Friday, March 30, 2012

Dexter, Freddie, Ira, Ivar, Jack, Jackie and The Connection

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

It seems that you couldn’t walk a block in the Hollywood of my “Ute” [apologies to Joe Pesci, that should be “youth”] without literally passing a movie house, a theater or a night club.

Walking a few blocks down Vine Street from Franklin, across Hollywood Blvd. and then turning left on to Sunset Blvd. would bring you past the TV production facilities of ABC, CBS and NBC. This short walk would have also brought you by Capitol Records, the Huntington Hartford Theater, Wallich’s Music City and a half-dozen watering holes all of which featured some type of Jazz.

A quick stroll west would bring you to Cahuenga Blvd and Shelly’s Manne Hole and on your way over on Selma Street from Vine you’d pass the Ivar Theater.

Although I had both walked and driven by it a number of times, I had never been inside the Ivar.  I had heard from friends that it was a small, intimate theater and a great place to watch stage plays.

That was about to change when I noticed tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s name on the marquis announcing his appearance in the West Coast version of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a play that had premiered in New York City in July, 1959.

Dexter’s name was legendary in some West Coast Jazz circles, particularly those associated with Central Avenue [Hollywood’s contemporaneous counterpart to the early bebop scene on NYC’s 52nd Street].

I stopped at the Ivar’s box office to pick up some tickets, although I must confess to knowing absolutely nothing at the time about Jack Gelber’s play.

This was going to be my first opportunity to hear “long tall Dexter” in person which was reason enough for me to check out Jack’s play.

Shades to come of his role in the movie ‘Round Midnight, Dexter “acted” in the play along with performing the music from pianist Freddie Redd’s wonderful score with Gildo Mahonnes on piano, Bob West on bass and Lawrence Marable on drums.

Shortly thereafter I picked up the Blue Note LP The Music from the Connection: Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean [[B2-89392] with Jackie on alto sax, Freddie on piano, Michael Mattos on bass and Larry Ritchie on drums.

I had been a fan of Jackie McLean’s music for some time, but I knew hardly anything at all about Freddie Redd’s music or the details about Jack Gelber’s play and how he came to write it.

Ira Gitler’s informative and insightful insert notes to the recording gave me all the missing information.

We recently wrote to Ira and asked his permission to present on these pages his original liner notes to The Music from the Connection: Freddie Redd Quartet with Jackie McLean.

He graciously agreed to allow them to be posted to the JazzProfiles blog with the proviso that anyone also wishing to publish them in any form or fashion seek his consent before doing so.

At the conclusion of Ira’s writings, you’ll find a video tribute to Jackie Mclean which has as its audio track Theme for Sister Salvation from Freddie Redd’s score to The Connection. We will have more to say specifically about Freddie and his music in a future feature.

Like Leonard Bernstein, I came away from the play whistling this theme and I haven’t forgotten it since.

© -  Ira Gitler, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with the author’s permission

THE CONNECTION by Jack Gelber is a play about junkies but its implications do not stop in that particular circle. As Lionel Abel has stated in what is perhaps the most perceptive critique yet written about the play (Not Everyone Is In The Fix, Partisan Review, Winter 1960), "What adds to the play's power is that the characters are so like other people, though in such a different situation from most people."

The situation in which the four main protagonists find themselves is waiting for Cowboy (Carl Lee), the connection, to return with the heroin. These four, Solly (Jerome Raphel), Sam (John McCurry), Ernie (Garry Goodrow), and Leach (Warren Finnerty) are in attendance at the latter's pad with the bass player. One by one, the three other musicians drift in. They are also anxiously awaiting Cowboy's appearance. Also present, from time to time, in this play-within-a-play, are a fictitious playwright Jaybird (Ira Lewis), producer Jim Dunn (Leonard Hicks) and two photographers (Jamil Zakkai, Louis McKenzie), who are shooting an avant garde film of the play.

The musicians not only play their instruments during the course of the play but, as implied before, they also appear as actors. Some people have raised the question, "If they are actors, why are they using their real names?" Pianist-actor Freddie Redd, composer of the music heard in The Connection answers this simply by saying that he and the other musicians want recognition (and subsequent playing engagements) for what they are doing and that there would be no effective publicity if they were to appear as John Smith, Bill Brown, etc. Author Gelber concurs and says that having the musicians play themselves adds another element of stage reality.

When The Connection opened at The Living Theatre on July 15, 1959, it was immediately assaulted by the slings and arrows of outrageous reviewers, a group consisting, for the most part, of the summer-replacement critics on the local New York dailies. Although several of them had kind words to say about the jazz, none were explicit and one carper stated that the "cool jazz was cold" which showed his knowledge of jazz styles matched his perception as a drama critic.

A week later, the first favorable review appeared in The Village Voice. It was one of many that followed which helped save The Connection and cement its run. In it, Jerry Tallmer didn't merely praise the jazz but in lauding Gelber as the first playwright to use modern jazz "organically and dynamically", also pointed out that the music "puts a highly charged contrapuntal beat under and against all the misery and stasis and permanent crisis."

This the music does. It electrically charges both actors and audience and while it is not programmatic in a graphic sense (it undoubtedly would have failed it if had tried to be) it does represent and heighten the emotional climates from which it springs at various times during the action.

The idea to incorporate sections of jazz into The Connection was not an afterthought by Jack Gelber. It was an integral part of his entire conception before he even began the actual writing of the play. If Gelber did not know which specific musicians he wanted onstage, his original script (copyright in September 1957) shows that he knew what kind of music he wanted. In a note at the bottom of the first page it is stated, “The jazz played is in the tradition of Charlie Parker." (The Connection is published by Grove Press Inc. as an Evergreen paperback book.)

Originally Gelber had felt the musicians could improvise on standards, blues, etc., just as they would in any informal session. When the play was being cast however, he met Freddie Redd through a mutual friend. Freddie, 31 years young, is a pianist who previously has been described by this writer as "one of the most promising talents of the '50s" and "one of the warmer disciples of the Bud Powell school". During the Fifties he played with a variety of groups including Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, Joe Roland and Art Farmer-Gigi Gryce, all of whom recognized his talent.

After he had gotten a quartet together at Gelber's request, auditioned for him and was given the acting-playing role in The Connection, Freddie told Jack of his long frustrated wish to write the music for a theater presentation. Armed with a script and the author's sanction, he went to work. In conjunction with Gelber, he decided exactly where the music was to occur. By familiarizing himself with the play's action, he was able to accurately fashion the character and tempo of each number. What he achieved shows that his talent, both the obvious and the latent of the '50s, has come to fruition. He has supplied Gelber with a parallel of the deep, dramatic impact that Kurt Weill gave to Brecht. His playing, too, has grown into a more personal, organic whole. Powell and Monk, to a lesser degree, are still present but Freddie is expressing himself in his own terms.

The hornman he chose to blow in front of the rhythm section and act in the drama, has done a remarkable job in both assignments. Jackie McLean is an altoman certainly within the Parker tradition but by 1959 one who had matured into a strongly individual player. His full, singing, confident sound and complete control of his instrument enable him to transmit his innermost musical self with an expansive ease that is joyous to hear. It is as obvious in his last Blue Note album (Swing, Swang, Swingin' — BLP 4024) as it is here or on stage in The Connection. As an actor, Jackie was so impressive that his part has grown in size and importance since the play opened.

During the early part of the run, Redd's mates in the rhythm section were in a state of flux until Michael Mattos and Larry Ritchie arrived on the scene. Mattos has worked with Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, Max Roach and Lester Young among others. Ritchie came out of B. B. King's band to play with Phineas Newborn and later, Sonny Rollins. Together they have given the group on stage a permanence; the fusion of many performances' playing as a unit is evident here.

The first music heard in the play is introduced by a mute character named Harry (Henry Roach) who comes into Leach's pad early in the first act with a small portable phonograph on which he plays Charlie Parker's record of Buzzy. Everyone listens religiously. When the record is over, Harry closes the case, and leaves. With this, the musicians commence to play Buzzy (not heard here) but are interrupted by Jaybird who rushes up on stage exclaiming that his play is being ruined by the junkies' lack of co-operation. After some argument, he leaves and the quartet begins to play again. This is Who Killed Cock Robin? The title was suggested by Warren Finnerty because the rhythmic figure of the melody sounds like that phrase which he, as Leach, screams in his delirium when he is close to death from an overdose later in the play. It is an up tempo number, yet extremely melodic as most of Freddie's compositions are. In the composer's words, "It is intended to plunge the music into the action of the play and to relieve the tension of the confusion which had begun to take place."

McLean and Redd solo, urged on by the rhythm section which features Larry Ritchie's dynamic drumming.

One of the devices employed by Gelber is having his main characters get up and solo like jazz musicians. Sam, a Negro vagabond junky goes on at length, promising to come out into the audience at intermission and tell some of his colorful stories if they will give him some money so that he can get high until he goes to work on a promised job. As he finishes, he lies down and asks the musicians to play. They respond with Wigglin', a medium-tempo, minor-major blues which Redd explains, "accentuates Sam's soulful plea to the audience. It is humorous and sad because we suspect that they know better."

This is effective "funk" that is not self-conscious or contrived. Jackie and Freddie are heard in moving solos; Michael Mattos has a short but effective spot before the theme returns.

The last piece in Act I is detonated by Ernie's psychopathic out-burst. Ernie is a frustrated saxophonist whose horn is in pawn. He sits around bugging everyone by blowing on his mouthpiece from time to time. In his "confession" he digs at Leach. In turn, Leach ridicules his ability and laughs at him for deluding himself into thinking he is a musician. Music Forever calms the scene and in Freddie's words, "expresses the fact that despite his delusions, Ernie is still dedicated to music."

The attractive theme is stated in 2/4 by McLean while the rhythm section plays in 4/4. Jackie's exhilarating solo at up tempo shows off his fine sense of time. He is as swift as the wind but never superficial. Freddie, whose comping is a strong spur, comes in Monkishly and then uses a fuller chordal attack to generate great excitement before going into some effective single line. The rhythm section drives with demonic fervor. This track captures all the urgency and immediacy that is communicated when you hear the group on stage. In fact, throughout the entire album the quartet has managed to capture the same intense feeling they display when they are playing the music as an integrated part of The Connection.

The mood of Act II is galvanized immediately by the presence of Cowboy who has returned with the heroin. Jackie comes out of the bathroom after having had his "fix" and the musicians play as everyone, in their turn, is ushered in the bathroom by Cowboy. The group keeps playing even when they are temporarily a trio. In this
album they are always a quartet. Since this is the happiest of moments for an addict, the name of the tune is appropriately Time To Smile. Freddie explains, "The relaxed tempo and simplicity of the melody were designed to have the audience share in the relaxing of tensions."

The solos are in the same groove; unhurried, reflective and lyrical.

In order to escape from a couple of inquisitive policemen, Cowboy had allied himself with an unwitting, aged Salvation Sister on the way back to Leach's pad. While everyone is getting high, she is pacing around, wide-eyed and bird-like. Sister Salvation, (Barbara Winchester), believes Cowboy has brought her there to save souls. She sees some of them staggering and "nodding", and upon discovering empty wine bottles in the bathroom thinks this is the reason. She launches into a sermon and Solly makes fun of her by going into a miniature history of her uniform. The music behind this is a march, heard here in Theme For Sister Salvation. When she tells them of her personal troubles, the junkies feel very bad about mocking her. This is underscored by Redd's exposition of a sadly beautiful melody in ballad tempo. Here, in the recorded version, McLean plays this theme before Freddie's solo. Then the march section is restated. The thematic material of this composition is particularly haunting. I'm told Leonard Bernstein left the theater humming it.

Jim Dunn is in a quandary. Jaybird and one of the photographers have rendered themselves useless by getting high. The chicks that Leach supposedly has invited have not appeared. Leach asks Freddie to play and the group responds with Jim Dunn's Dilemma, a swiftly-paced, minor-key theme. Redd especially captures the feeling of the disquietude in his two-handed solo.

From the time of the first fix, Leach has been intermittently griping that he is not high. Finally Cowboy gives him another packet as the quartet starts to play again. He doesn't go into the bathroom but makes all the preparations at a table right onstage. The tune O.D., or overdose, is so named because this is what Leach self-administers. Where in the play the music stops abruptly as he keels over, here the song is played to completion. McLean is again sharp, clear and declarative. Redd has another well developed solo with some fine single line improvisation.

I first saw the play the week it opened. My second viewing was in March 1960. To my amazement, I found myself injected into The Connection. As the musicians left the pad of the supposedly dying Leach, they reminded one another that "Ira Gitler is coming down to interview us for the notes."

The above is just a small part of why The Connection helps The Living Theatre justify its name. Gelber's dialogue, which still had the fresh feeling of improvisation on second hearing, is one of the big reasons. Another large one is Freddie Redd's score. Effective as it is in the play, it is still powerful when heard out of context because primarily it is good music fully capable of standing on its own.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Silvana and Gene

The audio track for this video tribute to Italian actress Silvana Magnano is the theme to Anna, one of her most successful film roles, as played by tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. Joining Gene are Bucky Pizzarelli on solo guitar, Kenny Burrell on rhythm guitar, Hank Jones on piano, Norman Edge on bass, Oliver Jackson on drums and percussion and Al Hayes on bongos.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today

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

“This double CD may well contain the best Toots Thielemans you NEVER heard. A stunning collection of both rare and great music, starting with his earliest recording as a soloist and ending with a memorable duet in the new millennium.”
- Jeroen de Valk

“Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidor Thielemans was born in Brussels, April 29 1922. He never had any formal musical education but has been playing music for most of his life. Already as a three-year old, he stated in many interviews, he was playing the accordion in the bar his parents owned. He purchased a guitar and a harmonica as a teenager and taught himself to play jazz while listening to records during the occupation.”
- Jeroen de Valk

“Toots is Toots; his music is always emotionally engaging and fun to listen to.  He has a gift: he hears it, he plays it. Some of the things that come out of his harmonic just take your breath away.”
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

April 29, 2012 will mark the 90th birthday of Toots Thielemans and you can locate an earlier JazzProfiles feature on this singular Jazz harmonica player, guitarist and whistler by going here.

As part of the celebration of Toots’ forthcoming 90th birthday, Cees Schrama, has selected thirty-eight [38] tracks spanning over sixty [60] years of Thielemans’ career and is issuing them on March 27, 2012 as a two CD set entitled Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052].

Much of the music on this double CD retrospective has been hard to find for many years; some of it has not been released before in a digital format; some of it has never been released in the United States.

The compilation is a magnificent tribute to one of the world’s great musicians, whatever the genre.

Whether you’ve been a fan of Toots’ music for years or whether you are looking for a place to begin to familiarize yourself with it, this presentation is a must for your collection.

Aside from his more notable associations over the years with George Shearing and Quincy Jones, also represented in this collection are a slew of obscurities and oddities including Toots’ performance in big band arrangements by Jack Andrews, Gary McFarland and Ralph Burns, in small groups with J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock, in a gorgeous version of Alex North’s Love Theme from Spartacus in a duo with bassist Marc Johnson and in a beautiful solo rendering of Ellington’s Black Beauty.

Toots is Toots; his music is always emotionally engaging and fun to listen to.  He has a gift: he hears it, he plays it. Some of the things that come out of his harmonic just take your breath away.

Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052] comes with a insert booklet that details background information about the selected recordings, biographical information about Toots’ career and a collection of photographs.

Here are some excerpts as written and compiled by the noted Jazz writer and historian Jeroen de Valk.

“Producer Cees Schrama, a personal friend, selected all these treasures, looking for recordings that follow Toots' long and impressive career and are hard or simply impossible to purchase on CD. Some of the tracks -for example the 1946 recording, initially made as a soundtrack for a cartoon - were never issued anywhere. Others - among them the tracks with George Shearing - were issued on singles and then disappeared.

Cees got assistance from two Thielemans-collectors, who provided him with a wealth of rare material: Jean-Paul Gardavoir and Wim Crama. Studio wizard Marcel Booij managed to re-master the sound of these at times primitive recordings.

The result is a fitting tribute to Toots Thielemans, who was the second European musician to develop a highly individual sound in the US-dominated jazz world. The first one was, of course, guitarist Django Reinhardt. The latter was also born in Belgium - only twelve years before Toots - and was also christened Jean-Baptiste before acquiring a stage name.

Toots started out as a Django-inspired guitarist but became instantly recognizable when he started whist­ling along with his guitar improvisations. More fame came when listeners, musicians and producers discovered he was turning the chromatic harmonica into a serious jazz instrument.

Cees - a professional pianist and organist himself - first shook hands with Toots in 1974. Toots was performing then in Tros Sesjun, a Dutch radio show that would last for over thirty years, presenting live jazz every Thursday evening. Thielemans would be headlining the show seven times. Cees, who hosted the show, heard that Thielemans had an apartment in New York; writer Arthur Miller, once Marilyn Monroe's husband, was his neighbor. But he was working more in Europe at that time, where he had a second home in Brussels.

‘Toots played with our house band featuring keyboard man Rob Franken, who would become his regular accompanist. They started the concert with There Is No Greater Love. A real dazzling virtuoso performance which made the whole band swing like mad. He built up the tension and built and built... and then, he managed to hold back for a while, allowing us to breath. I was standing there in awe and thought: “This has to be put on record.” After the concert, we had a talk and he agreed to have a selection of this concert put on LP for Polydor, the label I was working for as a record producer.’

On this track, the guitar solo is played by Joop Scholten. In all the other tracks on this twofer, not only the harmonica solos but all the guitar solos were played by Toots as well. Needless to say, this means that in some cases his contributions had to be recorded separately.

Toots had no manager at that time; he took care of all business matters himself. Cees: ‘He did so with care. He was and still is extremely reliable. He is always on time, wherever the gig may be, and always in peak form, musically. Always creative and inspired. Even now, while approaching his ninetieth birthday, he still sits up-front on the stage on a bar stool and does most of the playing himself. Usually, he won't let his sidemen stretch out too long. People buy tickets to hear him, so it's him we're going to hear. Toots has unbelievable stamina and is consistently enthusiastic about music. Music is his life. He always carries his harmonica around, wherever he is.’”

A year after his Sesjun debut, Toots came back to the show, this time with his regular band, which included Franken and the Danish bass legend Niels-Henning 0rsted Pedersen. From this concert, That Misty Red Animal (Dat Mistige Rooie Beest) survives on this compilation. It was composed for the soundtrack of Turkish Delight (Turks Fruif), one of the many, many movies from both sides of the Atlantic in which Toots' harmonica can be heard.

Cees issued a selection from both concerts on an LP, simply called Toots Thielemans Live. Another year later, in 1976, Toots did his third Sesjun concert; parts from this concert were available on the LP Toots Thielemans Live 2. ‘Both albums were highly successful in Europe, the US and Japan. But only a few tracks were put on CD in the course of the years.’ …

Initially, Toots planned to be a mathematics teacher and thus went to the Brussels University. But poor health - he suffers from asthma and had to be taken to a hospital several times - prevented him from attending the university regularly. So he decided to concentrate on music. His first influence was Django Reinhardt, then he listened to the Benny Goodman Quartet and Lester Young. A few years later, Charlie Parker came along, causing 'the change in my life'.

Toots - who borrowed his stage name from swing alto saxophonist Toots Mondello and arranger/composer/ trumpeter Toots Camarata - played with various US musicians, both in New York and in Europe, before emigrating to the US, late 1951. He joined George Shearing's band with which he toured all over the world for over six years.

Thielemans may have had a certain impact on The Beatles. In 1959, John Lennon saw Toots performing with Shearing's band a couple of times. Lennon apparently liked Toots' harmonica playing and guitar selection: a Rickenbacker. Lennon decided to purchase a similar Rickenbacker himself and also adopted the chromatic harmonica, which was used on the Beatles' early recordings.

By the time Toots left Shearing's band, he found himself in constant demand as a first-call studio musician. Producers liked his new sound, originated by whistling along with his guitar lines, and used it in commercials. His harmonica can be heard in countless film scores; Turkish Delight, The Getaway and Midnight Cowboy, to name just a few. He is also heard on recordings with popular singers such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Natalie Cole.

Toots, though, never forgot his jazz roots and both recorded and toured with Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius and many, many more. He kept touring with his own jazz outfits and composed the jazz standard Bluesette. …

Toots is still working as I'm writing this, late 2011, although he limits himself to two, three gigs a week. He is brought to his concerts and record dates with a limousine, assisted by a tour manager.

Quincy Jones, the New York composer, arranger and composer who often employed Toots, once stated: ‘I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more.’”

As you would imagine, it was very difficult to single out one track from the comprehensive overview of Toots’ music contained in Toots Thielemans: Yesterday and Today [Out of the Blue T2CD2011052].

Ultimately, in order to page homage to both Toots and Cees Schrama, Toots long-time friend and the producer of these recordings, I selected Big Bossa, a tune written by Cees for the Polydor LP Old Friend [2925 029]. It features Toots along with Ferdinand Povel on tenor saxophone in a wonderful arrangement by Cees which he scored for a full orchestra including strings.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Steve Wallace: Why the Melody?

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

I wanted to do something to celebrate the onset of Spring, so when a knowledgeable Jazz fan and friend sent me this piece by the Canadian bassist Steve Wallace, I thought it would make a perfect blog feature to herald the arrival of the season of renewal.

The late Jazz author and critic Martin Williams authored a book entitled Where’s the Melody? for those interested in gaining a better understanding of how Jazz works. For similar reasons, the subtitle of this feature is a take-off on Martin’s title.

At the end of the biographical information about Steve, you’ll find a video tribute to Spring featuring pianist Bill Evans performing Spring is Here with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

© -  Steve Wallace, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I heard a cardinal in high-fidelity just as I left my house the other morning – ‘bwordy, bwordy, bwordy’ echoing down the street. The trees being still bare, it was easy to spot him by following the song - he was up in the top of a maple about forty yards away. He shifted briefly from one branch to another and the light caught him at just the right angle, a brilliant rush of crimson, even at that distance. A morning thrill, a rarity these days, trust me. I stood listening and admiring him for a few seconds and then noticed some rustling in the big tree just overhead. Two robins were flitting about, not singing much. Just as I spotted them they flew off and again the sunlight hit them and I was treated to a flash of their rusty-orange breasts. A sure sign, I thought with a smile - spring is here.

There's a song for every occasion and this took me straight to Rodgers and Hart's great Spring Is Here - its melody began running through my head as I walked to the subway. It struck me that this song is a kind of analogy for my aging as a musician (and hopefully my growth as one) - when I was younger, I didn't have much use for it, but it's become a favorite tune in recent years. I think the difference is that I appreciate melody a lot more than I used to, understand it better.

Bassists like myself are often slow in developing a melodic sense, because the instrument doesn't often get to play melodies - being low-pitched, it's usually much more involved with rhythmic and harmonic duties, providing the floor for other people to dance on. When you're starting out, there's so much to learn and so many things to work on that it's tempting, maybe even necessary, to take some short cuts, leave some stuff out. I largely left out melody because it didn't seem all that relevant while I was busy learning the bass, the fingering positions, scales, developing intonation, a tone and endurance. Not to mention learning how to play walking bass lines, to handle different rhythmic feels at various tempos, developing a repertoire by learning and memorizing the chord changes of songs. Then there was the mental aspect of music - the theory, ear training, harmony, modes and chord scales and on and on. Who the hell had time for melody? I was too busy being a grunt in the engine rooms of bands, a sweat-hog grinding out the quarter-notes, trying to keep the tempos up and make things swing. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Melody was for singers or the lead instruments to take care of and besides, in jazz, the melody is only played in the first and last choruses - in between came the important part, or so I thought - the improvisation, or "blowing" as we call it. I was so caught up in sound, quarter-note groove and chord changes that I almost developed a chauvinism about melody - it was for sissies, not hard swingers, and the further I stayed away from it, the more "bass-like" and functional my playing would be. I made some progress on the bass with this approach, but it never occurred to me back then that knowing and being able to play the melody of a song would make me a better improviser, or lead to lots of other useful information and technique. I also didn't realize that learning the melody would let me remember a tune much better than memorizing its changes. When I had difficulties playing a decent solo back then I rationalized it in all kinds of ways. I was tired from laying down all those quarter-notes and by the time a bass solo came around I didn't have much left - besides, bass solos are over-rated, right? If you're going to play one though, it might as well be musical and sound good, and this is where my melodic deficiencies began to show, to cost me. My ears had spent too long rumbling around in the basements of tunes, moving from root to root. My touch was powerful but not very supple or subtle.

My taste in songs back then was governed by this non-melodic outlook too. I tended to like tunes because of their interesting or logical chord changes, or if they had a strong blues element like say, Come Rain or Come Shine, or if their melodies tended to swing themselves, like As Long As I Live or I've Got the World On A String. And of course, I loved pieces by jazz composers like Ellington, Monk, Horace Silver, John Lewis and many others because they were made for blowing and swinging. Spring Is Here was an example of the kind of song I didn't like back then. First of all it was originally a ballad, meant to be played slowly (yawn) and I didn't care much for ballads unless they had interesting chords and lots of them, like Body and Soul or 'Round Midnight. Like a lot of young guys, I wanted everything to be fast, hard, dense and raging, to have a lot of energy, just as I did.

Spring seemed limp and vanilla to me. The melody was kind of static both in its rhythm and notes - the first part of each half was mainly dotted half-notes and whole-notes and the second sections were just quarter notes ascending diatonically from the third up an octave to a whole-note outside the key - I completely missed the drama and crescendo of this. The song had awkward chord changes too - its melody was so Plain-Jane that I couldn't hear any interesting ways to harmonize it. The opening phrase starts on the major seventh, goes up briefly to the tonic and resolves back down to the sixth, and this repeats. Big deal, I thought, what are you supposed to do with that? Where's the swing, the action here? I was too green to realize the diminished harmony implications of this type of melody and I seemed to have missed the class where they taught the diminished scale, one of the only really useful ones. I just couldn't get anything out of the tune at all, grimaced whenever it was called.

My opinion of Spring began to change after I heard Bill Evans play it on his great Portrait In Jazz record - hearing a genius play a song will tend to sell you on it. Bill's version is in A-flat, slow and lyrical as you'd expect but it's also really intense, there's lots of heat there. As always, he gets the piano to really sing the melody and found great chords for the song. He uses an E7 in the first bar, so the melody note G is the sharp nine of that chord, then resolves to an A-flat chord with an F on top and E-flat in the bass. This melody phrase repeats, but he keeps the chords moving downward with a Dmin7-flat5 and a D-flat7, avoiding monotony. When I first heard this, I thought my head was going to explode, it was just so brilliant. He also harmonizes every one of the ascending quarter-notes beautifully, breaking up the seeming static quality of the tune. Evans brings a lot of motion to the song even at this tempo and on a basic level that's what music is - tones moving in rhythm. I began to realize here that chord changes are defined and dictated by the melody note on top, that seemingly plain melody notes can lead to interesting chord possibilities and that none of this happens unless you pay attention to a song's melody. Really, the melody tells you what the chords mean, otherwise they're just clumps of notes.

Later, I heard recordings of Spring by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and came to like it more from also hearing the words. They're by Lorenz Hart, who I think is in a class of his own as a lyricist. He was an unhappy, nasty, screwed-up guy but very gifted with rhyme, rhythm and wit, a poet really. I also played the song with a singer named Anne-Marie Moss, who was truly an awful bitch but could really sing slow ballads and this helped me appreciate the delicate, special mood of this song. The clincher for me though was recording it with singer John Alcorn on an album of all Rodgers and Hart songs about ten years ago. John sang it in the same key as Evans and used his chords, but did the song as a slow bossa nova, which really suits it. This type of tempo played with lots of space can be mesmerizing and when we finished the take I was soaked with sweat, barely aware of time or place. I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, Wallace, how could you have been such a dope? What a great song this is.’ Really, it's a singer's song, but many of the great ones are. The trick when playing it instrumentally is to maintain that vocal quality, as Evans did. Here are the words:

Spring is here.
Why doesn't my heart go dancing?
Spring is here.
Why isn't the waltz more entrancing?
No desire, no ambition leads me.
Maybe it's because nobody needs me.

Spring is here.
Why doesn't the breeze delight me?
Stars appear.
Why doesn't the night invite me?
Maybe it's because nobody loves me.
Spring is here, I hear.

Hart wrote some lyrics better than this, but not many, and not by much - they're just deadly and fit the melody beautifully. Beyond knowing the melody, Lester Young always insisted musicians should know the lyrics of the songs they play, even though they wouldn't be sung. He said knowing the words leads you to play the song at the right tempo, phrase it properly and breathe in the right places. Some find this ethereal but I think he's dead right - too often I've heard musicians wreck songs by playing them at the wrong tempo (usually too fast) and it's because they don't consider the words. Above all, knowing the words tells you what the song means, what it's about, which affects your approach to it, or should. At its best, playing a song is like telling a story, and it at least helps to know what the story is before you start talking or blowing your horn.

After playing the bass for several years I finally got more in touch with melody after seeking the advice of a great local musician, Don Thompson. Don does many things really well, I just hate him - plays great piano, vibes, bass, composes and arranges, you name it. In the late '70s he was playing a lot of bass and I heard him often. His left hand amazed me - his solos were really melodic and eloquent, he seemed to range all over the bass effortlessly with great articulation and pitch, it was scary. I finally worked up the nerve to ask him how he'd developed his left hand and he answered in his typically deadpan, slightly bland manner – ‘I practiced the melodies of songs in all twelve keys, really slowly, making sure I got the notes right.’

This gob smacked me, I was stunned - melodies in all twelve keys?!? The advice had come from God himself though, so I started working on it, with simple tunes like Georgia and Bye Bye Blackbird at first. It was slow going, hard work and mentally tiring, but it beat the hell out of scales and Simandl exercises and gradually I found that practicing this way improved all facets of my playing. I became freer ranging around the bass without thinking about the finger positions, letting my ear guide me, and different keys became less foreign and scary. My articulation and pitch improved, my ears opened up and I started to hear more, get more flow and ideas in soloing. Above all, I was learning about phrasing melodies, how they have contours and shapes. It began to occur to me that a song's melody is like its
DNA, contains a code of interval patterns and relationships that define it and these can be used in improvising, in hearing counter-melodies, guide tones and even in finding better bass notes in accompaniment. I was beginning to almost feel like a housebroken musician, I only went all over the carpet occasionally now. Despite this foray into the lofty, romantic, ozone layer of melody though, girls continued to give me a pretty wide berth. I guess the glamour of the jazz life was just too much for them - yeah, that must have been it.

Ironically, areas like rhythm and harmony that seemed to have nothing to do with melody also improved. My walking bass lines and time feel sounded better because the articulation, pitch and note choices were better and my understanding of harmony became sharper because I was more aware and heard better. I started to relax a little when playing, rather than trying to hammer everybody over the head with fat quarter notes all the time. Much as people mistakenly think of the mind and body as being separate, I'd thought of melody as being distinct from rhythm and harmony, but really they're all intimately connected and melody leads straight to the other two and vice versa. Don Thompson's bass playing and mine are about as dissimilar as you could imagine, so it's also ironic that the best piece of musical advice I've ever received should have come from him, and I can't thank him enough.

Drums can't really play notes, but melody has a rhythmic component and good jazz drumming is informed by melody too, believe it or not. The really good drummers I've played a lot with - Terry Clarke, John Sumner, Barry Elmes, Ted Warren - all have a strong sense of melody and form, listen well and know how the tunes go, adjusting their phrasing, sounds and textures according to the melody, its shapes and dynamics. Jerry Fuller played pretty good bass and was an excellent scat singer. He often saved my butt if I wasn't sure of a tune - he'd hum the right bass notes to me while playing the drums. He was a great musician and a prince - God, how I miss him. Jake Hanna used to travel with a miniature xylophone and the melodies to lots of songs written out - he'd practice playing them every day. This kept his ears sharp, he called it "taking his melody vitamins." He used to say the melody chorus is also a jazz chorus and unless someone plays a stupendous solo, it's often the best chorus. Andrew Miller is a friend of my son Lee, a good young drummer and we played some together as a trio before he moved back to B.C. He kept a small pad and pencil and after certain tunes he'd lean over and ask me the name of the song, then he'd write it down. I asked him about this and he said if he didn't know a tune, he wanted the title so he could find a recording of it and listen - he said he played the tune better if he knew how it went. That's it in a nutshell - even if you don't play the melody, you'll play better if you know it. From the mouths of babes.

I'll always be attracted to the more extroverted and greasy aspects of jazz, that's just hard-wired into me. But now. playing lyrical tunes with beautiful melodies is also right up there among my favorite things to do. One of the nicest compliments I've ever received was from saxophonist Mike Murley a few years ago after he'd heard me play a set or two with somebody at the Montreal Bistro. ‘Wanker’ he said, ‘you really know how to play songs.’ It made me proud to hear this, because playing songs is important to me, I think of them as the basic unit of musical civilization, the same way having people over for dinner is the basic unit of social civilization. I try to impress this on younger music students whenever I'm talking with them - by all means, work on all the technical and theoretical stuff they're shoving at you in school, but don't lose sight of the big picture, keep your eye on the prize. The prize is playing songs - at the end of the day all your skills and everything you've learned should boil down to being able to stand up in front of people, play a song and make it your own, take it somewhere, have it sing, move people, excite them, hold their attention. If you can't do that, then what is the point of playing music at all?

When I go out to play or hear jazz, I want to hear musicians listening to one another, playing together. I'm not interested in any particular style, but I want to hear some lyricism, some space, some intensity, some feeling of the blues and swing. By these last two, I don't mean I literally want the music to sound like Big Joe Turner or Benny Goodman, although that wouldn't be the worst thing. I mean I want the music to have some dirt and cry in it, to show its ass a little bit, have a dancing quality and get off the ground. There should be lots of sweat and laughter - music is hard work and serious business, but it has to be fun too - after all, you don't work music, you play music. Above all, I want to hear some songs, or at least some music that has the quality of song in it. I don't want to hear what musicians know, I want to hear them translate what they know into what they feel - feeling is all that music is, really. You can't see it or touch it, you can only hear it and feel it.

I also don't want to hear mere cleverness or virtuosity, music that's all just about harmony or rhythmic algebra. Guys trying to outplay each other, not listening or leaving any room, running a bunch of notes together in an endless dirge of tuneless, limp drivel. Take this show-off, "jazz from the neck up" back to whatever school you learned it in, boys. This may sound old and cranky, and maybe it is - I'm gettin' there. Most of what I'm trying to say is nicely illustrated in a story about the great, unique pianist Jimmy Rowles, who knew as much about songs and harmony as anybody who ever lived. He was playing a piano-bass duet gig for a while and one night his regular bassist sent in a sub, who decided to try and impress the master with his knowledge of harmony by hitting him with a whole slew of super-hip bass notes and chord substitutions, playing everything but the kitchen sink. After a couple of tunes worth of this, and working on his second double vodka, Rowles turned to this Einstein of the bass with a glare and rasped "I'm aware of the possibilities … let’s 
just play the f---ing song the way it goes and make some music, OK?"

Betty Carter pushed the boundaries of jazz singing by trying to make the voice a fully-fledged improvising instrument like the others. This led her to more and more abstraction, making sounds with her voice that weren't conventional for singers, using a huge range, and often eschewing the melody. It was daring and difficult, a challenge for her, her musicians and audience. Some liked her singing, others shrugged and asked "Aren't singers supposed to sing the melody?" She was feisty, to put it mildly, and answered this by naming one of her records "It's Not About the Melody." While I have a lot of admiration for her and any other artist who hoes a hard, lonely road by going their own way, I have to respectfully disagree - it's always about the melody, that's where the music lives. Hear it and it will set you free, like a bird.”

© -, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“STEVE WALLACE (bassist) was born on
August 16, 1956 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and is today regarded by many as the most powerful bass player that Canada has produced. He is almost certainly the most experienced, having begun working with visiting jazz greats in Toronto clubs such as Bourbon Street, Lytes, and George’s Spaghetti House while he was still in his twenties, backing some of the music’s most famous names including Clark Terry, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, George Coleman, Zoot Sims, and Pepper Adams.

He has also recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in Canadian jazz including Fraser MacPherson, Rob McConnell, Oscar Peterson, and Oliver Jones. In 1982 Steve became associated with the Concord Jazz label, touring the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan, and recording albums as a sideman with Rosemary Clooney, Ed Bickert, Mel Torme, and others.

He became bassist with Rob McConnell’s ‘The Boss Brass’ in 1983 and remained with the band for ten years. In 1985, he replaced ailing bassist George Duvivier to tour Europe, Japan, and Australia with Woody Herman's All Stars, a group that included Al Cohn, Buddy Tate, Urbie Green, John Bunch, and Jake Hanna. In more recent years Wallace again toured Europe frequently as a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio.

He has been bassist with the Barry Elmes Quintet since its formation in 1991, and a founding member of D.E.W. East (Dean, Elmes, Wallace), for whom Wallace also contributes his own new compositions. He is also a member of Rob McConnell's Tentet, the Mike Murley Trio, the David Braid Sextet, and the Sam Noto Quintet.

Steve Wallace is likely the most-heard musician in the three-decade-plus history of the “Sound of Toronto Jazz” Concert Series at the Ontario Science Centre, having played bass on no fewer than 24 individual concerts.”

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Stu Williamson: A Trumpet Artist

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

A close friend and Jazz buff asked me recently: “When are you going to do a profile on Stu Williamson?”

What a great idea!

But where to begin?

There is hardly anything written about Stu Williamson in the Jazz literature.

After playing a significant role in the 1950s with Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Café All-Stars, drummer Shelly Manne’s Quintet and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’s Dream Band, Stu Williamson seemingly disappeared from the Jazz scene.

During this time, Stu had also recorded with Woody Herman, the Mel Lewis-Pepper Adams Quintet, alto saxophonist Lennie Niehaus’ various groups and pianist Elmo Hope’s quintet, yet, the extent of most of the evaluations about him seem to begin and end in one word – “underrated.”

This about a guy whom Shelly Manne was described as: “A wonderful trumpeter and valve trombonist and an excellent all-round musician. He reads well; he has good time; and a good sound.”

We should all be so lucky!

I mean, what else could a musician put on offer?

I heard Stu play in performance on numerous occasions and he always gassed me.

He had a beautiful, rich, round tone, the ability to create solos that were melodic and full of invention, and enough power and clarity of sound to even play lead in a big band trumpet section every so often [not something that is very common for the trumpet player who holds down the solo chair as Stu often did].

His stint as a member of Shelly Manne & His Men [1954-58] was one of Stu’s more enduing associations. Thankfully his work with Shelly’s group is reflected on three albums for Contemporary Records, all of which have been reissued as CD’s on Original Jazz Classics: [1] Swinging Sounds – Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 4 [OJCCD-267-2], [2] Swinging Sounds – Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 5 [OJCCD-320-2] and [3] The Gambit: Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 7 [OJCCD-1007-2].  

There is also a great compilation of Stu’s recordings that were made under his own name for the Bethlehem label which Fresh Sound has reissued on CD as Stu Williamson Plays [FSR-CD 116].

The title of the Fresh Sound disc says it all: Stu Williamson does indeed – play! – and in such a variety of compositional contexts on these recordings that one truly gains the opportunity to hear and to appreciate his gifts as a trumpeter and valve trombonist.

And what a great series of original compositions by Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel, by his Shelly bandmates – alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano and pianist Russ Freeman – and by legendary guys like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.

Stu never “mails it in” [i.e.: gets lazy]. He’s always working; always playing with a ringing clear tone; always getting the dynamics, just right.  Like the true professional that he was, Williamson paid attention to the smallest detail when playing a composition and does justice to all of them. His consistency of interpretation was remarkable as were his solos with their masterful phrasing and interesting ideas.

It seems that Stu gravitated to the studios in the 1960s along with many other Jazz musicians and ultimately dropped out of music by the end of that decade.

Ours is not to speculate, but whatever the reasons for Stu’s departure from music may have been, I am certainly pleased that he left such a bountiful recorded legacy of his work from the 1950s.

I’ll bet my Jazz buddy is, too.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Michael Weiss on JazzProfiles

© -  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.

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?
Soul Journey can be sampled and purchased at

-          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.