Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Hank Mobley in the Down Beat Hall of Fame - 2019

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It’s hard to think of any other Jazz musician whose recorded work was as consistently pleasing as that of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s efforts on Blue Note in the 1950’s and 60’s.

I’m sure the fact that Hank had a talent for composing catchy and intriguing hard bop compositions may have had something to do with this, but I always liked the sound he got on tenor saxophone, too. Unfortunately with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter still on the scene when Hank was at the height of his popularity, the sound he got on the big horn was difficult for some to hear over the work of these trend-setters on tenor sax.

What is remarkable, too, is the fact that while there are many tenor saxophonists who get a sound like Dex, Sonny, Coltrane and Shorter, few players today sound like Hank and that’s a shame because Hank’s purity of tone and endless ideas helped make the instrument’s sonority softer, more mellow and less angular than the tone achieved by many of his contemporaries.

Kenny Mathieson put some thoughts about Hank in a slightly different context when he wrote”

“Hank Mobley occupies an odd position in the hard bop pantheon. If Lee Morgan was the quintessential hard bop trumpeter, Mobley sometimes seemed miscast within the genre, sporting a tenor saxophone sound which was almost the antithesis of everything which hard bop implied.

The confusion is a surface one - his music was fundamentally part of the movement, and he is one of its master craftsmen. He has been routinely passed over - both David Rosenthal in Hard Bop and Thomas Owens in Bebop hardly mention him other than in passing as a sideman, and Rosenthal does not include any of his records in his selected hard bop discography - or described as undervalued so often now that it has become a cliche, but his career reflects that neglect in unmistakable fashion.

Even his most ardent admirers concede that he lacked the power and individuality of the premier tenormen of the day, Coltrane and Rollins, but his contribution to the music was an important and lasting one, and he is hardly to be ignored simply because he stood in the shadow of giants. Jazz is much more than a history of its greatest figures, and Hank Mobley played his part to the fullest.” In Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65, [p. 153]

Well, it would seem that Kenny Mathieson and I along with legions of other Mobley supporters now have something to celebrate as Hank finally got some of the recognition he so justly deserves with his election to the Down Beat Hall of Fame via the 84th annual Readers Poll.

Here’s the article from the December 2019 edition of the magazine which announced this momentous occasion and describes the salient features of Hank’s background and the milestones in his Jazz career.

"Hank Mobley MASTER OF CONTRASTS" By Aaron Cohen

One night in November 1955, a cooperative then known as The Jazz Messengers took the stage of New York's Cafe Bohemia. Their performance would yield two albums (At The Cafe Bohemia, Volume 1 and Volume 2 on Blue Note) and help spark the rise of hard-bop.

“At 25 years old, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley should already have been widely acclaimed for what he brought to the ensemble: making tricky tempo changes sound easy, playing with a big, full sound on ballads and penning strong compositions. But when his name was introduced on the first night at the Cafe Bohemia, he received just a brief smattering of applause. That contrast between his incredible artistry and an audience's understated reaction encapsulates his career.

Critic Leonard Feather described Mobley as "the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone." Likely not intended to be disrespectful, the phrase implied that his sound was somewhere between a heavy, aggressive style (like Sonny Rollins), and gently swinging one (like Lester Young). But the "middleweight" designation left him underappreciated in the annals of jazz history.

Additionally, Mobley retreated from the public eye for a number of years, which earned him a reputation for reclusive-ness. Still, just as middleweight champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson inspired the legendary Muhammad AH, Mobley set the pace for many celebrated tenor saxophonists who followed his path, including his friend John Coltrane.

Now, with his induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame more than 33 years after his death at age 55, Mobley s name has joined the ranks of the esteemed artists he influenced. Much of his best work has been assembled for the newly released eight-disc box set The Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963-70 (Mosaic). The collection illustrates the evolution of Mobley's instantly identifiable sound and his unique compositional approach. His muted harmonic twists and flowing rhythmic exchanges—while often hewing close to the blues— offer a crucial statement on how jazz was transformed during that decade. Dissonance, electronic experimentation and more open-ended collective improvisation were not the only stylistic advances that marked what became known as "The '60s." Mobley's warm tone didn't necessarily coincide with cliches of the tumultuous era, as the saxophonist purposefully placed himself beyond perceived trends.

That individualism came across in one of his rare interviews, which he gave to writer John Litweiler for "Hank Mobley: The Integrity of the Artist-The Soul of the Man," which ran in the March 29,1973, issue of DownBeat.
Mobley said to Litweiler: "When I was about 18, [my uncle] told me, “‘If you're with somebody who plays loud, you play soft. If somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they're playing, you're in trouble.' Contrast."

That uncle, multi-instrumentalist Dave Mobley, encouraged the musical inclinations of his nephew, who picked up the tenor saxophone at around age 16. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mobley's experiences ranged from playing in r&b bands to a brief stint in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. But the bop revolution captured Mobley's passion as he started recording his own compositions in 1953, two years after drummer Max Roach brought him to New York.

In the early Jazz Messengers (before Art Blakey took the helm), Mobley's writing and improvisations incorporated advanced harmonic ideas while maintaining strong ties to the blues. On his mid-'50s Savoy records, Mobley's challenging compositions emboldened teenage trumpeter Lee Morgan, who would become one of the saxophonist's ongoing musical foils.

Blue Note signed Mobley as a bandleader in 1955, and for the next 15 years he would record extensively for the label. The fervor in his playing and writing while he was in his mid to late twenties remains astonishing. Mobley recorded one of his landmark albums. Soul Station, in 1960, highlighting how, as the sole horn player, he engaged with a formidable rhythm section of Blakey, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Wynton Kelly. The results are a triumph, especially the group's modern-leaning take on Irving Berlin's "Remember" and Mobleys assertiveness on his own "This I Dig Of You."

Mobley gained much wider attention when he joined Miles Davis' group in 1961. He plays on the trumpeter's album Someday My Prince Will Come, as well as two live LPs recorded at The Blackhawk in San Francisco. Mobley’s earlier experience with Chambers and Kelly, Davis' rhythm section stalwarts, proved valuable. The saxophonist's tone highlighted what he described as "not a big sound, not a small sound, but a round sound," most vividly on ballads. This approach blended impeccably with the bandleader's muted tone.

In the Davis biography So What, writer John Szwed noted that with Mobley’s blues inflections, "There was a hipness to his playing that reinforced Davis' popularity in black communities across America." But Davis did not speak so favorably about the saxophonist, and Coltrane and Wayne Shorter's roles with the trumpeter historically have overshadowed Mobley’s short tenure in the band.

Just after leaving Davis, Mobley said that he delved into a recurring drug addiction that frequently kept him away from performing and recording. While incarcerated for drug possession, he used prison time to compose, and his sound continued to evolve after each setback throughout the 1960s. Fortunately, as Blue Note Sessions shows, Mobley's record company stood by him, despite such episodes.

On 1964's No Room For Squares, Mobley conveyed quiet authority while allowing ample room for an especially spirited quintet. The group's unison lines on his "Three Way Split" give way to shifting rhythms in a fierce exchange among Mobley, bassist John Ore and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Mobley extended his musical palette for the sextet LP A Caddy For Daddy (recorded in 1965). His waltz "The Morning After" sounds like it was written specifically for pianist McCoy Tyner.

Dippin' ("also recorded in 1965) featured pianist Harold Mabern, whose robust blues feeling was a quality he shared with the leader. Mabern, who spoke to Down Beat about two weeks prior to his Sept. 17 death, somewhat agreed with a consensus that Mobley could be personally withdrawn. But he described the saxophonist as far from distant.

"Hank was a joy to be around, he never created problems, never got loud and boisterous," Mabern said of the sessions that produced Dippin’ the only album the two musicians made together. "He was pure in heart. Those are the things that made the date easy for us, but he was no pushover: He knew what he wanted; you couldn't jive him."

Mobley did not always adhere to a standard format, as illustrated by his 1966 octet recording, A Slice Of The Top. His sharp timing and command of all registers remained steadfast while he created long choruses for a distinctive brass section that included euphonium and tuba. While Duke Pearson was nominally in charge of the arrangements, they flowed from Mobley's instructions. The tracks range from a waltz in 6/8 time ("Cute 'N Pretty") to the title track's multidirectional groove.

The groundbreaking LP sat unreleased until 1979, about six years after Mobley expressed frustration at the amount of his material sitting in the Blue Note vault. His exasperation seems understandable, and the new Mosaic collection includes tracks from five compelling albums that were recorded in the 1960s but not released until the late '70s and mid-'80s. Still, as Mosaic producer Michael Cuscuna pointed out, Mobley and his contemporaries — including Morgan, Jimmy Smith and Grant Green — created more tracks than any label could have been expected to issue around the time they were recorded.

During Mobley's last years in the studio, his work also included covers of r&b hits, like the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," as well as original compositions that emphasized immediately attractive melodies with repeating motifs, such as "The Flip." In some ways, these tracks show that after 20 years of invention, he never lost his feel for r&b.

Bassist Mickey Bass, who played on the saxophonist's 1970 Blue Note album, Thinking Of Home, said Mobley's compositional skills remained honed, regardless of the distractions or hardships he faced. "With both Hank and Lee Morgan, their genius was so great that in spite of their addictions, they would write out most of the tunes for the record date in the cab on the way to rehearsal," Bass recalled. "That genius was unheard of at that particular time."

In 1972, Mobley recorded his last album, Breakthrough, a collaboration with pianist Cedar Walton. (It was released on the Cobblestone label and later reissued by Muse).

Mobley continued his peripatetic lifestyle in the years that followed, but with the possibility of new music always out there. At the time of his 1973 DownBeat interview, Chicago was his home and he had started working with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. No recording of the two is known to exist, which is a shame. Mobley's final years remain mysterious, but he was known to have suffered from lung cancer and bouts of homelessness. It’s conceivable that he saw how his advanced ideas for composing and arranging on A Slice Of The Top became part of the lexicon for some of the groups coming out of Abrams' Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

As Bob Blumenthal writes in the liner notes to Blue Note Sessions, Mobley did achieve a moment of acclaim shortly before his death. When Blue Note experienced its rebirth in 1985, the label invited him to participate in a relaunch concert at New York's Town Hall. Mobley appeared at the event, but he chose to speak to the audience, rather than perform. In some regard, he didn't have to, as everyone present seemed to acknowledge that the label, and jazz itself, had thrived because of Mobley's contributions.”   


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Night in Tunisia

“Gerry Mulligan: My Approach to the Orchestra,” Les Tomkins 1985

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The tone and tenor of Les Tomkins’ later-in-career-interview with Gerry Mulligan which was published in the June/July 1985 issue of Crescendo International is reflective of this assertion by the late author Tom Clancy:

“As a man gets older he thinks differently and see things more clearly.”[Clancy was gender specific].

Although Jeru gave somewhat similar responses in previous interviews, these are fuller; more thorough; more complete: in other words, Gerry is older and thinking differently about people, places and things in his life, both past and present.

“We know you, Gerry, as a musician who has been involved, as a player and a writer, in a wide range of activity. Working with a symphony orchestra is something else...

Stretching out a little more — yes. The first reason for starting to do the symphony concerts was to play this new piece of mine. I took off the Winter of '83/'84, spent four months working on the ideas, and then two months — well, about a month, I suppose -- scoring it. So altogether it occupied five months out of the year, preparing this piece — called "Entente". It's geared to be a piece for solo baritone saxophone and orchestra.' Then the other piece we're playing in these concerts is called “The Sax Chronicles"; I had this idea with my friend Harry Freedman, who's a Canadian composer, to do a piece that allowed me to play with the orchestra in various kinds of contexts that I don't get to play with — because none of the composers wrote for the baritone saxophone! And I wanted to be able to do this; it always breaks my heart to listen to the orchestra play even its standard repertoire and not be able to play the music of great writers of the twentieth, nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. So Harry decided the way to solve my problem was to take melodies of mine and re-compose them in the styles of Bach, Brahms, Mozart... We call it 'The Sax Chronicles" because we're jumping around in time, and it's sort of the idea of doing a revisionist history of the saxophone!

A fascinating idea. But your opportunities of experimentation with a large orchestra must have been strictly limited anyway.

Well, actually, after doing this piece, I had the opportunity to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl during last Summer [1984] — and, of course, that gave us a deadline to aim for. And it's been a wonderful thing: because of the existence of the piece those other things have happened kind of naturally, you know. We spent a week in Treviso, Italy — that's in the Veneto province, North of Venice — we rehearsed for three days and did four concerts with them, and that really came about because the music existed. It was one of those coincidental things; this was when their orchestra was having its season, and they had asked me if I would do a Quartet concert. I'd said: "Love to"; then we got into a conversation about what I was doing…”Ah, you have a piece for the symphony — oh, that's wonderful!" So we wound up performing it, and it was great, because to have the three days of rehearsal as a luxury and to do four concerts in a row — it meant the thing really came to life for me. One of the drawbacks is always having a minimal amount of rehearsal time — it's a great luxury, being so expensive. This allowed me to iron out a|l the inevitable problems — copying mistakes and that sort of thing. Also — I put some time in and wrote an arrangement for the orchestra with the Quartet on one of the pieces that we do regularly, called "K-4 Pacific".

Oh, yes, I remember that from "Age Of Steam" — a particular favourite album with me.

Right — well, I do that all the time with the Quartet. You know, I hadn't really even thought about it before, but when I finished the "Entente" I was so wound up, spending that much time, that finally when I got down to scoring I couldn't quit! So I went on and did the other piece. When we've finished the current tour I’m going to go back to Italy and see if I can do some more writing.

Would you call it fusion music — in terms of fusing elements of jazz with classical elements?

It certainly is doing that — especially "Entente". "The Sax Chronicles" is intended to be in the styles of the various composers; really, the only thing that's jazz-like about it the fact that I'm primarily a jazz musician — so I tend to phrase things in the way that I'm used to. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be a symphonic player! It's the force of habit, you know — the things that are so ingrained in me, as far as phrasing is concerned. But what we have is a kind of a mutual adapting to each other, within the framework allowed by the styles that we're writing in.

In writing, this is quite a departure for you. Is something that you, hopefully, will be doing more of?

Yes, I intend to. Yes — I love to write for the orchestra. I really never thought that I would write for the orchestra— I didn't feel like I could do it. But it's been kind of a sequence of events — you know those sorts of things: you meet people and things happen, without thinking about it. And that really is what's happened here, because, in a way, the springboard for all this was the happy accident of meeting Zubin Mehta on a plane going from Los Angeles to New York. We got talking about this and that, and he wound up inviting me to play the soprano saxophone solo part on Ravel's "Bolero". And he invited me to come to rehearsals whenever I wanted to; so being in contact with and spending more and more time around the orchestra had its effect, and Zubin kind of gave me the confidence to go ahead and try it. I'd been very hesitant about taking the chance. It's not easy to be a beginner at any time in your life, but I think to get to be my age and feel like a rank beginner again — just trying something you don't know at all — is not at all easy.

Well, it's been in there sort of waiting to come out, I suppose.

I suppose so — because I've always been interested in orchestration, I've
listen a lot, and I've always felt like I know a lot about it. Intuitively — because I never studied orchestration or composition when I was young; I never had the opportunity to. But I understand the principles and the logic, and I've always curious when I listened to any composer’s work...  I'm always more concerned with why he would solve a problem in such a way, or why he would use such-and-such a combination of instruments!. The imagination that a composer can bring to what he does by the kinds of orchestration that he'll evolve for what he's doing — that's the great fascination for me.

But it's an extension, as it were, of what you've done for the jazz orchestra. You always tried, there, to get as wide a palette of colours as possible, didn't you?

It’s true I've always been attracted to the jazz band in an orchestral way, rather than a band way. I suppose that's one of the things that has always separated me — and certainly separates me now — from the general trend of the existing bands. Well, there are only a few of the well-known bands left. But, you know, one of the bands I wrote for and played with in the 'forties was Claude Thornhill's band — and one of the things I loved about his band, and Claude Thornhill's approach, was his conception of the dance band instrumentation, with seven brass or so. In this case, he had six or seven brass and a couple of french horns, with the five reeds — and we usually used a couple of clarinets in that. But his approach was basically orchestral, but with no strings involved. That's always fascinated me, and I've always leaned in the direction of orchestral writing rather than band writing.

Of course, Gil Evans, whose ideas are very similar, was there too...

And that's precisely what Gil was doing — and that's why he was so ideally suited to be writing for Thornhill. But that was Thornhill's conception — his band was like that when he first put it together, before Gil ever wrote for it. Did you ever hear any of the things that Claude wrote? Marvellous things — there's one thing in particular...

Yes, it was Gil who drew my attention to them, and I later got hold of a record. The one you mean had a funny title — "Portrait..."

“Portrait of a Guinea Farmer" — well, that's an example. The kinds of things he was writing were very much in the vein of some of Debussy's humorous music. Aside from the tone poems we associate automatically with Claude Debussy, he had a sense of humour — and this was the thing that Claude Thornhill enjoyed so much. Anyway, that was the conception of the band; that was an inspiration to me, and it made me very conscious of orchestral writing. Another bandleader that I worked for, who also inspired me to listen to orchestral writing and to his favourite composers, was Gene Krupa. Oh, yes — Gene's first love was Delius. He loved Delius, and we'd spend a lot of time listening to that music. When we were on the road, Gene always carried his record player and his records, and he would invite some of us up to his hotel room, And he listened with such enthusiasm; he'd say: "Now, listen to this... listen to what he does here... listen to the bar of five-four he puts in here..." Oh, he was a great inspiration — lovely man. I've always considered myself lucky with the leaders that I worked for, and Claude and Gene were certainly two inspiring people for me.

How about Stan Kenton? Was he not an inspiration?

Well, you see — Stan's band I didn't really like, because it represents the opposite extreme. Everything was brass, and it was all this kind of thing that we associate with the concert band — like the Sousa band, you know. Although I use Sousa band only to explain the conception of the concert band, because Sousa's band, unlike Kenton's band, was a very soft band. When they play Sousa marches today, they sound very loud, very military and all that — but when Sousa played them they didn't sound like that at all. They didn't use trumpets, for one thing, and when they did, the cornet was still the primary instrument — and the cornets had a much softer sound. And they used woodwinds; the clarinets served the function of the strings. There are recordings around of recreations of Sousa's band, that were probably done in the 'thirties — it was a revelation to hear those things. It appealed to me; I liked it very much — because I don't like really blasting loud music. As a consequence, I don't think Stan really liked my things that much. He kinda got stuck with me, because the musicians playing in the band liked my
arrangements, and I think he felt he would have lost face with the band if he'd refused to commission me to write more, or to play them. But I know that he wasn't really comfortable with them. My music is too horizontal, and what Stan liked was vertical structures. He wanted power — sort of wearing your virility on your sleeve, if you will.

So what's happening with the band now? You've brought it over here a couple of times. Are you still keeping it together?

Yes — you know, some years I do a lot of dates and a world tour with the big band; and then the next year we'll probably only do a handful of dates. But we keep the spirit going in the band; we're always in contact with the players, and they all live around New York. There are usually very few changes when I put it together; we did a concert very recently, and had almost all the regulars. And, of course, we've done enough dates like that, that there are plenty of people in New York in various chairs to make it feel like we've been together a long time. It always amuses me — sometimes we'll put the band together for a date, and we haven't played together for six months or more; we don't have a rehearsal, but we go out and play — and it sounds like the band has been working every night! I never spring new arrangements on them without rehearsing first. The amusing thing about it is: we'll go and do a concert some place, with no rehearsal, and then there'll be the comment in the paper that they think the band may be over-rehearsed — it's a little too polished! I always save those to send around to the band — it makes them feel good. And the other thing we do: we periodically have Softball games with the band, because they're all baseball nuts — that helps to keep the spirit alive. That's one of the things about a band — aside from the music and what you can do with it, as a social organisation it's the thing that we all became musicians for in the first place. That's part of it.

Do you pretty well divide your time between the small group things and the big band?

Right — and now we have the third area: spending time on the symphony concerts. As for the Quartet, Bill Mays is on piano — you've heard him? He's wonderful; we have a great time together. Frank Luther has been here with me before on bass — two or three times, I guess. Also our drummer Richie De Rosa has been here with the big band and the Quartet. So we have a continuity going. No — we never have recorded; I don't do as much recording as I'd like to.

I’m always looking out for new things from you, and I get surprised sometimes when you come out with something unusual — like with the accordionist Astor Piazzolla, with Lionel Hampton or whatever.

Or the other one in Italy I like very much — with Enrico Intra, playing on his compositions. There's a lot of good music on that one.

Yes, you recorded that in Milan, and it was put out on the Pausa label in Los Angeles. Great stuff.

Then, of course, the most recent  thing, "Little Big Horn", that Dave Grusin and I planned. That's really musically quite a departure for me, because it's not like the stuff that we do with the Quartet — and it's different kinds of approach to arranging of things that I wrote. The idea being that Dave thought we should use different groups for the different pieces, so that a piece like "Little Big Horn" or "Another Kind Of Sunday" should have the kind of feeling supplied by some of the players who as a rule play with him in the New York studios — we have Buddy Williams on drums and Anthony Jackson on bass. That's a totally different feeling than the Quartet, or even the kind of quartet things we did on that album — like "Sun On The Stairs". Or we have the thing that Dave did a lot of synthesiser work on — "Under A Star". Of course, it's something that I can do in that way when I'm playing concerts, because I'm not about to start carrying all those synthesisers around. I think those are invitations to disaster; you can imagine all the problems inherent in carrying that stuff— I never want to start with that. But in the recording studio it's great, you know; you have control — if a fuse blows, you can fix it!

Well, as long as you've got somebody who is a total exponent of it — and not just using it as a toy.

Dave is such a complete musician, and he uses it as a composer and arranger. Of course, Dave and I have been friends for a long time, and we always enjoy working together because we both think as composer/arrangers. You can hear how we adapt to each other. Bill Mays does that also — he listens to me and starts following what I'm doing, and I do the same thing. It's wonderful to feel things evolving — find yourself doing things that you like, that you wouldn't do otherwise. And it's that way with Dave Grusin. We did some tracking on that; he did one pass with synthesisers set up in one kind of mode, and then we'd do another pass — we could overdub two or three times. I could hear the processes at work — how he was laying out the composition for himself, to go back and improvise on another part of it. For a composer to use instruments like that — it's a new palette to work with. You can get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

The other thing you've apparently been doing sometimes latterly has involved Mel Torme. You played on some tracks of a double album by him, and I gather you've done various special concerts where there’ve been you, he and George Shearing.

Yes, we started doing that as part of the New York Jazz Festival. Mel and I both love songs, and George Wein wanted to do nights, as part of the series of shows that were a dedication, a celebration of the American songwriters. And, as you know, we had some great people to choose from — there've been incredible writers in this century. So that was really the basis for the first couple of shows that Mel and I each appeared on separately. But we always felt that we would like to do the whole show as a concept — really make the most of the whole idea. George Wein said: "Fine", and that's what we did; we put a lot of work into those shows.

It sounds as though they were a lot of fun as well.

Tt was a labour of love. 'We didn't get anything extra for all of the production work we put in it, but I felt it was worthwhile, and Mel and I enjoyed it very much. Of course, he brought George Shearing into the thing, and the three of us had such a good time putting those shows together. And a couple of shows, I think, are some of the best of the concept shows that have been done with the New! York Festival. I have a vested interest in feeling that way, being that they were partly shows.

Didn 't you do some singing yourself on them?

I did. Mel said: "If we're going to be doing American songwriters, you've got to sing." And for a couple of years there I was probably the one person anywhere who could say: "I only sing at Carnegie Hall"! I don't even sing at home in the shower! Only Carnegie Hall. But, you know, it gave me confidence, and I enjoyed doing it. That's why I wound up doing that vocal version of one of my songs — "I Never Was A Young Man" — on the "Little Big Horn" album. That was Dave's idea; he wanted me to do that — he thought it would be fun to do And he's right — not taking it seriously, it's a lot of fun — that's important too.

Have you done any other novel recordings lately?

I've appeared on some other people's albums. I did a couple of tracks with a friend of mine — Italian singer Ornella Vanoni. She's one of the favourite Italian popular singers, and she'd been wanting us to do something together for a long time. She had an idea for an album, and she wrote some songs; it was fun, and I like the way she sings very much. And I had a telephone call from Barry Manilow; I'd received a letter from Barry years ago, saying that he'd always been a fan of mine, and telling me how I had been an influence on him when he first started out. He wanted to know if I was interested in doing this album with him; I said: "Sure — I'd love to." Because I think he's a very talented musician — I like Barry. Even though it's a totally different field, I've heard some of his pop records on the radio and said: "Oh — I like that." So I made this album with him, and it was a lot of fun to do also.

But will there be a recording of the present orchestral venture?

Yes, there will — I don't know when, but some time; I hope it's soon. It's kind of difficult these days, because there are not too many companies that are really very concerned about recording jazz. The recording industry has changed; they're enjoying such incredible success in the pop field. Now that it's a multi-billion dollar industry, they haven't got much time for us fringe musicians. Which is a shame; it's an odd form of discrimination against various other kinds of music that are not in the mega-bucks arena.
That notwithstanding, we still manage some things recorded. Of course, do
An album with a symphony is an expensive project, but eventually I'm sure we’ll  get these things recorded.

Perhaps with the LSO, if you do it in this country?

I’d love to — what a good orchestra! Incredible. They sounded so wonderful
on our concert. I'd certainly heard them on records a lot before, but this was my first personal encounter with them. It was a Close Encounter of the Best Kind.”
- Les Tomkins. Crescendo International

Monday, January 20, 2020

Here Comes - Frank Foster(Blue Note 5043)

Joe Morello Drum Solo 1964

Joe Morello - An Interview with Les Tomkins

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

“Any good Jazz musician has developed from hard work and hard thought, a personal conception. When he improvises successfully on the stand or in the recording studio, it is only after much thought, practice and theory have gone into that conception, and it is that conception which makes him different from other Jazz musicians. Once he knows what he is doing, in other words, he can let himself go and find areas of music through improvisation that he didn’t know existed. Jazz improvisation, therefore, is based on a paradox – that a musician comes to a bandstand so well prepared that he can fly free through instinct and soul and sheer musical bravery into the musical unknown. It is a marriage of both sides of the brain ….” 
- Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest [p. 53]

“I let myself go. I find as I go along, I feel like I’ve learned from many people, and yet I’m told that I’ve influenced other musicians. I hardly believe I’m as talented as some others. Someone with talent possesses a kind of facility and plays well as early as 16 or 17 much better than I could play at that age. I had to practice a lot and spend a lot of time searching and digging before I got anywhere. And because of that, I later became more aware of what I was doing, I wasn’t an imitation. I found myself with a synthesis of the playing of many musicians. From this something came out and I think it’s really mine.”
- Pianist Bill Evans, as told to Jean-Louis Ginibre

“The finger technique, practice method and of the drummer other drummer’s rave about- the Dave Brubeck quartet’s inimitable Joe Morello.” 
- Les Tomkins, Jazz writer and critic

This interview appeared in the January 1963 edition of Crescendo Magazine. It is a rare find and the transfer to the blog format took a bit of doing. Yet, it was worth the time and effort to represent it on these pages due to Joe's special qualities as a Jazz drummer. He was also a marvelously kind and giving human being. Attending one of the clinics he taught for Ludwig drums was like spending time in Jazz Drummer Heaven.

“The amazing Joe Morello beat out impressive patterns on his practice board to illustrate and embellish his statement to me on drumming in general and his unique contribution in particular.

“Yes, I’ve used the same [drum] set-up for I guess the last ten years - except that I added another cymbal about a year ago. They [Ludwig drum kit] hold up well under successive one-nighters and that silver colour is sort of a good luck thing.’

‘Sticks? I usually don’t change them around and added my own a while back. I couldn’t find one that had the action that I like so I fooled around and made some, had them turned for me and they became my model. And it’s not too bad, although they have been coming through kind of thin lately.’

Joe added ruefully - ‘The new Buddy Rich model is similar to mine - only a little heavier.

When I asked him how he tuned his drums he said that [trombonist, composer, and arranger Bill Russo had posed the same query to him a few nights earlier. ‘He liked the snare drum sound and wondered if I had any trouble turning them over here [At the time of this interview, Joe may still have been using cow hide heads on his drums and they would have been affected by England’s wet climate].’ I told him: “Not too much.”

‘There was one night on the tour when we arrived late and I didn’t have the chance to check the drums. The small tom-tom sounded like a tympani.

‘But usually when they arrive at the hall they get accustomed to the temperature inside. And so when I get there about fifteen minutes before the show, I tighten them up and tune them to my liking.

‘There’s not really a set way of doing it. The only thing I suggest on tuning is that I keep the snare drum head fairly tight and the batter head [bottom snare drum head] a little looser. A lot of people go around turning their drums a fifth and a fourth - b-flat on the bass drum and so on. I’ve never bothered doing that. I just tune them so that they sound good to me.

Inevitably, I brought up Joe’s seemingly-magical finger technique to find out how long it has been a part of his playing and how he set about perfecting it.

‘This finger control thing is something that started a long time ago in the French Conservatory. That was the first school to utilise this way of manipulating the sticks.

‘I never studied in France or anything but years ago in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, I used to sit for hours trying to figure out how they could sustain this single beat with the left hand.

‘Before that it used to be all stiff wrist, much like a lot of the boys here in England are doing it. They are holding it stiff, which is not the way to do it.

‘I was just trying to figure, letting the stick rebound real loose - by itself. Of course the teacher I was with at the time said “No, you must never let the stick rebound.” ‘This was supposed to be wrong. There was a taboo on the thing.

‘Then Louie Bellson came through with the Tommy Dorsey band. He was playing this way. He got it from Murray Spivak in Hollywood, who used to teach it quite well. [Murray taught privately for many years in his clinic and was the drum master other drummers went to when they had problems with their playing]. Louie had a good understanding of it. So I talked to him and he gave me the basic principle of it, which opened a lot of doors for me.

‘I took it upon myself to analyze it and to develop it to suit my own personality in playing. That is to say I adopted it anatomically to fit what I can do with my hands. I do it a little differently from Louie - and I think everyone else does because it is sort of an individual thing.

‘Ever since that time, Louie and I have been getting together periodically to discuss this.


I’d like to mention another teacher here, who is dead now, but who in my opinion was the greatest drummer in the world - thought I can’t stand the term when applied to Jazz drumming. He was Billy Gladstone. He was a fantastic drummer. He had all these things going. He was the best exponent of it. [Billy Gladstone was a famed Broadway show drummer who often shared the percussion platform with Max Manne, the father of Jazz drummer Shelly Manne, with whom he became close friends].

‘He was a great influence as far as my hand development, technique and sound are concerned. He taught me a lot and helped me tremendously. Swinging drum solos weren’t “his cup of tea” - but for touch, technique and speed, he was the closest to a genius I’ve ever seen.

‘For the past four or five years, I’ve been in the process of writing a book about finger control. I’ll probably never finished it. Murray Spivak told me he’s been trying to write a book since 1951. It’s easier to demonstrate than put on paper.

‘The principle is relatively simple, although the application is a little more difficult. The stick is propelled with the finger instead of the wrist and arm. All you are doing is rebounding the stick with the first finger. But it has to be done with control. There must be no tension in the arm and hand, so as to get a loose handhold between the thumb and third finger.

‘The best way to practice it is to get a full turn of the left wrist, letting the stick bounce freely. As you close your first finger down, you’ll feel the pull. It’s a matter of sustaining that. It takes considerable practice over long periods.

‘I’ve been reasonably successful with it although for the last six months, I haven’t had time to devote to a practice schedule to keep it in shape.

‘The technical part of drumming is strictly physical. It requires a certain amount of training and exercise each day to maintain a decent technique.

The Tympani Grip

‘The tympani grip? [Matched-sticks grip]. There’s nothing wrong with doing it this way if you like it. This is a natural way of holding the stick  For me - I feel very comfortable playing the orthodox way, especially when I’m behind the drum set. I have the high-hat cymbal on one side and everything and I feel cramped if I don’t do it this way. I’m used to this way, but I’m not opposed to the other way.

On rules and their flexibility - ‘There are several different stages in one’s development. The beginner should stick to the rules. You can’t break the rules unless you know them.

‘Once you know the rules, you can alter them to suit your personality. But when you are first going to a teacher and he says “Do it this way,” you should say: “But it’s easier this way.” It might be easier at that moment but in the long run you might be heading for an endless pit. There are certain basic rules anatomically for playing drums that should be adhered to. Eventually there will be individual characteristics that will sneak into your playing.

On teachers as opposed to books: ‘Printed matter is great - it has pictures and text, as far as that goes. But a teacher can demonstrate a thing for you. That’s the difference. All you have with a book is a visual notation of an idea - but you can’t hear it. Whereas a teacher is telling you and showing you at the same time, so you can hear how it should sound.

‘You may see something written down and do it as written, but you may not be executing it the way the author had in mind. The teacher can tell you this. Hands and wrists vary a lot, so everybody has different problems. In the initial stages, a teacher can help you to solve them.

‘ It’s important to get a good teacher. There are very few people who have done anything worthwhile on drums who haven’t studied first including, Louie Bellson (who is a very schooled musician), Buddy Rich and Max Roach. A lot of Jazz drummers will try to create an image and say: “I never studied or practised.” But if you use your head this is a lot of nonsense. It’s like my saying: “I don’t eat for five weeks at a time.” You’d laugh at me.

Joe went on to speak on a more personal level. He explained his purpose in practicing: ‘I never practice hot licks. I practice for development. My practice board is like an exercise bar, like a boxer with a punching bag - strictly for developmental purposes.

‘Now when I’m playing - from practicing so much and studying - my hands will respond to whatever I want to do - within reason.

‘I don’t think I’ll ever reach my goal. I hear some things and I may never reach them. I would like to develop flawless technique which would allow me to play what I want to play anything that comes into my mind.’

He outlined his attitude about working in a rhythm section: ‘When I am playing Jazz drums, I try to complement all that is going on around me. If it is an exciting group, you let your feeling take over. If I feel that it requires accents with the left hand and with the bass drum - fine. If I feel that the mode of the music calls for straight rhythm, I’ll play just that. There are no set rules. Again, it’s individualism.

‘I don’t believe that a drummer show throw in a flurry of accents and bass drum kicks if they are meaningless. I don’t think this makes any sense.

Joe referred to the difficulty of writing Jazz feeling into an arrangement: ‘A drum part for a big band - or any group in the Jazz idiom - is written more as a cue sheet. You have all your cuts where the band stops. You might also have a two-bar pick up. And usually they will mark in just the brass figures in the band.


‘Now this is where interpretation comes in - and a teacher can take you over a lot of these hurdles if he knows anything about Jazz interpretation.

You take four eighth notes. They will be written one after another and the brass will phrase them in more of a 12/8 feeling. But if the arranger has to sit down and break each measure down into 12/8 time and put the triplets in, the measure would be eight inches long.

‘So this is something that a drummer has to get used to - learning how to see one thing and phrase it differently.

‘Reading is very important today. Drums have developed to such a degree that it’s no good anymore for a fellow to just pick up the sticks and beat out a hot drum solo. Today, the drummer adds tonal color to the band. He’s playing more with the band. He’s more of an integral part of it and he’s depended on more than he was years ago.

‘Years ago a drummer was just seen and in a lot of cases wasn’t heard and didn’t mean anything. When they hired the band they’d day: “I want seven musicians and a drummer.” Now the drummer has to be a musician, too.’”

Here’s more of Joe’s brilliant drumming in a 1961 video featuring the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet in a performance of Castilian Blues.