© - 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
Free Press writes, “the songs simply smoke.” Detroit
“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,
A Jazz fan based in southern
“meeting” a musician who lives in California via an introduction from a Dutch Jazz
record producer? New York
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
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
a couple of times a year to record
primarily up-and-coming, New York-based, Jazz musicians for his Criss Cross
label. New York
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
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. Michigan 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
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. Dallas
- 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.
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
. Then I played a lot in college at IU. I
put together bands that had Pookie Johnson from Dallas , Al Kiger - who was living nearby, and
Benny Barth who would visit Indianapolis 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. Indiana
- 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
. 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. New York
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
couldn't make a gig in Griffin 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 Cambridge
with his quartet until 2005. We recorded four CDs. Outside of the US and USA , we toured Canada three times and performed in Japan . Since Griff lived in Brazil 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. France
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
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. Israel
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. Wayne
- 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
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
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
Chick Corea - Inner Space, Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy
The Two-sided Album Montgomery
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?
Soul Journey can be sampled and purchased at cdbaby.com/cd/mweiss
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.