Sunday, September 21, 2014

Revisiting Elmo Hope: A Composer of Significance


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“… Hope had a strong gift for melody, enunciating themes very clearly, and was comfortable enough with classical music to introduce elements of fugue and cannon [in his compositions], though always with a firm blues underpinning.”
Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“… [Elmo]Hope … received far more recognition posthumously than during his abbreviated career. … [He] was dead before his mid-forties, leaving behind only a handful of recordings to testify to .. his potent re-workings of the jazz tradition. … Hope's visionary style came to the fore on recordings made, both as a leader and sideman, in New York during the mid-1950s, but the revocation of his cabaret card due to drug problems limited his ability to build on these accomplishments. After relocating to California, Hope undertook sessions under his own name, as well as contributed greatly to the success of Harold Land's classic recording The Fox. Like Monk, Hope found his music branded as ‘difficult,’ and few listeners seemed willing to make the effort to probe its rich implications. He continued to work and record sporadically after his return to New York in the early 1961 until his death six years later, but never gained a following commensu­rate with the virtues of his steely and multifaceted music.”
Ted GioiaThe History of Jazz [p. 248, paraphrased]

If you are a fan of the music of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and Benny Golson, then the music of Elmo Hope will also strongly appeal to you.

Frustratingly, however, as Ted Gioia states in the opening remarks to this piece, few people know anything about Elmo’s music, for the reasons he explains and because his recorded legacy was poorly treated for many years following his death in 1967 at the age of forty-four.

Thankfully, a number of CD and Mp3 reissues by Orrin Keepnews [Riverside and Milestone Records], Michael Cuscuna [EMI/Blue Note] and Jordi Pujol [Fresh Sound] have helped to make the music of this skillful composer available for wider dissemination.

Hope’s career was the subject of the following, brilliant recapitulation by J.R. Taylor, the former curator/director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University who was later to become a principal at the Smithsonian Institution Jazz Program.

© -J.R. Taylor, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Despite performing and composing talents that draw painfully near to the first rank of jazz, pianist Elmo Hope seems destined to remain virtually unknown.

He was born in New York of West Indian par­ents on June 27, 1923, and fully named St. Elmo Sylvester Hope, after the patron saint of sailors. Growing up in Harlem, he studied piano from his seventh year, and by 1938 he was winning solo recital contests. Even in the face of the over­whelming contemporary prejudice against blacks, he might have tried for a career as a "classical" performer, but other forces were already drawing him in a different direction. By now his circle of friends included two other young pianists who would wholly alter the course of their instrument in the next decade-Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. The three were often together in those years, their chords and lines rubbing off of one another in informal cutting/learning sessions. Bob Bunyan, another pianist-associate from this period, recalled "Bud had the powerful attack, and Elmo got into some intricate harmonies." Thirty-five years after the fact, we can hardly say who influenced whom among these rising talents, but in light of his later work it seems reasonable to con­clude that Hope contributed his share to the emer­ging modern piano style.

By the mid-1940s, Monk and Powell were beginning to establish themselves at the center of the jazz scene with Coleman Hawkins, Cootie Williams, John Kirby, Dizzy Gillespie, and other major leaders; later they would move on to jobs of their own.
But Hope remained on the fringe, away from the pinspot illumination of 52nd Street, working the dance halls and clubs of the BronxConey Island, and Greenwich Village with such as Leo "Snub" Mosley, a capable trombonist who had taken to doubling on a bizarre hybrid instrument, the slide saxophone. Later still, his contemporaries stayed around New York, recording and building up their reputations; but Hope spent a great deal of time on the road, often with the rhythm and blues band of ex-Lionel Hampton trumpeter Joe Morris, or with singer Etta Jones. Though the musical fare of these groups was surely not what Hope would have chosen for himself, his 1948-51 Morris band-mates were stylistically sympathetic, and many of them—saxophonist Johnny Griffin (another ex-Hamptonite), Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones-remained friends and associates throughout his life.

In June of 1953, Hope got his first important recorded exposure on a Lou Donaldson date for Blue Note. He was somewhat overshadowed, how­ever, by the presence of another newcomer-trumpeter Clifford Brown. A string of records fol­lowed in the next three years. There was another Donaldson date for Blue Note, and two ten-inch LPs for the same label under the pianist's own name. Prestige followed suit, recording Hope as the leader of a trio (still available, as The Elmo Hope Memorial Album, Prestige 7675), and as co-leader (with Frank Foster) of a quartet-quintet date. There were also sideman appearances with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. And there was the all-star date presented here.


None of this helped Hope to advance beyond the level of a capable sideman, scuffling from one job to the next. He seemed to be overshadowed at every turn. Reviews fairly observed that he sounded rather like Bud Powell—and in the mid-1950s there was no lack of pianists who resembled Powell to some degree.

Then, too, he had the inconvenient habit of recording with young musicians who were first hitting their strides, and thus were apt to outshine him in reviewers' eyes. This is emphasized in past reissues of the first of the enclosed albums. It originally and briefly appeared under Hope's name as Informal Jazz, but subsequent issues were en­titled Two Tenors, stressing the presence of John Coltrane and Hank Mobley.

By 1957, record companies were losing interest in him and opportunities for live performance in New York were severely limited. Specifically, at that time a performer with a felony conviction was unable to obtain a New York City "cabaret card," a necessary police authorization to work in clubs that sold alcoholic beverages. So Hope must have been glad to accept trumpeter Chet Baker's offer of a road tour. When they reached Los Angeles, he decided to remain. The southern California climate eased his persistent upper respiratory infections, and the easier pace of California living may have seemed refreshing after years of New York's hustle to survive.


But if Hope thought to establish himself as a bandleader or composer in Los Angeles he missed his guess. He got a foothold in the group of musi­cians around tenor saxophonist Harold Land-drummers Frank Butler and Lawrence Marable; bassists Curtis Counce, Jimmy Bond, Red Mitchell, and Herbie Lewis; trumpeters Dupree Bolton, Stu Williamson, and Rolf Ericsson. But the late 1950s was a bad time for jazz in Los Angeles, with few clubs open to uncompromising groups, particularly if they were local and predominantly black. Hope was developing rapidly as a composer, and it was painful for him to lack a regularly performing group that was familiar with his work. His only extensive interview (with John Tynan, printed in Down Beat, January 5, 1961) reflected this deep frustration: "The fellas out here need to do a little exploring. They should delve more into creativity instead of playing the same old blues, the same old funk, over and over again. . . . There's not enough piano players taking care of business. . . . Matter of fact, after Thelonious and Bud-and I came up with those cats over 15, 16 years ago-1 haven't heard a damn thing happening. Everybody now is on that Les McCann kick. And he's getting his action from Red Garland. I'm not lying. ... If any of them who read this think I'm jiving, let 'em look me up and I'll put some music on 'em. Then we'll see who's shuckin'."

Despite these acerbic remarks—particularly blunt in light of the typical musician's tendency to over­praise colleagues—Hope is remembered by Los Angeles associates as a warm friend, generous with encouragement and musical knowledge, and pos­sessed of a warm sense of humor that only dis­appeared completely when the time came to rehearse and perform his music. Nor was his Cali­fornia period entirely without its satisfactions. In 1959, he met his wife-to-be. Bertha, a professional pianist of several years standing who was trying to learn some of his compositions. They were married soon after; and Monique, first of their three child­ren, was born the next year. There were also recordings: several tracks that cropped up on World Pacific samplers; a Curtis Counce date for Dootone; and two records produced for HiFiJazz by David Axelrod (now an active composer, ar­ranger, and producer)—a quintet date led by Land, and a trio session.

The HiFiJazz albums made Hope's critical repu­tation, but otherwise had little effect on his diffi­cult situation. During a 1960 trip to CaliforniaRiverside producer Orrin Keepnews had expressed interest in recording the pianist; he was mildly nonplussed when Hope unexpectedly returned to New York in the following year, but the second of the two albums in this package resulted, as did a Riverside album that combined solo piano with some duets between Hope and his wife. In the same year, there were also a couple of trio albums for the obscure but related Celebrity and Beacon labels. But after this initial surge of activity, New York gave few new opportunities to Hope. There was some work with Johnny Griffin, but the pianist was still legally restricted from fully follow­ing his trade. He compensated by selling some of his compositions as arrangements to various estab­lished groups, and by doing some outright commer­cial arranging. In 1963, he had his final chances to record, on sextet and trio albums for Audio-Fidelity. The sextet album, Jazz from Riker's Island, traded heavily on its assertion that most of its musicians had past narcotics problems. The pro­ducer of that session delivered himself at length in his liner notes on such problems, observing that some musicians "become easier victims because of the places where they're forced to make a living— and they don't even make a good living." This same producer also awarded himself co-copyright of the six Hope compositions on the album-presumably with an eye toward bettering the pianist's living.

By 1966, Hope's health had slipped badly, and he was rarely able to perform. Late in April 1967, he entered a hospital for treatment of pneumonia. Three weeks later, he seemed on the way to recovery, and his release was planned. But his heart stopped without warning on the 19th of May. …”

The audio track on the following video tribute to Elmo is from his stint in Los Angeles and was  made with the assistance of the stellar graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and developed under the oversight of StudioCerra Productions.

Entitled The Race for Space, in addition to Elmo on piano, it features Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Rolf Ericsson on trumpet, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums.






Saturday, September 20, 2014

Social Aide & Pleasure Clubs And Jazz in New Orleans

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Strutting and jumping and high-stepping underneath their decorated parasols, blowing whistles and waving feathered fans, the African-American members of New Orleans’ social aid and pleasure clubs are the organizers, originators, and sponsors of the second line parades for which the city is famous. The brass band that follows the parade’s grand marshal and club members, who are always dressed in coordinated suits and classy hats, blast out exuberant rhythms to propel everyone’s high-spirited march through the streets. The club and brass band are known as the first line, and the audience that forms behind the parade to join in the festivities is the second, hence the term second line parade.


African-American social aid and pleasure clubs aren't just about parading, however. They grew out of organizations of the mid to late 1800s called benevolent societies, which many different ethnic groups in New Orleans formed. Serving a purpose that today has largely been supplanted by insurance companies, benevolent societies would help dues-paying members defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and financial hardships. They also fostered a sense of unity in the community, performed charitable works, and hosted social events. Benevolent societies always had strong support in the African-American population, and some scholars trace the roots of the African-American societies back to initiation associations of West African cultures from where the majority of New Orleans blacks originally came.


For the burial of a member, African-American benevolent associations would often hire bands to play somber, processional music on the way from the church to the cemetery. On the way back, the music would become upbeat and joyous with mourners now celebrating the deceased’s life; tears about the person who had passed gave way to gratitude that the person had even been blessed to exist. The brass bands that played in these processions, known as “jazz funerals,” mixed military marching music with African rhythms.


In modern times, social aid and pleasure clubs no longer serve all the former functions of benevolent societies, but they do continue to unify communities and neighborhoods and are source of cultural pride among African-Americans. Club dues normally cost hundreds of dollars a year along with additional expenses for the sharp suits, shoes, and general finery that members wear.


Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans African-American social aid and pleasure clubs numbered in the forties, and a different club “rolled” just about every Sunday except during the summer. While the parades were rarely advertised or well publicized, second line devotees would know the time and location of the route. Social aid and pleasure clubs are now struggling, but some are still parading. Those who love the tradition come out and bring a handkerchief to wipe away tears and to wave aloft.


In New Orleans, about 40 such clubs hold "second line" parades on Sundays from August to May. A second line parade is led by the club captain and members, followed by the grand marshal and the brass band. Everyone who joins the spontaneous dancing behind the band is in the second line, hence the name.


"I try to make 'em all," says Richard Martin of the Young Men's Olympian Junior Benevolent Society, "I just like good second-line music, At the end of the day,we used to empty all our pockets just to keep the band around for a few more hours."


A brass band led by an umbrella-toting grand marshal is a quintessential symbol of life in New Orleans. It's meant to convey the flamboyant and funky spirit New Orleanians can muster for the most common or uncommon of occasions. Less well known is the history of the organizations that developed and carried on the legacy.
During the days of Jim Crow and segregation, insurance companies wouldn't sell policies to African-Americans. To take care of their families and communities, African-Americans banded together in benevolent societies that paid for doctors and provided funerals for deceased members. The original benevolent societies maintained their own cemetery plots. The Young Men's Olympians still hold a large plot in St. Joseph's Cemetery.



The Olympians will celebrate their 130th anniversary at its annual parade this September/2014. While the group has joined the second-line trend and wears elaborate outfits, their funeral marches adhere to the old customs. They wear black and white and observe solemnity during the first half of the procession. "You don't play jazz 'til the body is in the ground," Martin says. "It's different from the second line because that is when you get funky." The ubiquitous tune "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a traditional hymn played by brass bands in what came to be known as jazz funerals.


Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs provide members with jazz funerals but don’t own cemetery plots. Walter “Twiggy” Taylor is the President of the Scene Boosters Social Aid and Pleasure Club, founded in 1973. Several years ago, his uncle received a full Jazz funeral from the Boosters. “We sent him out in style - the way he lived,” Taylor said. “It’s his last go-around. So in the neighborhood where he was well-known we took the body out of the hearse and walked the casket. If there was somewhere he hung  out a lot we put the casket on the porch.”


For the annual parades, clubs work all year to raise money and design new outfits. The Scene Boosters started the trend towards identical outfits. Matching clothes from head to toe. Members also wear sashes, dangling corsages and hats and carry elaborately decorated fans and umbrellas.


“We compete against ourselves - to do better than we did last year,” Taylor said. “When we hit the street, our work speaks for itself. We don’t have to say anything.”


Here are two video montages that may help provide the look and feel of New Orleans on parade.


The first features the photography of William Claxton set to Cry Me A River as performed by the Eric Alexander-David Hazeltine Quartet with Dwayne Burno on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. [Click on the "X" to close out of the ads.]


The second video montage contains many of the posters used at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and features bassist Ark Ovrutski’s quintet performing his original composition New Orleans with Michael Dease, trombone, Michael Thomas, soprano saxophone, David Berkman, piano and Ulysses Owens, drums.


Friday, September 19, 2014

Dick Grove: "Little Bird Suite" [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



Although we couldn’t remember exactly when, an Internet friend informs us that we acquired our LP copy of composer-arranger Dick Grove’s Little Bird Suite [Pacific Jazz #74] in 1963.

Dick was very active in Southern California Jazz and musical circles dating back to the mid-1950s when, as its pianist, he was a member of the Westlake College of Music Quintet that won the “Easter-week, Intercollegiate Jazz Festival” sponsored by bassist Howard Rumsey and the famed Lighthouse CafĂ© in Hermosa BeachCA.

Under the direction of John Graas, one of the few French-Horn players who specialized in Jazz and who was also a composer-arranger, the award winning quintet recorded an album for Decca – College Goes to Jazz: The Westlake College Quintet [DL 8393]. 

Dick would subsequently teach at Westlake, the archetype for Jazz conservatories. The college was founded in 1945 in a Beaux-Arts house located near 6th and Alvarado, not too far from downtown Los Angeles. The college is no longer in existence.

He later formed his own Dick Grove School of Music in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. Dick’s school offered classes in harmony & theory, composition, orchestration and arranging, keyboards, songwriting, et al. For a full list of Dick’s credits go here.

I spent some time in one of Dick’s rehearsal bands. He was a marvelous educator, an extremely kind and gracious person and one of the few composer-arrangers who actually knew how to write a drum part that keyed the drummer into what was going on in the music instead of simply writing “8-bars of swing on the hi hat” and having a few downbeats noted here and there for “bass drum” or “cymbal crash.”

Leonard Feather wrote these informative liner notes for Dick Grove’s Little Bird Suite and they are followed by two videos that features the Circlet and Doodad tracks from the album with Paul Horn on alto saxophone and Bill Robinson on baritone saxophone as feature soloists,

“It seems that there is always a stage in the career of every major artist at which the remark is made by surprised listeners: "Where has he been all these years?," or "Why hadn't I heard of him before?" With the obvious exception of child prodigies, most of the important contributors have to go through this phase; in the case of Dick Grove there can be no doubt that it will be the near-unanimous reaction to this album.

As was the case with Clare Fischer, Gil Evans and others now recognized as important arrangers, Dick Grove had to wait until he was in his thirties before he could make any impact on the jazz scene. Unlike the others, he is a latecomer in the actual craft of writing. "It's only in the last three years," he says, "that I really learned to write, to the point where I could say I wanted to."

Born December 18, 1927, in LakevilleIndiana, he was not seriously interested in music until about 1942. "My mother and brother were both musicians; he was quite a bit older and played in movie houses, piano and organ. I didn't study until I got out of high school and went to Denver U. for a couple of years. I'm mainly self-taught, trial and error style. I picked up piano and-used to double on vibes."

In 1954 he moved out to California, concentrating for the most part on backing singers, writing and teaching. He played with Alvino Rey for a while (but then, who hasn't?), and lately has done some effective playing and writing (without any credit for the writing) on records with Mavis Rivers.

"Didn't you ever try to submit anything to any of the name bands?" I asked him.

"No, I got into sort of a trap, by getting things going in my own direction. If I were to submit something to Harry James, say, I would have to write the way the Harry James band plays. Or if I wrote for Basie in the Basie style, it wouldn't be me at all. I almost got to the point where I was going to have to do something like that, but I feel I have something of my own to say and it finally dawned on me that anything I do is worth more to me under my own name."

In this manner, the necessity for personal expression became the mother of orchestral invention and the Dick Grove Orches­tra came into existence.

The band has been together, with a few personnel variations, for three years, but chiefly as a rehearsal group. Lately there have been a few in person appearances at college concerts; the plan, now that the group has finally been committed to records, is to keep together, play more concerts and go on the road if and when the demand warrants it.

Of his influences, Dick says: "Naturally I admire Gil Evans, mainly for the mature conception he has; but rhythmically I write very differently." An important difference also is that Gil's best known ventures have been arrangements of standard material, whereas Dick essentially is a composer-arranger who concentrates on his own original themes.

Of the instrumentation, he comments: "I use the regular basic set-up of reeds, brass and rhythm, but I don't write by sections. There are so many ways to create variety through unusual voicings or instrumental combinations.

"All the trumpets double on flugelhorn, which gives a better blend with the woodwinds. I use the piano occasionally, but only as an orchestral thing, not in the rhythm section.

"All the originals in this album except Little Bird were origi­nally commissioned by Dave Robbins' Jazz Workshop. Dave is a trombonist and conductor; his orchestra is heard every other week from Vancouver in a government-subsidized Canadian radio series. I've been writing for him regularly for a couple of years. The versions in the album are slightly different.

"As for Little Bird —it started out as a thing called Blues Two Ways. Pete Jolly took the background theme of the minor part and made a separate 16-bar thing out of it, as a bossa nova. Tommy Wolf added lyrics and it became Little Bird. As it turned out, we were pretty lucky with it; we got seven recorded ver­sions, and my own makes it eight."

There is a suite-like relationship, Dick says, between the three tunes on the first side and the first two on the second side. In other words, the five compositions with bird references in the titles, though they stand by themselves as entities, are tied together in the sense that they make logical continuous listening.

Nighthawk, the moderately paced but firmly-swinging opener, gives immediate exposure to Grove's extraordinary flair for color and variety of timbres in orchestration. There is also a prompt introduction of the soloist who, on the strength of this album, seems certain to earn the belated publicity as an instru­mentalist that Grove will acquire as a writer. His name is Joe Burnett; coincidentally, he is Grove's age. Dallas-born, he has played with just about every name band from Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson to Woody Herman and (of course) Charlie Barnet; but he has never had any substantial solo exposure on records. His solo vehicle here is the flugelhorn and his work shows a lyrical beauty that establishes him as the orches­tra's most remarkable instrumental voice.

Bird of Paradaiso, the longest and most brilliantly variegated track, is practically a concerto for Burnett. His lonesome wistful sound, unaccompanied, serves as an introduction and main­tains a sense of tension until, a minute and a half in, a tempo is established by Pena and Jeffries. By using a cluster type of voicing, Grove achieves special moments of rich orchestral texture, these passages being skillfully interwoven with the flugelhorn’s statements.

Mosca Espanola is a vivid pastiche of sounds all the way from the opening F and B Flat triads, through the opening ensembles into the sharply delineated Bill Robinson baritone solo, the gracefully swinging Dick Hurwitz trumpet, and on to the closing passages throughout which bass and drums are ingeniously integrated. The instrumentation in a passage near the beginning, in which I thought I heard muted trombones, actually is played by four open horns, with flugelhorn on top, two tenor trombones and bass trombone.


This voicing, Dick points out, is used at other points, some­times with bass clarinet added, as is the case in Canto de Oriole. The latter is a moody, almost stately piece, performed with an obviously keen, sensitive ear for dynamic and phrasing requirements on the part of every man in the orchestra. Both here and on the preceding track, Little Bird, one is constantly aware of the importance of Jeffries' and Pena's roles, not only as resolute swingers but as part of the overall sound. (Pena's parts in Oriole and Paradaiso were all written out.) Little Bird is noteworthy also for the work of Paul Horn, one of the most accomplished flutists in contemporary jazz; and for the tenor by Bob Hardaway.

Doodad and Circlelet, as noted above, are in a slightly dif­ferent bag from the rest of the compositions, though they retain the ingredients essential to the very personal Grove palette. Paul Horn is the featured alto soloist on both; his sound on alto for several years has been one of the very few distinctive ones on this horn. Circlelet also provides another glimpse of Bill Robinson's full-blooded baritone. Doodad is perhaps closer to the standard big band concept, in structure and sounds; than any of the other works in this set.

Repeated hearings of the album will reveal much more than can be outlined in any verbal summation. There are so many intricate or unusual uses of various tonal colors —the flute dou­bling the lead an octave higher, the woodwinds above the brass, the added warmth obtained through the use of the flugelhorns — that the whole set of performances takes on more interest at each hearing, both technically and harmonically.

Not the least noteworthy aspect of Dick Grove's success is his ability to achieve these results without resorting to such devices as atonality or continuous meter-shifting. "There are so many things that can be done within the present frame­work," he says, "and my feeling is, if you can't hear it, you shouldn't write it."

Clearly there are so many things he can hear that the lis­tener's ear is engaged from the first moment and never allowed to wander as the album follows its polychromatic course.

If orchestral jazz is going to survive, the strength of its will to live must depend on the initiatives of men like Dick Grove. And because of men like him, I am confident that its survival is assured.

-LEONARD FEATHER”








Thursday, September 18, 2014

Michael Weiss on JazzProfiles [From the Archies]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Weiss' four recordings have received unanimous critical acclaim. Stereo Review devoted a feature review to his debut album, Presenting Michael Weiss (Criss Cross). Power Station (DIW) was selected as one of the top five releases of 1997 by JazzTimes, in which Sid Gribetz said, “Weiss' originals sound as if they were standards of the genre.” In Fanfare, Royal S. Brown wrote, “Weiss' consummate command of the piano shows throughout the album.” According to the British magazine Jazz Journal, Milestones (SteepleChase) contains “splendid music on every track...piano playing of the highest order.” His 2003 release, “Soul Journey” (Sintra) features a collection of all original compositions for septet including the award winning, “El Camino.” As Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press writes, “the songs simply smoke.”

“He’s a very articulate, honest and precise person who takes care of business. To my ears, Michael is a real bebop piano player and you don’t find many like him around today.”
- Gerry Teekens, Jazz producer

“Make no mistake, Michael Weiss is good news for bebop ears ….”
- Mark Gardner, Jazz author and critic


I first “met” pianist, composer arranger, Michael Weiss through Gerry Teekens, the owner and proprietor of Criss Cross, a labeled devoted to Jazz that is located in Enschede, Holland.

A Jazz fan based in southern California “meeting” a musician who lives in New York via an introduction from a Dutch Jazz record producer?

I wish I could attribute this sequence of events to some cosmopolitan, jet set, bon vivant life style on my part, but alas, the so-called meeting came about by my purchase of Presenting Michael Weiss, a CD that Gerry Teekens recorded on April 4, 1986 for his Criss Cross Jazz label [#1022].

Frankly, I had no idea who Michael was at that time.

What I did know was that Gerry came to New York a couple of times a year to record primarily up-and-coming, New York-based, Jazz musicians for his Criss Cross label.

After a lengthy hiatus from Jazz due to personal and professional reasons, I was getting back into the music in the late 1980s, but I really didn’t know much about who the young players were on the Jazz scene, especially those on the East Coast.

I had come across the playing of drummer Kenny Washington on tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore’s Images CD [Landmark LCD-1520-2] which also featured the work of pianist Benny Green and bassist Peter Washington. Kenny, Peter and Benny recorded extensively for Gerry Teekens in the 1980s and 1990s.

I was particularly smitten with Kenny’s drumming because it was cut-out-of-the-mold of Philly Joe Jones, one of my early heroes and whose style I tried to emulate in my own playing.

It was Kenny’s efforts on Criss Cross that led me to Michael Weiss as he is the drummer on Presenting Michael Weiss.

After listening to Michael on Criss Cross, I couldn’t agree more with Mark Gardner’s assessment of Michael and the recording when he writes in its insert notes:

“If you are a believer in the continuing validity of bebop as the most challenging, complex and above all beautiful Jazz styles, this album is for you. In the hands of pianist/leader Michael Weiss and his four well-chosen companions [Tom Kirkpatrick on trumpet, Ralph Lalama on tenor saxophone and Ray Drummond on bass join Michael and Kenny] there is no ‘if’ about it: Bebop lives! With authenticity and creativity!”


What really turned my head around while listening to Michael’s Criss Cross CD was his interpretation of Joe Zawinul’s rarely heard Riverbed. [So you can sample it for yourself, I've used this tune as the audio track on the video tribute to Michael, which you will find at the conclusion of this piece].

On this track, which is played at a medium tempo while employing only a trio with Ray and Kenny, Michael displays a clarity and crispness of phrasing and an easy swing; what Mark Gardner refers to as the “… melodic contours of this lyrical tune” that is reminiscent of the great Jazz piano stylists.

This is what immediately appealed to me about Michael Weiss – his playing has a manner and a grace to it that brings to mind the work of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Rowles and Barry Harris.

With Michael, it’s not about flashy technique or note-popping solos, rather, he creates swinging “lines” [improvisations] that fall so effortlessly and easily on the ears.

He seems to get “inside” a tune and finds its hidden meanings and mysteries.

Michael’s playing explores and examines, it probes and pushes, it discovers and reveals.

He strikes me as the type of pianist that other pianists go to listen to and not to marvel at; no pretenses, just a purity of expression that reminds you of why you fell in love with Jazz in the first place.

Since that first encountered with his music, I had loosely followed his career through his performances with Jazz giants such as Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer and his work on his own albums.

But given the geographic distance between us, it wasn’t easy for me to check him out in person.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I received an inquiry from him a few months ago from Michael concerning the music of composer-arranger Dick Grove.

We got to chatting via e-mail and when I asked him if he would consent to an interview on JazzProfiles he said he would.

Here are Michael’s gracious replies to my questions.

-         How and when did music first come into your life?
I have a Polaroid of me sitting with a portable record player on my lap around the age of three. I remember Beatles records, beginning around 1964. I began piano lessons at six, and also started playing the guitar at the same time. We discovered I had a good ear and perfect pitch. I could pick out melodies and chords, so I took to music right away.

-         What are your earliest recollections of Jazz?
I grew up on rock music. I was first exposed to jazz while attending the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan at the age of 15. The faculty quintet played a concert and opened with Freddie Hubbard's "Mr. Clean." That was it for me. During my summer there, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton came to perform. Dave Sporny taught courses in jazz improvisation and arranging. He concisely laid out all the basics of jazz harmony, voicings and other fundamentals so clearly that I soaked it up like a sponge. Within six weeks I had written a big band chart. From then on I was on my way. I had been drifting as a young teenager in the suburbs so Jazz music really gave me a purpose in life.


-         Who were the Jazz musicians who first impressed you and why?
After Interlochen I attended a "magnet" high school in Dallas where I had four hours of music a day. The big band rehearsed daily. We played Thad Jones and Sammy Nestico and NTSU charts. My studies at Interlochen made it easier to comprehend what Thad was writing. My first jazz record was Horace Silver's "Blowing the Blues Away" because my high school teacher said, "Buy this record and transcribe the melody to "Sister Sadie." So I did it. It was all new and exciting - a new language. The seed was planted: If you want to figure something out on a record you listen over and over again and transcribe it. I then got Miles' Four and More and a Coltrane Atlantic compilation.  At that time (1973-4) so-called Fusion jazz was flourishing and that was very exciting too: Headhunters, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu, Billy Cobham, Weather Report, also Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Steely Dan and Frank Zappa.... This sophisticated harmonic language blended with rock music was attractive to me. I also got Thad and Mel records, because we were playing Thad's music in school. It was a wide range of styles to be hit with at once but that didn't pose a conflict for me. It was all exciting - these new harmonies and rhythms. I wanted to digest everything.

- How would you describe the influence of any or all of the following on your playing?

-        Teddy Wilson
How to play the piano with elegance.

-    Hank Jones
A modern Teddy Wilson with harmonic ingenuity, sophisticated voice-leading and orchestration.

-    Tommy Flanagan
One of the supreme orchestrators on the piano of all time, attention to detail and a gorgeous touch. True pianism.

-        Bud Powell
Certainly the strongest influence on my playing - directly and filtered through his acolytes such as Barry Harris.  Trying to describe the importance of Bud Powell as an influence is as overwhelming as trying to answer the question, "what is jazz?" Bud is my foundation for swinging - how I feel and play the beat and how to swing the eighth note, for melodic construction - his fountain of melodic ideas.  He influences me in his intensity - an emotional immediacy, and wide range of expression in all tempos, his harmonic movement - voicings and passing chords.

-        Horace Silver
Horace is my first influence. His rhythmic precision, his thematic approach to improvisation, his personal mix of the blues with bebop (Sonny Clark, too) and humorous quotes in his solos, his compositions... all have left their mark.


-        Barry Harris
Barry is my good friend and mentor. We discuss musical problems and challenges all the time, usually over the telephone, with him at his piano and me at mine. We discuss harmonic theory, piano technique and just about everything else.
I've known Barry since I was 21 years old.  I'm influenced by everything Barry plays, but most of all his sense of swing and feeling.

-      Wynton Kelly
Wynton is one my models for accompaniment. He's one of the greatest. He knows how to listen to the soloist and react instantly and creatively with the most appropriate harmony and rhythm. Of course his creativity as a soloist is masterful as well and his touch is immediately identifiable. But I would say Wynton's sensibility as an accompanist has influenced me the most.

-    Herbie Hancock
Herbie is a genius and I admire him greatly. But his influence on my playing has been greater through his accompanying and his harmony than as a soloist. I never was able to really acquire his metrically displaced linear style of soloing - not like other contemporaries of mine can do. I guess I have too much bebop phrasing in my DNA. Herbie is a great model for how to combine classical influences in one's playing.

-    McCoy Tyner
If I had to choose, I'd say I feel a closer affinity to McCoy than Herbie. He was nicknamed Bud-Monk for good reason. But coming out of those two ,McCoy still managed to create his own personal language. McCoy is my model for how to imply several different tonalities - a "pan-tonality" -  while improvising over essentially one chord. The way he "fans out" the harmonic palette through related tonalities. Coltrane and McCoy were very likeminded in this regard. You have to find a way to make things interesting. When you play on one chord for 40 minutes, you look for ways to broaden the color range through related chords and tonalities. You look for contrasting tonalities to dip in and out of...consonance and dissonance in ways that make sense. And McCoy's left hand is amazing. The rhythmic vitality going on between his both hands in his solos is remarkable.

-    Buddy Montgomery
I first met Buddy while in college, but soon after arriving in NY I acquired some tapes of Buddy's gigs from the 1970s that I studied intensely. I was very attracted to his style. He had all the modern harmony and linear lines of a Herbie or McCoy but without sounding anything like them. I used to perform many of his compositions and worked with him several times with Buddy playing vibes. He's another player I was drawn to because of the rich soulful feeling he brings to everything he plays.

Of course my jazz conception has been influenced by a number of non-pianists too. Bird, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Kenny Dorham influences readily come to mind. But who can say - with all of our diverse listening experience - what influence comes from where?

   
 -        What were your first combo playing experiences?
As a kid - in garage bands since I was 13. As a teenager I made a few trio gigs in Dallas. Then I played a lot in college at IU. I put together bands that had Pookie Johnson from Indianapolis, Al Kiger - who was living nearby, and Benny Barth who would visit Indiana occasionally from the coast. I was transcribing arrangements from records - Horace Silver, and various Blue Note music. That was cool, but what I should have been doing is let Pookie and Al call the tunes and learn from their repertoire.

-    How would you describe your approach to small group writing?
I try to expand the material compositionally as far as I can take it - either in a "theme and variations" or some other type of compositional development. Wayne Shorter influence me how to develop and reuse one's material. Sometimes a piece originates as a song form and then expands to other sections and sometimes there's no standard song form. But introductions, backgrounds, codas, interludes - I learned that from Horace Silver and Thad. I like to write out my bass lines and harmonies. I enjoy attention to detail. Wayne and Monk are very specific about what they write.

-                 Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Texture [the way the music sounds]      have been described as the musical atoms upon which all composing is based; is there anything unique or different in how you deal with these, individually and collectively, in your writing?
Any one of these elements can be the offspring for some type of development and can take center stage. What keeps the music accessible, allowing the listener to follow easily is to develop one or two of these elements at a time rather than all at once. One only has to study classical music to see how it's really done.


-       Talk about Junior Cook and Bill Hardman
Beginning in late 1982, I worked steadily with Junior Cook at the Star Cafe for about two years. This is where I “cut my teeth.”  Playing with Junior every week was a very fortunate opportunity for me.  Exactly the kind of experience any budding jazz musician needs to develop one’s musicianship and individuality – a rarity these days, for sure.  We always played an interesting and balanced repertoire.   
I then joined the Junior Cook/Bill Hardman quintet. We played mostly in small clubs around New York. The rhythm section included drummers Leroy Williams, Joe Jones, Jr., Al Harewood, Walter Bolden and bassists Hal Dodson, Paul Brown and Walter Booker. Playing with these veterans, I felt validated. We played a grueling European tour in 1986, but playing every night has its rewards.

After joining Johnny Griffin in 1987, I continued to work intermittently with Bill and Junior. The feeling Bill put through his horn was profound.  His sound, phrasing and rhythm were the essence of jazz.  Form, content, proportion, melodicism, soul, fire, storytelling – these were all exemplified in Junior Cook.  Junior and Bill will be remembered not only as great musicians, but also for their generous encouragement to the serious young musicians who sought them out.  

-          How did your association with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin and trumpeter Art Farmer come about. How long did you work with their respective groups? What was the experience like working with these Jazz “masters?”
In 1985 I had been using Kenny Washington on some gigs. When Griffin's pianist couldn't make a gig in Cambridge in October that year Kenny recommended me. The next time I filled in was three nights at the Vanguard in 1986. I joined the band a few months later. we toured every year through 2001. After that Johnny had a stroke and didn't perform in the US with his quartet until 2005. We recorded four CDs. Outside of the USA and Canada, we toured Japan three times and performed in Brazil. Since Griff lived in France we didn't tour as frequently throughout the year as other working bands, but I was proud of being in the band of a heavyweight. Playing with Johnny on the bandstand was electrifying. He was a fun loving and often silly guy but on the bandstand there was no nonsense.

Art Farmer was always one of my favorites and I was hoping to have a chance to play with him. He first took me to Israel in 1988, where we were on a double bill with Tommy Flanagan's trio. Art Farmer was for me the most challenging soloist to accompany. Everything he played was so lyrical and poignant I was walking on eggshells. His phrasing, like Johnny Griffin, was so unpredictable. It was hard to anticipate when a line would stop or start, or what direction it would go. With Art I was never more concerned about everything I played behind him. A year later I replaced James Williams in Art's quintet with Clifford Jordan, another one of my favorite players and a real character. We played three straight weeks at Sweet Basil. Those were the days! I did a European tour with the Jazztet in 1995 with Art, Benny, Curtis and Buster Williams. That was a great experience. After that I worked intermittently with Art in quartets or quintets until he passed. I'd describe Art as a more serious, somber kind of guy, but not without a sense of humor. He was always willing to talk about the old days.

One can learn a lot by observing how these veterans approach a gig, how they approach a tune, the way they play a melody, the way they phrase something. They don't solo too long. They don't practice on the bandstand. They construct their solo and tell a story. Having the opportunity to play several nights in a row with these artists was indispensable to my development. In this music, you have to be playing all the time to develop your own style.


-          What do you look for in a drummer? What drummers do you enjoy working with?
-          Who are your favorite bassists? What do you listen for in selecting a bassist to work with?
Perhaps stating the obvious, I like rhythm section players who have a well rounded knowledge of the recorded history of jazz so they know what's appropriate. Good time, good taste, a good sound on their instrument. I like bassists who like to use the amp as little as possible. I like bassists and drummers who like to syncopate and not just play straight time.
I like players who are really creative and contribute but at the same time have good sense and good taste. In the end, everything comes down to taste - and one's own sense of taste is as personal as it gets.

-          Could you describe how you approached the following recordings in terms of the general conception for each, the personnel you selected and why, and the mix of music?

          Presenting Michael Weiss
During this period I was interested in finding good compositions that hadn't been overplayed. Junior Cook, who I was working with, also enjoyed playing obscure Monk tunes and obscure standards that Coltrane recorded on Prestige. I wanted to be sure I had at least one original tune on the date. As on all of my gigs and recordings, I try to be conscientious about programming - to have a balance and variety of tempos, keys, rhythm, and in the construction of the arrangements. Kenny Washington recommended me to the record company, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of recordings he was a natural choice. Tom Kirkpatrick and Ralph Lalama were guys I was playing with it that time. They have distinctive voices and fit well with the program. The style of hard-bop was dominant and it was exciting to be recording at Rudy Van Gelder's.

            Power Station
At this time I began getting serious about composing. I formed a sextet to focus on composing and arranging. The quartet personnel here were taken from that group. The title track I composed instantly - I conceived it and played it on the piano in real time spontaneously. If only it were always that easy!  Everyone played very well and the studio and piano were excellent. The two standards I arranged are unusual in that the typical tempos for those tunes are reversed. I play Some Other Spring fast and Alone Together slow.
           

            Milestones
This opportunity came about somewhat quickly after having been a sideman on a few SteepleChase dates. I chose not to focus on my compositions. Jackie McLean gave me his blessing to premier on CD his composition Walter Davis Ascending. I was friends with Walter and just after he died, Jackie called me up with this new tune that he heard in his head the night Walter passed. Jackie played it over the phone for me on his horn while I notated it. I also included Jackie's Little Melonae. One of my cherished possessions is a phone message from Jackie in which he is very complimentary about this recording. After hearing Buddy Montgomery play I'll Remember April as a ballad I tried my hand at that with other standards, such as Like Someone in Love. To help me break out into different ideas, I chose B major for Like Someone in Love and Stella By Starlight.


            Soul Journey
I had a collection of sextet arrangements ready to record and was looking for a company. In the end, to do it right required me to produce it myself. I rerecorded a few of the compositions from Power Station because they had expanded considerably since then. I had come under the spell of Wayne Shorter's CD High Life, which led to a breakthrough for me in my composing - to go the extra mile with compositional development and detailing, to seize the moment, so to speak, with my brainstorms. For example, if you devise several ways to go from point A to point B, you don't have to pick just one. Why repeat the same thing verbatim? Wayne inspired me to go beyond standard song forms and flesh out other sections - introductions, interludes and codas that eventually gain more prominence in the piece. Having a percussionist helped to highlight this approach adding different colors. Wayne also inspired me to compose lines for the bass - syncopated melodies that you can build everything else around. I was happy to have Steve Davis, a very swinging, tasty player. Steve Wilson is one of my favorites because he's a great all around and versatile musician as well as a nice guy. He's less derivative then most so his ideas always sounds fresh. Daniel Sadownick is also a great musician with a wide range of musical experience and interests. I've continued to use Steve and Daniel in my more recent groups where the stylistic boundaries are less defined.

-          Switching to the subject of “favorites:”
What are some of your favorites books about Jazz?
I like the books about jazz that are either written by musicians themselves or feature extensive interviews with the musicians such as Ira Gitler's "Swing to Bop"
and Art Taylor's "Notes and Tones." Nica's book "Three Wishes" was quite entertaining. Miles', Dizzy's, Jimmy Heath's and Horace's autobiographies were very informative. I wish Jackie McLean, Johnny Griffin had written memoirs. Lou Donaldson, with all the stories he's told, really should write one.

-          What are some of your favorite Jazz recordings?
Of course when it comes to Bird, Bud, Monk, Newk, Miles, the Messengers, Horace it's hard to single out one over another, because there are so many classics. Having said that, I especially like Bud's live recordings from Birdland 1953. I enjoy Monk with Griff at the Five Spot. These are particular favorites:

Horace Silver - everything up through The Jody Grind
Kenny Dorham - Quiet Kenny
Tommy Flanagan - Trio overseas
Sonny Clark - My Conception
Barry Harris - At the Jazz Workshop
Sonny Redd - Breezin'
Jackie McLean - Jackie's Bag, A Fickle Sonance
Hank Mobley - with Kenny Dorham and Sonny Clark, A Caddy For Daddy
Dexter Gordon - Go, A Swingin' Affair
Johnny Griffin and Jaws - everything
Herbie Hancock - Inventions and Dimensions, Speak Like a Child


Lucky Thompson - Plays Jerome Kern and No More
Art Blakey - Free For All, Golden Boy
John Coltrane - Live at the Half Note 1965
Grant Green - Street of Dreams, Matador
Bobby Timmons - The Soul Man
McCoy Tyner - Inception, Reaching Fourth, Time For Tyner, Tender Moments, Sama Layuca
Larry Young - Unity
Bobby Hutcherson - Oblique
Lee Morgan - The Procrastinator
Tyrone Washington - Natural Essence
Pete La Roca - Turkish Women at the Bath
Sun Ra - Jazz in Silhouette, Fate in a Pleasant Mood, Heliocentric Worlds, Pathways to Unknown Worlds
Lou Donaldson - Fried Buzzard
Freddie Hubbard - High Blues Pressure
Stanley Cowell - Brilliant Circles
Chick Corea - Inner Space, Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy
Buddy Montgomery - The Two-sided Album
Tony Williams Lifetime - Emergency!
Joe Farrell - Moongerms
Wayne Shorter - All VeeJays, all Blue Notes, Atlantis, Phantom Navigator, High Life
Weather Report - Mysterious Traveler
Jim Beard - Song of the Sun

-          Who are your favorite Jazz vocalists?
Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. I like Jimmy Rushing.

-          Who among current Jazz musicians do you enjoy listening to?
I'm surely forgetting some people but off the top of my head -
Under 60: Danny Grissett, Grant Stewart, Alex Hoffman, Dick Oatts, John Webber, Joe Farnsworth
Over 60: Andy Fusco, Tom Harrell, Barry Harris, Cecil Taylor, Roy Haynes

-          What are your thoughts about blogs and websites devoted to Jazz?
If the blogger's insights can inspire readers to dig deeper to appreciate something or to turn them on to something they didn't know about, why not?

What are you trying to convey in your music? What kind of an experience do you hope that the listener will take away after hearing it?
Each composition has it's own mood or moods. I like to write music that has more compositional substance than just the same old head-solo-head format. I hope listeners will be affected on an emotional level in some way and can follow the narrative.

-          What's coming up for you in terms of future club performances, concerts, and future recording projects?
I'll be appearing in April with Frank Wess in NYC. I play most Mondays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. I'm working on the final compositions for a  recording project I began a few years ago with my current group.

-          In both personal and professional terms, what has the Jazz experience [i.e.: a career as a Jazz musician] meant to you?
This maybe stating the obvious but it's all that comes to my mind at the moment:
It is a chosen lifestyle as that of any self-employed freelance artist in their respective field.

You live to do what you do. As long as you can remain so inspired, your artistic goals are limitless. You, yourself are your harshest critic, the only one that really matters and ultimately the only one you aim to please, which is very hard to do.

-          Where can one get updated information on your activities and hear samples of your recordings?
Visit www.michaelweiss.info 
Soul Journey can be sampled and purchased at cdbaby.com/cd/mweiss


-          Aside from jazz, what other kind of music interests you?  What other music do you like to play and practice? Has any of this music rubbed off on your playing and composing?

          I've played "classical" piano literature since the age of six. but I didn't enjoy practicing much until my last year of high school when my teacher assigned me a Scriabin etude. In college my classical music took a back seat to my jazz playing. But after I moved to NYC and got my own piano I began playing a lot of classical repertoire at home: Scriabin, Bach, Chopin, and really enjoying it. Scriabin's harmonic language really appealed to me, obviously. Reading through all this repertoire was improving my technique and sound on the piano. I'd say I'm most attracted to music that has complex harmony. Szymanowski can really stretch it! Several years ago I became obsessed with the piano works of Samuil Feinberg, a very obscure Russian composer, known primarily as a pianist and pedagogue. All of his compositions are out of print, but I found them. He is the one heir to Scriabin who speaks the most to me but I also like many works of Alexandrov, Obouhov and Roslavets. I struggle through a couple of the Ligeti Etudes and the Messiaen preludes. I love Messiaen's Turangalila Symphonie and Trois Petite Liturgies - great pieces.  
          It's all "jazz" to me, just without the improvisation. I used to define "jazz" in much narrower terms, but now the point is really meaningless. I like the way Wayne Shorter puts it: "Improvisation is composition sped up and composition is improvisation slowed down." We are informed by everything we come into contact with. I could tell you exactly where the ideas for some parts of my compositions come from, but not everything.
          I usually don't like to rearrange classical pieces because they always sound best to me just as the composer intended. But there are a couple of occasions where I've been willing to adapt a classical piece to my group. There's a Roslavets prelude, a funeral march, that I played at the Vanguard. I hope to record it on the next project. Another is the second movement from Schoenberg's opus 16. These are both really dark pieces, but still very beautiful.
          As an improviser these influences come out when it's appropriate and feels natural. I never like to deliberately go against the flavor of a tune - I think that's corny. But sometimes the door can open by itself... Everything comes down to one's own sense of good taste.
          I like any kind of music that sustains my interest - rhythmically, melodically, harmonically - whatever. Who cares about genre.  Bulgarian choir music is incredible. I've gone back to Led Zeppelin. In addition to the many great jazz composers and arrangers of the 40s and 50s, the "fusion" era of jazz is so important from a compositional perspective. That's when standard song forms started to really get thrown out the window. Wayne Shorter's High Life is a monumental work, a symphony of nine movements.