Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mike LeDonne Interview Part 2

Here's Part 2 of a great interview with pianist and organist Mike LeDonne.....

GC: Well let me ask you this, because this is also kind of related and I’m imagining that you probably played with a lot of cats who were older than you when you were coming up.
ML: Yeah, everybody was older than me.
GC: And certainly, the major names that you’ve worked with were older than you.
ML: Exactly, Benny Golson and so forth… They were older so they really kicked my butt; they knew how it was supposed to go… I had no idea.
GC:Ha ha ha that’s funny. But I think that that sort of like mentorship… do you think that that’s lost today?
Benny Golson
ML: Definitely! Who’s left? I mean, I’m the older guy now, ha ha ha.  So I figure like that’s what I’m doing. I mean, I have a lot of different drummers I’m using up at Smoke, the younger guys, like I figure we’ve got to start breaking the younger guys in to what the other side of things are because these are extremely talented guys who can do damn near anything, but they don’t usually get to groove that much, and they don’t get on gigs where the featured thing is swinging all the time so when I get them on the gig, I start molding them right away. I mean, I start telling them, you know in a nice way, I certainly … I hope I don't act like an idiot, but anyway, I just tell them, you got to do this, I need this and I need this... and if you want to keep doing this gig you have to do these things… and they are all too happy to do it. This is exactly what we wanted. We want to learn these things, and as a result, I’m getting a whole pile of guys that I can use in a musical setting. And I don’t think there’s too many things like that going just because there are no bands anymore, first of all: who you going to work with? And there certainly aren’t that many masters left in the world anymore, like, I mean of the ilk of George Coleman or Benny Golson ... you know who I mean. That ilk of musician is disappearing, I hate to say. It’s a horrible thing to be losing those people… and that’s I think a really important thing to me, is to keep what they’re about alive… in me if I can and to put it into younger musicians because I certainly don’t want to ever lose that in this music. I think it’s incredibly important to do new and different things and to search for whatever and be into being open-minded and not being closed-minded but you don’t want to lose what these guys spent their lives creating, you know? And I’m really good friends with George Coleman; we talk on the phone all the time… and Harold Mabern is a close friend, and Cedar Walton is a good friend….  and I just love these guys and I loved Milt Jackson. He was like my father! And I feel like we owe those guys a debt and the debt is to keep that stuff going forward and to keep what they’re like in this music too. Don’t let it disappear…. because I could see it happening. I could foresee a day where we don’t have that element in the music anymore and all you’re hearing is.. well, I don’t know what you’re hearing! Something else, but not that. It’s becoming sort of a cause of mine to keep that alive in young people and through me in the audience. I’m dedicated to that whole thing, and the sad thing is I don’t think most of the jazz world is that interested in that particular thing. But you never know- they always say things come back around . But right now I’m feeling a sort of a turning away from those values,  that swinging is important, that keeping the blues in the music is important, that playing the changes is important… all these basics that those values are kind of getting a little bit lost and almost avoided, like people are avoiding it because it's not popular and it's not what the guy of the latest generation is doing. I don’t even know what they’re doing because I try and go check out new music ... but, it’s hard for me  to listen to a lot of today's music. and I’m not a closed minded person- I love music… and I love any kind of music. I love classical music, I love jazz music, I love good R&B music, I love gospel music, I love any kind of music that’s good, but like I have to say a lot of things I find kind of boring nowadays when I go to hear young guys groups. I like it for about one or two tunes, but… it’s no fun. Just don't have fun listening to the music, like I want to go out, I want to have a good time. I don't want to go out and be schooled in the latest trends; I just want to go out and have a good time, and it’s hard to do that these days..i don’t know.. what do you think?
GC: I’m into a lot of different kinds of things. I’m into the new, the old and everything in between, and I always try to keep an open mind, like even if maybe my gut reaction is negative, I still try to keep… well, maybe there’s something wrong with me.
ML: Hahaha, I know…
GC: Well, maybe…
ML: You know what? I used to do that too, man and now that I’m in my 50’s, I just don’t care anymore. I don’t want to have to try to like it, I just want to like it. When they put on music for me back in the day, I liked it , just right off, it hit me. It was like, “Oh! This is fantastic, you know.” And I ain’t talking about just some good old timey bluesy record, I’m talking about Trane’s “Transition,” you know, stuff like that. I said, “Whoa, this is incredible,” right off the bat.
GC: Generally... I think it’s good to try to push forward, but I think if you completely reject history, there’s going to be something missing. I think you lose a foundation and I think that it’s hard to balance being new and being skilled. I think a lot of people are just concerned with being new as opposed to having their stuff together, you know? Like if you can’t play changes, if you can’t play in time, if you can’t swing, if you’ve never heard of certain musicians, it’s a little suspect to me.
ML: Yeah, or know certain tunes, melodies, certain musicians you should know. I was just talking about this today, but this is nothing new, because I had put up this interview with Charlie Parker on Facebook and it’s an incredible interview. I mean, it’s so awesome to hear him talk, and what he talks about, so it’s really inspiring to hear it. I put it up on Facebook for people to check out and somebody made a comment that without Bird, like 99 or 99.9% of the musicians would not even exist today.
GC: It’s true.
ML: Yeah, except I was thinking about it, and I was remembering back to my college days, and already there was a movement going in the 70’s away from listening to Bird, like people were purposely not listening to him and saying they didn’t want his clichés or his kind of thinking to get into their music. They felt like it would corrupt their stuff and make it sound just clichéd if they listened to Bird. They became very prominent musicians that you would know right now, and it blew me away, so actually when I was in college, I swear a small handful, like maybe a half dozen people, used to practice his tunes at night and jam on his tunes. Everybody else was into totally different stuff, like in those days it was the avant garde, like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette, and Cecil Taylor. I liked hearing those things in short doses but I never really loved... well, I loved Ornette, but I never really loved the super avant garde stuff. I just thought it was lacking in emotional scope. It didn’t have warmth to me, it didn't have any charm. It just seemed kind of cold and dark.
GC: But you know, I mean for example, classical musicians, I think there’s pros and cons about being a classical musician. But I think that classical musicians study all the history when they go to school.
ML: Yeah, that’s true. So it’s good to know about it and listen to it, to understand it, sure, but these people were 100% about that, like that’s it and the other stuff is old-fashioned and you don’t even listen to it because you don’t want to seem old-fashioned. And that was already in the 70’s, so I’m saying that that is nothing new; it’s what we’re talking about. I guess it's been going on for a long time, and what we’re seeing now is just a falling off of a lot of the older masters, so there’s really nobody to put things back in perspective anymore. And then you have a lot of guys just teaching in colleges but that’s different than having an old master. But if Milt Jackson tells you, it’s got a certain weight that you just can’t deny, you can’t argue with it. If he tells you that x, y, and z is the truth and that other stuff isn’t you’re going to be ok, I gotcha, you’re right. But when your teacher tells you it’s like aaah, ok, whatever you say buddy. It’s a whole different thing.
GC: Yeah, but again, there’s pros and cons of classical studies. I went to a classical school. But  as a classical trumpet major, I respected my teacher and considered him the authority. I feel for some reason now, not always, but some students don’t want to listen to their teacher. They think that they know everything.
ML: Well, that’s a very good point. That’s right, there’s another value system there just between the elders and the youth like that.  I guess that`s always been there too, but it seems even more now than ever… That’s wild, you were a trumpet major, wow, that’s amazing.
GC: I’ve played with Benny Golson maybe a handful of times like in Europe, but you were, and I assume you still are, in his band or you’re playing with him frequently?
ML: Yeah.
GC: What’s that like?
ML: Oh, it's the best thing in the world, I just love him to death, he is the sweetest, nicest, greatest musician too. Outstanding musician. It’s like having this great man who’s hiring you and giving you gigs telling you do your thing to the utmost and “stretch it out as much as you can, and don’t worry about a thing, I love everything you do.” He builds your confidence and gives you the freedom to just go for it… play weird but stretch your stuff as much as you can. He loves it when you change stuff up and you’re doing things that excite him and he lets you know it too.
Milt Jackson
I mean when he’s onstage, he’s totally demonstrative about his enthusiasm about what you’re doing, and so you’re playing and he’s wowing you while you’re playing, so you just play better and better and better; you can’t go wrong with that kind of enthusiasm from a guy like that. At the same time I was with Benny Golson, I was with Milt Jackson and I loved him; he was a very, very dear close friend of mine. I was honored and I learned a lot from him too, but Milt Jackson did not really want you to stretch the music too far. He liked it in his home base, in his home field where he enjoyed music and we never had a problem. He never told me one thing. I was with him for 11 years, he never told me one thing about what to do, and he always loved my playing and he told me so, and again I got that kind of support from him, but if I started to show some other things on the gig, he’d take me aside and tell me, “Now, man, you know…”  I remember one time we were playing this tune “SKJ”… you know that tune?
GC: Sure.
ML: It’s just a downhome blues in D flat.  I was listening a lot to Kenny Dorham at the time and I was learning some turnbacks. Plus, I was listening a lot to McCoy at the time and I was learning some of his ways of interpreting harmony. So, I was playing at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, on this crappy little upright piano, and so I started to do some of these turnbacks in “SKJ.” I started to throw in a couple little things here and there and during the break, we’re hanging out and he’s like, “Now, Mike, I have nothing against people experimenting, but why you got to do it on THAT tune?” And I knew just what he meant, it’s like, that’s not the place to do that, I learned a lot right there. It’s like you got to stay within the vibe of the music, man, you can’t just explode your stuff anywhere on any tune.
But Benny Golson, I’ve been playing his book for so long. I must have played “I Remember Clifford” a thousand times by now and “Whisper Not” and all those things, so I tend to start to take these things a little bit less when we’re playing and he just loves it. As long as it makes sense and stays within the confines of the basic personality of the tune. And I’ve said to Benny before, sometimes I almost feel like I’m afraid that I might alienate people because of some things that I do. I’m just really trying to see how to do it different, and he just said, “look, don’t worry about that because when you come right down to it, how you play is who you are and you can’t escape that, so don’t be ashamed of who you are, just put it out there,” and I said, “wow, ok, cool!” I’ve gone by that rule ever since he told me that; and it has liberated me, in a way, from worrying so much about just what these people in this audience are going to think about me. Sometimes I think I’m taking it pretty far and they really get into it, they’ll go right with me. And then sometimes they’ll ice me, but whatever… I mean more times than not they’ll stick with me…
GC: Maybe they were too busy texting…
ML: Hahaha exactly, you know what it is man, because you’re a very open-minded player and you certainly stretch the limits when you play…. and do you ever feel like that? Does it ever cross your mind like maybe I’m losing these people?
GC: Sure. Sure, it’s a tough thing to gauge. I think jazz music tends to be like you said, something that has to be listened to, and I think that especially as time goes on maybe people want to listen less. It’s like they don’t really want to pay attention to it, which is why you have sort of the rise of things that are a lot fluffier but somehow get filed under jazz. You know, I won’t name any names, I guess…
ML: Yeah right, exactly.
GC: Because that is not jazz but people will think it’s jazz and put it on during dinner and say, man, I listened to jazz, check this out and it’s really not jazz. You know, things are so non-confrontational now. No one is doing anything that makes you think. It’s all just, stuff that’s very easily… it’s all like candy and fast food, there’s nothing really nutritional.
ML: That’s true, for the stuff that’s selling millions of records that’s true… for the stuff that’s making really powerful money for people that’s true. Well, that’s the thing with the organ band that I try to do, not that I try to play fluff, at least I’m playing some pop tunes that are swinging. I’m hoping to bridge some gap between those folks.
GC: But you’re doing it in a very hip way and that’s what I liked about the gig. You do stuff that’s recognizable but then, you make it musical and there’s definitely some meat to it, it’s not just a sell-out.
ML: Right. It’s not a cover of the record. I put a lot of time and thought into making those vehicles to play on. But still, I like to think that I get those folks involved who come in to Smoke and don't give a shit about jazz. Once you get them involved, you can rip some more fast tunes in their face and they’re into it, they’re not getting turned off by it so, the organ is good for that, I think. That’s one thing I like about the organ, it’s a got a little bit more appeal, like common folk appeal. I mean, depending on who’s playing the piano I tend to take left a lot more than the organ, actually I’m still searching for a way to take the organ more left. I keep searching for it; it’s a little more difficult when you can’t comp, when you have no chords in the left hand. And you’re walking bass lines. You can do interesting things harmonically, but it’s not the like the piano where you can really superimpose things over a bass player… and it’s just got a whole different sound on it than piano on organ. I’ve been looking for that sound on organ, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m looking for it.
GC: Hey just real quick, anything in the works that I should mention?
ML: Let’s see, well, my new record is out, “Keep the Faith”. I’m doing a quintet gig, I’m using Louis Hayes up at Smoke, and I’m going to do the music from that record “The Pole Winners,” some of those tunes, because Louis Hayes is on that record and I just want to do a little tribute to that. I love those tunes, so I figure playing those with Lou Hayes should be totally cookin’. Then I’m going out with Golson, a little tour in March in Italy, stuff like that. I wish I was playing at the Vanguard next week, but I’m not, and probably never will, but who knows.
GC: Haha.
ML: And I’m still holding the gig on Tuesdays. Thank God for Smoke, let me say that, and thank God for the Hammond B3, because that thing really upped my gig potential. It doubled everything, really, in a world full of piano players. The B3 really has brought in a lot of stuff for me in the past 10 years. Sometimes I want to just kick it and burn it and never play it again but… It’s just such a beast, I’m like, how many times can I do this? But it is a great thing, I just love it! 
GC: So, I have a real quick question to ask you. Are there any fake, let’s call them, B3’s?
ML: Clones, you mean?
GC: Clones that you like?
ML: I have a Nord.
GC: Well, there you go.
ML: I think that its good; it’s not a B3, but in a pinch, it sounds damn close and it feels pretty good. Lonnie Smith was just telling me that the new Hammond keyboard that came out is excellent and I’ve been hearing good things about that. I haven’t tried it myself… but I’ll tell you what I really loved was that Pat Bianchi gave me this software for my computer called BB3… it’s by some Italian guy who made this software… man, you hook that up to your controller keyboard, it sounds incredible.
GC: Really!?!
ML: It sounds just like a B3. I mean it’s got all the background sounds; all of the flaws and everything, it’s incredible. I was using that to practice with while I was on the road with my Nord, and it’s very enjoyable to play, the thing is that... all these clone keyboards, the hardest part is how do you reproduce the sounds through an amplifier? Because it sounds great with a headphone, but when you put it in an amplifier, the sound downgrades, that’s what I have found. With the Nord, the thing to do is to put it in stereo for two amplifiers and that really sounds good. If you get a bass amp and a guitar amp and split the Nord right and left channel it sounds very big, it fattens out all the sound and makes the sound much more real. That might work with this software too. I’m not sure, but I know with the Nord it really made a difference, are you using one like that?
GC:  I have the Nord Electro 3.
ML: Yeah, that's what I have.
GC:  I like the C1. The Nord is great, I’ve been listening to demos of the new Hammond SK1, I’d like to play it just to see…
ML: Yeah, you got to play it because the whole thing is how it feels as much as how it sounds. I hear that the Hammond copied the Nord keyboard this time, so it should be good.
GC: OK! Well, Mike, thank you for your time!
ML: A pleasure!

1 comment:

  1. George - thanks for posting this. Can Mike hook me up with whatever that BB3 software is so I don't have to shell out $2k for a Nord? :)

    On the subject of "students who think they know everything," let me clear my throat with a couple of things:

    -*Some* students are definitely dicks that way. Obviously, it is hard to get many self-absorbed 19-year-olds to take a step back and really think about how they are learning and what they do and don't need to be working on.
    -*Some* teachers are open-minded enough to give their students instruction in improvisation, etc. while keeping an inclusive view of the music without introducing too many of their own stylistic biases.

    The problem as I see it (as a student) is that most "jazz educators" don't have that. Sure, there are a handful of teachers out there who really are open to being challenged and who have an appreciation of the whole spectrum of the music. And then there are the 99% who operate along the UNT/Aebersold/Marsalis axis where everything starts with bebop...and mostly ends with it, too. They consider saxophone mastery to go from Bird to Brecker and barely know what to do with Ornette, let alone late Trane or Ayler or (gasp) Brotzmann. They don't have enough of a handle on clave or anything else to really engage their students rhythmically beyond swing. And they don't listen enough to what younger, influential players (Kurt Rosenwinkel, etc) are doing with the music to treat that music with respect.

    Then when their students challenge them along all of these lines they'll say stuff like "yeah, well I'm a jazz professor and THAT AIN'T REALLY JAZZ. You want to learn jazz here, or that other shit?" It's a two-way street. Students need a healthy respect for "the tradition" and the authority of their teachers, but they also need to feel like their teachers really are engaging their desire to search for sources of influence that they find interesting, and not just present an ossified, warmed-over version of bebop as The Way Jazz Improvising Ought To Be.


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