by Robert Lewis
British saxophonist and composer John Surman made a couple of rare appearances in the U.S. this summer fronting an all-star quartet with John Abercrombie, Drew Gress and Jack DeJohnette, the same group of heavy hitters on his latest release, Brewsterís Rooster (ECM). The 65 year-old Surman spent an afternoon in Washington D.C. talking about the obstacles that European musicians face in America, the recession and subsidies, his approach to composition and improvisation, and one of his worst saxophone nightmares.
This is your first time in the U.S. with your own band. Why did it take so long?
This may be a complicated story, but in truth itís not that easy to work in America as a European musician. Work permits are difficult to obtain. You have to prove that thereís something very special about you, which perhaps after 40 years in the business is not difficult for me. But there are stumbling blocks. It costs money and the whole business of working in the States depends on having a persona in America. And quite frankly, Iíve singularly failed to get that persona, for one reason or another.
Is that a conscious choice?
Not at all. Iíve spent much of my working life working with American musicians, but always in Europe. As John Abercrombie said many years ago, 'Iím a commuter; I live in America but I work in Europe.' And Iíve always worked in Europe so thereís not been a lot of temptation to work in America. I did, at one point, after my colleagues John McLaughlin and Dave Holland came over here in the late Ď60s, it crossed my mind and I stayed for a while in Woodstock, not far from Jack [DeJohnette]. And I did a few gigs with Jackís band, but he said thereís not much happening here. And then work came up in Europe and I went back and I had a house and then a wife and a family.
You are living in Oslo now?
I live in Oslo now for family reasons, just for the last 5 years. Most of my life Iíve lived in England.
Whatís the difference living in Oslo in terms of quality of life?
Between Norway and England? Itís further north so the difference is climatic, as much as anything. And itís a little more expensive to live thereóeating out and drinking out and all that. But of course there are lots of social benefits.
Are you able to take advantage of their artist subsidies, or is that only for citizens?
Theoretically, I will be. Thatís a very important part of their music process. The investment in Norwegian artists is vital to their culture.
Were you able to get subsidies from the British Council?
It can happen. The British Council does support certain activities and Iíve benefited from that, but not in the U.S., mainly because the British Council is promoting the English language. So youíre tending to get opportunities to work in places like Eastern EuropeóRussia, Ukraine, Romaniaóbut not in the U.S.
To what extent do subsidies and government support for the arts impact the quality of the music itself?
Iíll be honest with you; I share your doubts. I think it slants the market a bit. I think youíll find, for example, in Europe that certain German musicians are rather upset at the fact that their Norwegian colleagues can work at clubs in Germany and can afford to do so because they get travel assistance and they even get working grants for the group. So subsidies always create an imbalance. We wonít even talk about the common market and the agricultural policy and the anger between the British and the French about French agricultural subsidies, but all this political stuff is there in the music in the same way. Itís slanted.
In Norway, it doesnít hurt that they have oil money.
Listen, Norway changed when they discovered oil. Prior to that they were a country that relied on fishing and farming. It was not a rich country. They were the poor relation to Sweden. Now the boot is very firmly on the other foot.
Thereís been such a strong music scene in Norway for the last 15 years. Is that directly attributed to the money thatís now being set aside for the arts?
I think you have to point your finger at ECM Records for a lot of exposure that the Norwegian musicians had. Prior to Manfredís excursions into Norway, Karin Krogóand I have to say I have a vested interest because Karin is what you would call my life partner, my wifeóshe was one of the few Norwegian jazz artists who had made it internationally. But once Manfred came in and worked with Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal and Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen, it helped launch this wave of interest in Norwegian music.
The compositions on the new record, with the exception of two tracks, are all original. Were they written with these specific players in mind?
Some were and some werenít. My thinking was that this was an opportunity to work with three musicians who were basically very experienced improvisers working on different projects with different people. So what I thought was necessary was to create a few pieces that would create an area to work in but wouldnít be limiting. Thereís no suggestion on my part that Iím trying to form a tight band with hot arrangements. I just wanted to come up with some things that would be inspirational and open enough that we could get together for an afternoon, look at a few pieces, pick out half a dozen of them that would work well and go ahead and do it. So I wrote some stuff, 'Hilltop Dancer,' 'Brewsterís Rooster,' and 'Counter Measures,' and then I picked a few pieces like 'Burton' and 'No Finesse' that Iíve used with a rhythm section and just said, 'Letís play.'
Did you produce the record? I donít see a producerís credit on it.
Basically, yes. Manfred was ill, I think he broke his arm just before the recording was made, and then when it came to the mixing he said if Jack is there, you and Jack might as well mix it. Iíve known Manfred for a good many years and I guess he trusted me [chuckles].
How does a project like this come about? Do you make a proposal to Manfred?
From my point of view itís worked both ways over the years. Sometimes Manfred comes to me and says itís about time we did another album. What do you feel like doing? In this case I was doing a recording with an organist Howard Moody called Rain in the Window. Manfred was there and he said maybe the next project should be done in New York, basically a jazz album. And I said yes, Iím ready for that. He asked me who I wanted, and I knew Jack was an obvious choice Ďcause weíve been mates for a long time. And John Iíve known for a long timeótoured and recorded with him a bit. Drewís name came up because Jack said to me years ago that Iíd like him and might want to use him sometime. I bumped into him a couple years ago at the London Jazz Festival, he was playing with Uri Caine and we were both doing projects with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
How would you describe the musical personality of each of these guys?
With Jack, I especially admire the fact that heís extremely open to a wide variety of music. Heís adventurous and he has a broad palate of musical interests. The music can go anywhere with Jack. I hear in Johnís playing that same sort of curiosity, that mix of fusion and country blues and straightforward jazz. He has his own sound but Iím never quite sure what heís going to do next, and I love that aspect of his playing. Drew is my newest friend. I hope he wonít be offended if I say his style of playing is more like Sam Jones, an older, digging-in kind of playing.
I think heíll take it as a compliment.
Itís that kind of strong playing, the Ray Brown-Sam Jones school. Yet heís got great arco technique and a sophisticated ear. Thereís a lot about Drew Iím finding out. Heís a shy man but heís a powerhouse to play with.
When it comes to composition, how much of your approach is discipline and how much is inspiration?
First, you get the inspiration, which may be big or may be small. Or you may get the deadline. Then comes the hard work. If we talk about some of the things Iíve done with string quintets where thereís a lot more writing than a quartet like this, then you can have the idea but youíve still got to bash it out. Youíve got to form it and find a way to make it work. Itís a mixture of the two. You probably find the same as a journalist when you start to write something, the piece itself takes on a life of its own. So very often I find that if Iíve got a commission, the house is never cleaner than before I start. You do anything to avoid writing that first note because every blooming idea you come up with seems to be trivial. But in the end you start out with something where you say this is the best I can come up with. And once you get into it, then suddenly it takes on a life of its own.
How do you transition from avoiding to jumping in?
Horror, panic, fear, the danger of not actually coming up with it; Itís the brick wall technique, you just run up against it. If youíre going to write, youíve just got to start. So you stall as long as you can but it comes to a point when either youíve got to get on with it or itís not gonna happen. Iím scared to death of not coming up with stuff, but I havenít missed a deadline yet. If youíre a dreamer, the fantasies can go on for a long time. But itís hardcore when youíve got to put them down on paper. Thatís why at school I was never that good at writing compositions. I always had great ideas but I never really managed to find time to get them down on paper, or my hand ached by the bottom of the second page.
We donít live or work in isolation. The world goes on around us. Has the recession or the downturn in the record business had any impact on your music or your career?
I honestly think that this particular recession has yet to really bite in terms of the working process in Europe. I think weíre about to see it. Weíve bridged over it because the work was set up before the stuff happened at the beginning of the year. There have been one or two cancellations. I know some things have gone down but they mostly carried on. And in the summer months the festival circuit has kept things buoyant. But I think the cutbacks are going to happen when the autumn planning for next year starts.
How will musicians deal with that?
With difficulty. I think it will be tough. We spoke earlier about subsidies and the fact that some countries are subsidizing artists. Itís really going make a difference. If they continue to do it, then the non-subsidized folks are going to be in real trouble. So I think it will cause difficulties, though it hasnít impinged on me a great deal, as yet.
Whatís the best thing about playing the saxophone?
Itís a very vocal instrument. My introduction to music was singing as a choirboy. I was a boy soprano and a soloist. But when the voice changed I missed that.
Your favorite choral works?
Bachís St. Matthew Passion. First time I heard that with full chorus and orchestra I must have been eight or nine. I couldnít sit still. I didnít know what to do with myself.
So then your voice broke?
Yes, so I suspect itís that vocal quality that I like about the saxophone. But I have to say I donít think my choice of instrument was dictated in any way by any prior knowledge of what riches I would find there. I bought the clarinet because it was very cheap in a pawnshop and Iíd heard some traditional jazz. I said thatís fun; Iíll get a clarinet. It was only seeing a baritone in a shop window next to an alto for 37 pounds, 50 shillings when I was 16 that led me to the saxophone.
Can you say what you liked about that baritone in the shop window?
It was big and golden and wonderful. I was privileged to interview Sonny Rollins some years ago and he shared the same story, when his uncle opened the case with red velvet inside and then the golden horn. Iíve always has a passion for instruments because aesthetically I think theyíve beautiful; French horns harps, violins, theyíre beautiful things to look at. So I picked up the baritone and got down to low C and my whole body vibrated and I said I want this.
Was there much music around your house?
Yes, my dad was an amateur pianist who would accompany singers in what they used to call concert parties. He loved to play and he could hack his way through some of the Beethoven sonatas. And the radio was on a lot, the basic classical music repertoire. The BBC was very pompous in those days; the announcers sounded like they wore black tie on the evening program. And you got the full symphony, not just a single movement. Anyway, there was lots of music around, especially birthdays and Christmas always around the piano.
What was your first exposure to jazz?
That would have been the traditional jazz revival when I was about 15. So that would have been in about 1958 or í59. And skiffle became quite popular on the radio at that time, and that really grabbed me. I got the clarinet and I found my way to the local jazz club, which was on Friday nights in the Virginia House Temperance Hall. And I stood in the corner backstage and played along with the band until eventually after about a few months the clarinet player said come on out and play. And that was it.
Did you ever memorize solos or transcribe things?
No. I was never into copying, and I didnít have the technique at the time to transcribe.
So when did you start composing?
I always wrote little pieces. But I didnít really start until I was in London in college. At the music college the teaching was so dead and so hidebound and so full of rules that I was put off, scared to write because of breaking the rules. So composition emerged slowly. I was playing more at the beginning of my career than writing. I donít think I got really into writing until the Ď70s.
How did you learn to improvise, and how would you teach someone to improvise?
You improvise by doing it. You play along with records. In my case, I just played things that I tried to fit in, rather than to play what anyone else played. So I would have begun with Armstrongís Hot Five recordings. Theyíre not complex harmonically, so youíve got time to find the right notes. For people who want to learn to improvise, I find itís handy if you can play the instrument a bit first. But given that, itís just to do it and not feel too hidebound by restrictions and rules. If you really want to improvise, Iím someone who advocates a lot of use of the ear, and you can refer to the paper afterward.
We all know classical players who know their instruments inside and out and they can read flyspecks in front of them, but they donít have a clue how to improvise.
And they get very tense and very nervous and theyíre really awfully afraid of making a fool of themselves when you ask them to try. What I do is give them a different instrument. A recorder or a little keyboard or something, then you donít have the fear of making a fool of yourself on this instrument that youíve been practicing eight hours a day. And then they can have fun with it and you say, 'now try it on your instrument.'
Back to composition, when youíre working on a piece, how do you know when youíre done? Do you constantly revise or edit?
Well, one thing is when I get bored with it, then I think to myself, thatís enough, mate. But you can always tinker with these things. And if I have time, Iíll get to the point where itís almost done and Iíll leave it, then come back to it later with fresh ears. Very often the process is more about combing out stuff than putting it in.
Do these ideas ever come to you fully formed?
In the jazz form youíre dealing with a sequence and sometimes Iíll get that. But if you want to turn it into a composition, thereís more to develop it. So up to a point, I can get a vision of what it might be. Thereís an architectural feeling about a composition, but I donít think I know what it is until I hear and see it.
Are you ever tempted to go back later and revise a work?
Iíve got boxes full of bits and pieces, which are the first source when it comes to writing the new thingóunfinished ideas, little bits that donít seem to go anywhere, or things that were tossed away are all source material. So if Iím thinking, 'what the hell am I going to write now?,' Iíll dig around in the box. Iím a great keeper of scraps of paper from 40 years.
Do you ever hear music in your dreams?
I donít really remember dreams very much except the horror things that wake me up in the middle of the night, like youíve got to the gig and thereís no mouthpiece in your saxophone case.
Has that ever happened?
Not yet. But last night my baritone broke in the middle of the first set. These nightmares can occur. It was a rod that broke loose and a whole stack of keys lifted. So nothing would close from halfway down. Luckily my son was there and he plays the saxophone and discovered what the problem was. Happily, I had another instrument [soprano saxophone] with me.
Whatís your general attitude towards practice?
It used to be very casual. When I was starting to play I rarely practiced. But thatís because I was playing all the time. If there were any places to play, Iíd go there. But I find that I work out on the horns more than I used to. Itís a physical thing. When youíre in you 60s, your body doesnít repair as easily. So if Iím out of practice in the embouchure, and if I have to play with powerful players seven or eight nights in a row and Iím not prepared, then Iíll be dealing with cuts and blood. So itís a physical thing now.
Is there a British style of jazz?
I honestly donít know. Iíve always felt that jazz, in a way, is about individuals. Let me try to codify this, because this question comes up fairly frequently. Letís not be surprised that there are different styles. But most of the younger generation players that I hear now are really playing retro jazz from different eras, so I donít hear a particular British-ness about it. I suspect that for players like John and maybe even Jack, the broadness of the scope of the European scene has enabled them to spread their wings. Maybe the openness of the European scene has been helpful to those American musicians who wanted to expand their horizons. Talking to my son, whoís a sound engineer for Scofield and works a lot in America, he thinks that American audiences tend to be a bit more conservative. Jazz is a little more in a box here. He thinks thereís more of a broader range in Europe. I donít really know if thereís a British school. But I grew up on the English national songbook before I got into this fantastic American art form. And it was jazz music that liberated me, that gave me a wonderful opportunity to make music. So I think Iím a jazz musician, not a British jazz musician. I just play.
In what way did jazz liberate you?
A musical career in classical music would have been a straitjacket for me. But this gave me an opportunity to break all the rules and do all the things you werenít supposed to do in music. It was jazz that gave this fantastic chance to find my own music. And it gave me a chance to be a composer, although I hate the word.
To me, Stravinsky is a composer. Bartok is a composer, not me.
Do you think it is human nature to break rules or to follow them?
[long pause] Thatís a bloody good question. I honestly donít know. Christ. I suppose when itís convenient we follow the rules but if we donít like them we break them [laughs]. Itís a blend. Sometimes I find that the rules are there for a damn good reason. They make living life possibleócertain rules, if you know what I mean. They save you a lot of time.
Youíve worked as both leader and sideman. What do you think makes a good leader?
I think vision and understanding of the people youíre working with. People like Gil [Evans], who I admired and had a wonderful time with, for me it wasnít what he did on the bandstand, it was just that feeling of excitement that everyone had when Gil came because you respected Gil. If someone lost his wallet, Gil was the first one to reach into his pocket for money to help out. He looked after the musicians. He had a sense for who they were and he gave them the freedom to be themselves, and he also had a paternal thing about him too. There are others whoíve ruled with a rod of iron, but the ones that I enjoyed working with were compassionate people.
And how would you describe your style of leading?
Loose [laughter]. I just try and lead by example.
Is there enough work for you?
Iím happy to say there is. Iíve never had a problem about work, but Iíve never wanted to work all the time. Iím not that kind of person. Iím not a workaholic at all. I find that I refresh better with breaks. I donít like being on the road all the time. I did a lot of it when I was younger, touring in Europe constantly starting in the mid-'60s, and then the '70s with the Paris Opera working in music and dance. Into the Ď80s I did tours with Miroslav [Vitous] and Paul Bley. But now being on the road is harder, especially flying with your instruments and having them damaged.
Your record came out but youíre only doing two hits here in the U.S., in Washington and New York.
There are two issues there. First, Jack, John and Drew are busy. And I never intended for this to be a working band, not at all. Iím absolutely amazed that weíre doing these gigs. I thought weíd make the album and then do something at the London Jazz Festival. But to work like this with this quartet is a surprise.
Several times youíve talked about how your music doesnít always fit into a box. How have you resisted the temptation to conform, to fit yourself into a box? Wouldnít it have been much easier?
Yeah, it would. There are so many terrible moves Iíve made, like with synthesizers.
Why was that a terrible move?
Because at the time I did it, the jazz people, particularly in Europe, didnít want to know about synthesizers and electronics. That wasnít the thing at the time. The pure jazz was acoustic. But I liked synthesizers and still do. Itís just another instrument. It would have been easier to conform but it wouldnít have been as much fun. For me, if I stop enjoying this music, Iíll go and teach school or dig a garden or get a farming job. The music means a lot to me. I feel something when I play and I want to keep it that way. I donít want to be dead inside and play music and be forced to do something I donít want to do. Iíve been blessed because Iíve survived. And part of the reason Iíve survived is because Iím reasonably versatile. Iím not a bad reader, and I can hack it as a baritone player in a band. I play a variety of instruments and I can be part of ensembles that play Dowland and Medieval music. And I can be part of the Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland project because Iím interested in Middle Eastern music. And I play bass clarinet, which fits into all sorts of weird music, so I think versatility helps. And I can write.
As a musician and composer, how do you measure the success of your work?
I measure my success by the fact that Iím still invited to play with some fantastic musicians. And they seem to get on with me.
Larry Appelbaum spoke with John Surman on Aug. 29, 2009.
September 22, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
By his own account, Roy Hargrove spends about two-thirds of his time on the road. Such was the case this past summer, when in a period of seven weeks he toured all three of his bands: his quintet and big bandóboth devoted to hardcore jazzóand his crossover unit, the R.H. Factor. Back home in New York for a few days, Hargrove was decompressing, relaxing in the daytime, and spending his nights jamming at various New York venues: Smalls, Fat Cat, and the Zinc Bar in Manhattan, and Frankís Place in Brooklyn. Still, as busy as he is, the 39-year-old trumpeter, resplendent in a pink-check jacket, shorts, and a narrow-brimmed hat, strolled into the Jazz Gallery this hot afternoon exactly on time for a discussion framed around his new recording, Emergence [EmArcy], his first with the big band.
In point of fact, Hargrove's projection of an old-school attitude toward road-warriorship, song interpretation, blues feeling, and swingówhile simultaneously tuning-in to the popular music of his time on its own termsómay be singular among hardcore mainstream-oriented jazz folk of his age group. Which of Hargroveís peers of comparable visibility would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devotes to the various ensembles that he leads? Which other highly-trained post-Boomer would deliver a lyric like "September In The Rain," a staple of Hargroveís sets for at least a decade, with as much brio as Hargrove projects when uncorking cogent, thrilling solos on structures ranging from bebop to post-Woody Shaw harmonic structures? Indeed, in his ability to blend the high arts of improvisation and entertainment with equal conviction, Hargrove is a true descendent of such iconic elders as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly.
How does the big band sound now compared to when you did the record, after playing quite a number of gigs over the last year?
Itís really tight. Iím trying to get them to the point where they have the music memorized, and donít have to use the written music any moreóbeing able to play by ear is so important. When I played with Slide Hampton and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I tried to memorize the parts so that I could pay attention to everything thatís going on with the conducting, with the dynamics, and try to make it very musical. Itís getting close.
How big is the book? There are 11 tunes on the recording?
Thereís probably 30 songs or so.
In the program notes, you stated. 'I always wanted to work in a big band format. The sound is so full and rich, and it provides opportunity for congregation, which is much needed among todayís younger musicians, most of who have come of age in small group settings. Iím also thankful for the opportunity to exercise my compositional and arranging skills. Music is such a vast world, and I intend to explore every avenue possible. The cast of players on this project are all guys I met in school and on various gigs and jam sessions over the last twenty-odd years. I think we all share a strong passion for music that comes from the heart.'
Two themes arise which are a common thread in your career. One is this notion of congregation, communication through music, speaking across generations and styles. Also curiosity, hunger for information. I can recall watching you as a young guy getting your butt kicked by the elders at Bradleyís, and not being daunted or fazed, but taking it in a constructive way and coming back for more.
Now, in the liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that the first day he met you, you told him that to have a big band was an aspiration. You were always interested in that notion?
Yes. I always watched Dizzyís big band on video, and it was very inspirational to me. When I started to embrace playing jazz as a teenager, the big band format was my training ground, in learning how to read, and learning how to play in a section in a group. For me, itís kind of going backward. Earlier, there were big bands and then they went to the small groups; now itís small groups, and Iím trying to bring back the big band thing.
I believe itís really important that we all have to know each other when we play together. Most big bands, if itís a great ensemble, the soloists are okóthey have one or two. But this group is a band full of soloists, so itís challenging for me to try to bring them all together and have them play where the entire ensemble is thinking in the same direction, with tight cutoffs and everybody breathing at the same timeóthe things that normal big bands do. A few guys work in the Broadway shows, so they have a lot of experience ... everythingís by the numbers. So thereís a balance between discipline and at the same time keeping it very loose and spontaneous.
You just mentioned that watching videos of Dizzy Gillespieís big band was an early influence.
Yes. The way Dizzy conducted the band, and the way he seemed to have so much funóand they were having fun. This was inspirational to me, and I wanted to have a group like that.
Playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band over the last number of years has probably been a great training ground in putting together your own group.
Oh, itís been great. Especially playing in the trumpet section there, playing the third trumpet part on Slideís arrangements. The third trumpet part is a kind of focal point within the band, because you get to hear all the different ensemble parts written around the voicings. A lot of times, the third trumpet part, or even the third trombone part, has special notes that make the chord grow. Iím a sponge, listening to everything and taking it all in. It just gives me more information to transfer along to the group.
The program of Emergence contains many flavorsóLatin, straight ballads, you sing a bit, exploratory pieces arranged by Gerald Clayton and Frank Lacy. But somehow, the template seems rooted in the mid-Ď50s Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; the Ernie Wilkins-Quincy Jones synthesis of Dizzy and the Basie New Testament band, seems to be a jumping off point for the feeling you have in mind
Itís a nice blend of art and entertainment.
I think that musicians should always have fun when they play. Sometimes it gets too serious. Thatís just my opinion. When we play, it has to be tight, but at the same time I like to have the freedom to go outside of the box a little bit.
Talk about the process of recruiting this band.
Now, thatís difficult. With a big band, thereís hardly ever any money to pay guys, so itís hard to get cats to be available.
It started off as a sort of Monday workshop thing, as often happens around New York ...
Actually, the first hit was about 15 years ago, in Washington Square Park, where I was able to pull together a kind of all-star thing, with Jesse Davis and Frank Lacy, and even Jerry Gonzalez in the bandóJerry was playing fourth trumpet and percussion! I was able to do that first hit because the Panasonic Jazz Festival, which was running the event, paid us enough that I could give each one of those guys a grand or something. They were excited. 'Ok! You got some more gigs?' But at the same time, throughout the process, the music grabbed them, too, and here it is, fifteen years later, weíve brought it back, and everybody seemed to want to be part of it.
The other thing is that there arenít really any gigs out there, and there're a lot of musicians. People want to play. So it wasnít that difficult to find musicians to be in the group. But itís always a different gauge to try to find people who are available. For example, we did a few things here at the Jazz Gallery, and I was trying to find trumpet players. We shifted around a few different people, but we finally got what seemed to be a lineup of ringersóTania Darby, Frank Green, Greg Gisbert are all very good lead players, too, and Darren Barrett, who I went to Berklee with, is a great soloistóClifford Brown-Donald Byrd stuff. I guess finding the trumpet section was the hardest part; for a while, we had some mishaps. But we managed to pull it together.
Iím always at jam sessions, like I was last night, so Iím always running into musicians. I just go into my mental rolodex and pull out the people I know.
It takes time to accumulate a book. How did you accumulate repertoire?
I arranged a few of my songs for it, just to begin, then I told the cats, 'If you want to write something, bring it in.' For this album, I asked Saul Rubin to write the arrangement on 'Every Time We Say Goodbye,' and I had written 'Tchipiso' and asked Gerald Clayton to do the arrangement. Then, of course, thereís our theme song, 'Requiem,' by Frank Lacy, which weíve been playing. Thatís the chop-buster for the whole band; they like to play it, but itís kind of difficult. Itís very powerfully arranged.
I try to include the music that I learned when I came to New York, from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Larry Willis... Right now, a friend of mine is working on an arrangement for Hicksí 'After the Morning,' which we used to play at Bradleyís all the time. My premise is to try to pass down the information I picked up from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan and Idris Muhammad when I started cutting my teeth in jazz.
Apart from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, what other big bands have you been part of after high school?
I think thatís the only group Iíve actually played in. Iíve sat in with a few, played with some large ensembles here and there, but not anything that happened more than once.
Playing in big bands was a rite of passage for many of the older musicians who were your heroes, who came up before 1955-1960.
Thatís why I think the music needs this. It creates some kind of humility. Itís very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! Iíll give you an example. Weíll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. Thereís no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you donít have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody canít be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! Thereís something to be said about being able to trim it downósay less but have it have more meaning.
Is that something you learned early on, playing in your high school big band?
No, I didnít learn that early on. Iím still trying to learn that!
Itís a quality that you aspire to.
Yes, I aspire to it. Sometimes, you have to make the amount of music that is just enough. You donít have to overcrowd it.
How do you see this band vis-a-vis other contemporary big bands? It isnít as though the scene is totally devoid of big bands, though there arenít so many that work steadily.
Yes, there arenít that many.
Maria Schneider, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Carla Bley ...
My group is not quite that streamlined. Iím still trying to get it to that point. My group is filled with hooligans.
No hooligans in those other bands?
No hooligans over there. Thereís plenty in my group, though. My vision of that just seems like thereís those groups, and theyíre all very clean-cut and organized, and then thereís my group, which is complete chaos. A lot of characters. Itís never a dull moment around those guys. When weíre hanging or traveling on the train, all I have to do is go around them, and itís entertainment all day.
Does the composition of the band somehow reflect your personality?
Maybe so. Iíve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, probably.
So youíre talking about camaraderie and the jazz culture. This band evolved through this location, the Jazz Gallery, which has served over its decade-plus ...
As a breeding ground.
... as a breeding ground and also a kind of communal space for a lot of young musicians from many different communities.
Talk a bit about the interface between the Jazz Gallery and the evolution of this project. Your quintet identity was already long-developed, but the big band identity not so much.
I have to give it up to Dale Fitzgerald, because it was his idea to bring this back into the picture. The first gig we did here at Jazz Gallery, people got really excited. That got the ball rolling. Then I got excited about it. I figured, well, itís been over ten years; we might as well record the thing now, try to take it out on the road. I guess thatís an uphill battle, considering the economy and everything else going on right now. But still, I think itís very needed. The kind of conversation youíll get with it is worth more than money. To me. Because it would help if we can feed jazz with something fresh. Itís difficult right now. People donít want to swing any more. That dance element is getting buried, more and more and more. Itís got this esoteric sound. People want to be so hip. They want to create the new thing. But the new thing, to me, is the dance. Theyíve buried that. I like hearing drummers when they play the ride cymbal. You canít get drummers to play the ride cymbal any more. Theyíre always playing like a drum solo throughout the whole song. The ride cymbal, that is your beat. Thatís your identity. The way the bass and the drums sound together is a big deal. People just forget about that. Everybodyís on their own program. Thatís why Iím doing this whole big band thing. Thatís why Iím doing all three bands. Instead of music just being in the background, music should be like therapy for people. When you go to hear music, you should feel better when you leave. Like youíve been to the doctor and he heals you.
Another flavor of this band which also hearkens to Dizzy Gillespie is your embrace of Afro-Cuban rhythms on several pieces. Two things come to mind. One is that the Jazz Gallery has been an incubator for some of the most creative Cuban jazz musicians of this period ... including some of the more esoteric ones.
But then also, itís the place where Chucho Valdes entered the New York picture during the Ď90s, and the venue where you first touched base with him and gestated Crisol. Letís talk about Afro-Cuban rhythms and how they fit into your notions about swing.
It goes back to the dance thing. When I went to Cuba the first time in Ď96, they was partying in there! Hereís people who donít have anything, they canít even go to the store and buy orange juice. Youíve got to go to somebodyís house to buy beer, or something to drink. They donít even have their own bathrooms. Itís crazy. But when they party, when the music starts, itís like a festival. They really know how to get down. This inspired me ... the possibilities exploded in my head. I owe so much to Chucho for turning me on to that world. Before that, I had no idea. Not really. Not like that, before I went down there and saw it for myself. The level of virtuosity with the musicians in Cuba is out of this world! One guy would have five different facets in his realm. For instance, you might have a trumpet player who plays congas and is also a visual artist who can dance.
When I hung out with Anga and Changuito, playing with these guys, even though they didnít speak English, I was still able to communicate with them through the music, and they showed me so many things. They showed me how to play the different rhythms based on the clave, things that inspired me .... But I didnít really get to dive into it on this album the way I wanted to. We had one percussionist. I wanted to do a bunch of overdubs, but we didnít have time to get into it the way I really wanted on the big band thing. Thereís still some music floating around from the Crisol era that hasnít been released.
Did the Cuban experience have an impact on your improvising style, on the way you phrase? Is it something you can dip into, go out of? How does it play out for you?
Just being around those guys, I soaked in some of that. Iíve always been into rhythm and movement. When I play, Iím trying to be a part of the dance. I want the music to go into your body, the way you feel where you have to tap your foot and snap your finger, or move your head, or something. Hanging out with those guys strengthened that feeling, made it more prevalent. When I play, Iím thinking about the drums the whole time, and trying to sit in to the rhythm of whatever the drummer is doing. I pay attention to the drummer always. If the drummer isnít really happening, then I canít really play. Sometimes I can, but most of the time itís a struggle if at least the time is not steady.
So it isnít so much the style or whether theyíre playing swing or straight eighth thatís important, but the quality of the beats. Or is that not the case?
Itís a combination of things. Itís the steadiness of the beat and also the way it feels, like if it has an oomph behind it as opposed to it being very quiet, subdued. I prefer to play with a lot of energy. Thatís why I liked having all those drums when we were doing the Latin project, because it inspires me to play with energy and force. Drums and brass just go together.
Letís segue to the R.H. Factor project, which is a much more explicit manifestation of your dance orientation.
In the beginning, I started off trying to do a tribute .... My father was a record collector. He had foresight. People used to come to our house to see what we had, so they could go and buy it. They wanted to know what the new thing was going to be, because my father would have it.
So whatever Roy Allen Hargrove was getting, thatís what ...
Yeah, they used to come to our house to see what he had in his collection. Every weekend, my dad would buy two or three records, and come back home, and then two weeks later it would be a hit. He just bought what he liked, but apparently that would be what everybody else liked, tooóbut later. I lost him in Ď95. So I wanted to do a tribute to him in a way that ... He always said to me, 'I like the jazz, but when are you going to do something a little bit more contemporary, something funky?' Iíd say, 'Iím getting to it.' He got out of here before I could do it. So I began to collect all of these recordings from my memory, out of what I knew he had. I would go out and get Herbie Hancock with Headhunters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and George Clintonójust reeducating myself. Iíd always been doing little home recordings of my own original music, and I decided to take a few of them out of the archives and transfer it into a live setting, which was the beginning of R.H. Factor. We went into Electric Lady Studio for two weeks. Once the word got out that I was doing something different, all the musicians in New York started coming through!
A lot of musicians.
A lot! Iím saying every day it was somebody new. Itís funny how the world is small. When the word gets out, it gets out. You know how that is, here in New York. We were at Electric Lady, and the first day I couldnít find anybody. Nobody was around. I didnít have a bass player, no drummer, no nothing. It was just me and Marc Cary, trying to get it started. We had Jason Olaine calling around, trying to find us a bass player. Finally, Meshell Ndegeocello popped up and brought her drummer, Gene Lake, and thatís how we got startedóand the whirlwind of creativity began at that point. For two weeks, cats were just coming ... even Steve Coleman came by one day. There were some people who I actually called to come through, more mainstream entertainers like Q-Tip and DíAngelo and Common, Erykah Badu. These are my friends. It was a little bit difficult to get them, but they still came through. The only problem was that the budget spiraled out of control, because there were so many musicians, and they had to pay all of them. But that first one, once it got off the ground, was a lot of fun to do. I had Bernard Wright there, and my homeboys from TexasóKeith Anderson, Bobby Sparks, and Jason Thomas. Thatís the nucleus of what was going on.
Just let me interrupt momentarily. Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, DíAngelo, Common, were all people youíd come to know during the Ď90s. Now, youíre best known as the leader of a hardcore jazz quintet playing swing, in a milieu where the jazz police are serious.
Mmm-hmm. But I never paid attention to that.
Well, you mentioned your fatherís question, 'when are you going to play something more contemporary?' That made me wonder whether there was a tipping point where you decided ...
No-no. I never was satisfied with just staying in one place with music. I get bored. I always try to keep it rounded. When I was in school at Berklee, people thought I was strange because I would hang out with the jazz guys and the R&B cats, and then just sit there and listen to the gospel choir, saying, 'they donít understand.' Because there especially I met people who got into their locked-in things. Youíve got the guys that just play like Bird, then ones that just play like Coltrane. You got the guys who are strictly R&B, and they think the jazz guys are stuck up. You got the jazz guys who think the R&B guys are ignorant and canít play changes. I never really sank my teeth into being in one of those groups. When I started recording professionally, I chose to do straight-ahead jazz, because thatís where my development was at the time, and I was trying to learn how to do it. I thought there was enough people trying to rap and do all that other stuff. There was enough of that at the time! Iím fascinated by Clifford, Fats Navarro, and these guys who were like institutions.
It was high art.
Yeah. Iím fascinated by that. Once I got locked on to that, I couldnít stop. For me, itís a blessing to be able to record jazz in this day and age. So I just went with that. But then, when it came time ... Actually, it was really difficult for me to try to branch out and do something that wasnít jazz. When I make a jazz recording, no one says anything. Theyíre just like, 'Ok, take three. Thank you.' Or 'maybe we need another one, just for safety.' But then, when I started branching out into something else, everybody had an opinion. Everybody wanted to try to tell me how to write the songs, how to arrange the songs, do this, do that, 'youíve gotta get this singer, youíve gotta get that one.' Everybody became an authority. People in the jazz world, they all think, 'Heís a bebopper, he doesnít know what heís doing; he canít play that.' But Iím from the generation that hip-hop came from, so itís going to come out of me, too. I mean, my favorite group was Run-DMC when I was like 13 and 14. I actually bought Kurtis Blowís first album.
Did your father like hip-hop?
He had one song he liked, 'The Message' by Grandfather Flash. 'Donít push me, Ďcause Iím close ...'
In his very warm liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that you started playing in an elementary school jazz ensemble in Dallas. Then people started hearing about you when you were 14-15, when you attended Booker T. Washington High School, which had a distinguished lineage stretching back to the Ď40s and Ď50s. During that time, were you working outside school? Blues bands, R&B bands, church situations?
Yeah. Once I got hit by the music bug, I couldnít stop. I wanted to do it all the time. They had to pull me out of the band room. I was the first one there, and always the last to leave. Iíd stay there until 5 or 6 oíclock in the evening, because I loved it so much. It was also a kind of deterrent from being in the streets. People talk about South Central L.A., but South Dallas is no joke! Erykah is from South Dallas. We went to high school together. Yeah, people donít talk about South Dallas. If you picture the ghetto in South Central L.A., or Compton, which they glamorize on TV and have the gangs ... Just imagine ten times that. Itís so bad, they canít even show it on TV. You go to Texas, and the ghetto is crazy. People are just crazy for no reason! I grew up around that in the 1980s, the late Ď80s, when a lot of gangs were beginning, and there was a lot of crack. One time my father told me I couldnít go outside after 6 oíclock. So being around all that ... having music really helped. Having something to do to keep me out of the streets. Otherwise, it might have been trouble. Iím thankful for that.
Did the idea of having a distinguishing voice on the trumpet come to you pretty early? Were you modeling yourself after the cats you were listening to? Did it just naturally come forth somehow?
Being in Texas, you hear blues all the time. Blues all the time. People love to listen to the blues. Every Sunday, my father and his friends would get together and play dominos, and put on Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, and listen to the blues. My grandmother and my aunts and all of them had 8-track tapes of Tyrone Davis. A lot of blues. So the blues gets in there. So when I first started learning how to improvise and took my first solo, it was based on playing the blues. My band director showed me a couple of licks ... I guess coming up in church, you learn how to project yourself emotionally through your instrument, if you play an instrument, or if you singówhatever you do. Texas is the Bible Belt. People know what that is when you go to church, and somebody sings a solo. That becomes a part of you. My grandmother put that in me when I was little. My spirituality has always been what keeps me going. Thatís what is coming through.
It wasnít until I was a teenager that I started to hear people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now, hearing Freddie Hubbard pretty much turned my whole life around. Clifford Brown at first, because I had never really heard jazz trumpet like that. Cliffordís technique was so good that it sounded like he wasnít even playing trumpet any more. It went into like a woodwind sound almost, as though he had practiced so much and got so good that his sound went past being just a trumpetóit was just music. But then, Freddie Hubbard really got me, because he had a contemporary thing in his soundóit reached back to cats like Clifford and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, but it also had a thing from my fatherís generation, from the Ď70s. I could definitely latch onto that, especially the way he played ballads. I always liked his ballad playing. Just ballads in general. I like to play the slow songs.
So I started from blues, and then I started learning bebop when I came to New York.
That was right after high school?
Well, I was in Boston for a couple of years.
Didnít you come to New York before you went to Boston?
Well, yes, I actually did, once. But it was for a competition. I was still in high school. I didnít really leave the hotel.
But before you came to Boston and New York, there were a couple of national figures who entered the picture for you a little bit, right?
Yes. Clark Terry and Wynton. When I sat in with Wynton that first time, I was really nervous. But I thought, 'Ok, youíve got to step up to the plate now; youíve got to deliver.' I wasnít afraid, but at the same time I was really nervous.
Is stepping up to the plate something innate in you?
Iíve always enjoyed when people enjoy. When Iím playing and someone is feeling good from that, Iíve liked it, ever since I was little, when I first started. When I play a few notes and somebody goes, 'Yeah!' Iím like, 'ok, yeah, I want to do that every time.' so yeah, step up to the plate, make it happen.
Back to R.H. Factor and the first record that came out with Common, Q-Tip, and artists like this, what was their sense of you as an instrumentalist? Were they thinking of you as a jazz player? As a common spirit? Apart from the friendship and the collegiality, what was the artistic relationship like?
Like Herbie always says, 'Iím a human being first, and a musician second.' I guess thereís something to be said for a doctor with a bedside manner. You have to know how to deal with people. So when I go to the more mainstream artists, I switch the way I work with them as opposed to when I work with the jazz players. In some cases, theyíre used to special treatment, and you canít be so technical.
Give me a concrete example.
For instance, with Q-Tip, I put him in the booth and let him write to the track, and just have the first 8 bars, or something like that, keep looping over and over. For about an hour I left him in there by himself. He wrote to the track, then we went back in and cut it, and he did it first take.
But thereís no formula. Itís different with each person. It depends on their personality. With Common it was a little different. He and Erykah were dating at the time, so I had to pull him out of the studio. Finally, I got him out of there at 5 a.m. or something, and he came down. He didnít even write anything. He just improvised his thing, which was one take. I couldnít believe he did it in one, so I was like, 'Can you do that again?'óand he did it again! It was great. But then I went through all of this crap with his manager, because he didnít like the improvised thing. He wanted him to write something. Iím like, 'You donít understand whatís going on. I wanted it to be improvised.'
Does this emphasis on bedside manner represent your attitude as a bandleader in all the different situations?
Definitely. It takes patience and forward thinking. You always have to be thinking for the other guy, thinking what heís going to do. Is he going to miss that note? Ok, is he going to come in? Iíve got to count him in. Itís like a juggling act sometimes, trying to ... well, not really like a juggling act; Iíll take that back. What I mean is, you have to think forward, think ahead. With the big band especiallyóconducting and bringing in all the different sections and whatnotóyou have to always be at least two bars ahead.
I guess you have to be like when youíre leading the small band, too, keeping the crowd in mind, what to play at what timeógauging all those dynamics.
I mean, itís not that much different from the small group to the big groups. I think that, in a way, the approach should be kind of the same. With the small group, sometimes we play the big band arrangements, pared down, which is exciting for them.
A different flavor. Changes things up.
Changes things up, yes.
So you hit New York in 1990 after two years at Berklee. Was being there helpful to you?
Yeah, definitely. Billy Pierce was there. I did my first couple of gigs with James Williams while I was there. Greg Hopkins, too. At Berklee, I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Ensemble, which is how I learned a lot of that book. Greg had some of the same arrangements, so when I got in the band with Slide, I had played a lot of the arrangements before. That helped me professionally. I already had some training, and I got a lot there, too, though I wasnít there very long. Not just from being in the school, but from being on the streets. Going to Wallyís every night. I heard a lot of great music there, and I got to know some great musicians as well, like Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Delfeayo Marsalis .... Being away from Texas was a culture shock for me, but also very enriching as far as my education in jazz.
Then you get to New York...
Then it got really deep! While I was at Berklee, I was starting to learn a little bit of some bebop, but I was really just trying to learn how to read chord changes. Iíve always played by ear, from when I first started. The first trumpet player got mad at me, because I would play his part, but Iíd be down at the third trumpet!
I think the ear training is such a big deal, though, especially now. Weíre in the information age, and you can get everything at the push of a button. So musicians have to be very complete. You have to be not only good readers and be up on the technical side of playing music, but also be able to play what you hear. Thatís sometimes lacking. I know a lot of musicians who can read flyshit, but if you whistle something to them, they canít play it. Ear training is a big deal.
Anyway, it got deep when I got to New York. I started sitting in with people like John Hicks. I followed John Hicks around New York for a while.
Letís paint a picture. You were around 19-20, and spending a lot of time at Bradleyís, both playing bookings and sitting in. You were playing with Hicks, and you were playing with Larry Willis, and the musicians who play on the record, Family... I personally remember an occasion when you were sitting in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr. on the second set, they kicked your ass, and then you came back on the last set and hung right in there. I saw similar situations transpire several times. Itís kind of an old-school way of learning, but I think it says something fundamental about you.
Iím very thankful, because people like George Coleman and Walter Davis taught us how to be men on the bandstandóhow to be grownups. I never will forget that same night you mention, when I was playing with George and we went through the keys on 'Cherokee,' which was like a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm. Then we played 'Body and Soul,' and he started changing up the metersóhe played in 3 and then in 5, and then BLAM, really fast. [LAUGHS] Then he turns around to me and goes, 'You got it.' I go, 'ok. What am I going to do after all of that?' But I stuck to my guns and tried to ride it out. Man, they were so helpful to me.
Thatís why I think we just need something now. Musicians need role models, something so that they can see how itís done. Iíd glad I got a chance to see it in person. Bradleyís was an institution, to me. It was like going to school. It was like your Masters. You go in there, and youíre playing, and then thereís Freddie Hubbard at the bar! What do you do? This is very humbling. Everything Iím playing right now I owe to that whole scene.
Before I interrupted, you mentioned following John Hicks around the city, and you remarked earlier youíve commissioned an arrangement of his piece 'After the Morning' for the big band. Hicks was a musician who is underappreciated in the broader scheme of things in jazz ...
Yeah, but he was a true musician's musician. My manager, Larry Clothier, told me about John in the beginning. He said, 'Youíve got to hear him; he elevates off the piano. Really. He starts levitating.' When I saw him the first time, it happened! I was like, 'whoa!' So I latched on to John, and he was like my uncle. He was like family to me. His music was an influence. I was influenced by a lot of pianists as far as how I write and my approach to harmony. Thereís John Hicks, then also Larry Willis, then also Ronnie Matthews, Kenny Barron, tooóand James Williams, of course.
My writing was influenced mostly by James Williams and John Hicks, the use of the major seventh-sharp 11th chord. That was my favorite chord when I was in college, and I used to use it on a lot of songs. They showed me how to use that chord, and make it very melodic. Sometimes the guys in my band would get tired, because I would write them like in parallel ... 'Man, you got some more major seventh-sharp eleventh chords?' A lot of my tunes had inflections from John or James or even Larry Willis, and they still do today.
One thing that I think shone through at Bradleyís was your ability to play a ballad. At 19 you could have been called an 'old soul,' but we canít really say that now, since youíre turning 40 this year.
I think thatís just my upbringing. Iíve always gravitated towards the slower songs. Ballads have an emotional quality to me. You slow it down, and you hear everything, all the nuances .... Maybe Iím a romantic as well. I guess I believe in love! I like the slow songs. I like when itís broken down. Sometimes thatís where the beauty is, when you bring it in the slow tempo. And I always listened to singers. Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan is my favorite. Of course, I owe a lot to Carmen McRae. I got to hear her live a lot, and she used to let me sit in with her all the time. Her delivery ... I heard Freddy Cole at Bradleyís as well.
Thereís a vocal element in my music. I try to play like a singer. I try to sing through my instrument like a vocalist would sing. Iím always thinking about the lyrics. I was told by Clifford Jordan that you have to know the words of the song, because then you really understand what itís about, and when you play the melody you really understand the mood youíre projecting. Also, it helps your phrasing.
It sounds like there was never any generation gap for you.
Man, I have extreme respect for my elders. I believe in that. Somebody whoís been on this planet longer than me, I have to respect them. Even if theyíre dead wrong, Iíve still got to respect them! Thereís something to be said about the fact that theyíve been here longer than me, and theyíve survived. When it comes to musicians, it even gets deeper.
Another thing thatís interesting about how Bradleyís played out for you is that, because your business arrangements turned you into a leader quite quickly, it became the primary venue for your apprenticeship. You never did the sideman thing too much, if I recall correctly.
No, youíre wrong about that. I did a lot of sideman things, but it wasnít anything steady. I started off playing with Frank Morgan and the Ronnie Matthews Trio, and it went from there to Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, and Vernell Fournier, and then Charles McPherson.
Were these one-offs or were you touring with them?
I was touring with them. I would do a week here, two weeks there with different groups. Most of them were veterans, with me, the young kid, as the special guest. They were so encouraging. Whenever I showed up on the scene with my trumpet, the older guys, like Clifford Jordan, would be like, 'Man, come on and play.' Nowadays, people get very protective over the bandstand. You want to go sit in with them, itís like 2 oíclock in the morning, and they say, 'Weíre going to play a few songs, and then weíll invite you up.' You canít do that at 2 oíclock in the morning, man! Itís too late for all of that. Letís have some fun! But people get very protective. I think the reason is because thereís no gigs. That creates a thing where when somebody gets a gig, even if itís 2 oíclock in the morning, they want to play all their original shit and they want to speak their piece.
But the older cats were very welcoming, even though I couldnít really even play changes that well. 'Hey, come on and play.' Sometimes, when I didnít want to play, theyíd be like, 'Get on up here.' Like, Kenny Washington one night, we were at Bradleyís, and he was playing some fast, crazy tempo. Kenny was known for playing 220! I went to go sit down, and he was like, 'Unh-uh, come back up here.' [LAUGHS] He wouldnít let me go. 'Yeah, youíre getting some of this, too.'
But even if my premise is wrong that you didnít do so much sidemanning, pretty much you were leading groups from ...
I didnít have my own quintet until Ď93-Ď94, with Greg Hutchinson, Marc Cary, Rodney Whitaker, and Antonio Hart. I tried to create a couple of bands before that, but nothing really stuck. I had different projects. I had one group with Walter Blanding, Chris McBride and Eric McPherson early on
Iíd like to talk about your development as a trumpet player over the years. What your weaknesses were, how you worked on them.
Trumpet is a beast! When I was in high school, Wynton referred me to a guy named Kerry Kent Hughes, who was a trumpet professor at Texas Christian University. He was my very first private instructor on that level. Iíd been studying at school, and pretty much teaching myself, for the most part. This was the first time I actually had someone who would come to my house and work with me. Man, I learned so much. I couldnít pay him. We were poor. But he did this out of his heart. He was a classical player, but he also did musicals and shows and so on, and he was very versatile. Actually, he came to the Vanguard the last time we played there, and it blew my mind, because I hadnít seen him in so long. But Kerry Hughes would come to my house every week or so, and show me little things to help me with endurance. We worked on Cichowicz flow studies and stuff like that, and also the Arban method. This really instilled in me the importance of an everyday routine on the trumpet, certain rudimental things that you do just to keep your chops up. With a hectic schedule and touring when you have to go to the airport and so on, you donít get a lot of opportunities to practice, so you have to develop a daily routine to keep your chops up. I learned a lot from him in that respect.
Iíve picked up things as I go. A few years ago, I learned something called the Whisper Tone that really opened me up, helped my range a lot, helped me to be able to play more around the horn. Iím still developing, trying to learn as much as I can about the trumpet. Itís a beast. Dizzy says, 'It lays there in luxury, waiting for someone to pick it up, so it can mess up your head.' [LAUGHS]
Dizzy Gillespie sure messed up the heads of a lot of people. You donít hear too many who can emulate him.
I was just listening to something last night, 'Birks Works' with Milt Jackson.
At what point do you feel you got past influences?
Iím still not. Iím still there.
Were you transcribing trumpeters? Were you doing it more by feel?
When I was at Berklee, I had to transcribe some Fats Navarro. Jeff Stout was my teacher, and he had me transcribe a couple of Fats Navarro solos. But I never got into transcription as far as writing it down. I donít think that you get much from that. Itís better if you transcribe by ear and learn it, because some things you canít really write down all the wayócertain inflections and the feel that comes from someoneís conception. But I transcribe a lot by ear, not even really trying to. If I hear something more than three times, Iíve pretty much got it memorized.
Thatís a gift, to be able to do that.
Yes, I think so. Thank God for that. But itís also training. Because if you listen to music all the time, which I do, then it becomes part of you. It becomes part of your breathing. Itís just like drinking water or eating. I listen to music all the time. Even when Iím not listening, itís still in my head.
So the quintet is your longest continuous entity.
Yeah, I like the quintet format. It has everything there. I have tried some other formats, though. Thatís why I like coming to the Jazz Gallery to play, because I get to do other thingsólike the organ trio is fun.
Youíve also paired off with other trumpeters on various gigs here. Back to the notion of camaraderie and collegiality, it seems that you like to have another voice to play off of.
Yes, I like it.
It doesnít seem that quartet would be your favorite format.
Well, it depends. With quartet, I would probably play more ballads. But itís hard to play ballads now, because the young guys donít know the American Songbook. They donít know the songs. Itís difficult. I go to jam sessions a lot, and when I start calling tunes, nobody knows anything. You either get 'Beatrice' or 'Inner Urge.' Thatís it!
Gerald Clayton, who was your pianist for several years, has command of that ...
He does. He knows the language of it. If he doesnít know the tune, he can figure it out. For his generation, heís one of the better ones. But then, his father is John Clayton, so heís getting it honest. But I could stump him, too. He didnít know 'After the Morning.'
But in any event, youíre always bringing new young musicians into the band. Is there a disconnect for you with that generation?
I miss being able to hear some music that I just canít get enough of! Iíll give you an example. Just two nights ago, I went into Smalls, and we were hanging out, jam session, everythingís pretty straight line, and then my friend Duane Clemons gets up and playsóand I was so happy! It was like touchdown! Know what Iím saying? It was like throwing a pork chop into the middle of a hunger-starved place. I felt so good just for that little bit. Man, if I could just have a little bit of that all the time. I was telling Duane that, 'Man, you should really play more, because thatís food.' He was playing the real language. He was playing bebop. He was playing the real New York stuff. The real fabric of the language of the music. When you hear it, you know what it is.
You do some workshops and clinics, too. Youíre in touch with younger musicians.
Sometimes. I did a thing with Roy Haynes at Harvard not too long ago. It was real cool.
What do you think is alienating musicians from that way of playing? Is it lack of information, or ...
Lack of information.
... is it attitude?
Itís both, One feeds the other. First of all, I think people sometimes come into the arts for the wrong reason nowóbecause they want to be famous and rich and have a nice life, instead of trying to reach peopleís consciousness and make a difference. Doing something for someone else besides yourself. People come into this, and, 'Yeah, I want to be rich, I want to have a car, I want to have people waiting on me,' and so on. It gets weird when thatís your main focus. So you get the jazz musician who learned how to play in school who already thinks heís learned it all. I like to meet musicians like that, because then I like to challenge them. Thatís why I started this big band. I wanted to challenge the peacocks, musicians who think, 'Oh yeah, I already know everything.' But you donít!
They donít get it. But if you love this music, youíll go out and find what you need. Thatís one thing I like about Jonathan Batiste, the new piano player whoís been playing with me. He seeks out cats like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones. Thatís different than the guys in his generation, who are more into McCoy and HerbieóJonathan checks out the real thing. I have to say, he did a great job on this last tour. I was really excited, because he came out and took care of business. This cat played in all three groups.
Jonathan Batiste is out of New Orleans.
New Orleans. What are they feeding them down there?! I donít understand. Them New Orleans piano players. I had two of them in the past months, Sullivan Fortner and then Jonathan, and these guys are so complete. There was nothing I couldnít throw at them. Iíve been working towards having the type of group where if I wanted to show them a new song, I could sit down at the piano and play it, and then theyíd hear itóI donít have to write it out or anything. Now is the first time Iíve ever had a group like that; with Jonathan, I could sit down and play it once, and heíd pick it up. Something about New Orleans.
So the present group is either Sullivan Fortner or Jonathan Batiste on piano...
Yes. Amin Salim is playing bass. Montez Coleman is on drums. Justin Robinson on alto saxophone.
Is the quintet a more open-ended format for you than the big band or R.H. Factor?
'Open-ended.' What do you mean?
In your current bio sheet, you remark about the big band, 'Thereís not much left to chance.'
Yes. With the quintet, itís always up in the air. The book is so vast with the quintet right now (excluding the new members, like Amin Saleem, who doesnít know the whole book yetóbut heís learning it) that we can go in any direction you want. I can actually do the Big Band and R.H. Factor set with them, too. This version of the quintet is probably one of the more versatile units Iíve had. When we play the Latin thing, itís real Latin. When we play some funk, itís real funky. When we play straight-ahead, itís tippiní. We can go anywhere. Thatís basically my whole premise. I believe in variety, and also I believe in spontaneity. Thereís no rule book. As soon as it starts to get to be in a rut, then I change it right away. With the quintet, we never play the same thing. Each night I try to change up the repertoire a bit so that everyone stays focused. We never get bored.
Being a bandleader is very interesting and challenging in that way. You have to keep everybody focused, and also motivated. Even outside of the music, trying to keep morale up is a balancing act as well. When youíre on the road and nobodyís slept for a few days, people get tired of looking at each other and it gets real dark. So I try to keep a very positive energy around everyone, so we keep it going.
You yourself must get tired, too.
Yes. I get tired. But Iím ok. My spirituality is what keeps me going, for sure.
Ted Panken interviewed Roy Hargrove on August 11, 2009.
September 18, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
By Ted Panken
Raised in Brooklyn and Boston, and a hardcore New Yorker for a good chunk of the Ď60s, pianist Steve Kuhn now lives removed from the fray, in a still-not-quite-exurban town on the east bank of the Hudson River, one hour by train from Grand Central Station. This being said, Kuhn is a not-infrequent visitor to the metropolis, training down the Hudson to attend to his various gigs, recording sessions, and publicity obligations. So it was that Kuhn, a jazz lifer since the Ď50s, appeared at ECMís midtown offices in late July to discuss his new recording, Mostly Coltrane [ECM], on which he and his touring trioóbassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baronójoin tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano for an exploration of Coltrane repertoire from two periods of his developmentóthe cusp of the Ď60s tunes that generated Coltraneís still-beloved Atlantic recordings and very late, contemporaneously unissued piecesóthat are not customarily juxtaposed.
Apart from the unfailingly creative musicianship and collective orientation on display therein, Mostly Coltraneógestated over several years of Lovano-convened Coltrane birthday homages at Manhattanís Birdlandóis intriguing because Kuhnís unique relationship to the material, to which he has more palpable connection than any living pianist other than McCoy Tyner, a fellow 1938 baby. Already an established figure on the New York scene before Herbie Hancock , Chick Corea , and Keith Jarrett  hit town, Kuhn spent an epiphanal eight-week run with Coltrane in May and June of 1960. As Kuhn relates below, the Mostly Coltrane project also marks an attempt to close a circle, a re-immersion in a corpus of music that so fundamentally impacted his sensibility.
How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by John Coltrane that you had played and also material that you hadnít?
Every year for the last five or six years, around Johnís birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland to commemorate himóJoe Lovano, myself, Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights itís a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights itís just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and I really had no idea about the later stuff. I didnít listen to him much once after Ď64-Ď65, once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time...
You moved there in Ď67, I believe?
I moved there then, and he passed in Ď67. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.
So every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. Thatís the genesis of that particular quartet.
A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. Heíd heard about the annual Birdland thing, and, surprisingly, he told me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I have for the last thirty years or more, Iíd think this would be the last thing heíd be thinking of. In any event, he said heíd like to record the concert at Salzau, or to go into a studio in Germany right after the concertówhich was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008.
We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs that I had played with him but were not written by himóďI Want To Talk About You,Ē Billy Eckstine, and ďThe Night Has A Thousand Eyes,Ē which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called ďWith Gratitude,Ē which of course is an homage to John. Manfred also asked me to do a song that I wrote many years ago called ďTrance,Ē which I had never recorded solo.
Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltraneís music began, had you been performing Coltraneís music or any of the tunes...
No, other than ďThe Night Has A Thousand EyesĒ occasionallyóvery occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs that weíd play in, or concerts. At the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass playersóTommy Williams, John Nieves. I would play ďThe Night Has a Thousand EyesĒ quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I havenít played any of Johnís music. Iíve been asked to, but for some reason, I donít know... Maybe Iíd do a solo on ďNaimaĒ or something like that. But I just didnít do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.
So the Birdland project seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.
Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time to revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of Johnís later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought, and no real frame of reference.
Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?
Manfred did it all. Heís great at that. When heís into the music, and he really likes the project, heís an incredible produceróthe best Iíve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. He put together one preliminary sequence, then spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.
Coltraneís quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the content of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs youíd previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you?
For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious. I worked with John in 1960, almost fifty years ago, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, there really was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. Itís just the way it came out. As for Joey Baron, itís tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I donít think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. Heís a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
I donít have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and Iíve listened to most of them, and I canít remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?
The first Iíd been aware of 'free playing,' without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers ... Well, Iíd been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, Iíve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, a pretty wide repertoire of them, while playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur (if thatís the word) on it as much as I can, not consciously, but from playing them over a period of years. I also have a bunch of originals, some of which can sometimes reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony is stagnant for as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing more or less comes into effect. On some of Johnís later things, I was able to play those freer things, with no harmonic ties whatsoever, just effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums, and also with Joe. Thatís just part of the way I grew up; I was influenced by a bunch of different kinds of musics.
Iíd like to talk about those things a little later. But letís stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porterís biography of Coltrane ...
He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.
... and he cites an interview that some people did with you in 1995 about your stint with Coltrane. I know youíve been asked this eight million times, but take me through how you came to join the group.
Itís a story that, as youíve said, Iíve told a lot. There isnít much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvardómiraculously, I donít know how. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to hang out for three weeks. George Russell, bless his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The Modern Jazz Quartet was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I got to meet all these people, and 'study' with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and I was assigned to a group with Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley on bass, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if Iím not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). Iíve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a first-hand exposure to Ornette. Frankly, I didnít know what to do when he was soloing, so I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, ďYou canít play chords.Ē I said, ďI know. Thatís why Iím not doing anything.Ē He said, ďWhy donít you do sort of what I play behind Milt?Ē He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while Ornette and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldnít know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then thatís another story.
I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known priorópeople Iíd met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and also the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks before. As it turns out, one of them was Kenny Dorham, and he needed a piano player, so he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright pianoóbut I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time; Kenny; the bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years; and the drummer was Buddy Enlow, who I believe has passed.
That group recorded for the Time label.
Yes. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I did as a sideman in New York when I got there.
So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, in late 1959, I heard that John was leaving Milesí group and was looking to put together a quartet. Now, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but somehow I got his number, and I called him. I said, 'I know you donít know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,' and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. Heíd apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on Eighth Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel; nothing was said yea or nay about working together.
Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queensótake the subway to where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Syeeda, I guess. So I went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, 'Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?' Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was ... But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon. Thatís how it started.
He had, I believe, a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, and at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was great, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.
When had you become cognizant of Coltrane?
Certainly when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought Miles quintet records that he was on.
They came out when you were a senior in high school.
Not before then?
He did those records in 1955 and 1956.
What records did he do before 1955?
Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy Gillespie, playing alto.
Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different. He captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the recordings heíd done up 'til then.
Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.
What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. Youíd played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, and as well as straight-ahead jazz, you knew modern classical music, done the time at Lenox Schoolóa well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. The challenges in dealing with this information in 1960.
I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because Iíd had a lot of press when I was living in Bostonóthe wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroyís sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So Iíd gotten some good press in Boston, and I came to New York sort of full of myself. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldnít ... I couldnít resist going along with that. But I was brought down pretty quickly.
When I started to work with John, I really didnít know what he wanted. In the more or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like 'So What' [or 'Impressions'], which had one or two harmonies through a whole song, and gave you a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for John, I would get out there with him, not to try to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him musically. That probably was not what John wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense ... I wasnít happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. From night to night, one night I might be more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask periodically, 'John, is there anything youíd like me to do that Iím not doing, and vice-versa?' Iíll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, 'I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.' Thatís all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.
A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, I was crushedómore for my ego than anything else, probably. Now, at the time he hired me I did not know that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, but that McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldnít get out of it until the time when John said to me, 'I want to make a change.' Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance ... if I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.
Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.
At least three. I donít remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and hang out with John. Or Sonny Rollins. It was a hive of activity, with great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. After John would solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was extraordinary, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Certainly, up to that point, Iíd never experienced anything like that.
This was with Pete LaRoca on drums and Steve Davis on bass.
Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.
You arrived in New York at a time when new ideas were percolating, as has been described in a number of recently published books and articles, partly impelled by marketing imperativesói.e., the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue and so onóbut also for valid reasons. Ornette Coleman hit New York in 1959, Mingus was in one of his most fertile periods, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a Greenwich Village club before recording Portrait in Jazz, Lennie Tristano was doing long residencies at the Half Note, Max Roach was doing things. The poets. The dancers. The artists. So many things were happening in Greenwich Village and all around New York. Give me a sense of the milieu.
I remember going out to clubs every single night, just to hang outóoccasionally, I was asked to sit in. The Bryant Hotel was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I went there quite a bit, and after a while they got to know who I was, so they didnít charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of peopleóI wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and other people over the years.
But it was a very intense time in the jazz world, as you described it. That kind of scene that no longer exists, unfortunately for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We had sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft, and there was a session there every night of the week. So you could always go up there and play, and youíd meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. Thatís how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. At that age, you wanted to play all the time, every day.
By the way, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that timeóthis unfortunately changed in the mid Ď60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, although I did have some issuesóbut for the most part, I managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie at the time with people who were strung out; those people hung out together, they would get high together and all that. I was on the periphery of that, although at different times I got into it briefly. There was a myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos, but I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shitóand Iím sure I did. Thereís a tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhapsóunless heís so stoned, he doesnít know), but certainly, I would think, to the listener. Over the years, Iím sure thatís dissipated to a great extent.
But it was this very special time. And living at the hotel put me in the middle of the midtown activity, and I would be also be in the Village a lot. So a lot of stuff was going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.
Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?
It really is hard to ascertain. Iím sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. As I said, I was dissatisfied about how I played with John. I was working with Kenny prior to John, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, which is where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp and voicing chords, and also getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasnít. That was really the main difference.
Then you were with Stan Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.
It was two years all told, but there was an eight-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan asked why? Well, it was because Scotty wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, 'Who do you want?' Scott said, 'Roy Haynes.' So, P.S., thatís ... Stan was a big fan of Royís anyway.
Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.
Yes. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of Ď61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there ...
Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?
We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal rhythmicallyóand Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and an incredible soloist as well. When Stan had returned from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put together a trioóhe wanted him to join. Scotty said, 'if I can get the trio I want.' Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.
So working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable with. It was very enjoyable to play with them.
You used the phrase 'meat and potatoes.' Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, Iím wondering who your early pianistic influences were in jazz.
For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. To this day, nobody comes near what he didófor me. Certainly, the way I play, itís probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isnít. His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didnít need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day ... Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadnít heard in a while. What he was able to do was just astounding, He really grabbed my attention big-time, and more so over the years.
Fats Waller was an influence, too. The boogie-woogie pianistsóMeade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing; I started studying when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.
Bill Evans was an influence. I was at Harvard the first time I heard Bill play, on a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University. I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, 'Oh, shit. Heís doing what Iím trying to do, but heís got it together.' That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.
Can you be more specific?
It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. It was a combination of both. For me, the bottom line in communicating music is about touching the heart. As far as Iím concerned, itís not about how fast you play, or how slick you do this, or how you re-harmonize that. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powell's and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doingóit was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.
Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and he was like a big brother to me when I came to New York. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me ... When I came, as I said earlier, I had been the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was hard. Itís a hard life. To this day, itís a rough way to live.
You have to have a very thick skin.
Absolutely. Youíre putting yourself out there, and you have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you donít have a big enough name ... You just have to persevere. If itís in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. Youíll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or youíll capitulate and do something elseówhich is fine. But if itís in your heart of hearts, youíll do it.
Now, your prior ECM release, Promises Kept, on which you framed your piano with a string ensemble arranged by Carlos Franzetti, got quite a bit of press at the time. Apart from Franzettiís remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training and your training with Margaret Chaloff. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the Ď70s, youíve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.
Sure. Itís all part of the package.
Youíve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.
Absolutely. She taught me the Russian school of technique, and it took years before it got into my subconscious, where I didnít have to think about it. Basically, she taught getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and she explained how and why it happens, and if you understand and apply the concept, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and you donít scuffle in terms of playing slow or fast or in between. Itís a very involved technique, and Iím not qualified to teach it, but basically itís about relaxationóyou breathe from the diaphragm as though youíre playing a horn, and conceptualize your fingertips as a reed and the keys as a mouthpiece. The sound travels out of you to the soundboard and out of the piano. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this techniqueóGieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way theyíre schooled. I came to believe her after a while. I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and I stopped studying formally with her when I finished high school at 17. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and when I could, I would spend a lot of time at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which Iím forever grateful for.
Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.
Yes. Through Margaret, I met Serge (Chaloff, the bari saxophonist], and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great musical education for me. Nothing else was ever involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. During his last years, he came back to Boston, because his money was gone, he wasnít doing too well with his healthóand he stayed with his mother. He was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs were trio, with drums, piano, and baritone saxophone, for $8-$9 a night. Working like that, without a bass, was strange, but I learned not to overcompensate, just to forget that there wasnít a bass, and just play. He taught me things harmonically, and he played a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. Serge had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuseóI donít know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, 'No, motherfucker, itís this and itís this, or it should be that.' I guess some people would have just wilted under it. But in a way, I thrived. It was a challenge. I thought, 'All right, goddammit,' and I did it. I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldnít have been able to do it, but I reacted the way I did.
So it was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from Serge. He was very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. I guess she was in her eighties when she passed. She had more energy than Iíve ever had in her life. She didnít look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didnít matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.
You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroyís sextet during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.
I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.
At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.
I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didnít recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of ... It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. My only professor at Harvard who accepted it, and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following yearóI donít remember. He taught a course called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But I had problems with every other professor I had during the time I was there. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasnít shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.
But you were performing. They couldnít have been had much power over you.
It didnít matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didnít go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didnít go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music coursesófour theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didnít go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.
You dedicated Promises Kept to your parents and grandparents. Youíre of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?
My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was two or three years old. My father was born here. Both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.
Promises Kept is comprised of entirely original music. Youíve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select ...
They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, thatís fine. If I donít want to play any of them, thatís fine, too. Iíve recorded a lot of standards, so itís helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and choose from them. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play them thatís interesting to me and the trio Iím recording with.
How long does it take to develop a point of view?
Generally, Iíll have a three- to four-week notice before the producer comes to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years were classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake bookóI didnít even know these existedóand went through it page-by-page, playing melodies. ďOh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.Ē I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording, Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easieróit had 9 or 10 songs of classical themes. The second, more recent one, Baubles, Bangles and Beads, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because Iíd used up the ones that I really liked. The producer wasnít specific about which classical themes he wanted. But on standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.
But youíve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Lifeís Backward Glances, which contained three of your Ď70s recordings, including the excellent solo record, Ecstasy. These records are very different in flavor than the things you did in the Ď60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late Ď60s after you moved to Europe, Watch What Happens, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and a standards date in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?
I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, Iíd heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.
By then, heíd begun to record Keith Jarrettís first solo recitals.
I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, a quartet recording called Trance that we did in New York with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ĎIf the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.Ē Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, ďWhat am I going to record?í I wound up doing originals that Iíd written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called ďPrelude in G.Ē As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, heís a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, ďOk, thatís fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motionĒ or ďa little less motion,Ē or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic. At the time, he said it was the best solo recording that heíd done, and to this day heís very complimentary about it. Iíd never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as Manfred was concerned.
When did you begin to compose in a serious way?
In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallowís last recording on acoustic bass. Heíd already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, 'Ok, now itís time; youíve got to start writing. Seriously.' Monica got on my case as well. 'Youíve got to start writing.' I realized it, tooówhat else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard ... We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit outsideóyou donít get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But within a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific Iíd ever been up to that pointóand probably since. But then I had some material.
These recordings donít particularly reference things youíd been doing in New York during the Ď60s, and theyíre not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant-garde, thereís a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the Ď70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 yearsóand this is a gross generalization and reductiveóyouíve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.
Iíd say so. Of course. As I said, Iíve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs Iíd done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.
Almost every recording I did in the Ď70s and early Ď80s with Manfred at ECM, for the most part, was original music. Thatís what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every dayóthey sit down at the piano, or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes ... Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that, although I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, ďWeíre doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.Ē So I would just sit at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song itís going to be, and go from there. Gradually, stuff would come. But itís labor. Itís arduous. I donít wake up in the middle of the night with, ďOh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,Ē and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, itís just sitting and grinding it out.
But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because otherwise I probably wouldnít have done it.
I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. How far do you go back with Steve Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.
Yes, I did.
Heís a Yale man and youíre a Harvard man.
I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldnít stand it. Heís a sweetheart. I adore him.
In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Artís quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me, and Art hired me instead of the guitar. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But Iíd played with Swallow in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.
There are several different trios. For ECM, youíve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. Youíve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?
I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, weíre of an age, so we have a very similar frame of reference in the way we grew up, the things we listened to. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesnít make it better or worseóitís just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, theyíre twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I certainly learn from them, and hopefully theyíll learn something from me. Iím probably more ďleader-likeĒ in that sense. It all works.
A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?
Much less. When I first came to New York, as I said, I was out every night, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, Iíve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs. Some I listen to, some I donít, some I skim through. It depends. But I donít listen as much as I used to, certainly.
Back to Coltraneís music, which you hadnít played or listened to for forty-plus years, before revisiting it on this project. The music that Coltrane was playing at the time of his death seemed radically different to people who had loved his music in the period when you were playing with him. Your personal involvement in the Giant Steps era music allowed you to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. Mostly Coltrane, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece.
Coltraneís music is part of my growing up. As I said, since I didnít hear the later music, when I play it now, I approach it the way I approach it, with no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. Iím in my early seventies, and itís reflective of how Iíve evolved over the last fifty years. Itís amazing to me that, when I worked with John, who was just a dozen years older than I, could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age ... You tend to wonder whether heíd said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. Weíll never know, of course. But itís interesting to speculate on whether he may just have run the course. Occasionally, after my time after him, Iíd run into him on the street or maybe hear him somewhere, and heíd say, 'Tell me something new.' He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though Iím certainly not an authority. But heíd always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th-century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.
So his influence on me is undeniable. Itís there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than itís been, and continues to evolve. Thatís pretty much all I can say.
Have you now gone back to Coltraneís later records?
No, and frankly, I really have no desire to. Iíve played these pieces at Birdland for the last five or six years, and I play them the way I play them, with whatever voice I have. Iím interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity pretty much ends there. I think what I recorded is reflective of John, of course, but itís also reflective of what I am doing these days.
Do you have a new big project in the works?
What Iíd like to doóand within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a 'Why donít you?'Ēóis a recording with Claus Ogerman. I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, as well as something he did with Michael Brecker and something he did back in the day, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. Now, I donít know whether this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, 'It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.' I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we havenít really talked about it specifically. Iíd like to do some of my original music with him, and maybe some classical themes, or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But heís approaching 80 now.
Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.
Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which Iím only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from different composers back in the day, and heís a big fan of Garyís. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Garyís music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a lot better, I think. That night at Claremont College was recorded, and Iíve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. We did some trio songs and did ďThe October SuiteĒ with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so Iím going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. Itís extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.
So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what youíre talking about.
Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, itís a raison díetre. If I donít have the music ... Iíve said this to the love of my life. Iíve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last nine-and-a-half years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, 'when I go, carry me off the bandstand.' Otherwise, I donít know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contextsóbut especially the trioóis it for me. Thatís what keeps the blood flowing. Iíll never retire, certainly. So thatís the way it should end.
Your life path has probably diverged a lot from many of your fellow Harvard-Ď59 graduates.
It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I canít stand these kind of gatherings. Iím shy, and you look at people who you havenít seen in fifty years, and youíre looking at their name tags, and they have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Scullerís, the jazz club in Boston. The night before Scullerís, there was a little party with people Iíd gone to school with, and some people I hadnít seen in fifty years. It was given by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely to reconnect with these people. Then the following night, we played with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Scullerís, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didnít go to the commencement, I didnít take any pictures, but my 50th reunion of the class of 1959 was that party the night before and Scullerís. Itís unbelievable how fast those years go by.
Ted Panken spoke with Steve Kuhn on July 29, 2009.
September 11, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
This past May, Darcy James Argue and his big band the Secret Society played their first dates outside New York City. A short tour of Europe took them to Amsterdamís Bimhuis, Dortmundís Domicil, and finally the Moers Festival in northern Germany. After the encores and standing ovation from an audience of some 2500 at Moers had subsided, there seemed little doubt among those present that a major young talent in jazz had arrivedóor, perhaps more accurately, was in the process of arriving.
Well-versed in the history of the big band in jazz, this up-and-coming 34 year-old Canadian composer and arranger has made contemporary the venerable big band format, partly by showing an awareness of what's happening in the parallel universe of popular culture. It's no surprise to read in the pages of Newsweek that Argue called his music "Steampunk big band music," a reference to "the niche art movement that fantasizes about modern tech innovations in the steam powered era."
With his Secret Society Web site, Argue successfully harnessed the power of the internet to help launch his band and his current album Infernal Machines. He also uses the site to keep fans abreast of news about his activities and the world of jazz in general. On the afternoon of his Moers concert, we spoke not just about his use of the internet, but also things musical: the key influences on his style, such as Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer; his composing aesthetic, and the importance of popular culture to jazz, and how this is reflected in his music. We began by exploring his refreshingly inclusive musical vision.
I'm impressed by the way you've reconceptualized the big band format, bringing it into 21st century. I wonder if you can talk a little about how you've accomplished that.
A lot of people, when they try and make contemporary music with the big band, seem intent on calling it something else, like 'The Jazz Orchestra' or 'The Large Ensemble'ósomething that makes it clear that it isn't necessarily directly connected or in the genre of what people think about when they think of the big band music: the Swing bands of the 1930s. Calling it something else seems to me a bit pretentious, a state of denial. Itís a big band, right? Whether we want it to be or not, it is obviously going to be connected to that legacy. To me what is interesting is that for a while the big band completely dominated popular music in the 1930s. Whenever you heard anything on the radio, whether it was 'jazz' or just 'jazzy,' whether there was a singer on it or it was instrumental, it was always a big band. That was the vehicle for popular music for a good solid decade.
Of course times change and people change. With the advent of electronic amplification you didnít need that many horns for a big sound; you could have that big sound with a smaller band. But I was always fascinated by the incredible popularity of the big bands. A lot of the music I write comes out of imagining an alternate history of popular music where Elvis was always backed by a big band, or David Bowie was always backed by a big band, and all the way down the line. If that had been the standard unit of popular music, what would that music now sound like? Thatís like an interesting game for me, because with that many instruments there are a lot of possibilitiesóa lot of sonic and coloristic possibilities that are not there with smaller jazz groups.
Some of the effects and some of the devices that I use are a conscious attempt to try and incorporate some of the techniques that are more a part of studio production techniques trying to replicate something similar using acoustic instruments. With a big band itís possible to actually do that. Itís something I find really interesting, to re-focus those devices for jazz, and re-appropriate them into a jazz ensemble.
I find this a fascinating aspect of your music, because for me, jazz loses the link with popular culture at its peril. Can we talk about how you have renewed this link in your music, how it relates to the current times?
There is the extra musical context for some of my music. On the CD [Infernal Machines] there's a piece called 'Habeas Corpus,' which is dedicated Maher Arar, who was a Canadian victim of extraordinary rendition. It is serious to be tortured, and [with all the things happening] in the world at large [it is] impossible for me not to incorporate influences of the music of today. I wouldnít say it was programmatic. Iím not trying to engage in sound painting, or anything quite so literal. But it is definitely inspired by my personal reaction Ö the Maher Arar story hit home, particularly because he is also a McGill graduate; he is just a few years older than I am, and it's impossible not to think, 'what if this happened to someone I love?' Or 'what if this happened to me?'
The larger context of it is just so horrifying, because the reason he was sent to Syria in the first place was because he was named in one of these torture interrogations; his name was fed to someone who was being water-boardedólike, 'tell us about Maher Arar, no, we know youíve had dealing with him, we know heís a bad guy.' And of course when someone is being tortured, they will say anything to make it stop, and the thing to make it stop is to tell the interrogator what they want to know, what they want they want to hear. Then you see Dick Cheney on the TV, saying these interrogation techniques are what keep us safe. Itís so absurd. Itís absolutely maddening and it is obviously something that has been eating at me ever since it came to light that this was what was being done in our name. In the tradition of Mingus it seemed impossible not to respond to that in some way in music.
Can we turn to specific musical devices and sounds which you have incorporated into your music that reflect elements of contemporary culture?
The record opens with a piece called 'Phobos,' on which has our drummer John Wikan is playing a very old, traditional folkloric instrument called the cajon. We have taken that sound, which has very rootsy sound, and electronically processed and turned it to something unrecognisable. It opens with something very earthy, and the effect we apply to it is very un-earthy. What I hope, is that people put it on and when they hear it they say, 'I thought this was going to be a big band record.' And so gradually we manage to weave some things in and it establishes a mood, it established a way of listening to the album. It makes its intentions known from the start that this is going to involve technology. The sound itself comes out of Aphex Twin and Stereolab and that kind of sound, using the tools of the recording studio in a way that maybe be a bit unusual for a jazz ensemble.
Can we talk about another example, 'Redeye,' which uses loops?
On 'Redeye,' which is the earliest piece on the record, it begins with a very simple acoustic guitar loop. Thatís a very specific sound and a lot of people are building a whole performance on that techniqueówill sample one thing and layer another loop and another loop and another on top of it. So I wrote this thing in 2003, itís not nearly as elaborate as that; just one simple loop and the rest the band is used on top of that. I have the luxury of having all these musicians so I donít have to do it with one! Itís a bit of nod in that tune and that world, and there is a lot of commonalities between that additive way of building up loops on top on one another, that way of making music, thatís straight out of Mingusó'Haitian Fight Song' or 'E's Flat Ah's Flat Too.' Adding and adding each cycle adding a new line to it, so I think there is a lot more productive dialogue that can and should go on between jazz and really creative pop music.
It goes in both directions too, there are a lot of indie rock groups that would really love and could benefit from some of the stuff that jazz musicians can offer. That kind of erosion of genre boundaries, as I see at this festival, is very much the future. There is a venue in New York we play from time to time called Le Poisson Rouge, where youíll have a classical solo piano recital, or Steve Reichís Music for 18 Musicians live there. Theyíll do that, and then youíll have punk rock bands, and bands like Deerhunter, and itís not a classical venue or a jazz venue or a rock venue, or any of those things, but a place for people with a taste for art.
Can we turn to composition, and how you approach it, and by this I mean, do you see composition as a utility to present the soloist, or as a thing in itself?
For me, the end is to be expressiveóto present music that is emotionally compelling, that tells a story and has a narrative arc to it. Iím not really interested in music that is only about a particular compositional device or exploring a particular technical cell, or whatever. Thatís not interesting, at least not for me. The sound of it, the emotional effect and the communication with the listener is something that is always first in my mind. I want music that is expressive and tells a story, whether there is an extra-musical association to it or not, there is some sense of an arc to it.
As far as dealing with soloists and improvisation, the most important thing is that they understand the arc of the music as well, and that they are able to operate within those kinds of parameters. There are a lot more constraints on what people can play and what is appropriate for them to play in a big band context, because in a way itís on rails Ö the piece is on rails and going in a certain direction, and they need to assist that rather than fight against it.
Most of the music I write is written specifically with these players in mind Ö when I present something to them and we read through it for the first time, as a composer the best thing in the world is when somebody intuitively 'gets' what they need to do. And it might be something different from the way they play in their own small groups. I try to create and be clear enough in the setting that I have created [so] it's obvious for them how to continue telling the story in their solo. And if itís not, we have to have a discussion about it [laughs].
But I am very lucky that the people who play in this band are all Ö interested in storytelling, musical storytelling, and in fitting what they do within a larger musical context, rather than play like a show stopping solo. Thatís something Iím really not interested in. Itís all about trying to create a context where the solo is integrated into the fabric of the music. Thatís what all the great jazz composers have always done and what I try to do myself.
I agree, I have always had a problem with big bands that split an orchestration in half as a soloist or soloists jump in with something that may, or may not, relate to the thematic material at hand, and go on so long that the opening orchestration becomes a distant memory.
Right. Itís incredibly dangerous to open up space for improvisation without having background figures and so on. It requires an element of trust with the musicians to carry forward the momentum you have established with the written music when you get to the improvisation. What I try to do is find ways to shake people out of their normal habits of the way they would normally play things. The first piece on the record 'Phobos,' has a tenor solo and there is a period when a chord lasts an indeterminate number of bars, and Iíll cue the next chord always. It gives me some way of shaping the solo section. The only marks are slashes and chord symbols; it allows me to figure out structurally and informally. 'Well I need seven measure of this chord and six of this one and what not,' and rather than leave that up to the soloist, itís like an interaction between me and Mark Small, who is playing the solo, of hearing what he is doing. And when I cue the next chord it's maybe not what he was thinking of, but itís allows me to keep my hand in the game a little bit.
In many ways, the heights the soloist can conquer have now been mastered technically. The challenge is not so much the solo as a thing in itself, but the originality of the context within which the soloist functions, and how the soloist responds to that context.
I can think of several exceptions to that rule, but your point is well taken. I feel the most interesting jazz has been involving players who were about more than virtuosity. Virtuosity by itself is incredibly boring. There are peopleóIím going to get into trouble for naming namesówho would prefer to believe that Oscar Peterson is a greater artist than Thelonious Monk, and to me that is insane and indefensible! Iím Canadian and can say that; due respect to Oscar and Iím not slagging him, but Monk was an incredible genius, such a complete artistóthe whole packageóand always very conceptual. [With Monk] it was always the music first and foremost, rather than anything flashy or any kind 'standard soloist' approach, where it has nothing to do with the thematic material. Monk would always have bands that played his music, and improvisation always came out of the music he wrote for his groups. The way he would comp really kept everything focussed and to the point and thatís why Monkís bands are so special.
You get the same thing in Mingusí bands; you get the same thing in Duke Ellingtonís bands. Those are the groups closest to my heart. Everyone is on the same page. There is a real vibe to the music, as opposed to 'Well hereís one solo, and hereís another solo and itís going to be completely unrelated what the previous has done.' That, to me, is a very schizophrenic way of listening to music and relating to itómore of a jam session kind of approach. That kind of approach is not something that has ever spoken to me in the same way as a conceptual composition
You studied with Bob Brookmeyer, a jazz great and a legendary teacher as well, and I wonder what areas you worked on with him. Perhaps you could describe what you got from his input.
Sure. Brookmeyer was a fantastic teacher and he originally invited me to come and study with him at New England Conservatory. We had corresponded a little on line and he asked me to send him some music and he listened to it and said Iíd like you to come down. How can you turn down an invitation like that? At that point I had no intention of going to grad school or getting into the big band business at all. I was a jazz pianist in Montreal. I was writing, but I was writing for my small group. That detour really sent me on this curved path of big band music and big band composing.
And when was this?
I went to New England Conservatory in 2000, I was 25 when I started with Bob. It was interesting, because when I first started taking with him, he didnít actually say very much and it was curious. At New England Conservatory there was a student big band that played exclusively student compositions. It met every week, and you could bring in fragments of things, or works in progress and hear it and get the experience of conducting and rehearsing the group yourself, and learning to manage time. Bob would be there, sitting in the back, and occasionally he would say a few words, but he was really there to sit back and observe. He would listen to the music I was writing. I would bring it in for lessons and he would just nod and encourage me to keep writing, and for a while I thought, 'Is he ever going to say anything?' But what he finally told me was he knew that this piece I was writingówhich is actually something we still play today a 20 minute blowout called 'Lizard Brain,' in 13/4óhe knew this was something new to me; I came in there and I guess I thought I had something to prove, so I really wanted to write something I didnít know if I could pull off, to stretch my abilities as a composer. He thought that was happening and thought, 'Okay, letís see where this leads him on his own, and at the end of it weíll go over it and weíll pick it apart when itís done.' He had the ability to see, 'okay, hereís someone whoís growing, weíll let that happen and Iím just going to see where it ends, but I donít want to interrupt something in progress and bog him down with the specifics of voicings or what not.' After all his years of teaching heís able to do that. And when it was done we got into the guts of the piece, how to structure things a little bit better. That led to something thatís my usual practice. Now, when Iím writing, itís very hard, but I try not to get bogged down much in the detail. To get as much as possible finished, and at the end sort of figure out maybe this section goes on a little bit long, or maybe this transition needs a little more finesse, or clip the order, that kind of thing. Thatís always difficult, because your inner critic is always saying 'I could finesse it now,' so itís really difficult to put off that and keep the momentum going when you write Ö which is why deadlines are fantastic!
How long did you study with him?
I studied with him two years. I did my Masterís program at New England Conservatory, and after that I spent one extra year in Boston because my girlfriend was finishing her degree. But I started in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, which at the time was directed by Jim McNeely and Michael Abene, so I would be hopping on a bus. They had this really cheap, at the time $10, Chinatown to Chinatown express buses from Boston to New York and back at that time they were not totally legal to use. Youíd go down to Chinatown, buy a ticket in a Chinese bakery, look around on the street corner there would be no bus for a while, and someone from the bakery would say, 'Okay, everyone for the bus follow me!' and weíd follow him around the corner, and the bus would turn up and weíd get loaded up in about 30 seconds! The BMI Workshop was all people out of school and I guess wanting to refine their voice, so it was really great meeting a lot of like-minded people with different approaches to music, and a whole different set of aesthetics. Also, youíd get feedback from Jim McNeely and Mike Abene, and the reading sessions every month you could hear what everyone else was up to and look at their scores and that sort of thing. It was there I met Joe Phillips, who is a fantastic composer in New York; J.C. Sanford and a lot of young composers, hearing them at the BMI Workshop, that really planted the seed.
I was still living in Boston, figuring out what to do with the rest of my life, whether it was completely insane to move to New York and try and form a big bandóit is, but there were a lot of other people doing it, so it seemed okay! After a year of doing the weekly commute, four hours on the bus and back, I said alright, letís move to New York and see how it goes.
So my girlfriend and I got a place in Brooklyn, and I started calling some people to do some reading sessions at the Union of some of the music I had written, some things I had written in the BMI Workshop and some new things I was trying out. The great thing about New York is that everybody wants to play, and I had this big list of phone numbers that I got from a friend. I would call people, 'Hey, you donít know me, Iím a composer, Iím new in town and Iím having a reading session at the Union, I canít pay you and the music is extremely difficult.' And there was like, 'Great, sign me up!' or 'Sorry I canít make that, but please keep me in mind, I love playing hard music.' There is just a real great attitude in New York, there are a lot of people if they can possibly make it theyíll never turn down a chance to play music or read music, even if there's no money involved. So its really helpful to a young composer to exploit that and try out some different people.
I did that for a year and a half. I was working as a music copyist primarily; I had some grants from the Canada Council, I had a grant to study with Maria Schneider, and I was also working as a film and Broadway music copyist. So I would have these reading sessions every couple of months, whenever I had new music to work on, and finally Ingrid Jensen [the trumpeter] took me aside after one session and said, 'You should get us a gig!' It was like, 'Alright, you got a point!' So I got us our first gig at CBGB's Gallery, when it existed; there was a Sunday night jazz series, all kinds of crazy music, that was our first gig, in the CBGB's basement.
It is hard enough to survive in the jazz economy as a soloist, but you have a whole big band to consider, so I guess trying to generate an income stream in order to do what you want to do is difficult.
Well Ö yes! And it continues to be. The story is that you go into an enormous amount of debt trying to sustain your big band habit. You canít pay the players nearly what they're worth; it ends up being a really insulting amount of money for these gigs. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found players who were in it for the music and were willing to put up with that, and still willing to rehearse, and devote their time and personal practice in rehearsal and conceptual frustrations of working with music that makes demands of the players they donít face in the normal course of events. It has been a long hard slog to get to this point. I am really fortunate to find a group of players who were willing to trust that something would eventually come of this.
Obviously the response to the album was fantastic. When I started the band, I never imagined we would be doing a European tour. We played the Bimhuis two nights ago, that was our first European gig, the Domicil in Dortmund last night, and performing at the Moers Festival tonight. That would have been incredibly unrealistic [to expect]. This is our first set of dates outside New York, and after we get back weíre playing our first domestic gig outside New York in Philadelphia.
Can you cast your mind back to your early studies, and how you began to think in terms of a big band?
Sure. I grew up in suburban Vancouver and I was lucky to have a very good music program where I was. I started on trumpet and got really frustrated with it, whereas a piano seemed much more attractive. If I wanted to hit a Bb I could do it 100% of the time, so I switched over. I'd had piano lessons as a child, and gotten frustrated with that too, but jazz brought me back to the piano. For whatever reason it was very easy for me start listening to jazz. I found right away things that I liked. My first jazz record was that Clark Terry record In Orbit, with Thelonious Monk; that was instantly appealing. Wynton Kelly on Kind of Blue: instantly appealing.
In the high school jazz band we played a drastically simplified version of a Thad Jones chart. In the library they had the vinyl of the original recording of it, [so] I got that out. And at 12 or 13 really fell in love with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, so probably that was the seed of the interest in big band.
But I donít think I imagined I would start my own, and I went on to Montreal, where I was a jazz piano major at McGill. I had a range of classes there, and the opportunity of writing for a big band. I heard a few things that started the fire. One was back in 1994, a group of us went down to the IAJE in Boston, and there I heard Bob Brookmeyer for the first time with the Danish Radio Big Band. They played his arrangement of 'St. Louis Blues,' and that introduction really stuck with me. I knew I had to get that, and then the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis box set came out on Mosaic, and I was able to get thatóthat music had been previously unavailableóand Maria Schneiderís first record came out, Evanescence. Our arranging teacher played 'Wrygly' in class, and that completely floored me. 'Well hereís someone whoís on the cutting edge of great new jazz and it's almost incidental that it happened to be a big band.' This is like something that is really fresh and interesting and current and unlike any jazz I had heard Ö it was almost like Maria was taking a leap beyond all the small groups in terms of conception and how well everything was integrated structurally. Just the vibe of it that was hugely influential and exciting.
You later studied with Maria Schneider, of course, so perhaps you could expand on her influence on your conception.
Being able to study with Maria was obviously a dream come true. Iíve taken lessons from a lot of different people, but with Bob and Maria I felt like we were on the same wavelength. When Maria would make a suggestion it was always, 'OK. Yes, exactly.' If I had the experience, that was what I was hearing, I wish I had thought of that, it was like she could read my mind and improve on it! Bob was very much the same way. So much of it is about the structure and the narrative and the flow of the piece. You get a lot of teachers who get bogged down a little bit in the nitty-gritty of voicings, and that of course is incredibly important, but I think I basically had that stuff down. So it is important to move beyond that, because it doesnít matter how beautiful your voice leading is, if the structure of the piece isnít satisfying to a listener it doesnít matter; itís all ultimately in vain.
A lot of our lessons, both with Maria and Bob, were just figuring out how to make things more clear, how to tell the story of the piece in a way itís going to make more sense for the listener, so they can follow the dramatic arc of the piece. That might mean another bar and half of this before going on to here, or, this transition here; 'I think you should sneak in the new material a little earlier,' 'see if you can get more of a crossfade between the ideas rather than a jump cut.' Or sometimes it would be, 'what would make this more exciting if you launch into this new section a bar earlier than expected'óthat kind of thing Ö. Being able to manipulate the structure of the piece to guide expectations was something that was really important to my studies with both Bob and Maria. When we got into the nitty-gritty of details it was always in service of something larger. If we treat this voicing itís going to help the whole arc of the piece rather than just examine every single voicing for the hell of it. It was very clear why we were working on things and why there was a microscope on certain details. Because these were the key details that were going to unlock the rest of the piece, that would make it more expressive, or more communicative, or more mysterious, or whatever the vibe of the piece was.
There was an interesting posting on your website about the so called 'jazz wars.' I wonder if you could talk a little about this and expand a little on what you wrote.
I think the museum approach to jazz is something that has been ultimately disheartening and destructive to music. I understand why the people who were responsible for that took that route, and getting funding and getting respect and getting institutional support for jazz is a noble goal. But at the same time, putting it in that sphere of music that is to be appreciated rather than music that kicks your ass is a horrible mistake. And having the focus be all the time be education rather than communication is something that overlook[s the fact that] great music has a power of its own. It doesnít need to be explained or educated. Someone doesnít need to have studied jazz or harmonic progressions or the history of the music to 'get' a record like The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. You just get down with it, and instantly whether someone is a jazz fan or itís the first jazz record they have ever heard, itís very clear what it is. It has a power to it. To say, 'You shouldnít start with that record, you should go through the history of the music,' is weird. Itís a lot easier to get people interested in music if it is not presented like medicine, so thatís one aspect of it.
The other thing is jazz has a connection to popular culture all through its history up until the 1980s. When Coltrane covered 'My Favourite Things' from The Sound of Music, it was a new show; it had been on Broadway for something like six months when he went into the studio with that. It was a pop song. Now we have this disconnected repertoire, weíre going to freeze the jazz canon at this particular point in time. These are the standards and nobody knows the original versions. Not even jazz musicians know the original versions of 'Like Someone in Love' or 'Autumn Leaves' or any of these standards. They know the jazz versions. The original point about these being some kind of common vocabulary that people going to a jazz club would know the song and understand the improvisation Ö that context somehow got twisted into something different, something very codified. The point of doing a standard shifted from something that was accessibleóreaching out to the people who are in the culture, doing something current and something that had a symbiotic relationship with popular culture. It went from that to something incredibly isolated, something that only a small group of diehard people know, like 'the jazz repertoire.'
So having those barriers imposed on them meant creating this firewall between jazz and the people who really love musicówho have an open-minded attitude towards discovering new musicóis incredibly destructive. Telling those people, who know better, that their music, the music they listen to and they love, like Animal Collective: 'Oh thatís pop, thatís crap, thereís no value to that, you should listen to art music, jazz.' Itís not just wrong, its offensive and so counter-productive, because the person knows youíre bullshitting. There is just so much cultural baggage associated with the idea of jazz as high art, as classical music, and popular music as low brow. The people who make those claims make we wonder if they have ever listened to popular music in the last twenty years, like really listened to it. I suspect not.
But the other infuriating thing is that there are kids who are really intense about music. The kids who follow all the indie rock blogsóthose are the people who are out there like really getting excited about music. When a record leaks ahead of time, like the new Grizzly Bear record, thereís a flood of interest and activity. These are the people who are really fascinated by new music and their tastes havenít ossified yet. So music is a really important part of their lives, and there seems to be a lot of people in the jazz world who are trying to make it as difficult as possible for those [kids] to come to what they do. Which is why walking around Moers people Ö [these] young people are really excited about the music; thatís why I am really looking forward to performing here.
I donít want to hate on the jazz audience per se, the hard core people, because obviously they are helping to sustain the music as well. But there is a facet of the jazz audience that is incredibly conservative and incredibly set in their ways and in their tastes, and what they want is music that is incredibly similar to music that has already got the official stamp of approval and is very close to what happened in the jazz canon. But what made Mingus and Coltrane and Miles obviously, what made them great was that their music resonated with the times it was made in and it had a connection to the popular culture, and it was a product of its time and thatís what made it timeless. For people to take that as a template for making music today seems to be missing the spirit of those artists and the spirit of jazz generally.
I very much agree with you. I believe when jazz cut its umbilical with popular culture in the 1980s, not only was the music the poorer for it, it became increasingly self-referential.
Finally, I would just like to ask you about the power of the internet, and how you used it to increase Secret Societyís profile. I wonder if you can talk about this in the context of todayís financial climateówhere on your blog, for example, you have written about 'dwindling freelance opportunities' and 'world class jazz musicians fiercely competing for the privilege of playing pass-the-hat gigs.'
Itís an incredibly difficult problem. I can say my music would be better if I could devote myself to it fulltime. Currently it's still not possible for me. I would like to get up in the morning and write all day or practice conducting any of those things. Thatís not possible. The rent has to be paid and there are other things I must do to finance my big band habit.
Adversity breeds creative solutions, so you have a lot of people financing their records by soliciting funds from the fans in advance, which is something that is becoming a lot more prevalent of late. A lot more people are trying to circumvent the traditional record label model, which is completely failing, and putting out their records themselves, or putting them out on a label like my record label, which allows you to own it. The positive aspect of that is that you get to control your music, but the negative aspect is you donít get any money in advance to record, or anything like that. So I think a lot of people are trying ways of trying to connect the record to fans, Twitter and what not, to build more of a communication and more of a direct relationship with fans. A part of that is very sincere in wanting to reach out and to be open and have those relationships, in the hope that those fans will actually pay money for the CD. Or perhaps make a contribution to help make the CD.
Music technology is a double edged sword. On the one hand, sure, the record industry as we know it is doomedóthe model of record labels having the whole apparatus of scores of managers and A&R people is almost completely gone for all but a handful of artists now. But on the other hand, when we first started, I recorded all our live shows, from the very first one, just with a digital recorder. I converted them to mp3 files and uploaded them to the website. It took us four years to make a studio record, but in those four years, people from all over the world heard what we were doing in small New York clubs.
When Guillermo Klein [Y Los Gauchos] was playing in Smalls in the nineties, there was no document of that. If you werenít there in the club, you missed it. It was legendary and really influential for people who were living in New York at the time; it was a very underground thing. A fantastic composer with a thirteen piece group, he's an Argentinean-born composer who now lives in Barcelona, but in the nineties he lived in New York and his band was playing, I think, every Monday night at Smalls. It became a legendary regular thing, you had to be in New York to hear about it, whereas with Secret Society we just put it up on the internet and people from Japan, Australia, the UK from all over writing in and sending donations to help me make a studio record. So the technology takes away some things but empowers people to do other things.
I do also feel strongly that I would not be in this position without the support I was able to get being Canadian from the Canada Council for the Arts, they subsidized my studies with Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. And I recently got a grant to study with Derek Bermel, who is a fantastic classical composer. Just through accident of birth I was able to get these grants; thereís nothing like it in the United States. And I have been fortunate to get some small grants from organisations that are still there and still persevering, like American Music Center and Meet the Composer.
But the level of public support for the arts in the United States is dismal. I think especially now that the market is failing, there really needs to be a cultural investment in sustaining non-commercial music, because it feeds everything. It works in interesting ways. It keeps pop music alive: the experimental stuff that people are doing at festivals like this, this music gets incorporated and used by the producers who are doing advanced pop, but putting a glossier finish on it. This is a font of people coming up with new ideas and experimenting with music and trying new combinations that is the wellspring for everything. And that wellspring needs public support. It's for everyoneís benefit, and that might not be instantly clear for someone who is mystified by something thatís very abstract or experimental and seems very different from the music as they understand it. But they benefit from it and the experiments taking place, and the best of it filters through to the culture at large. I really think it would be tremendous for the U.S.
American popular music basically conquered the world. The whole Afro-European fusion happened there. That melting pot Ö the combination of groove and harmonic richness and gritóthereís really nothing like a New York rhythm sectionóand the power of that music is at odds with the value in which it is held in America, which is really frustrating. I think what it comes down to, is musicians are going to have to get better at organizing and lobbyingówe have to stand up for ourselves because nobody is going to stand up for usóand be able to try and collectively advocate for support for the arts, [especially] support that filters down to the lowest level. Jazz at Lincoln Center is one thing, but it costs them tens of thousands of dollars to turn on the lights in that building, whereas if they took that ten thousand dollars and gave it as a grant to an emerging composer or even a thousand dollar grant to ten emerging composers, you would have great work happening from the bottom up. The top-down perspective represents a problem; the funding that exists is all top-down and is 'Letís fund the elite institutions,' rather than give a grant to say, Mostly Other People Do the Killing so they can afford to make a record or go out on tour, that kind of thing.
Well, sobering thoughts to end onóthanks so much for speaking to Jazz.com
Thanks very much, it was my pleasure, a lot of fun!
Visit Darcy James Argueís Secret Society website.
September 05, 2009 · 0 commentsTags:
Edited by Ted Gioia
Below is the second and final part of jazz.com's history of New Orleans music in 100 tracks. (Click here for part one.) In this installment we cover the modern era, starting with Shirley & Lee's 1956 R&B hit "Let the Good Times Roll," and then highlight the key New Orleans recordings of the next half-century, before concluding with several tracks from the post-Katrina era.
Jazz Beat (artwork by Debra Hurd)
Along the way, we encounter the Neville Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Pete Fountain, Dr. John, James Booker, Al Hirt, Professor Longhair, Harry Connick, Jr., Allen Toussaint, and dozens of other luminaries from the Crescent City. You'll find jazz and blues, rock and R&B, and plenty of Mardi Gras music in this celebration of the finest sounds of New Orleans.
Each title below links to a complete review, with full personnel, recording info, a rating from 0 to 100, and a source for a (legal) download. You can also click on the names of the key musicians to find additional information on these artists from jazz.com's archive of track reviews, interviews, features and encyclopedia entries.
I'd like to thank the contributors to jazz.com whose work is included in this two-part survey: Scott Albin, Dean Alger, Rob Bamberger, Thomas Cunniffe, Peter Gerler, Ethan Iverson, Alan Kurtz, Ed Leimbacher, Jared Pauley, Cliff Preiss, Thierry Qu√©num and David Sager.
A History of New Orleans Music in 100 Tracks
Part Two: The Modern Era (1956 to Today)
Shirley & Lee:
Let the Good Times Roll (1956) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
So many famous artists have performed this song‚ÄĒthe Rolling Stones, Barbara Streisand, the Righteous Brothers, Roy Orbison‚ÄĒbut it has New Orleans stamped on every measure, and can be traced back to the local R&B duo Shirley and Lee. They had enjoyed earlier hits; "I'm Gone" climbed to number two on the R&B chart in 1952, but this 1956 single made it all the way to the top spot and even crossed over on to the airwaves of mainstream America. Despite a marketing campaign which proclaimed them as "Sweethearts of the Blues," Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee were just friends. By the early 1960s they had split up, each pursuing a solo career that never matched the success of the early work as pretend lovers. (Although Shirley had one more taste of fame with her lead vocal on the disco hit "Shame, Shame, Shame.") On "Let the Good Times Roll," boy meets girl and invites her to a "roll" of vague description. Just another Spring day in New Orleans. The vocals are convincing, but Earl Palmer's drumming is a major contributor to this song's success. He rocks and rolls as the need arises and briefly switches into stop time, but‚ÄĒbest of all‚ÄĒengages in a circus-type march beat over the main theme that is both strange and effective. The history of New Orleans music is partly the tale of how the march beat was liberated, taken from the soldiers and given to the lovers and assorted party-goers....
Huey 'Piano' Smith:
Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu (1957) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
That piano lick has been stolen more times than second base at Fenway Park, but it still sounds sweet and funky today. New Orleans native Huey "Piano" Smith parlayed it into a 1957 hit with "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." The song didn't achieve much crossover success at the time‚ÄĒsupposedly because white deejays were reluctant to play it‚ÄĒbut it reached the top five of the R&B chart. And the song had an even bigger impact when Johnny Rivers covered it in 1972: everybody heard it the second time around, and it earned a gold record for the singer. But you are advised to travel upstream and check out River's source....
Henry "Red" Allen:
Ain't She Sweet (1957) Reviewed by Alan Kurtz
Henry "Red" Allen spent his life in Louis Armstrong's shadow, usually figuratively but sometimes literally. Like his slightly older and far more famous predecessor, Red was born in New Orleans, journeyed jazzily upstream during the 1920s aboard Fate Marable's Mississippi riverboat band, landed with King Oliver in Chicago, and later joined Fletcher Henderson in New York. Red finally caught up with Louis in the late 1930s, becoming Armstrong's sideman for three years. (Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.) From 1940 onward, Red led his own bands, becoming in the mid-'50s a regular attraction at New York's Metropole Caf√©, which daringly lined its musicians up in a single row on a narrow runway behind the bar. The music was always great, but probably at least a few patrons came to see whether or not some tipsy trombonist might topple with his slide in the 7th position and skewer a bartender en route to the sawdust....
Java (1958) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
In 1964, Allen Toussaint was in the Army and walking through the barracks one day when he heard Al Hirt's version of "Java" on the radio. Toussaint told one of the soldiers to turn up the volume, because he had written this song. "Aww, of course you wrote it," was the skeptical response. Hirt's record reached number four on the Billboard chart, while Toussaint had trouble even collecting royalties. At one point he found that money was going to a mysterious "Joe Friday" who was credited as co-composer. Of course, Toussaint was a mystery man of his own back then, having recorded this song for RCA under the name of "Al Tousan." But his piano style is immediately recognizable and blows his cover within the first few bars....
The Lord's Prayer (1958) Reviewed by Alan Kurtz
According to British scholar Martin Halliwell's American Culture in the 1950s, most reports identified gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as the star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In particular, Professor Halliwell cites "The Lord's Prayer," with which she closes Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the '58 NJF. "Jackson's contralto voice and religious devotion," Halliwell contends, "is a powerful spiritual counterpoint to the secular coolness of the Festival's jazz rhythms." Miss Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Jackson Five (perhaps voters thought she was related?), seems to have been all things to all people....
St. James Infirmary (1958) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
The blues were never quite so blue when Snooks Eaglin sang them, and even the minor key lament "St. James Infirmary" will put a bounce in your step when this Crescent City master adds his spin to it. Eaglin was born in New Orleans (1936) and died in New Orleans (2009), and though his his range of artistic expression was dauntingly he wide‚ÄĒhe claimed to know 2,500 songs, and his recordings cover every style from R&B to folk music‚ÄĒthe stamp of his hometown was always present in his work. A sense of freedom and exuberance permeated his performances, both his guitar playing and his Ray Charles-ish vocals. Here he takes an antiquated song that will forever be associated with New Orleans (albeit one drawn originally from the English folk ballad "The Unfortunate Rake") and wears it like a second-hand suit that somehow becomes a bespoke garment in a hip new style....
Go to the Mardi Gras (1959) Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher
At the end of Lent, in the stretch up to Fat Tuesday, New Orleans busts loose‚ÄĒ even now after Katrina's destruction of the Big Easy‚ÄĒand the one song that brings on the resurrection every year is "Go to the Mardi Gras," by the singular and only Professor Longhair, gran' papa of NOLA's rhumba-rhythm piano sound. Fifty years after it was recorded, 'Fess's hot-saucy soupcon of joy is still the perennial hit. Granted, the good professor learned a few tricks from some earlier cats, but he's the man who perfected all, and influenced every Louisiana piano tickler that came after. His prot√©g√© Dr. John was there back in '59 to arrange the goodtiming go-to while 'Fess coached the crack local players into the right rhythm and mood. Then the tapes rolled‚ÄĒ'Fess's piano rippled out a clarion wake-up call trailed by fast, bustling drums‚ÄĒand history answered....
Al 'Carnival Time' Johnson:
Carnival Time (1959) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Fifty years after it was recorded, this song still shows up on the airwaves at Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. It was such a defining hit for Al Johnson that the song became his nickname. "Everybody's having fun," the song proclaims‚ÄĒexcept for Mr. 'Carnival Time' himself. This classic New Orleans single was long a sore spot for Johnson, who was unable to secure rights to the royalty stream until 1999. Instead, he earned a living as a cab driver while others celebrated with his song playing in the background. Gaining control over his composition hardly signaled a turnaround in Johnson's life, and he lost his house in Hurricane Katrina, was forced to relocate to Houston, and only recently got a Habitat for Humanity home back in his home town (in Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis's "Musicians' Village"). What a contrast between the man and his music. This is a quintessential good time, partyin' tune with a big back beat and an extroverted vocal that is the closest thing to an invitation to a saturnalia allowed on the radio, circa 1960....
Don't Ever Love (1960) Reviewed by Dean Alger
This is the first track on the first album made after Lonnie Johnson was "rediscovered" by Chris Albertson in Philadelphia in 1959 (making it Johnson's second "comeback"). Most striking is Johnson's vocal artistry; the man who was one of the ultimate guitar virtuosos sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing and phrasing to show that he could be not just a very good singer, but a great one. Johnson's guitar work was so exceptional that it tends to distract attention from his later vocal mastery. One good listen to this extraordinary performance will set that straight....
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (1962) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Every artistic tradition of any scope has its serious practitioners and its popularizers. But with New Orleans jazz it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. A jazz purist will tell you that Louis Armstrong was the real artist, while Al Hirt was the watered-down version for the members of the public who didn't know any better. Yet the truth is somewhat more complicated. This track is truer to the jazz tradition than many recordings that Satchmo made around the same time, and if you know the trumpet you won't need a Toledo scale to figure out that Al Hirt is no lightweight. Here he takes a song associated with Armstrong, and plays it with a big New Orleans tone, confident phrasing and sure technique....
Hello Dolly (1963) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
A bystander at the recording session notes that Louis Armstrong shook his head in dismay when looking over the music to "Hello Dolly," an unknown song (at the time) that the trumpeter was simply performing to please long-time manager Joe Glaser. Glaser must have been repaying a favor to someone‚ÄĒcertainly this repetitive tune with the simple-minded lyric from a Broadway show that still hadn't opened was no gift to Armstrong. Yet Louis was a consummate showman and seasoned veteran of many sessions, and delivered the tune with so much enthusiasm that one might have concluded that he was the one who had concocted the whole idea. Even the old-timey banjo, overdubbed by a producer looking to add a little more "period charm" to the song, can't detract from the charisma of New Orleans' most famous musical ambassador. A few weeks later the song was a hit, and by May a 62-year-old trumpeter had pushed the Beatles out of the top spot on the Billboard chart....
Time is on My Side (1964) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Give the Rolling Stones some credit. No one saw this song as a potential hit until the British rockers put it on the charts in the Fall of 1964. A few months earlier, Irma Thomas's record label had buried her rendition of "Time is on My Side" on the B-side of the single "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is." The song had been recorded previously by Kai Winding (check out the strangeness here), but the Stones relied instead on Thomas's version with its expanded lyrics. The New Orleans R&B diva got no satisfaction from seeing the young rockers' success‚ÄĒand was so upset that, for a time, she only performed it in response to determined requests from the audience....
Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
Panama (1964) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
I wouldn't want to suggest for one minute that the venerated Preservation Hall Jazz Band, put together by Sweet Emma Barrett's around the time of this recording, was a marketing-driven concept targeted at tourists and other people who know nothing about the real history of New Orleans jazz. I will merely point out that, the year before this record was made, Sweet Emma was performing at Disneyland. Hell, you know it has to be authentic if Walt and his Anaheim brain trust approved of it. Then there is the building, the famous Preservation Hall, which was 214 years old when this music was made (in Minneapolis; shhh, don't tell anyone)‚ÄĒan edifice that had no connection with this jazz ensemble for 211 of those years. But if those walls could only speak...they would at least demand a cut of the action....
Muskrat Ramble (1965) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
What sort of people were spending their evenings out, back in the middle of the turbulent '60s, listening to Pete Fountain's dixieland band? Judging by this recording, they were a happy-go-lucky sort you wouldn't mind having for a next door neighbor. The Stones might be looking for "Satisfaction" back in '65, but these fans were just looking for a good time. And that war off in Southeast Asia? Who in French Quarter Inn crowd would have predicted that, just a few months later, Country Joe McDonald would borrow this same Kid Ory tune for his famous antiwar chant, which became so associated with the protest movement that some people simply called it the "Vietnam Song"....
What a Wonderful World (1967) Reviewed by Alan Kurtz
Aside from Satchmo singing throughout, this track has nothing to do with jazz. But that's like saying, "Aside from the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor has no towering monuments." The single exception is a tad conspicuous. And certainly jazz has no monument more towering than Louis Armstrong. Here he transforms a platitudinous ditty that, done by any other singer, would make us cringe, and instead makes us rapturous. What other voice so embodied dignity, heartache, humor, compassion and downright love of life?...
Big Road Blues / Careless Love (1968) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
"I ain't the best in the world," Babe Stovall modestly proclaimed at performances, "but I'll do until the best git here." For years, Stovall entertained passersby on the streets of New Orleans, and little did they know how deep ran the blues roots of this spirited showman of the pavement. Here he delivers a moving version of "Big Road Blues," a song that was handed down from guitarist to guitarist in the early decades of the twentieth century, and ismost closely associated with the legendary 1920s-era bluesman Tommy Johnson. This piece is more syncopated than your typical early blues and the guitar part is a timeless bit of Americana, worthy of its own corner in the Smithsonian. The Mississippi Sheiks later adopted the essentials of this song for their "Stop and Listen Blues"‚ÄĒa borrowing which led to that anomaly in the blues field: copyright litigation from Johnson's record label. Stovall's version sounds strikingly like Johnson's, and well it should‚ÄĒhe learned this song directly from him, and even knows some additional lyrics that Johnson never recorded. This is the real stuff in the blues world, as authentic as moonshine straight from the still....
Barney Bigard & Art Hodes:
Bucket's Got A Hole In It (1968) Reviewed by Dean Alger
"Bucket's Got A Whole In It" is a traditional tune that was widely heard in New Orleans in jazz's early years. The song gets a zesty, beautifully played revival in the hands of Bigard and Hodes, with trombone legend George Brunies and Nap Trottier on trumpet making superb lead-line additions. Hodes opens things on piano with wonderful verve and dynamics, leading to the full band playing the finest updated-and- refreshed classic ol' New Orleans-style ensemble jazz, each instrument contributing to the marvelous mosaic. Bigard sings the pure fun/let's party lyrics like one who knows where this song originally came from and feels it. And after the first singing run, Bigard treats us to a beaut of a clarinet solo with flair, using all his unparalleled rich tone, inventive lines, and stylistic techniques....
Iko Iko (1972) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
You don't really need to know what "Iko Iko" means to enjoy it, but a grad student could spend a month deciphering the Creole patois and this song's various significations. The tune was originally recorded under the name "Jock-A-Mo"‚ÄĒwhich means jester. A "spy dog" is a lookout. Marraine is a godmother, etc. But even the composer claims he was just imitating phrases he had picked up from Mardi Gras Indians, and didn't really know what they meant....
The Wild Magnolias:
Smoke My Peace Pipe (Smoke It Right) (1973) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
My source documents are strangely silent about the so-called "peace pipe" mentioned in this song. Are the Wild Magnolias referring to some time-honored Native American tradition? A powerful medicine? A shamanistic ritual of cosmic proportions? They are sticklers for ritual purity‚ÄĒadmonishing the listener to "smoke it right"; but how do they get around all those local anti-smoking restrictions? You can't even light up a cigar in a smoke shop these days without a squad car arriving to take you away in 'cuffs. Of course, the music presents its own puzzle. Could this really be a traditional Native American song? Did they have electric bass back then? The uninitiated might be tempted to describe this track as watered-down 1970s soul music, but that shows how little they know.....
Junco Partner #2 (1973) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
They call them the "lost Paramount tapes." The 16 track master tapes disappeared a long time ago, and they are still hiding out somewhere. But in 1992, almost a decade after Booker's death from kidney failure‚ÄĒtragically left waiting for treatment at New Orleans Charity Hospital's emergency room‚ÄĒDaniel Moore found tapes of the mix he made made on the night of the last session. This allowed the CD release of this posthumous masterpiece. Dr. John reportedly plays a cassette of this music for musicians in his band so they can hear how New Orleans music is supposed to be played. But, honestly, there can't be many bands in the Big Easy, or anywhere else, that operate consistently at this level....
Right Place Wrong Time (1973) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
For once, it was a case of the right place at the right time. Most of the New Orleans piano legends never had a top ten hit, and Dr. John could have gone through his entire career without an AM airplay sensation and still be assured of his iconic status. But the stars were in alignment for Mac Rebennack when he recorded this quirky, likeable tune, which became his biggest selling song. There were other stars on hand‚ÄĒin the studio that day, and they deserve some credit too. When will the Meters get their due? This fantastic band, New Orleans's answer to the Wrecking Crew and Funk Brothers, always delivered the goods, and could produce a hit for other parties (they did it again with "Lady Marmalade" the following year). Their own recordings are textbook studies in the proper care and nurturing of a dance groove, and ought to be enshrined in some suitable hall of funky fame....
Fire on the Bayou (1975) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
If the Motown label had moved to New Orleans at the end of the Vietnam era, this is the kind of music they might have launched on to the charts and spread to the jukeboxes of America. Dream on! . . . most people probably can't handle this much Cajun spice in their musical fare. "Fire on the Bayou" is a simple tune‚ÄĒalmost maddeningly banal‚ÄĒand the words will never be featured in a poetry anthology. But this is one of hottest rhythm sections you will hear on record, and the funk comes at you gumbo thick....
Put Out the Light (1976) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
As the story goes, 18-year-old James Booker was invited to play piano for the great concert hall virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, who told the teenager afterward: "I could never play that." In all honesty, who‚ÄĒoutside a small coterie of seasoned New Orleans players‚ÄĒwould dare? The rolling, syncopated style of pianism that goes by the name of "New Orleans style" is hard to pin down. Sometimes it is reminiscent of boogie-woogie or stride, but never falls into the predictable rhythmic patterns of those idioms. The sound is less rock and more roll, an ebbing and flowing that always seems to move around the beat rather than sit on top of it. Booker is the master of this two-handed approach, and crafted one of the most persuasive keyboard styles of the late 20th century....
The Wild Tchoupitoulas:
Big Chief Got a Golden Crown (1976) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
The tradition of Mardi Gras Indians‚ÄĒrevelers, organized into tribes, who wear elaborate costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial attire‚ÄĒpredates the arrival of jazz and blues on the local scene. But all traditions are susceptible to updating, and this one is no exception. Today women are allowed into these previously men-only groups, and the songs borrow from contemporary stylings. This track is that odd hybrid: a New Orleans reggae tune. Makes you wonder whether these Indians come from the West Indies. A catchy call-and-response is made all the tastier by the presence of a very hot back-up band. Of course, this Big Chief (George Landry) had a distinct advantage over his rivals: his nephews are the Neville Brothers....
GCCG Blues (1980) Reviewed by Thierry Quenum
Say what you will, there's a good chance this blowing session is so warm and uninhibited because three of the musicians involved are Southerners. Aside from bassist Ray Drummond, the odd man out from Massachusetts, we have leader Idris Muhammad from Louisiana plus saxophonists Coleman from Tennessee and Sanders from Arkansas. Of course there are good musicians everywhere, but when it comes to being oneself on blues changes, as on this medium-fast Coleman composition, it's hard to wail in a more natural and a looser way than those Southern cats. So forget about supposed styles (Coleman= hard bop, Sanders=free, Muhammad= R&B) and listen to them surprise you on these familiar chords that nowadays are often dealt with as if they were a scholarly exercise....
Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
Shake It and Break It (1981) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Well, this song will at least get grandpa perking up his ears, and maybe even out of his easy chair. If Percy Humphrey's vocal were any grittier, you could sand down at least two of the exterior walls of Preservation Hall with it. And brother Willie's clarinet solo is fine and fluttery, with bird-call like figures, friendly patterns, and even a few phrases that might have been improvised. Jazz purists will have little patience for the 1960s-era institution masquerading as an authentic piece of early New Orleans history, but only a sourpuss would denounce all this lighthearted fun. And it was probably better that the tourists spent their money at Preservation Hall than down at Big Daddy's Gentlemen's Club....
Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra by Joseph Haydn (first movement) (1983) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
No, it's not jazz‚ÄĒduh!‚ÄĒbut anyone who wants to come to grips with the phenomenon of Wynton Marsalis needs to hear his classical side, and there is no better place to start than his debut classical album, made when the trumpeter was 20. It would earn him a Grammy in 1983, and gain him a following among a wide audience who had never come within 500 feet of a jazz club. In particular, listen to the cadenza toward the conclusion of the first movement of the Haydn concerto. It's not just the technical control, which admittedly can blind you to everything else, but even more the freedom of his phrasing. The cadenza goes beyond the bounds of the idiom, yet also seems perfectly appropriate. I don't think anyone else on the planet could have pulled this off back then, or today for that matter....
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band:
It's All Over Now (1987) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
We all know that the Rolling Stones can "borrow" music from New Orleans. So why can't New Orleans musicians do the same in return? Here the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, joined by Dr. John, delivers a spirited rendition of "It's All Over Now," which served as the British rockers' first number one single back in '64. Of course, the Stones had picked it up from the Womack brothers, so this song has crossed the Big Pond enough times to earn frequent flyer miles and a free upgrade....
The Majesty of the Blues (The Puheeman Strut) (1988) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
This performance marks a major turning point in the career of Wynton Marsalis. Before this recording, Marsalis was a futurist, working on elaborate polyrhythmics, playing fast and hard, and moving in a post-Miles direction. Then‚ÄĒseemingly overnight‚ÄĒhe becomes the grand traditionalist, and shows off a killin' pre-bop sound, built on down-and-dirty textures reminiscent of Bubber Miley and King Oliver. 'What's going on?' as Marvin Gaye might ask....
Harry Connick, Jr. (with Dr. John):
Do You Know What it Means (To Miss New Orleans) (1988) Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher
When New Orleans' native son Harry Connick, Jr. recorded his second album 20 two decades ago, the world and Southern Louisiana's portion of it were in a different place and time. No 9/11 and no Homeland Security, no Hurricane Katrina, and no feeble FEMA response. This classic song was just a lonely, lovely lament for a languid city recalled from afar....
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band:
Use Your Brain (1991) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
For those raised on today's urban music, it may be hard to believe that you could get such a soulful groove without bass or guitar or keyboards . . . or sampling or programming and those other "little helpers" that are so common these days. But welcome to New Orleans, where horns have been doin' the heavy lifting for more than a century. Here we don't even get a full dirty dozen in the band, but a majority of the ensemble shows up in the studio for "Use Your Brain," and that's all they need for a funk quorum. This project found the band members focusing on original compositions, with saxophonist Roger Lewis penning this winning chart. It's fascinating to listen to this music and trace the history back to those early New Orleans brass bands, yet also hear all the contemporary ingredients....
Sidney in Da Haus (1992) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
The Sidney of the title is Sidney Bechet, the Creole clarinet (and soprano sax) master of early New Orleans jazz. Usually Branford's brother is the Marsalis sibling who plays the role of jazz museum curator, but perhaps Wynton's presence as a sideman here inspired this historically-charged performance. You probably already know that Branford Marsalis can construct thematic improvisations like Rollins or unleash modal assaults like 'Trane, but what about his Bechet bag on soprano sax? His breaks on this track are pure New Orleans, delivered with a coy "gosh, look at me" attitude that is quite endearing, and Branford follows with four picture-perfect blues choruses. Then the trumpeter in the family steps to the forefront and offers his own forceful history lesson....
Existence is Punishment (1992) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
New Orleans has a long tradition of iconoclastic funeral music, with its parading brass bands and strutting second lines that sometimes strike outsiders as oddly bright and jaunty. But the sludge metal movement that came out of New Orleans in the early 1990s offered a corrective to all that. The dark, gloomy sound of bands such as Crowbar, Acid Bath and Eyehategod will quickly send the second line packing never to return. In a city known for party music, sludge metal fans created the closest thing to self-flagellation to be contained on a compact disk. "Existence is Punishment" captures this raw style in all its sludginess: lugubriously slow tempos, guitars played like welding equipment, and vocals so rough that, by comparison, Dr. John sounds ready to sing Puccini at La Scala....
'Fess Up (1992) Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher
While the good Doctor has recorded many tributes to Professor Longhair (his inspiration and early mentor) over the years, none tops his tune called "'Fess Up." To portray the Professor, Mac employs a dash of "Hadacol," a brief trace of "Tipitina," and maybe a hint of "She Walks Right In," plus a whole new spritely rising melody. Just "radiatin' the 88," says Mac, as he casually mixes Longhair's Caribbean rhumba in with a sly dose of Cow Cow Davenport, some "double note crossovers," and a smudgin' of boogie-woogie too....
In This House, On This Morning (1993) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
There are many tempting pigeonholes in which to place this 2-hour work by Mr. Marsalis. You could call it his personal variant on the old Ellington Sacred Concerts. Or you could look it as an apprentice effort pointing toward Marsalis's later Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Blood on the Fields. You might even see this as a historic moment in the institutionalization of jazz. (This was the trumpeter's first commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center.) Or you could do as I suggest, and actually listen to the music and let it speak to you on its own terms. Of course, it is much more convenient to have a readymade opinion about Wynton that exempts you from actually having to hear his music. But if you put your ears to the test you will encounter many aural moments of high distinction, from that expansive opening motif of "Devotional" (vaguely reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere") which will return to greet the perspicacious listener from time to time, to the glorious and free-ish trumpet speaking-in-tongues of "Call to Prayer" and the 6/8 cool jazz stylings of "Hymn." And let me call attention (to pick a few more pleasing examples) to the horns that sound like church bells in "Recessional" and Wynton's celebration of his New Orleans roots in his concluding "Pot Blessed Dinner"....
The Neville Brothers:
Shake Your Tambourine (1994) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
In 1981, the same year the Columbia discovered the Marsalis brothers, the folks at A&M signed another group of New Orleans siblings. The Neville Brothers were unlikely to become the next teenage sensation‚ÄĒArt (born in 1937) was older than Wynton and Branford put together‚ÄĒbut that didn't stop them from attracting a younger audience with their fervent mixture of R&B, funk, reggae, rock and Louisiana swamp sounds. On this live track, the Nevilles bring a little bit of New Orleans on the road, and successfully translate their street party sound on to the big stage. The band is tight and the vocals blend with that appealing consonance that is a characteristic of vocal groups made up of siblings....
Blood on the Fields (1995) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Wynton Marsalis has built a career on high ambitions‚ÄĒincluding (for a start) assimilating the music vocabulary from Haydn to Ornette‚ÄĒbut this may be the biggest gambit of them all. The best comparison point here is Duke Ellington's extraordinary Black, Brown & Beige, composed a half-century before Wynton presented his Blood on the Fields to the music world. Like Ellington, Marsalis also tries to pull together history, sociology and lots of dramatic music into a big, big, big composition-- more than twice as long as Ellington's work....
When the Saints Go Marching In (1995) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Contrary to what you might think, Dixieland bands hate playing this tune. Back in the 1960s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band demanded a five dollar tip before they would even consider performing it, but would only require one buck for "Clarinet Marmalade." One solution for jaded trad players is to banish it from the repertoire‚ÄĒsend those saints marching out‚ÄĒbut the other approach is to follow Payton's formula. Change the chords and rhythms so that it becomes an entirely new song. Nothing remains of the original progression on this recording. You won't hear any trad band try this kind of reharmonization, and along with the eight-to-the-bar long count feel of the pulse, the result is a version of "Saints" that sounds more at home in Rio than the French Quarter....
Christopher, Jr. (1996) Reviewed by Scott Albin
On a CD that mixes jazz with hip-hop, reggae, New Orleans funk and second line, calypso, blues, the Motown sound and Brazilian samba, this track nonetheless stands out for its streamlined focus. "Christopher Jr." is Donald Harrison's pure bebop tribute to Charlie Parker. Harrison's versatility is well known, whether exploring Eric Dolphy's music many years ago with Terence Blanchard or Latin jazz currently with Eddie Palmieri, so it's no surprise that he could compose such a catchy bop tune as "Christopher Jr." and improvise on it with extreme confidence and flair. The theme borrows from several bop anthems of yore, yet is somehow fresh-sounding and memorable in its own right, as Harrison's vibrant alto plays it soulfully with a piquant tone....
Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton:
Jeepers Creepers (1996) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton is a musician who deeply understands and has assimilated Louis Armstrong's legacy. Doc Cheatham, for his part, occasionally subbed for Louis back in the mid-1920s‚ÄĒmore than four decades before Payton was born. Yet the duo bridge the Jazz Age and the Internet Age on this recording, which was Cheatham's last studio project before his death at age 91. Payton's solo work here is outstanding, and if he outshines Cheatham, the latter still delivers a heck of a performance for a nonagenarian. Payton's unaccompanied intro is all too brief, but packs a lot of swing into a few bars....
Crazyhorse Mongoose (1997) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
No, New Orleans can't claim to have invented funk, but its contribution to the nations GDF (= Gross Domestic Funkiness) is way out of proportion to the size of its population or square mileage. Must be in the water . . . flowing down the big river, coming in from the Gulf, seeping up out of the ground. Galactic, formed in 1994, has been keeping the local funk tradition alive and updating it for a new generation. The aesthetic here is no-nonsense jam band with a thin veneer of polish to make it suitable for contemporary jazz airplay. There is a lot to enjoy here, but Stanton Moore's drumming really is the key ingredient....
Bourbon Street Blues (1998) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
The New Orleans piano tradition is so rich that it is hard for the modern generation of keyboardists to live up to its demands, let alone earn a place alongside the legends of yesteryear. But Henry Butler has proven that he is a huge talent whose name is not out of place when mentioned in the same breath as those of the departed masters such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, or even the great Jelly Roll himself. Butler has, if anything, even greater technical command of the instrument than any of these predecessors, and there are few more enjoyable experiences in piano music today than hearing this artist attack the 88 keys. I prefer Butler unaccompanied, as on this tour de force performance of "Bourbon Street Blues." He has a deep idiomatic command of the full range of vernacular American piano styles, and you will hear bits of ragtime, stride, boogie and funk, all played with his characteristic thousand-watt touch. If his notes were any brighter, even the audience would need to wear shades....
King Porter Stomp (1999) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
This track‚ÄĒand this entire CD‚ÄĒdeserve to be far better known. But Wynton has recorded prolifically, and by the time he delivered this end-of-the-millennium tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, the idea of "Marsalis does New Orleans" was old hat and few were paying close attention. Yet this music makes my short list of the best traditional jazz performances of the modern era. In 1924, Jelly Roll Morton teamed up with King Oliver for a duet performance of this same song. Can any duo today surpass the "inventors" of New Orleans jazz at "King Porter Stomp"? Ah, Marsalis and Lewis do just that. Both are absolutely true to the inner meaning and spirit of Morton's classic tune, yet also are absolutely true to themselves‚ÄĒnot an easy combination given the tendency to treat these old New Orleans songs like venerable relics from a golden age. You hear this and you can't help concluding that the golden age is right now....
Bogalusa Strut (1999) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
How Dixieland music has changed! When played by Kermit Ruffins it comes in a swinging 4/4 time with no more of that two-beat rhythm grandpa and grandma liked so well. The back beat can even be as wide as Canal Street nowadays, imparting a certain funkiness to the proceedings that is appealing but a bit different from what Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver played for those first fans of hot music. Solos are now more important than counterpoint. And even if no one ever actually said "Modern Dixieland = White Imitators" (okay, maybe someone did mutter that from the back row), jazz fans should be happy to find a little more diversity in the front line. Ruffins, for his part, plays with enthusiasm, and knows how to put on a show. Almost anything can happen at a Ruffins' gig‚ÄĒhe exchanged vows with his beloved during a performance, and will even cook up a killin' barbecue to serve up along with the music....
Irvin Mayfield & Ellis Marsalis:
Yesterday (2004) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Paul McCartney's melody always sounds plaintive, but especially so when you know the story behind this track. Mayfield's session came close to being destroyed in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. But he preserved the original mixes on his iPod. Yet a larger tragedy loomed: the trumpeter lost his father, Irvin Mayfield, Sr., in the floods following Katrina. This talented musician and jazz educator has channeled his grief into rebuilding efforts, including an ambitious plan to help New Orleans' devastated library system. His recording, dedicated to Mayfield Sr. and the other victims of Katrina, is a moving tribute by an artist who has done more than almost any other jazz player of his generation for his home town. And how fitting that he is accompanied by Ellis Marsalis....
Louisiana 1927 (2005) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Randy Newman would have good reason to feel some sympathy with folks from Louisiana. He spent much of his childhood in New Orleans, and a dose of that city's musical personality even rubbed off on him‚ÄĒand can occasionally be heard in his work. Hurricane Katrina added new poignancy to this song about a Louisiana flood during the Coolidge administration, and here Newman offers a moving rendition at a benefit concert in Avery Fisher Hall. Yes, he may love L.A., but he clearly has a soft spot for that other LA too....
Tipitina and Me (2005) Reviewed by Ed Leimbacher
It's a perfect slice of the Crescent City, past and present. In the course of less than three minutes, the engrossed listener hears Jelly Roll Morton's Spanish tinge (the Caribbean Creole habanera sound plus Louis Moreau Gottschalk) and mad 'Fess's sly key-tickling, as well as some Slavic Classic sadness mixed with bayou blues; you experience the pianist's personal grief but profound hope too, and all carried on a rolling rhumba rhythm. It's as though he were saying, "We may be down‚ÄĒbut we're not out, not by a Congo Square jump-up, or a long chain of cheap plastic beads"....
Ghost of Congo Square (2007) Reviewed by Jared Pauley
On his opus recording A Tale of God's Will, trumpeter Terence Blanchard recalls the the spirits of old on this track, which opens up the album. I commend Mr. Blanchard for recording an album that attempts to deal with the tragedy of Katrina with music. This song opens up with a funky, shuffle beat that almost tricked me into thinking that I was listening to the Meters or Stanton Moore....
Louisiana Stew (2008) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Over the course of more than a dozen releases, Kenny Neal has established himself as one of the leading blues stars of our day. He draws on his home town roots for his "Louisiana Stew," a good-times tune with a very danceable beat. When New Orleans partyin' meets the lowdown blues, something's gotta give. The festive mood wins out here, and blue moods are put on hold for another day....
Dr. Michael White:
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2008) Reviewed by Ted Gioia
This song may be better known as a gospel or folk or roots tune, and its origins can be traced back to British-born Christian tunesmith Ada Ruth Habershon. But it sounds like a Crescent City original in the hands of Dr. Michael White and company. White is one of the leading exponents of the New Orleans tradition walking the planet. Don't let his doctorate fool you: there is nothing academic about his trad jazz work. The style of performance here might be one hundred years old, but it wears it well, huh?...