Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Answers about Gary Bartz

Gary Bartz
Devin Leonard, a writer for Waxpoetic Magazine, asked be a bunch of questions about my brief but significant tenure in Gary Bartz' band. Leonard said he would edit this, so I'm using the unedited answers as my latest blog.....

I remember very vividly my first exposure to Gary Bartz. It was not on a recording, it was live at the Closet, a great jazz club in Baltimore. It closed pretty soon after I went there. This was 1987, my first year as a trumpet student at Peabody Conservatory. The band was Gary's Baltimore band: Bob Butta on piano, Geoff Harper on bass, and Steve Williams on drums. My friend Alex Norris went to sit in on trumpet. I remember that the way they were playing was the closest that I had ever been to seeing something like the John Coltrane Quartet. Bartz was really stretching out. He would take not one but 2 solos on every song:one at the beginning and one at the end. I was really amazed.

Gary was always playing in the area in those days. He was playing at the New Haven Lounge, or at Twins or The One Step Down in Washington D.C. And I used to go all the time, because I really loved listening to his pianist, Bob Butta. And so this is how I learned how to play with Bartz; by essentially copying everything Butta was doing.

"Tale As Old As Time..."
So I guess there was a gig that Bartz was going to do at Twins Lounge in the early 90's, and Butta couldn't make it or he couldn't make one night, or something. And the bass player on the gig, called me to sub on piano. I knew all the songs that Gary called. And I pretty much played like Butta, so I think he was impressed by that. I remember also that Bartz never actually called tunes, he just started playing, and either you knew the tune, or didn't. There were two tunes that he "called" which were real "think on my feet" moments; he started playing the theme song from the movie " Beauty And The Beast." I had seen the movie, so I kind of faked it. I think that impressed Bartz. I think he liked the fact that I would try my best to follow him, no matter where he went musically or harmonically. Also, I remember he started playing "Witchcraft", which I didn't really know, but Bartz played the changes on the saxophone so well that I just listened hard and figured it out. That was a real lesson.

And then in 1995, Bartz called me to join his band. He wanted to do another recording for Atlantic Jazz, which he was signed to at the time. And he was doing a gig at Sweet Basil's in New York. I think I had just moved to New York around this time, so this was a really big deal for me. The band featured James King on bass and Greg Bandy on drums. There was one gig around that time, back in D.C. at the One Step Down, where we had Idris Muhammed on drums. That was the gig where McCoy Tyner showed up! I was terrified!

I will say that it always felt easy to play with Bartz. I felt like we had a connection. I would play strong behind him. Sometimes I felt like maybe I was overplaying. But I happened to ask Gary about who he liked on piano. He said he liked Benny Green a lot because "he really lays it down." I tried to do the same from then on.

Bartz has a lot of energy when he plays. He's like the Coltrane of the alto, maybe one of the first people to really do that on the alto. He might be one of the few people that really knows how to take a long solo which has a payoff; he knows how to pace and develop, and build to a real climax. A lot of people play long solos, but Bartz' solos really go somewhere.

Believe it or not, when I played in Bartz' band, he never said much in terms of musical direction. Which I think he learned from Miles Davis. Most of the people I've played with who went through the Miles Davis School don't really say a whole lot. They let the music happen on it's own. But I did absorb a lot just from listening to Bartz play all the time.

Bartz taught me about consistency: He always sounded good, no matter what was going on. He also taught me about taste. He would somehow make things that might be corny in the hands of others and make it really great. He has a sense of that. I remember Bartz would quote really strange tunes, or maybe even corny tunes, but it would always sound tasteful.

Bartz also had a good perspective on the business. Especially after Atlantic Jazz dropped him. He was and is very adamant about owning your own music. That's why his label is called OYO-Own Your Own!

Bartz is kind of an amateur stand up comedian. So he told a lot of jokes and funny stories. He really liked to joke around. He has the delivery of a Richard Pryor. He also told jokes on the bandstand as well. But he can also be very serious. Bartz is very politically aware. Many of his classic albums, especially NTU Troop stuff is very political. Bartz has a lot of social consciousness.

Bartz was oftentimes candid about his drug use. He was "strung out" for many decades. But he is very healthy now. He was a very strict vegetarian for a while, I don't know if he still is.
He had a lot of stories about playing with Miles, with Blakey, with Lee Morgan. It's really a blessing to get to play with older musicians because they put things in perspective. As a young musician, you might say, " Wow, this tune is really awesome, this tune that I'm just learning today." Somebody like Bartz can say, "Yeah I remember when I heard Trane play it in the 60's", you know, things like that.
I worked with Gary for only a few years, from sometime in 1994 to 1996. I did a few things on and off after that, but I really miss playing with him. It was one my first apprenticeships and I am forever grateful for the opportunity.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Trial By Fire: Episode One

Roy Haynes: where does he get his energy?
"Pressure creates diamonds", said somebody wise. In other words, a little kick in the ass can help you get to the next level. There's many ways to describe the struggle, the hard work, the day to day , year by year effort it takes to achieve something. Some people are innately driven; others need guidance. And talent is not enough; in fact, talent can be one's worst enemy. I always tell my students that I'm not talented at all, that all that I have achieved came through years of sacrifice and hard work. And the struggle might not end when you think it's supposed to. This is actually a good thing; so many in our society spend their golden years by the pool, driving around in their golf carts, and catching the Early Bird Special at 4 pm. There's nothing wrong with that, but wouldn't you want to spend those golden years creatively? Look at Roy Haynes; he should have by all rights retired years ago, yet he plays the drums with more vim and vigor than my 20 year old students! I saw Hank Jones before he passed away, and he seemed like he was still trying to improve! Isn't that beautiful?

Geoffrey Keezer: hearing him really got me to practice
The toughest thing you can do is look at yourself critically. However, this is essential for development as a musician, as well as a human being. And to take criticism in whatever form, even if it's dead-on- the-mark, exactly what you need to hear, is also tough. Believe me, I am extremely sensitive to criticism. But when I think back on my early experiences, I can honestly say that the figurative musical "beatings" I took stay with me to this day. They made me stronger. And this sort of "beating" might take the form of just hearing somebody better than yourself.(I've spoken about seeing Geoffrey Keezer at Bradley's in the 90's; hearing him play piano with his incredible virtuosity one time keep me practicing 4 to 8 hours a day for 3 years.)

But some "whuppings" can be somewhat humiliating at first. Especially if they are on a stage and all eyes are on you, and not for the best reasons.

The great Ernestine Anderson
When I was a resident of Washington D.C., in the early 90's, I was called last minute to sub at Blues Alley with singer Ernestine Anderson. (The original pianist, who will remain nameless, didn't show up to sound check, so I was called) If you don't know Ernestine Anderson, she's a legend; many have compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, but I think she's actually more bluesy. She's 82, so when I worked with her, she was in her early 60's. She's been recording since the 1950's. I've listened to her older stuff and newer stuff, and I actually think that she has gotten better with age. (She made headlines recently because she had problems with the mortgage on her house in Seattle; apparently, Quincy Jones and others helped her save her home.)

Keter Betts
So I drove down to Blues Alley with my tuxedo, to begin a three night stint with Ernestine Anderson. In the rhythm section was the late great Keter Betts on bass and Harold Mann on drums. So most of the group is in their 60's, except for me in my 20's. Clearly, I was a novice compared to everyone else on the stage. I wasn't afraid, but I was a little self conscious being the youngest musician by four decades. Usually, with a singer backed by a piano trio, the pianist plays the Musical Director role, just out of practicality(everyone can see the pianist, the pianist can play intros, etc...). So here I was, an embryo compared to Betts, Mann, and Anderson, trying to basically lead the ensemble. And did I mention that the charts were chicken scratch? I couldn't really read the charts, but I did my best trying to figure out what to play.

The first two night went OK. I was amazed at Anderson's energy, especially for a 60 plus year old; I remember being exhausted by the end of the first set, and it seemed like every successive song gave Anderson more and more stamina. Anderson had a lot of confidence and flair as a performer; at a certain point in the night she would say "This is the part of the show where I take my shoes off!" And the energy would go even higher.

Keter Betts tried to help me; he had played with most of the great vocalists in jazz history. "Now George, don't be playing all that Chick Corea stuff," he advised. "You get in there and play some nice block chords, and comp, and lay in the pocket." I listened and took note. Honestly, I probably wasn't the ideal pianist for the gig.(Maybe I was only pianist they could find that wasn't working that weekend!) But I was enjoying the gig, despite the pressure, and was really impressed with Anderson. Every night, the club was packed, both sets.

The third night, I'll never forget, because I suppose that after three nights of playing a gig, and if everything is going smoothly, then you might start to get a little cocky. You might get a little complacent. I'm never one to get too complacent, but I'm just trying to find the reasons for what happened during the first set of the third night.

We were playing a standard, kind of a medium tempo swing, and it was fine. It's typical, especially with singers, to play a turnaround at the end of a song, as a kind of extension, or even a coda. It can vary in length; sometimes, it can be merely a few bars, other times it can be quite protracted. There are different types of turnarounds, if you know jazz theory. Some are, for example, in the key of C:

Dm7    G7        Em7       A7      Dm7    G7        Em7       A7 

or it might be

Em7  A7        Dm7   G7     Em7  A7        Dm7   G7

It really depend on the song, or what the bass player is playing, etc. So many of the tunes we had played had used a turnaround at the end, with a typical ending, usually directed by yours truly. However, this one particular song, it seemed as though the turnaround I was playing was not what Miss Anderson was wanting to hear. So she would sing, and then listen, and then sing, and then turn to me and say:

And I looked back as if to say,"Miss Anderson, I am playing a turnaround!"

And then she would say it again:


And I looked back again as if to say, "Miss Anderson, this is a turnaround!"

And at a certain point, I panicked. And something in my inner instinct said "Abort! Abort!" And I started to play a very clear, stock ending, figuring that if we wrap it up, then this awkward feeling, of not knowing what's wrong with the turnaround, will surely end, and we can move on to another song.

But it was not to be. Miss Anderson started screaming as loud as she could on the mike: "NO! NO! NO! I'M NOT FINISHED! I"M NOT FINISHED THE SONG!"

Meanwhile, my forced "ending" had actually been picked up by Betts and Mann, but slightly delayed, so that as Anderson was screaming, the rhythm section was still ending the song. That made it look and sound even worse. Meanwhile, I had already gone back to playing a turnaround, which I still was not sure if it was the right turnaround. Clearly, my confidence was eroding by the second....

And then of course, the audience was laughing hysterically, possibly thinking that it was part of the show, or maybe just enjoying the "beating" that I was taking, being the baby on the stage. I felt hot; my tuxedo closed in on me, and very swiftly became a sauna suit.

"NO! YOU DO NOT FINISH THE SONG BEFORE I'M FINISHED WHAT I GOT TO SAY!" declared Miss Anderson. As I pounded away my version of the turnaround, I looked up sheepishly as if to say, "Yes, Miss Anderson, I will play the turnaround until you give me a clear signal, and only then will I attempt to bring this song to a smooth landing..." 

I was of course, very embarrassed. However, I look back on that and realize that that one incident, among other incidents, really made me a better musician. I went on to play with many great vocalists, including Cassandra Wilson, Vanessa Rubin, Janis Seigel, Shelia Jordan, Richard Bona, and many others. I think that trial by fire really showed me how focused a pianist has to be when working with singers. You have to develop a symbiosis, a telepathy, a way of communicating through the music and through unspoken cues. It was definitely uncomfortable at the time, but I have a lot of gratitude about the incident. It made me stronger in terms of "rolling with the punches".

And that's why I tell my students to look for situations outside of their comfort zone; if you just lift the same weights week after week, you'll never get stronger. Hence, don't be afraid to try things that you aren't a master of yet, and don't be afraid to fall on your ass. As long as you get back up, you will grow.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Kenny Barron Revisited

Since last year, I've been writing articles for Keyboard Magazine. Jon Regen, who is a great pianist and also a great singer-songwriter, works for Keyboard Magazine as an editor; he approached me about writing for a segment called, "5 Ways To Play Like...."- insert name of artist. I've written articles in this fashion on  Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, Kenny Kirkland, McCoy Tyner, and a recent one on Chick Corea. Regen asked me early in July to write another one. He gave me two choices: Kenny Barron or Brad Mehldau. I decided on Barron pretty quickly. I felt that Barron is someone that doesn't get mentioned as much as Mehldau, yet should be more known, especially to the younger crop of pianists. I also wanted to revisit his music myself, having realized that I hadn't sat down and listened to a Kenny Barron recording in quite some time.

It was tough getting the assignment in by the deadline: two weeks prior, I was up to my eyes in preparing music for some New York sideman gigs. And then the week before the deadline, I had to fly to Portland, Oregon with my wife to look for an apartment. But I managed to steal some time, and on the flight home from Portland, I pieced it together. I was really pleased to sort of re-discover Kenny Barron's piano playing; I hadn't listened to some of these recordings in years, and I also listened to some new(new for me) albums as well.

One of the albums I hadn't listened to in a long time is "Quickstep", which came out in the early 90's
on the Germany based Enja label. The album features a quintet of Barron on piano, John Stubblefield on tenor, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, David Williams on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. This is a real "New York" kind of group, a band you might hear at the now defunct Sweet Basil's. It's a very mature set of performances in that Barron is the leader, but he makes no attempts to outshine anyone; he's a team player to the end, comping steadily and taking great solos in turn. I'm pretty sure that this was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's famous studio. The piano has that magical sparkle in the mix that I hear from Rudy Van Gelder recordings(the more recent ones. The classic ones sparkle in a different way....).

Another CD I had not listened to in a long time is called "What If?", also on the Enja label, from 1986. This CD features Wallace Roney on trumpet, the late great John Stubblefield on Tenor saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. I especially like the title track, which has a Monkish tinge to it, but a bit more on the modern side. "Phantoms", a mysterious melody and spacey bossa, and "Voyage", a medium up tempo swinger, are practically jazz standards. Wallace Roney adds a very progressive element to the recording, not to imply that anyone else on the record is playing anything stale; Barron plays some very surprising, inventive lines.

"Scratch", which I think I used to have on vinyl, is a very interesting album, also on the Enja label. on bass is Dave Holland, on drums is the Swiss-born Daniel Humair, considered one of the greats on the European jazz scene. This is probably the most surprising of the three Enja CDs. I think this would be a tough call in a blindfold test, if you didn't know the album already. Barron is on the edge, with compositions and improvisation. Humair and Holland have a great hook up, and are supportive yet encouraging of experimentation. There is a nice mix of moods, from the aggressive " The Third Eye", to the bebop jaunt of "And Then Again", to the mellow, thoughtful ballad of "Song for Abdullah", which is a solo piano interlude. Some of the chords in "Song For Abdullah" are slash chords(meaning a chord in right hand and a bass note in the left hand that might give the right hand triad a completely different sound), although in reality they are first inversion triads. The A sections are roughly Db/F,   Db/Gb,  Eb/G, Gb/Ab, A07, Bb-7, Ebsus7, Eb7#11, Gb/Ab. It almost has a gospel/pop feel to it. And Barron's sound is impeccable. This was recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn, which also has a distinctive piano sound. The piano is out in the middle of the room, giving it a more wide open sound, whereas (at least when I recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's)the piano is in a booth, which gives it a closer, punchier sound than the Systems Two piano.

You can download all of these on Itunes. There were two other CDs I downloaded which I would like to investigate further: "Live At Bradley's" and "Canata Brasil". "Live At Bradley's" is reminiscent of the first time I heard Kenny Barron live at this also now defunct legendary New York jazz club. The gigs at Bradley's tended to be very informal, more like jam sessions than presentations of original music and tight bands. Barron blazes elegantly on "Solar", his lines are impeccable and he has endless ideas. I like that he choose the great James Williams tune "Alter Ego", which is practically a standard. The great Ray Drummond is on bass and the great Ben Riley is on drums; this is actually the group I heard in the early 90's. The band sounds as fresh now as it did then.

"Canta Brasil" is a great collaboration between Barron and Trio Da Paz, the great Brazilian jazz group, consisting of Romero Lubambo on guitar, Nilson Matta on bass, and Duduka da Fonseca on drums. (Isn't that something? The drummer's NAME sound like a samba rhythm. Say it over and over and people in the room will start dancing, watch.....Duduka da Fonseca, Duduka da Fonseca, Duduka da Fonseca.....). Barron blends right in with the Samba and bossa nova rhythms, and yet maintains his jazz identity. Anne Drummond adds a nice flavor with some flute. Although I would say overall, the production of this recording is more commercial than the CDs I previously mentioned; however, Barron does not hold back on his solos; rather, he  is extremely inventive within the framework. It's very pleasant listening and a nice change of pace after hearing Barron with very jazzy rhythm sections.

If you read Keyboard magazine, keep an eye out for the article on "5 Ways To Play Like Kenny Barron." After listening to so much of him, I wish I could play like him! And I should mention that I was a colleague of Barron's when I taught at Juilliard a few years ago. Barron is super nice, and super humble; I remember that he presented one of his students to the jury panel like so:" Yeah, this kid already has more chops than I do..." If you are already a Kenny Barron fan, then kudos. If not, don't sleep on him! Kenny Barron is one of the jazz piano players that we can look to for inspiration. He paid a lot of dues as a sideman, and is continuing to grow as a bandleader and composer.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jazztruth: One Year Anniversary

Mike LeDonne

I've been in New York since late April. I've been in town a good portion of the summer, with the exception of a few tours and excursions to other regions. I regret I haven't gotten to make the hang as much as I would like; it's tough with a baby at home. But this week, I went out three nights in a row: I saw Mike LeDonne's organ quartet at Smoke on Tuesday, I saw Simona Premazzi at the Setai on Wednesday, and I saw Matthew Fries Trio at Hillstone Restaurant last night. Fries had a nice band consisting of Paul Gill, a fabulous bassist that I knew from Batimore, and a drummer named Paul Wells, who I discovered was a Facebook friend(although we had never met in person.) After the trio set, Wells said he enjoyed my Facebook posts and my blog. We started talking about the "jazz media" and the state of things, as musicians often do. Wells expressed concern that "the future of professional journalism" was in jeopardy. Not just for jazz, but for all media.

It made me think about why I started this blog. I started it because I think there are so many untold stories in the jazz world, stories that the big magazines never seem to pick up on. I think there are many, not all, but many who write about the music that don't really understand it the way musicians do, yet they seem to have more power and influence than musicians. I think it's wrong that there are musicians who study their whole lives and spend years paying dues and recording their own music using their own money, making music for noble reasons, only to be either ignored, or given lackluster reviews. And then some of the crappiest music imaginable will have heaps of accolades. It just seems wrong to me.

When I think about current music that is celebrated in the media, I think about that song by Usher, brilliantly and succinctly titled "Yeah". I could imagine the review of the song:

The minimalist title and them of this piece, "Yeah", is in essence, an affirmation: a call to the new generation. Usher is making a statement: negativity is wack, positivity is back. Usher walks without fear onto the dance flo', with the grace of a gazelle and the confidence of a Tony Robbins. 

The eight-note motif, skillfully orchestrated by using a keyboard and a drum machine, is deliberately not developed and modulated in the manner of the 19th century playas like Beethoven or Brahms. Rather, it is repeated verbatim, unadorned and unadulterated, as if to say, "I have nothing to prove musically....or say musically." It's an incredible show of maturity for this genius of a young artist. Simply, yeah......

 Obviously, I'm only one person, so I'm not sure how much effect I can have. I hope I encourage others to blog. Honestly, I feel like in this modern age, we don't need a middle man to tell us what's happening in the music. If Matthiew Fries makes a CD, and writes about it in his blog, or maybe another musician writes about it, wouldn't we rather read that then a review by somebody who has never played an instrument? Never spent 5 hours in a practice room? Never nervously gotten on a bandstand with some heavy cats? Never even been to New York?

I know it sounds like I'm bashing critics. There are some that I like, and I will admit, some of them know a lot more music than I do. But I feel like the jazz media is much like the mainstream press: they just want to make money. So those that already have the hype get more hype. Those with no hype are on their own, unless they have thousands of dollars to pay a publicist or to buy ads. And the cycle continues.

Be that as it may, this blog has been a tremendous learning experience for me. It's made me listen to music more critically, and it's made me more curious about history. And as an educator, it's made me want to do more research and to have more information to share with my students. Above all, I want to inspire my students. I want to inspire them to practice and to work hard. I also want to be honest with
them about the realities of the scene. I think it's better to do that, as opposed to keeping it a secret and then, come graduation day, to say, "good luck finding a gig! Thanks for the 50,000 dollar tuition, though!" I think being truthful upfront can inspire as much as anything.

So one year later, I'm still going. It's still a labor of love. If I had more free time, I would post more. I have a lot of content in the works. If you have any free time, feel free to go back and look at some of the 100+ articles. Hopefully I fixed all the typos(thanks to my unofficial editor in Winnipeg, Jaime Carrasco!)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Dark Side of The Beat 2: Update

I got a lot of reactions to my recent post("The Dark Side Of The Beat"). I think that the struggle of trying to book gigs at New York clubs really struck a chord, no pun intended. Here are a few comments that I received:

I feel you brother. You're fate at that club rests on the bartender not satisfied with the tip you left him. What a drag.  

I have had similar experiences in other NY clubs....I'll have a killing night packed with people....everybody wins.....can't get another there....why? God owners are strange dudes. 

I had sort of the same experience last week, it wasn't even my gig, but the A hole manager (not even the owner who loves having live music) started screaming about how they were losing money over paying us $250 for the band. I usually hold myself but I started going at him about how much of a loser he was and how we were playing there for the love of music, and if he couldn't make money out of a packed place with amazing location it wasn't because of the money he was paying us. 

George, what's amazing is that you play all over the world have top shelf CDs and you are & play with top shelf players. It amazes me that club owners who want to build a business with live music have not the first clue about who they are getting.

So what are these club owners looking for? Whether it is a local club or the top tier places, how do we adapt our pitch to them for opportunity to perform to their expectations? What do they want?

And this was a good one from Jonny King. If you don't know King, he is a wonderful pianist and composer who worked with Joshua Redman in the 90's. He's also a lawyer, and he wrote an excellent book on jazz appreciation. But his comment was interesting.

I thought your rant was great and right on. I grew up playing at places like Bradley's and Basil's and Visiones, etc., and playing at them regularly. Two things made those experiences so important. First, the audiences (especially at Bradley's) were always filled with musicians. One time, at Bradley's not long before it shut down (maybe after it reopened after the fire?), I think Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and Joe Zawinul were sitting at the bar at one time! Can you imagine anything similar today? A hang, or collective with that kind of magnetic vibe? Second, as just a regular-joe piano player, I had the direct relationship with the club owner/booker, whether it was Wendy at Bradley's or James Browne at Sweet Basil's or whomever. So I could just call and say, "I'd like to play with these guys", etc. There was no interrogation about what label, how will it be advertised, etc. Now, having been absent for some time and just returning to the scene, I really feel this new distance between the clubs and the musicians. It's not just that the contacts have changed -- that's gonna happen over time -- but that the criteria have. Some clubs are still great and respectful, but the clubs reflect a more diffuse, split-apart scene generally, where there's no sense of cultivating a community, a hang, where the musicians and the clubs are basically creating the scene. And forget our generation, but think of the generation above us. All those great piano players I used to follow around, and everyone else -- can you imagine how they feel? I don't know what the answer is, but I appreciate so much that someone who is out there, and indeed makes a living at these places, is willing to ask why the relationship has so soured with these clubs. We all bitched about it in the late 80s/early 90s too,  but there's no question that it's many times worse now. And yet the music lives on. Respectfully, pissed-offedly, and cautiously optimistically -

Jonny King

I thought that was a great summary of what is happening these days. It's nice to know that I'm not alone in my thoughts. I wish I knew what the solution was. Maybe part of it is merely speaking out in some form, not going quietly. As I've said, there are exceptions, like Spike Wilner of Smalls, or Peter Mazza at the Bar Next Door, or Cory Weeds at the Cellar in Vancouver: it's because they are musicians themselves, and they understand what it's like to be on the other side.

I wanted to update this because I actually received an apology from the unnamed curator at the unnamed New York club. I'm not sure if he read the blog, or if somebody told him about it, or if he just at an internal change of heart. He said that he realized that he was a little harsh and he didn't mean any disrespect, and that I was welcome to play there again. I was surprised, because you rarely get apologies these days. Of course, I accepted, and said no hard feelings

Pianist Jonny King
But I think Jonny King was really on to something with the separation that exists in the scene: it seems like many of the people who book the clubs put up this wall between themselves and the musicians. As if they are the Wizard of Oz or something.( Nobody gets in to see the Wizard! Not Nobody, not no how!) But this could be partially caused by the fact that some of these places are so bombarded by the thousands of musicians in New York, that they have to put up a wall just for the sake of sanity. It's probably akin to if you had to answer every spam email you received every day: you'd go crazy after a few days.

I often wonder, if I curated a jazz club, how would I do it? How would I accommodate all the musicians who would ultimately be sending me emails and calling. I'll have to give it more thought, but one thing I do know is that I would try to avoid insulating myself from the musicians. I say this because I think that musicians can also be customers; even if you let the musicians in free, they will still drink and eat, and also they can recommend your venue to others, and the whole thing perpetuates itself. If you alienate "the cats", you are alienating the people who probably love the music more than the mere fans, definitely more than the tourists who populate these places. If there was more of a sense of "we're all in this together", then these clubs would never lack support. I think because of this current atmosphere of " I'm up here, and you are down there", I rarely see musicians hanging at the venues. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe the musicians don't support the clubs. I know I would be more inclined to drop a bunch of money at some of these places if I felt like I was "a part of things." I hate to say it in terms of "I only support the clubs that return my emails," but hey, if the shoe fits.....

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Rudresh Mahanthappa Interview

 I had only met Rudresh Mahanthappa once briefly; we played with different bands at a gig at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I was subbing with Miguel Zenon, he was performing with Vijay Iyer's quartet. I always found his playing to be super intense, which made me think that he might be a super intense personality. When we met years later at our first rehearsal with Jack Dejohnette, I was glad to find out that Mahanthappa is actually very down to earth, and has a very similar sense of humor to mine! 

Mahanthappa and I toured with DeJohnette this past spring. I was determined to interview everyone in the band before the tour ended, and I was able to get to it just within the last few days of our trip. So more interviews are forthcoming. Here's Rudresh Mahanthappa on a variety of issues....

 GC: How did you come up with your linear concept?  Who are your linear heroes?

RM:  My linear heros? It's nothing out of the ordinary... Bird and Trane, etc... When I was a student at Berklee, I remember the first time I heard the Dave Holland "Extensions" album. Hearing Steve Coleman for the first time was really refreshing. As you know, he has a very different, unique approach. I was also kind of a big music theory-head, and I studied with this great teacher, just for a summer, in between being back in Colorado, where I'm from originally, and my years at studying at North Texas State. The lessons weren't saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons. We dealt with different ways of breaking up harmony, breaking up scales, looking at tone rows, lots of different approaches. So I was already thinking about alternative ways… Hmmm, alternative, I mean what's alternative? Nothing is really alternative or everything is, but, I guess you could say I wanted to go outside of the Jazz education bebop box, and I tried to develop some of my own vocabulary. The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was a really a big influence as well.

Steve Coleman
Anyway, when I heard Steve Coleman, I felt like I heard a much more fully formed rendition of the kind of concept I was trying to develop for myself. Coleman definitely was a big influence. Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, all the M-Base guys . Then, when I dug a little bit deeper, I found out that Steve Coleman was actually very much influenced by Bunky Green. So Bunky Green is someone that I ended up seeking out (about the same time 20 years ago, when I was at Berklee - after I had left North Texas State). When I saw Dave Holland's Extensions band live, and then Steve Coleman and Five Elements live, that made a huge impact on me. And I think this stuff has a way of, once you start kind of developing some of your own musical, linear concepts, they blossom on their own and become other things... so, I guess I'm more focused on trying to see where all the other stuff that I do know can go next at this point.

GC:  Can you give us like a brief guide to understanding your Indian music influences?

RM:  One of the things that I really liked about Steve Coleman was the conceptual aesthetics and the attitude beyond the music. I might even have this wrong, but I understood what he'd essentially done was taken a lot of rhythmic concepts from West African music. He would study the rhythm, not the instruments, not the music, but take the concepts and integrate them into something that was very much modern Jazz. I've been thinking about ways to do that with Indian music; not just because I am a fan of Indian music but I wanted to do something like what Steve did with African music. I'm of Indian ancestry, and a lot of what I do musically is not only for the sake of the music, but an expression of what it means to be Indian- American. It's an expression of my identity.

I think Jazz has always been a means of contemporary social expression, staking your claim in the American landscape. So my interest in Indian music goes so far, goes much further beyond "Wow! That music is really cool!" Having said that, my goal has always been to look at that music conceptually. Indian music does not have any harmony, per se. I mean the pop music does, the film music does. But Indian classical music, for the most part, has no harmony. It's melody and it's rhythm, and a complement takes place either rhythmically or melodically. Oftentimes, you'll have two melodic instruments in an ensemble: one is kind of the accompanist, then there is a whole way of providing thickness and texture without playing chords. But I think melodically, both North and South Indian music are concerned with ragas, which in the West are often reduced to being described as "Modes". But they're actually much deeper than modes. The ragas are really very specific melodic constructions. They have an ordering of pitches, and ascending format, and a descending format that might be different. And within all of that as well is this very specific ornamentation technique that is dependent on the raga but also dependent on the song. And then it can depend on the mood, it can depend on the time of day, and so forth.

As you can see, the melodic thing in Indian music is very vast; it takes a lifetime of study to really understand it. But I looked at raga improvisation as being very similar to constructing diatonic tone rows, or something like that. And there are a lot of places where this Eastern music and this Western music meet, as long as one keeps in mind that they are not the same. I was always really interested in Western music, in modes, synthetic scales, and different ways of breaking those up intervallically.

It's easy for me to think about one and the other at the same time, and the rhythm. Just the idea of thinking in cycles, and not thinking about eight-bar form and 32-bar form and eight bar sections. Most Indian musicians, they'll never be able to keep a 32-bar form, that's just such an alien concept for them! But thinking more about beat cycles, in this way: "OK, this is a melody that goes over three 21-beat cycles,” that's a much easier thing to wrap their heads around because of their training. The way they perceive the music is different. Just dealing with beat cycles in general, whether they're coming straight out of Carnatic music, or whether they’re influenced by that conceptually, has been really fun for me as a composer. It's not like 32-bar standard form sort of stuff, which I do like, though. I love playing standards, but I don't really go and do it on gigs unless it's a standard that's really special to me or something like that, because there are people who just do that really well. And it’s the same thing when people ask, "Do you go do gigs where you just play bebop?” I mean, again, there are cats who do that so well, however,  that kind of attitude goes against my whole philosphy about playing music here and now anyway. 

GC: When you were first starting out, did you do gigs where you played standards?

RM: Yeah, all the time!

GC: When did you get to a point where you said, "I don't want to do this anymore?”

RM: It wasn't just one day or one year… it was very gradual. Even when I moved to New York, my band would play some of my originals, and they would play the old "Milestones" and we would play tunes that I just enjoyed playing. But then eventually, I started writing more and more tunes, and I wanted to focus on that. So I think it comes out of the composition aspect, also. I still like playing all those tunes… some of my first experiences were sitting in with a Dixieland band when I was 15, 16, and 17 years old. That was pretty much all through high school. Almost every Friday afternoon, I used to go play with this Dixieland Band. So I know those tunes too.  I know "Avalon,” "Undecided,” etc… I can't say I was this great trad player... but at least I was trying. I was more into Bird then, so those guys were playing super trad tunes, and I was trying to play bop over it. But it was super traditional, I mean the band had a washboard, and snare drum and tuba…

GC: You didn't try to put some Indian stuff over top of THAT?

RM: (Laughing ) I wasn't even there yet!  I think children of immigrants always have this, maybe not universally, but a lot of them have some sort of identity crisis, usually... probably around 17, 18, or 19, at the beginning of adulthood, where they are trying to figure out who they are. "Who am I? Am I Indian? Am I American, Am I neither?" I grew up in a predominantly white community in Northern Colorado, but I went to North Texas State University for college first, which had a huge African-American population. It just kind of struck me; I thought," Wait a minute! Well, I am not white, but I'm not black either! So who am I?” My generation is the first major wave of children of Indian immigrants. So I think I have a lot of peers that dealt with the same issues of trying to figure out who they are. 

I think really jumping into Indian music and re-interpreting that or re-contextualizing that makes sense to me. It was part of that process of discovering who I am. And I grew up with some Indian music in my house, some hardcore classical stuff like Ravi Shankar and Shuva Laxmi, but what I heard most was a kind of religious devotional music called bhajans, which are not as complex as the classical stuff... I mean it’s like trying to compare like church hymns to the classical music that was happening at the time. It’s much simpler but very beautiful. It’s vocal music, so that's what I heard mostly growing up. 

The other thing I had to say is that a lot of people looked at the color of my skin and assumed that I was an expert on Indian music at even at college age, which was very intimidating. So it's kind of a longer road for me which I felt like I had to find a way to discover that music on my own without pressure. That was always weird too, to have that kind of assumption... I mean even when I moved to New York.

There is an alto player who we both know. When I moved to New York, I had one CD out that I made with a band in Chicago. Of course I was passing around when I got to town, trying to meet people and stuff. I gave this guy a copy of the album, and it had some Indian artwork on the cover. I ran into the guy later and I said, "Hey man, did you ever listen to that cd I gave you?" He was just like, "Yeah! But you know I told you I love Indian music... of course I liked it!!" And it's a total Jazz record, there's a  rhythm changes tunes on there, there's a blues and it's not even that I don't know whether he listened to it or not. It’s more like the blinders were so being worn so overtly in the industry. For a long time, I felt like I would always be perceived as “that Indian alto player". 

GC: And yet you still want to make Indian music a part of it?

RM: Absolutely.

GC: Was there ever a thought that maybe you wanted to do the opposite?

RM: Like playing Jazz!!!?

GC: …or something?

Vijay Iyer
RM: Not musically. I'll say this, for example. I can't say that I was trying figure out how to avoid it. But for a long time, Vijay Iyer and I - we joke about it now, but it still comes up - we called it the "you guys" phenomenon. People would say, "Man, I am going to come check 'you guys' out.” Whenever we heard that, it sounded like “you two 'Indian' guys.” It didn't matter if we were doing gigs separately; there was always this assumption that we were considered as one person. We were the two Indian-American Jazz musicians and we worked together a lot. But I feel like if we weren't Indian , an extreme minority within Jazz, if we just been two guys that worked together a lot, or maybe black or white - we wouldn't have experienced that whole life of "oh you guys are just one thing,” "you guys do everything together.” So that was something I feel like we made a conscious effort to defuse.

GC:  So you are performing more independently now?

RM: Yes, the only thing we really do together is this duo stuff. We have this duo called Raw Materials, a precious, special group. I mean, we have been playing together for almost 17 years now. But a lot of the other things we're doing are separate. From a marketing perspective, I had some Indian iconography artwork on that first record, but I don't see myself doing that again. It’s not because I'm trying to run away from it, but it doesn't even seem appropriate. It doesn't even seem whom I am anymore. I think back then I was really in the thick of it, in 1994 I felt like, “Oh, yeah, got to put something Indian on the cover!”

GC:  You want to talk about "Apex?”

RM:  Yea - Apex was a great, very timely album because I had done the two previous albums there. "Kinsmen" is a collaboration with Kadri Gopalnath who is this great Carnatic South Indian alto player. Then I did this trio record with tabla and guitar with Dan Weiss and Rez Abbasi, so it felt great to go make a Jazz record, to really play rhythm changes and blues. It’s a collaboration with Bunky Green, the legendary alto player who is now 76 years old. We've been friends for a very long time, almost 20 years, and we'd been talking about trying to do something for a very long time. Things just finally lined up in a way that it seemed like the right time to make the album. Also, everyone's schedules were really wide open.

Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa
Bunky is from Chicago - he doesn't live there anymore - but he's a little bit older than Jack DeJohnette, so they kind of came up together. But Bunky is senior to Jack. He was out playing gigs while Jack was still a student, so they actually had never played together. They had wanted to play together for a long time. When I mentioned the project to Jack, he said, “Maybe I can be a part of it, that would be great.” Jason Moran had done a previous album with Bunky that Steve Colman had produced, so he wanted to be a part of it - and it just lined up. I wrote four or five tunes and Bunky wrote four or five - it was a real gas. It was really great, the lovely interaction was really happening and Bunky and had this way of communicating as friends and musically that's really special to me and I think the album really captured that. It was like two guys speaking some modern alto language to each other. It was really a lot of fun, it was exciting.

GC: What are you going to be doing at the North Sea Jazz Festival?

Dan Weiss
RM:  That was a nice surprise. The North Sea used to have an Artist in Residence program, where they would have very famous musicians like Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, and Charlie Haden. Somebody would come in and lead six or seven groups. This year, they changed the format a little bit. They’re calling it the Carte Blanche program, where they pick two younger people to do several activities over the course of the weekends.  I am really excited about that. The first night is going to be Apex with Bunky, and the second night is going to be my Indo-Pak Coalition Trio with Dan Weiss on drums and tabla and Rez Abassi on guitar.  And the third night is going to be my newest group, which is an electric group where I'm playing alto but with some effects and laptop programming. This group has Dave Gilmore on guitar, Rich Brown, who is a great electric bass player that lives in Toronto, Damien Reed on drums and Anand Ananto Krisna on mridangam, a South-Indian drum. He is one of the greatest players in the world right now. We are really happy to have him on there.

All the music we're playing is actually a direct result of my Guggenheim Fellowship. The band actually recorded back in 2008, but I was waiting for the right opportunity for the album to come out. But the music turned out really, really well, and the band has actually played a lot in Europe. We just finished a tour over this month, so we're really in good shape. We really rock! It’s called Shandi. Shandi is a Sanskrit word that refers to twilight, the period between dusk and dawn, and it also refers to the period of time between the destruction of one universe and the creation of the next.

GC: Would you say you primarily do your own gigs or, obviously you're playing with Jack Dejohnette on this tour but, what advice would you give to someone if they wanted to be a bandleader? How did you see yourself - well, how would you describe your voyage from student to where you are now and how would you advise someone if they wanted to get their hopes up to get there?

RM:  Well, I don't know, I think ultimately if you stick to your guns and maintain your integrity, your path just kind of unfolds for you. I didn't plan on being exclusively a leader and I always kind of hoped I'd do more stuff as a sideman. But I quickly saw that I have kind of an uncompromising way. I'm not the kind of musician that shows up and just plays the gig. Ultimately, my goal became, hopefully when I do get called in as a sideman it’s going to be because somebody wants me specifically not because they need an alto player. Fortunately, it’s now because someone really wants my sound, which is great. It has only started happening over the last two, three years. I feel like I have a lot of admirers but it does not necessarily mean they hire me. People come and see me play. If they don't hire me, that's fine. There are people much better suited to be an alto sideman and more power to them.

I was always trying to write and lead… I don't know if this is real advice, but I started trying to lead bands when I was in the 9th grade, and I wrote little tunes. With my school friends, we would at least try to play at the school town show every year, maybe we would do a couple of little backyard parties in the summer. In Boulder, Colorado, where I grew up, there's this outdoor pedestrian mall that's famous for street entertainers like tightrope walkers, fire eaters and a whole lot of music out there too. My parents, for some odd reason, would let me go out there in junior high and just play on my Saturday afternoons with my case open. I’d make two, three bucks. But then when I got to high school, I started getting my band out there, and we were trying to write these fusion heads. We were more or less like a punk band. We would, very poorly, try to play Weather Report tunes, and we'd also written a couple of tunes. We were trying to play Steps Ahead tunes, whatever. So I was always trying to lead from a really, really young age, so I think there was something personality-wise that was conducive to that.

But I think the key to it is this: I think everyone needs to write. Even if you write tunes and and never play them, writing just makes you stronger. It makes you a stronger musician, makes you a stronger improviser and improves your ears. It does everything for you and changes how you hear music.  I think that is really important, and I don't think everybody has to lead to tell you the truth.
I think there is a really interesting dynamic out there right now where there is a kind of prescribed “I'm going to get my bachelor’s, move to New York, maybe get my master’s. I need to write 10 tunes and I need to self-produce a CD before I'm 26.” There’s a glut of a lot of music that just sounds the same, and a very lot of well-played music that maybe doesn't have an individual sound. It’s kind of underdeveloped or just not really formed. Like, it’s that you didn't really need to make a CD yet, you could have waited for three or four years. Go get some experience. Go play some gigs, actually that's much more important, as a musician it's more important to go play some gigs. Whether you're leading or whether you're a sideman, go play a few hundred gigs and then come to your own thing, as far as being a leader both musically and business-wise, with infinitely more strength than you would have right after your master’s degree.

 I think it's very important to try to find an individual sound, and to go beyond just being a really good and virtuoso musician. There are more musicians than ever before out there, but the number of actual individual voices isn't higher than it was back in the ‘60s. The number of people that are actually going to change this music, or somehow move forward, or say something fresh and new is still really limited. I think it's just a question of mindset. Really think well on what is your voice, or is your voice you, or is your voice some sort of regurgitation of what's around you or what's happened in the very near past... think about this stuff. And I think if you think about all of that, whether or not you're a leader, if you’ve got integrity, it will be fine - it will just happen.