will to expand.' That's what you're going for. Music is the embracing mother that teaches, that scolds, that rewards—or, as Gwendolyn Brooks would say, 'she is a requiring courtesan.' But you use it so that you understand yourself better and your soul better, if you're somebody like John Coltrane. That's a different thing from what Johnny Hartman was up to, it seems to me.

From where you embarked on this project, around Labor Day of 2006 'til January 2009, when you recorded Dedicated To You, how has the music evolved? How have the interpretations evolved? Is it recognizable from what you did in Chicago, or is it a very different entity?

That's an interesting question. I've thought about that. I think what we did in Chicago was ... I almost want to say homemade or homespun. We had so little time, and so little rehearsal to really get it, and thank goodness for everybody being so professional, and Ari bringing his nobility to the project. One obvious thing is that there's only one real Gallioreto chart. It's the medley of 'My One And Only Love' into 'Nancy, With the Laughing Face.' Other than that, Laurence and I have been reworking, and rehandling, and reshaping, and in some cases we have included things that were not on ... We only had 50 minutes on the original concert, whereas now, when we go out, we can do a 90-minute show with this stuff. As I say, we recorded more than we released. As I also said, having Ernie on raised the stakes considerably. Having Ernie on raised the velocity, the intensity. He's been teaching us all stuff, on and off the stand. He has a very determined and well-studied view of the spirit and how it is in the world, and it's pretty beautiful and encouraging to be around somebody who can articulate it like he can, both verbally when we're driving around in a van, and musically when we're driving around on the stage. It's quite remarkable. That cat, he's read some books, bro!

You make a reference to Sinatra in the 'Easy To Remember' monologue, and I wondered if that was coincidental.

I'd actually read that someplace, that Trane was checking out Sinatra, and that it was specifically the breathing stuff. He wanted to know what that phrasing was about.

But you're a writer and a poet, and I don't think you use references casually. Plus, I know you listened a lot to Sinatra. Your breath control is pretty special, you uncork those wonderful long lines. So I was wondering if you could say something about Sinatra. Is he part of your pantheon in the way that Coltrane and Wayne Shorter are?

Oh yeah! You've got to give it up to Frank. It's funny. The cats that get forgotten, Frank not being one of them, thank goodness. I mean, he's such a reference point for so many people. And he's such a money-maker still! It's just incredible. But for him to have taken what Pops and Bing Crosby were doing in terms of liberating the melody from the strict, sort of Rudy Vallee squaresville thing, and then hitting it so hard with a big band ... You want to talk about somebody with a plenitude of gifts. I'm sure he stole a bunch of stuff from Mr. B, too, because B had been fronting a big band, and the manhood of it, choosing which band you're with, knowing how it's going to go, choosing the set lists, everything from that to once he had on his suit, not sitting down because it would wrinkle the back of the knees. Then there's just the sound of it. Man, you listen back to that Rat Pack stuff, and these recordings of Dean Martin doing his shtick. I don't know how that guy ... I mean, God bless him, but Frank comes on and just blows him out of the water. You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of stories that Von Freeman tells of all the cats, all the tenor players, even known cats, being on a session, and ... 'Oh, man, Prez [Lester Young] was there, and Hawk [Coleman Hawkins] was there, and then Jug [Gene Ammons] would come on, and everybody would be playing all their licks and all their lines, and then Jug would come on, and he would say, FRAWWKKK'— and just POW!!! If it's like that, what do you do? You just bow down.

As you mentioned in describing the process of putting together Dedicated To You, you've been very much joined at the hip with Laurence Hobgood. I think I read that you met in 1993 when you were sitting in with Ed Peterson at the Green Mill on the North Side.

Well, that's the time that I remember. Laurence remembers a whole other long story. I remember hearing Laurence with Ed, and being astonished at the level of virtuosity that everybody in that band was displaying. Playing such difficult charts, and just pulling them out of a book eight inches thick. 'I think we haven't played this in eight years; let's do this'—and then music! And cats going for it every night. But the virtuoso level was something that impressed me very deeply. Then Ed invited me to sit in. I guess he hadn't had any singers sit in for, whatever, eight years of that band working, so Laurence was surprised at that, and I was nervous as hell. I'd been shedding all week just on the three or four things that Ed had given me, just so I could play the head on these things and have some idea of what I was going to do. Ed was always so gracious. I should put in a word for him. Man, what a gift that guy gave me, by example, by the way that he led that band, by the craftsmanship of his charts, and the sound of his axe, the study that he had done to master it. I really miss having him around.

He lives in New Orleans now?

Yes. I'd pretty much put him up against ... a lot of cats.

Was there any kind of vocal scene in Chicago when you started? Were you stepping into a kind of vacuum as a young guy?

Well, as a young guy I probably was stepping into a vacuum just because I was a man. Was there a vocal scene? I'm not really sure. If there was, I wasn't really in it. I always feel like I'm kind of on the periphery of whatever scene there is anyway.

Is that because you were in Chicago?

Yeah, probably because of Chicago and probably because of the singer thing. But it's also just my paranoia.

But you did create your career in Chicago.

I did. That adds to it. I was a singer from Chicago. Until now, I haven't really lived in New York. I didn't go to music school. So there was never a sort of crucible where you get your team together, other than the teams I've had as a bandleader and the friends that I've made along the way—and I've been grateful to have them. Laurence is my collaborator, and I'm so fortunate to have him. We complement each other's thing so well. I point a direction and I say, 'Let's go over there; let's do this Johnny Hartman thing, and let's do it with strings,' and so on. 'Ok.' 'So let's look at these tunes together.' 'Ok.' 'Hey, I'm feeling ... What do you think about 'You Are Too Beautiful' over here in 3?' 'That's a good idea.' Then all the detail work starts. That's not to say that Laurence hasn't come up with whole compositions on his own and said, 'We should do this.' We confer. Other than all the logistical things, it takes a lot of the loneliness out of the work.

When I lived in Chicago, I really felt the whole second city thing. On the one hand, there are these extraordinarily talented people, and there's not really a market.

The elevator only goes up to like the third floor, is what it comes down to.

Something like that. But then there's also a defiant quality, and this notion of individuality that all the older black players used to talk about as the ethos from the '40s, '50s and '60s. You seem to have absorbed that. I'm wondering if that has something to do with having lived in Hyde Park, on the South Side.

I definitely have tried to pay attention to the history of Chicago jazz and Chicago musicians. Cats have been beautiful to me. Von telling me stories about Jug, and letting me get up every time, and being so generous with his encouragement, and coming on my gig, and trusting me with stuff, and encouraging me—as he has generations of cats at this point. Then Eddie Johnson, who now must be almost 90, one of the original members of the Louis Jordan band

He was on your second record.

Yeah. Man, talk about living history. He was there with Louis Jordan. He made an unfortunate business decision. Ellington wanted him to join, and he had a kid to support, and Louis Jordan was hot, and then five years later Louis Jordan was not, and Duke kept going.

It seems to me that one advantage of being in Chicago, outside the shark pit of New York, is that you can develop your approach at your own pace.

Absolutely. There's no question about it, that Chicago was and has been and I'm sure will be again a place of total creative freedom, where you can get into it on a given night and go wherever you need to go to figure out what you need to figure out. This individualist thing: Von would get on a set with us, and I'd start getting crazy, and he would just be like, 'Man, do it! Blow free! Go! Be creative. Express yourself!' Ed Peterson loved it, too. They all loved it. Eddie Johnson was probably the most conservative of the three, because he was coming from the Swing Era. You wanted to play up to what your heroes like about what you play, and each of them brought out a different thing. Von brought out a hard-swinging, hard-charging, hard bop, occasionally crazed, over the top blowing thing. Ed Peterson brought out the very new music-experimental-intellectualist side of things that could also go free if the occasion called for it, but also was very studied and very profoundly disciplined. And Eddie Johnson brought across the whole 'make sure it swings; don't forget Basie; don't forget Ray Brown; don't forget that.' I love these guys, and I have wanted and continue to want them to be happy with what I do, and to be proud of me, in the way that you want your fathers to be proud of you.

But it's interesting that you should mention the Chicago thing, because all three of those guys are very Chicago players. I regret that I never got to hit with Fred Anderson that much.

I don't get the impression you were in that scene.

Checked it out, but not really to hang. Some things, you learn what you learn from going out and checking it out, and just being respectful—and paying a cover charge.

Not to get all heavy and psychological, but you spoke about pleasing fathers. Your father was a kapellmeister in a Lutheran church?

Yes, in Rockford, Illinois, which is an hour-and-a-half straight west of Chicago.

You didn't go to music school, but I suppose with a father who teaches music and from being in the chorus early on, music has always been part of the fabric of your life.

That's true. Well, in conservatory they make you do all that … stuff. [LAUGHS] All that hard stuff. They make you do all the stuff you're supposed to do to be a musician, i.e., heavy transcribing, and you've got to write arrangements for things, and you've got to ... We don't have training like that. I have training as a choral person. My reading chops are so-so. It's my ears that I've developed, and it's a sensibility that I've developed. I'll spend my life trying to play catch up to all these people who go to conservatory, but I think I have other things happening because I didn't go. Which is why I can't get too down on myself for not being in anybody's club, because then I judge my own work, and I judge the quality of it—and I do what pleases me. I really think I am my worst critic.

When you're trying things, when you experiment, on some of the nights you're going to rub people the wrong way. You're taking chances, and some of it is not going to work out ... I think it's more important to go for it, and to bank on the fact that in the long run my intention is sincere and pure, and that my love for the music is sincere, and that I believe in the process, and that, then, over time, the parts that are too rough are going to get evened out, and the parts that are not rough enough are going to get rougher—and by the time I'm 70 I'll be worth listening to. If my voice lasts.

I want to get back to these formative years in the choir. You mentioned that you trained your ear that way.

Well, I had to. If you do the Bach Motets consistently, and one year you're the soprano, and the next year you're an alto, and then you're a tenor, and two years later you're the bass but it's the same motet, then you get a sense of how things fit together. Bach is an incredible teacher for that. I mean, it's the ultimate in counterpoint. So if you start from that, and you start from the time that you can remember, singing for the joy of it ... I've heard, I've read, I've talked to people, and you can go to conservatories or to teachers, and have music sort of ground out of you, because the labor of it—even if it's just for a couple of years—outweighs the joy of making music. I've certainly labored diligently and hard, and I've had discouragement in music, and disappointment, but everything that I was a part of—almost everything—has a measure of joy from the time I can remember singing in church. It was joyful. Lutherans singing at the tops of their lungs in four-part harmony. How exciting. How thrilling. And praising. And very energizing. Then you're in grade school and you're in a choir, and then you're in high school, and now, if you're me, you're good enough to start singing with adult groups, so you're singing Brahms' Requiem and you're singing Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, and you're singing Handel's Messiah, and you're singing Mendelssohn, and you're singing all these different things. Then you get to college, and now you're doing 12th century music, and doing crazy Norwegian composers, and doing Ravel, and now it's all a cappella. So over that whole time, you develop, 'am I into it; am I not?' If you're blessed with great conductors and great musicians who are leading the groups, then they tell you that you're not, you pay attention.

It's a really organic process. It comes from a standpoint where you say to yourself, 'I love to sing. These are my people. All these choir geeks are my people. These are my best friends. I want to hang out with them. I can't wait to get to rehearsal today, because we'll have jibber-jabber, and then we'll sing these incredible things, and I'll feel great, and then we'll all go to dinner!'

Where did jazz enter the picture? The bio states that you listened to instrumental jazz, and then in college someone took you to hear Mark Murphy. I'm sure it was more than that.

My father was not just a church musician. He was also a high school band instructor and the high school band conductor, although not when I was in high school. So there was a lot of music around. They certainly had a couple of Frank Sinatra records. I remember peripheral things, like turning on the TV one night when I was in junior high, and ... what was the big band? It would have been the Thundering Herd. Everybody's wearing black dinner jackets, live from Lake Tahoe, whatever. Then on comes Tony Bennett, in this beautiful white dinner jacket, and he's the guy who gets to sing. I say, 'Well, gosh darn it, that looks like a lot of fun; I wouldn't mind doing that, being the only guy wearing the white dinner jacket, and get up and sing in front of a band like that. That looks like a lot of fun!' <./p>

But it was all little drips of things. I hadn't met any jazz people, and all I had as examples were academics and church people. I didn't particularly care to go into that. But jazz was around. It was in the atmosphere. When I was in college, a guy down the hall lived by Mount Hood, and his pop would always take him to the jazz festival. So he knew about Oscar Peterson, and he knew about Herbie, and he knew about Dave Brubeck. He said, 'Hey, you like that? Check this out.' So that's the way that started.

I'm not really sure how it was that we went to hear Mark Murphy, and I don't even remember who was in the group I went with. But we were there, and it was a real life-changing thing. Not because I thought to myself, 'Well, now I'm going to do that,' but because it was the real thing. It was jazz, and it was hitting really hard. Mark was in his vocal prime. And the drama of it! The thrill of it, the showmanship. It was killing! I remember that he did his version of [SINGS] 'Because of one caress my world was overturned'—'Never Let Me Go,' with his ending, where he goes back to the bridge. The way he ends it is, 'Because of one caress ... my world was ... over ... turned.' I'm in college. What's going to happen? It was, 'Holy shit, this guy is a total master!' Just such emotion.

Which is our tie-in to Johnny Hartman, because Johnny Hartman's thing is about emotion, and he makes people emotional. What other gift do you need? This is a little parenthetical. If all you need to do to be emotional is to sing, then God bless you!

Then at the little college where I went, Gustavus Adolphus [in Saint Peter, Minnesota], they had what they called a 'stage band'—old school. I got to sing with them right away. I auditioned, and I was the only guy who was ready to start improvising. There was a little vibraphone-led quartet. Again, because you're out in the provinces, it's so much easier to have access to start. You start, and suddenly you've got a gig once a week with these guys, just sitting in, doing a couple of tunes—but again, drip, drip …. It's like reverse beautiful Chinese water torture. You get better and better, more and more inspired, more and more acclimated.

Then you entered the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. But you didn't go to Chicago with the idea that you were going to be a musician.


One of the articles mentioned that you majored in Philosophy of Religion, and you intended to perhaps work for the World Council of Churches.

Something. I didn't really have a plan beyond getting the degree.

Were you writing poetry at the time?

No, not really. I didn't have time for anything like that.

You read a lot of philosophy and a lot of theology.

Yeah, boy. I was working hard. Talk about discipline or hard work. [LAUGHS] Because the people in Divinity School at the University of Chicago can't prove a thing, especially if you put them right across the lane there from the business school, and from math, and chemistry. Your personal intellectual razor has got to be beyond any level of sharp blade that you've encountered before. I don't mean to put it down. But my impression walking away was just, 'Wow, these guys just duel for a duel's sake, because they can't prove it; they're freaking out because they can't prove it.' None of this stuff actually exists!

Are you telling me that you're an agnostic?

Well, no! But I don't have to have proof. One doesn't have to have proof of anything. But you're going to get yourself into a little bit of a bind by the very nature of what you're trying to accomplish. Whence the problem of Evil? There's no answer. You can be as incisive as you can possibly be, and have all the facts at your command, and do the broadest reading possible, and you can say, 'Well, it's partially chemistry, and it's partially the friction of naturally competing bodies,' and you can also say it's original sin—all these different categories. But there's no proof that Sin as a category actually exists! I mean, you say what people do. But it's not like one plus one equals two, and it's not like H2O. It's not the same category.

It could be if you believe in a certain way, but ...

But it's belief in a certain way. Ok, fair enough. We can get into a whole thing about whether science ... You have to believe science for science to work. Right?

But you need God. Somewhere in the process you need God. Somewhere in your life. Just like people who have God need to confront 'the Void.' People who have God, if they're really honest about their experience ... 9/11. My grandmother died of cancer, or I got cancer. Awful things. The problem of Evil. People who have a set of beliefs, or even a growing or burgeoning set of beliefs, need to confront the Void. This is why the Book of Job exists. The Book of Job exists because it's a confrontation with the Void, and ultimately, there is no answer from the Void, and the only answer from Yahweh, or Jehovah in The Book of Job is: 'I exist. You don't get it? You don't get to get it. You're less than nothing to me. You're less than nothing compared to me. What answer do you even deserve?' That's Job. That's the Void.

Now, the flip side of that is that people who have a more natural skepticism toward the possibility of a deity, or toward a divine or transcendent reality, need to confront the possibility that there is a transcendent reality. You can point to something as simple as the scientifically proven fact that we have auras. Why do we have an aura? Because we're solid state. Because we're electricity. How could electricity possibly be contained by mere skin? Well, of course, you have a force field. You have an electrical field. On the spectrum of abilities, some people are going to have the ability to see an aura. Now, 'aura' sounds like a corny name for it. But that's its name. Clearly in photography, you can take a picture of your aura. Why? Because there are specialized cameras that can take a picture of the electrical field surrounding your body. Well, there you go. You and I can't see it. You need to confront your transcendent self. You need to at least confront the questions in an honest way.

So it's both/and. And the best poetry, the best art, the best substantive communication is communication that grows from, touches on, explores, expresses at different times and in different places and in different ways, the Void, which is a reality; a potential deity, which is a reality in a certain way of looking at it; and a third way, which is a kind of benevolent reality, which is more of a Buddhist 'there is no deity, but we belong here, we are part of this, the stars and all things—we're ok, and we belong here—and Void, don't worry, you're a part.' There are really three possibilities. And great artists ultimately confront these things.

During your years at the Divinity School, about '89 to '92 ...

Three years, three-and-a-half. Sitting in.

So you weren't only studying.

No. I should have been only studying. [LAUGHS]

How did music take over?

At first, I didn't go out. I only studied, because that's what I was there for. I missed singing, but I just didn't think that was my vocation. When you've committed to graduate school, you figure you've got your plan. You at least tell yourself that's what you're there for. You don't have time to go out, and you're exhausted by the end of the day, etc. So the first year, I don't think I went out. But the second year, I needed to get some music into me again. I was starting to get unbalanced.

This would be 1990.

I guess so. So I started to go out, and somebody said, 'Hey, let's go to the Green Mill.' We went, and I sat in. It was a Friday or Saturday night, they're jamming, the place is packed, and it's killin' and beautiful. After the first set, I go over to the guy and say, 'Hi, I'd like to sit in; my name is Kurt Elling.' 'Oh yeah! What do you play?' 'I'm a singer.' 'Oh ... yeah. Ok, just hang out for a while.'

The session ends at 4. It's 3:40. So we wait through all this, and finally they get me up. I get up and scat. The room changes. Now, I had been studying; I'd been doing it by then. At that point in my life, I had some very clear signals that were pointing me toward being a musician, toward being a jazz singer. I'd sit in someplace, and all the musicians would dig in, and put the hammer down. They'd get down and they'd pat me on the back, 'Yeah, come on back, young man!' The whole room would light up. It was a mystery to me. It's still a mystery. I don't know what that is, other than that it was a sign, a gift to me that was trying to get me to be who I am now, and it happened over and over and over again.

So here we are at the Mill, and it's almost 4 in the morning, and I get up and I do my thing. I sit around and wait, they play one last number, I go over to the same guy and I'm like, 'Hey, man, thanks very much. Thanks for having me on;. I appreciate it.' He said, 'Oh, yeah-yeah, you sound real good.' I said, 'If you ever need a singer or anything ...'—and I had my little Kinko's cut-out card. 'If you ever need a singer ...' 'Oh, yeah, right!' He throws it over his head, behind him, and it goes flutter-flutter, flutter-flutter, down to the floor. I was just shocked. I was like, 'Wow! At least just put it in your pocket and then just don't call. There's no reason to be like THAT.' He was like, 'Oh, no. I'm just kidding. Hold on ... where is it?' [LAUGHS] That would be the flip side of that same experience. You know how threatening it can be when you have a gig and you're trying real hard ... Life is hard and sad. It's hard for people. Then some singer comes in, and it just seems like this typical goddamn thing. 'Here we've been blowing all night, and nobody hears a note I'm playing, and then ....' It's got to be hard. So my heart goes out. But ... [LAUGHS]

The voice is the voice.

The voice is the voice. I don't know how we got on that. That's a parenthetical story.

So music took over because you were getting these signals.

Music took over because I kept getting all these things. Von would say, 'Come on back,' Eddie would say 'Come on back,' to the point where, on a given week, I really wasn't doing the work that I should have been doing for graduate studies. On Monday night I would go hear Ed Peterson and sit in. On Tuesday night I would go to Von. On Wednesday I'd go to another place called the Leather Lounge, where you had to get buzzed in, and this whole out scene—but Von's little brother, George, had the gig, and he had me on. All these older cats, and they were all just, 'Come on!'

Probably they heard some of the church ...

There was some church in there. There was a Lutheran church in Chicago called Bethel Lutheran, and I had sung in the church choir there. I had sung with Dixieland bands, and I had sung a lot of gospel stuff. I was sort of trying to put all the pieces together. I was conscious enough of the history of jazz, and the history of jazz singing, to want to figure out how could I sing with ... 'Well, I've sung with the big band. I've sung with the gospel choir and I've soloed with the gospel choir. I've done counterpoint. I've sung with this Dixieland thing. I did small group. What other skill set do I need to get with here that I at least have contact with?'

It sounds as though on a certain level jazz was a way to confront some of those existential questions that were cropping up.

At this point, it was just a relief. I was kind of crapping out.

But is there anything to that statement?

There has been since. For sure. It's in my writing, and it's in my intention. It's in that leap into the unknown that is the experience every time you start a solo and you don't know where it's going to go. That's the voice as much as anything else. It's just the Void with friends and chord changes. But it's the unknown.

How did the writing start? It sounds like the final piece of the puzzle, and what made an impact on people outside of the little community in which you were starting to make your name, wasn't so much your command of scat singing and improvisation, but the lyric-writing to the solos, and the type of lyric writing it was, and the content, and the type of solos to which you were writing the lyrics.

I think that's true. I think that's probably what made people think, 'Wow, there's something real here.' Ed Peterson was the first one to recognize that. I don't remember the exact sequence of events of how it started, but it had to do with my figuring out just exactly what Jon Hendricks and LHR [Lambert, Hendricks and Ross] was up to. You put on Art Blakey or Horace Silver or something, and you're like, 'Hey, wait a minute! That's that solo.' Then you get out your other record, and you're like, 'Whoa!' Then you figure out what it is, then the door opens, and suddenly I said to myself, 'Well, that's a cool thing to do!'

It answered a question for me. I would say to myself: That Paul Desmond solo is so beautiful. I love it. I've memorized it. I wish I could just sing that solo. Wouldn't that be marvelous? That would just be the shit, man. You could just come out and sing a Paul Desmond solo, and it would be note-perfect and beautiful. And as soon as Jon's thing became apparent to me, then I went right to that Paul Desmond solo, and I sat down, and in an evening I came up with 'Those clouds are heavy, you dig,' just because I already had the Rilke, because I was doing so much of that—it was all just jam-packed in my head. Then I was trying to jam-pack all this jazz stuff in my head, and it was like, 'Wow, I could just do that!' It was like one evening, just WHOOSH. 'Wow, that was fun. Let's do more of that. A lot of fun!'

Is a lot of the thematic content of your lyrics drawn from your theology studies during those years?

I think it naturally comes out. Well, I don't think it comes necessarily from those years as much as it more often and more broadly comes from my childhood, and the themes that I had then. Honestly, I'd like to be an intellectual. I've got my moments and everything. But I just compare myself to, 'Well, Martin Marty!' 'Well, David Tracy.' 'Well ...'

Those are tough acts to follow at the University of Chicago.

Impossible. I wasn't given that gift to read Habermas and Schleiermacher. I can get the gist of it, and I can follow it, and I can get with it, but it's just not my gift. And it wasn't my gift at the time. It's not a gift of poetry. It's not a gift of lyricism. It's not a gift of musicianship. It's not even a gift, from my meager intellect, of being able to put very disparate elements together in a way that tells you something new. David Tracy can do that. Again, like Frank Sinatra, with the sound, with the ultimate mastery. David Tracy, with the ultimate mastery of intellect and of the history of thought.

So the lyric-writing was a way for you to bring together your thoughts and ideas. But where did the beat poetry come from?

Mark's stuff turned me on to that. His Kerouac records. Then, if you're a reader anyway, it's easy enough. Kerouac's so beautiful, because again, his intention is so pure. I think his naivete did him in as much as anything else. He really believed it, and he wasn't cynical. He's my favorite of those guys, because he's gullible. He paid a pretty heavy price for being so naive and so innocent—from where I stand.

Of the poets then, the other one who was really involved with jazz on a performance level was Kenneth Rexroth.

But he wasn't really a Beat. He was a generation before. And Rexroth, now there's a total brainiac. There's an intellectual. There's different reasons to identify with different writers. Rexroth, I envy his internal library. But I identify with his sense that time is always passing, and that it's time to do it now. Because the earth will be here, but soon enough we will just be chemical constituents, so let's ... honey, let's make love now! He said it better than anybody. Man, do I envy his library. But Kerouac, God bless him. He was taken down by his innocence.

So it seems that between around 1991 and 1995, when you do your first record, things are percolating.

Yup. It was an intense time. Which is why it was probably good that I just lived ... I couldn't have lived with anybody, and I was in this basement apartment in Hyde Park for $100 a month, moving furniture by day and doing gigs at night, and reading as much as I could. Aimlessly just digesting. Because I already had so much stuff in. It was very thorny and it was very painful. I really thought I was going to be a professor or something, and it was nerve wracking to be in an extended process of realization that the people surrounding you are leagues more gifted than you, and there's no way you'll ever catch up to the train that you're on—and not to have an answer to what you're actually supposed to be doing instead. I was white-knuckled coming out of that experience.

But you come out with a record, it gets a lot of press.

By the time Laurence went in to make a record, I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were going to get signed, it was going to be big, I was going to be on a road. I had no doubt about it. Even if that meant I would have something to sell off the stand in cassette form, and that I would take the next step, whatever that was, but I was on the road. By the time we went in to demo stuff up, I didn't have any doubts.

But once you do the record, then you have to do the next act, then the act after that. You have to keep coming up with material. Did making the first recording crystallize things for you, in a sense? Visual artists, for example, display a body of work in a show, then they can move on to the next thing.

Sure. It was finally good to have something that was successful, to be 28 or whatever I was at that point, and to have something that was visible. That day when Bruce Lundvall called me up and said, 'I'm coming to Chicago to hear you sing, and I want to sign you, and don't talk to anyone else until you talk to me.'

You had sent him a cassette, and he was driving to New York from his dentist's office and put it in his car cassette player.

It's a good day when a Bruce Lundvall calls you from Blue Note Records. But it also fulfilled ... I was reading Charlie Chaplin's autobiography, and he was like, 'I always knew that I was the greatest actor in the world. When I was a street urchin with nobody around to help me, and I was six and seven and eight years old, and living on the street penniless, I knew that I was the greatest actor in the world. I've never not had a sense of that confidence and of that idea, that revelation.' I don't remember the exact quote.

But I think many of us have a feeling like that. You're a kid, and you want your life to mean something, and it needs to be revealed to you, and there are these terrible, terrible awkward times, and a lot of pain, and a lot of growing, and a lot of confusion and fear, and overcoming fear. I watched Almost Famous last night, the film about the guy who was like 15 and writes for Rolling Stone and goes on the road with this band. There's an older rock critic, and he's advising this kid who wants to be a rock critic. He says, 'You're not cool. I'm not cool. We're writers, man. We're going to be alone. All of the chicks, they're going to go for the really handsome guitar guy. But we have the mind, and we get to be writers. And you know what? I'm not cool, you're not cool, but the only true currency between human beings in this life happens when you're the least cool.' Yeah, man, that's nice.

But then, you're also the guy on the bandstand looking sharp and the whole thing.

That comes from a long ... Well, for 90 minutes a night.

I want to talk more about stagecraft. You referred to the stagecraft of Dedicated To You. You've done a number of large-scale productions. You seem to think that way.

I'm a natural director.

Does it come from experiencing the sermons as a young guy?

No. I think it might come from the ritual, though. You get a sense of how a ritual plays out. There's a pacing and a timing to ritual. There's an entrance, and there's a ritual to the entrance. The people are there, and the candles get lit, and the music starts, and all these different elements occur. It isn't until a certain number of things have happened that the Word comes, that the sermon comes—and that's two-thirds of the way through the gig. By that time, the people have said, the man speaks, it's back to the singing, you do the thing, you stand up, sit down. By the time the sermon comes, you're in a place. You're ready. I think of that as a bit analogous to the thing that you play when you play what you really came to play for them—when you get to the reason that the set is occurring. You could think of it as the 11 o'clock tune, the ballad. There's a ritual that you go through to get to certain things. You've got to set it up in such a way that people are softened up, or moved around, or prepared. Because the closer, at least for me, tends to be just like, 'Smack 'em around a little bit.' You've said what you came to say. Now you're just going to go for the big, juice them so that they all feel they got what they came for. Now you give them the drum solo. Now you introduce the cats. Now you go home. If they want an encore, they're going to have to tell you about it.

I don't think of it consciously like that very often. Only in interviews. But I'm not afraid of self-revelation to myself. [LAUGHS]

It seemed to me that your records for Blue Note were somewhat compartmentalized. But with Night Moves you seemed to synthesize your various strategies into a single recital.

In any case, I am trying to do the best that I can with the material that's at hand and the abilities that I have at that time. Part of the luxury of having a working band is that you can do things a little bit piece-by-piece in terms of doing new material, and road-test it, and see what it feels like, and change it up. Not that we go into every session with fully polished arrangements. Far from it. Piece by piece. What happens is that, in terms of material, we have at least half or two-thirds of a record, in one form or another, before we go into the studio and before we commit to the studio dates. Then I have to ask myself how these six pieces fit together, what they imply. If I was going to put these on a record, what else would I need to include to make that a coherent statement, so that they aren't just these disparate things that have come out in different ways over the last year, or year-and-a-half, or two years? Then I have to go on an active development of material that complements the core material that we've been developing, so that it makes sense being listened to as a set, on a record. But in every case, my intention is the same. From the inside, all I can do is to try my best to make a coherent statement and have it be something that has a sound and something that justifies people buying it and listening to it.

You've been living in New York now for about a year.

We had a little pied-à-terre for about half a year before the place we have now, and now we've been here a year full-time. You don't want to live your whole life and not live in New York.


Because you don't want to live your whole life and only live in one city. And New York is the jazz hub, and I want to know how the trains run. I want to be able to talk in a little bit of shorthand with people, and know my way around. And I want to hear Paul Motian a bunch of times, and he doesn't leave town. And I wanted to make some more friends and see what would come of it.

You were doing pretty well in Chicago.

Yeah, I could have stayed.

You own an apartment that previously belonged to Barack and Michelle Obama. You're a highly respected member of the jazz community. You're involved in NARAS. Things that to someone outside the business, it looks real good.

Yeah, on paper it looks good.

I realize there are limitations.

Most of the limitations are my own, and have to do with ... I'm just really hungry, and I don't want to miss anything, and I take the notion that time is flying to heart. If we were going to come to New York, we had to do it before my daughter was in school, and a certain number of logistical things had to fall into place, or be jammed into place. I haven't really thought of it as, 'We're moving to New York.' I've thought of it as a sabbatical, a creative dislocation that will last for maybe a short amount of time, maybe a longer amount of time. But it's all forward motion. I want to let it become what it wants to be. At least we will have been here, and we have made some really lovely friends that wouldn't have happened if we'd have stayed in Chicago. I've tried to keep up with my most important connections and friends in Chicago. I'm not very good at it. But I'm just a guy walking around, trying to figure stuff out, so I've got to forgive myself at a certain level for about 90% of this stuff.

Can you assess at this point what being in New York has done to you?

Some of it, I can. I've definitely been writing things that wouldn't have happened in Chicago—some lyrics for things. I wrote a lyric for 'The Face On The Barroom Floor' that's good, that's really good, that's suitable, and it's going to play a role in a much different kind of production than just some club set some place. A number of things have come around. And as I say, the friendships. You don't really know what creativity will come of that, but I can point to certain things. I don't want to name a bunch of names, like here's the five guys I've been hitting it with.

It's been a revelation about some my limitations, too. Or not limitations, necessarily, but propensities. One of the reasons why you move to another city is that you learn about yourself, and what your preferences are, and who you are, and what you really like. Man, I'm not getting out half as much as I thought I was going to on a given night. But I have a 3½ year old, and I want to be home for her, and I want to enjoy her while she's home, and I want to put her to bed and read stories to her, and by the time that happens ... she's a jazz girl, so it's 10:30, and now ...

You have to get up at 6.

Right. She wakes up. So it's like, 'am I really going to go out and make a session now?' Am I really going to come out to Brooklyn at 11 o'clock at night? Who's going to go with me?' [LAUGHS]

It's complicated.

It's complicated. You get a kid, and it changes things. It should change things. That's another reason to look at it and say, 'Ok, now I have a kid, and what's the best thing for my kid?' I can go back to Chicago and live there, and plan that after every tour I spend a half a week in New York at someplace—and then I go home. Rather than, 'We're here and all of us have to be here.' Because, man, she wants a swing set and a back yard, and she wants to go ride ponies. She's already going to pay a big price for me being on the road so much, and for the person I am. You've got to do right by your kids.

When you were younger, were you listening to a lot of the singer-songwriters? In any sense, is your lyric-writing to jazz solos informed by that?

I wish. I wish I was a better writer. I've got my moments, but I'd be a much better writer if I'd heard a lot more Joni Mitchell growing up, and Leonard Cohen, and that whole group. I just wasn't around it. So I've got to struggle against the natural ... what's the right word for it? High-handedness ... of what occurs to me. I've been working on a lot of new things with a lyric writing partner named Phil Galdston, who is very accomplished, very professional—more of a pop writer. We're a good balance with each other, because I'll come up with some idea, a direction or whatnot, then we'll start working on it. It's a good combination. I like a collaboration. I like to be with smart people, and learn from them, and integrate ideas together.

Are any of projects you've done in the past not documented that should be documented?

I have a lot of stuff I did at the Steppenwolf Theater that I wish would have a life beyond just the couple of nights that they occurred. More theatrical pieces. I wouldn't say there's a lot of gold buried in my journals. There's mostly a lot of junk that I just didn't get out.

Have you connected at all with the New York theater community?

I believe that an important section of my future will use theatrical aspects, and I think I'm going to create a vehicle that is going to help me get to a broader audience. But I haven't been shmoozing heavily. I am not really able to cast a really broad net and then have it winnowed down. It's more like individual people are being given to me as friends, as creative collaborators, and I am trying to be a real friend to them, first and foremost, and I am trying to learn from them. I do have a friend who is a very heavy director and dramatic coach, and we are working on an idea. I have a friend who's a cinematographer—we're thinking about maybe the same thing. I've got Phil Galdston, and we're writing stuff with a thing in mind. Of course, there's Laurence, who is integral to anything that's coming up. He actually moved here before I did. So it's specific people. Then it's whatever level of drive I have to actually put pen to paper, given the inspiration and the tasks that I've set myself.

Ted Panken interviewed Kurt Elling on June 15, 2009

July 07, 2009 · 0 comments