It has been one year since I shared my first interview here! My conversation with maestro Wayne Shorter was the one that got the whole thing started.
Since then I’ve posted 27 interviews with some of my favorite musicians on the planet. Without a doubt this was one of the biggest learning experiences of my life and I still haven’t fully processed all the things I’ve encountered along the way! I’m very thankful for all my friends (and family!) who have supported me and given me the confidence to continue. Also I’d like to thank Samuel Gawlowski for doing an incredible job with transcription & translation for the series. Furthermore thanks to the German jazz magazine Jazz thing for publishing a couple of my conversations throughout this year.
My deep gratitude goes to all of you who have been checking out the interview series, it means a lot! And last but not least I’d like to thank all the incredible people I got to talk to!!! There’s more interviews on the way, promise!
As I tell Jeff Ballard in the beginning of our conversation, every time I hear him I’m amazed by the lively sound and feel he gets out of the drums. I think that’s something we as musicians all strive for: to have our sounds (and the music in general) be reflective of life itself, to transcend the notes, the rhythms, the general parameters of the music and make others (and ourselves) feel something and connect with each other.
It was a big pleasure for me to connect with Jeff during our talk. Right from the start it felt like I had known him forever! He was really ready to share his experiences in a candid and honest way. We touched on many subjects, including his time feel, drastically changing his physical approach to playing the drums, his experience of playing with Chick Corea, books, his relationship with Larry Grenadier, what he’s looking for in a bassist, his admiration for Donald Bailey and much more.
SALOMEA is one of the most exciting bands that has emerged from Cologne scene in the last years. Singer & founder Rebekka Salomea Ziegler and her trusty comrades Yannis Anft (keys), Oliver Lutz (bass) & Leif Berger (drums) are good friends of mine and I’ve been following their music and their individual projects with great interest and admiration. For example, dig the following things:
Yannis Anft’s soundcloud page which showcases his magic on the piano and synths
RE:Calamari – Oliver Lutz’ new exciting band that I’m lucky to play with
SALOMEA released their eponymous debut-record on KLAENGrecords in 2018 and now they’re busy producing a much-awaited second album. I’m thankful I could get a glimpse into their process and share it with you*. Enjoy!
* My friend Samuel Gawlowski contributed the english subtitles for this interview!
Kit Downes and me have been buddies ever since meeting on MySpace sometime in 2006/2007. I can’t remember how exactly I came across his profile, but I definitely remember loving the recordings on his page right away. (There was one track in particular, which I still ask him about these days… a string quartet which was kind of the backdrop for some amazingly beautiful piano lines by him. I so want to hear this again!) We sent each other messages and quickly became friends, bonding over our shared love for certain things (John Taylor, loads of video games, movies etc.)
Apart from hanging out together a lot throughout the years, we got to play duo concerts, did a double-bill tour with both our trios trough Germany & UK, shared the piano chair for a record of our friends Veronika Morscher & Matthew Halpin (“The Owl Ones”) and finally in 2018 I started a new band which features Kit on organ. Getting to witness Kit’s musical and personal journey over the years has been a wonderfully inspiring experience and I always look forward to hearing what he’s up to next- I’m a huge fan of his music!
Right from the start, It was clear to me that I had to include Kit in this series of interviews. In fact, Kit was one of the very first people I talked to about my initial idea to interview musicians and his encouragement was essential for me actually doing it.
Talking to him about music (or anything else, really) is always highly inspiring, deep and fun! I’m happy we can share this with all of you now. Enjoy!
My friend Till Kammertöns hipped me to the music of Gabriel Kahane sometime in September 2018 and I immediately got hooked. I couldn’t stop listening to his wonderful album “Book of Travelers” for a month. While checking out all of his other wonderful works I noticed an urge to interview him for this series. I was really happy that he accepted my invitation. Great to talk to him about his music and his process. Enjoy!
After finally meeting him at a concert in Cologne a few years back we started having email contact. Richie was always sending me links to videos and records to check out, sometimes even sheet music, bootlegs and interviews. At times he would comment on stuff that I did, offering his feedback and guidance. Of course I was super grateful to have that kind of inspiring ongoing communication with maestro Richie! His thoughts and recommendations always made me think and inspired me to reach further. When I started doing these interviews it was a no-brainer to also ask Richie if he’d participate. We did this also in form of an email conversation over the course of a few weeks. I’m very happy I got to include Richie in this series of interviews. Enjoy!
Pablo Held:You are an explorer on so many levels. Your discoveries in the especially in the field of harmony have been a source of influence for generations of players. What’s your process of finding new harmonic colors on the piano?
Richie Beirach: My approach to harmony started very early when I was about 12 years old. While studying classical piano music and just starting to get into jazz improvisation, I was always fascinated by the sound of certain chords (minor major 7th chords held a real mystery for me). Then it was a short leap to the poly-chordal approach (F major triad over F sharp major triad, for example) For hours I would play these chords, just listening deep into their center. I discovered many interesting and beautiful chords in the music of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and finally Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Mompou, Takemitsu, or Ligeti, Feldman and Xenakis.
From 1968 to 1972 I went to Manhattan School of Music, graduated with a bachelors degree in theory & composition. I studied with Ludmilla Ulehla for four years, it was with her teaching and especially her iconic important book on harmony („Contemporary Harmony“) that I used to support and develop my own approach to harmony.
I would work on re-harmonizing a jazz standard like „Round Midnight“, writing out the melody first with no key signature, then beginning a complete radical re-harm of the tune, working on specific voicings and new bass notes etc. …It usually became more of a re-composition, leaving only the exact melody intact. After many hours trying different combinations I would finally arrive at a workable re-harm that I eventually would someday record and perform all over the world. Of course, I constantly checked out carefully all the known examples of the tune, like Monk’s original version, Miles’ version, Bill Evans, Herbie, Chick, McCoy, etc…
After about 15 or 20 years I started to develop my own compositions and thereby arriving at my own combinations of different original chord voicings and progressions, always remembering that one chord -as cool as it could sound- was not yet music!! The chord progression interested me greatly. For example, if you check out my re-harm for „All The Things You Are“ (which appeared in a keyboard magazine article of mine in the eighties) we’re following the melody exactly – I did essentially re-compose the tune for myself.
Pablo: That’s beautiful, Richie! This process was actually very similar to how it happened with me. Sometimes you’d obsess over one chord one and really LIVE with this chord for weeks… but it takes a while until those colors become material that effortlessly flows into one’s own compositions without having to „force“ it into it.
Could you take me through the compositional process of your tune „Zal“ ? I love your duo recording the late great Zbigniew Seifert!
Richie: „Zal“ is the polish word for „Deep Sorrow“, „Regret“, „Repentance“, the bitter-sweet soul of Poland. It was written for my dear friend Zbiggy Seifert, who I played, recorded and hung out with in the 1970s. He was an amazing musician, player, composer and large burning spirit, who I miss to this day.
How did I write it? Well, the truth is that this piece wrote itself right in front of my ears and eyes! Some tunes just really do pop out. The spool out all at once and you must keep up with it and write it down as fast as possible or you can lose it – „Elm“ or „Sunday Song“ were like that, too. I sat down at the my piano and literally played the tune from the beginning to the end. Sometimes there are some very small minor points that you must fix (like cleaning up a table), but all the main melodies, chords, the phraseology and the structure are there in a flash. I just really take dictation from my inner ear. Now I can talk about „Zal“ after the fact, as an analytical entity: The whole melody is derived from the three-note depending motif of B flat, A natural, F sharp. The melody develops and repeats itself, while the melody in the bridge is actually a further development of the original motif but altered and on different pitches. The harmony is actually very simple underneath the color chords. The pieces is clearly in B minor: The first progression is Bb diminished major 7 to G major 7 flat 5, then F# 7 alt to B minor, which is basically a sophisticated re-harm of a II V I in B minor! If you look at the functional harmony underneath the re-harms in this tune it’s quite simple the way the harmony moves.
But the compositional process in the case of this tune has taken place in some secret recess of my inner ear and mind. I’m sure coming from some deep feelings about Zbiggy himself and his tragically early death. The last recording we did together was called „Passion“ and it’s a total motherfucker! Zbiggy, myself, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, Eddie Gomez and Nana Vasconcelos, plus the chamber orchestra consisting of the best players from the NY philharmonic. Amazing original compositions for small group jazz ensemble and chamber orchestra. The record is out of print and never even came out on CD! The fools at Capitol Records still don’t know what they have and for some reason they won’t re-release it! It’s his greatest recording and easily one of the most important recorded statements of contemporary jazz plus string ensemble ever!
Pablo: I love Zbiggy’s music so much – „Passion“ is one of my all time favorite albums! When I discovered him I got a little overwhelmed with all the inspiration I got out of checking him out. „Passion“, his solo record and your amazing duo recording are by far my most favorite recordings of him.
What were the things that you learned from him? Was he someone who liked to talk about music in a very specific way, meaning did you get some insight into his process, practicing & compositional methods?
Richie: Zbiggy – oh man! He was my hero! We were good friends in the 1970s, him and his angelic wife & soulmate Agnieszka. Zbiggy was like a polish Icarus: Flying too close to the burning sun of creativity. The beating heart of polish music and the living incarnation of the essence & spirit of Trane and McCoy, with the violin as the point of entry. He was the real source of contemporary jazz violin, copied by many without ever getting the true credit he deserved.
Anyway, after having asked me to record with him on his „Passion“ record, he came to my house one day with Aggie. He asked if I had any original tunes that we could play, just to get to know each other. (My friend the late great engineer David Baker also happened to be present with a brand new Nakamichi stereo super cassette tape recorder). I showed him a bunch of my new tunes („Pearl“, „Eugene“ and of course „Zal“) which he read perfectly and instantly improvised on with an amazing flow and complete intuitive understanding of the harmony, the curvature and phrasing of the melody! Much better and more developed than me, even though I wrote the tunes!!! It was a staggering and wonderful display of a level of musicianship and empathy that I had only encountered before with Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Jack DeJohnette and Wayne Shorter. Complete imperatives within the music and always emphasizing the expression of his inner feelings brought out in front. Wow! I was so glad to be playing with such a motherfucker and happy that it was being recorded, too!
The version of „Zal“ that finally got on the „We Will Remember Zbiggy“ album was recorded that day right in my living room. He was still strong, as the massive lung cancer which would eventually take him hadn’t yet started to wipe him out. We had big fun hanging out. He was a modest and humble mofo, very relaxed and gentle, but I could feel his turmoil and burning spirit inside him. We like each and became friends quickly. After getting together a couple more times he finally ave me the music for the „Passion“ recording date. I was lucky that could him what he wanted from the piano in his ensemble pieces. It was the most amazing shock to hearing his unbelievably beautiful and deep writing for chamber orchestra – holy shit!! Amazing, roots in polish folk songs, but re-harmonized and recomposed in a brilliant way. His knowledge of string writing and orchestration was mind beding. He also referenced great polish contemporary composers like Penderecki, Lutoslawski, etc. I remember him running around from string player to string player, telling them exactly what he wanted from the written music. He cajoled them, sometimes laughing, sometimes yelling, trying to provoke these great but straight mofo New York Philharmonic players to come alive and invest some real energy and fire into the music. By then he was already very ill and was undergoing heavy chemo therapy treatments. He lost weight and all of his hair, but was still on fire in the studio. You could see that he knew that this was going to be his last recording. We were all very moved and freaked out at this appearance but, buoyed by his absolutely iron will and powerful inspired playing. He fired us up in a way that I have rarely heard. Jack loved Zbiggy and it is true that this recording has some of the most inspired and heartfelt Jack on record! This is what HE says about it, not just me. There was just an amazing vibe around that recording. We were all forever transformed by that experience. Zbiggy died about three weeks after the recording on Christmas day, December 25th 1978. I learned many things from him and I still continue learning from him. Imagine if that motherfucker had lived!!
Zbiggy very rarely talked about his music in a technical way. He could of course, but he just preferred to leave things unsaid, especially if we had a good take. He never talked about practicing the violin. He only told me he graduated from Warsaw conservatory with a degree in classical violin, played all the great violin concertos, then heard Trane live in Krakow and that was it for his interest in performing classical music. He also played alto sax well which explains his great linear grasp of flowing motivic ideas to form his solo with. This kind of comes full circle from my story about composing „Zal“ : The day I heard Zbiggy died I sat down and „Elm“ came out all at once. Another gift from somewhere. Zbiggy was like a strong elm tree for me (plus the hospital was where he was getting chemo treatments was actually on Elm Street). He was one of a kind, I miss him every day.
Pablo: There so many great recordings of you playing with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Could talk about how it feels to play with them?
Richie: Jack & Dave! For sure one of a handful of great jazz drum and bass teams. Going back to „Philly“ Joe Jones & Paul Chambers, Ron Carter & Tony Williams, Jimmy Garrison & Elvin Jones, Buster Williams & Tony Williams, George Mraz & Al Foster, Miroslav Vitous & Roy Haynes…. there are even more combinations like Eddie Gomez & Jack, or Ron Carter & Joe Chambers… I have been fortunate to have played and recorded with most of the above great combinations.
Jack & Dave were both on my early gigs and recording with Stan Getz in the early 1970s. This is where I really learned how to play. Usually six nights a week/two sets a night in jazz clubs all over the USA, Europe, Japan and of course hundreds of concerts. I remember my first tour with them. Man! I was excited, nervous, happy, awed and felt lucky and challenged like a mofo! One afternoon after a night in the Colonial Lounge in Toronto I hear a knock on my door. Jack & Dave are standing in front of the door to my hotel room – Shit! What is this about ? They come in, Dave is smiling, gets my vibe and kindly says: „Richie, everything is cool! Don’t worry, we just want to talk to you a bit about your playing in the quartet with Stan and how you feel about for playing with us. You seem to be trying hard to follow Jack and me and and it sometimes feels a bit stiff, not flowing as much as it could. What do you think ?“ So I tell the truth. Jack especially has his own way of phrasing. His brilliant but sometimes unconventional, very personal way of playing time kind of fucked me up. I was trying too much to follow and play with him instead of just going along with the general flow, not trying to match him and hit the ones with him. So Dave says: „Richie, You have good time! Trust your own sense of time. Don’t feel like you’d have to copy or reflect the particular hits of the bass and drums!“ Wow! Ok, makes sense. I loved how these guys played and shaped phrases and wanted to do it with them. But I was just tracking them too much and not going with the overall flow in the rhythm section. Yeah, right!! Then jJack says: „Richie, don’t listen to me for the time!“ He even says, he himself can’t listen to himself when he’s playing, or it will throw him off and fuck him up! So now Dave weighs in and says: „What Jack means is…“-Amazing: Dave, such a great giving cat, is translating Jack’s honest but cryptic fucking way of talking to English more comprehendible for me- ,,…in other words Jack means that you should listen to (and be inside) your own feeling for the time, the beat, the phrase and trust yourself. Don’t try to mimic him or try to anticipate where his accents will be!“ OK! BING – a light goes on in my head. I say: „I understand and will try it tonight.“ Smiles all around… These cats are so cool! They’re not trying to break me down or intimidate me like certain cats from the older generation have done to me like Sonny Stitt or Roland Kirk. After all Dave is just a few years older than me ,but much more experienced because he already has played years with Miles, Chick, Jack and Wayne…
Next night I am ready. So we launch into the first tune of the first set: „Invitation“. Stan sounds amazing: great ideas, sound phrasing, motivic development etc., plays a great solo. Now I got it. I try to relax and not try to jump on Jack’s ones. It’s working! I trust myself. It works!! I am feeling independent, but connected to the whole rhythm section, not just to Jack. We finish the tune. Smiles all around. Jack & Dave are nodding their heads up and down. I seemed to have learned something very important. I keep it up, mess up sometimes. It’s OK. They have a big safety net for me. No critical, nasty judgmental shit at all. After a couple of months and tours I am finally really cool. I don’t have that fear of being out of the loop, of clinging to the wall, so to speak. I am free in the time and we all know it. They were great teachers. I will never forget their total kindness to this day.
Then we started doing record dates as a rhythm section: Dave Liebman’s first record as a leader, recorded in Tokyo for King Records. We were on tour with Stan thereand Lieb was also touring Japan with Miles at that time. One night after both concerts we met at a recording studio and played the recording. It was a great experience! I was young, not totally myself yet, but willing and creative. We burned with Dave!
Then we did Zpiggys record „Passion“ . That was with Jack & Eddie Gomez – also great but different vibe. In 1979 we did the George Adams ECM recording called „Sound Suggestions“ Ha! What a combination: Me, Jack, Dave, then Kenny Wheeler, Heinz Sauer & George Adams. Kenny wrote wonderful tunes and great arrangements for that album. Then the next day George Mraz came and we did my „Elm“ record with Jack. An amazing experience! Jack’s playing on this record was iconic and inspired me to places that I had never been musically, especially on my tune „Snow Leopard“ – Holy shit! I felt like I was in a super roller coaster, but totally safe and secure, wildly capable of being creative. Of course, with Jack & George everything seemed possible as well. I could go in any direction, the level of intensity was enormous. I know it sounds impossible, but it’s true: You know that inside a monster hurricane, the eye of the storm is completely calm, with no wind and blue sky. That’s how it felt!
Then in the nineties I did my trio recording „Trust“ for a Japanese company, eventually released worldwide on the Evidence label. It was 20 years after the Stan years, it was with Jack & Dave and I was the leader this time. I felt good and part of it, but in command. Naturally, I love this CD. It has got all the things I love in a piano trio recording: fire, depth, good compositions, balance of dark light colors, variety of tempos, some serious burn outs, in-time swinging, free rubato beautiful elegant pianistic interweaving interactive trio interplay, straight ahead swinging – but not corny, and of course great solos from Dave & Jack. I remember the feeling in the studio: Miraculous – big smiles all around. I had come of age and was now feeling more of a musical-peer vibe. But truthfully no one is a peer with Jack. Maybe Trane, Miles, McCoy… There are levels of excellence that reach the spiritual realm that are there to inspire and teach. Jack & Dave: my mentors, my friends, my brothers!
Pablo: That’s wonderful Richie. „Trust” is one my absolute favorite records of yours!
I really admire your sound and touch. Can you tell me how you’ve worked on that throughout the years? Maybe also by going into who your idols have been in terms of sound and touch and what you’ve learned from them.
Richie:My first encounter with a real-life piano master was with Artur Rubinstein. He was doing one of his amazing concert cycles at Carnegie Hall, where he would do all the music of composers like Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, or Schumann over the course of four or five concerts. He was doing the Chopin Préludes and Ballads in one long evening. Incredibly masterful, awe inspiring shit! I was like ten years old when my teacher took me to this concert. He knew Rubinstein well, they were colleagues and Artur respected him very much. Carnegie Hall was jammed to the rafters, but we had special stage seats set up all around the piano. I was so excited I couldn’t sit still. After the concert, after many encores we had a private moment with just me my teacher and Rubinstein. But first let me tell you about the concert:
Rubinstein was in great form and his normal, expansive, but humble self. Smiling, bowing, very elegant and relaxed. The audience was spellbound, silent but electric. I remember like yesterday the first impression of his gigantic, fat, warm, round, singing sound from the nine-foot Steinway grand. His touch was the essence of what a great tone sounded like: it had an attack, but not with an edge. Suddenly there was a big stunning tone, a single note, but… it kept going! It had a magical sustaining quality, actually creating the illusion of a crescendo on the one note! Theoretically impossible you might say, but nevertheless the mofo created the great Illusion of a growing sustained tone from an instrument, that isn’t supposed to be capable of a crescendo once the note is sounded. He had somehow mastered the ability to draw us into his personal world of sound. He opened up the well known melodies of the Chopin Préludes like a time-lapse photographer.
Everything sounded familiar but very fresh. His elegant, noble phrasing (without any hint of exaggeration of false overdramatic wallowing) was refreshing. One had the feeling of hearing these chestnuts that every student tries to play for the first time. Rubinstein’s hands are enormous: A broad palm like a baseball glow, with huge little fingers as long as his middle fingers. His grasp of the notes were totally secure. The sound was always changing and (this is important) always in service of the musical idea in the moment. With his back straight head back in the deep feeling, his hands played what his heart and mind directed. His Chopin was a strong, masculine, heroic motherfucker. Not a limp-drawing room version of pastel colors only.
When he got to the amazingly powerful late Préludes, the sound from the piano was enormous, even frightening to my ten year old ears. His dynamic range was incredible: From a barely whisper pianissimo to a phenomenal fortissimo at the climaxes… Though his soft tone was softer than everyone I had ever heard, it still had projection and clarity. The enormous volume of his accumulated climaxes shook the stage and resonated within my little rib cage and whole body.
His grace at the piano was also notable. He acknowledged the presence of the audience, indeed he loved the crowd and they loved him in return. But never pandered, or detached in an aloof or arrogant way. He didn’t compromise anything and gave his all. I was totally impressed and forever changed, inspired and excited.
After about five encores the concert was finally over and then my teacher took me to meet privately with the master.
We were lead by Carnegie Hall security to the famous green room. An ordinary normal, actually ugly pea-green walled dressing room with lots of pictures of other great pianists. Rubinstein had a beautiful large brown leather chair that he sat in and held court. If my memory servers me well, they brought him iced champagne, cold towels for his face and of course he had a big fresh cuban cigar going. He was surrounded by his manager Sol Hurock, other older men and beautiful women (all in evening dresses). Everybody was smiling, nodding their heads and so happy to be a part of this great night of music. Then Rubinstein caught the eye of my teacher and immediately stood up and took us both into a tiny room behind another door not visible to me before. They embraced and hugged, speaking Italian fluently -Rubinstein was fluent in eight languages and adequate in some more-. So now he’s all business. My teacher introduces me as his student and tells Rubinstein about my strengths and weaknesses. Suddenly Rubinstein grabs my left hand and says: „Please squeeze my hand, son. Don’t be afraid! Squeeze as hard as you can.“ I look at my teacher and he nods. I squeeze as as hard as I can – nothing moves, of course. My small little ten year old left hand is weak, without muscle and power. Rubinstein nods head once and speaks rapidly to my teacher. (Later on my teacher revealed to me that Rubinstein, suggested giving me special exercises to increase the strength in my hands, palm muscle and especially my stretch.) As I thank the master he leans down and gives me a kiss on my forehead. He smiles and says: „Listen to your teacher! He’s a great musician and will take care of your training, but you must do exactly what he says, OK?“ With a big real smile he hugs me and my teacher and leads us out the small room back into the ongoing party. He says to the crowd: „How about a bite to eat? I’m famished!“ They all go down the street to the Russian Tearoom, a beautiful old world restaurant where many of the artists go after the concerts. But not us. We go out the door, and my teacher takes me back to my family home in Brooklyn. A night that formed me forever.
Pablo: WOW!! What a story Richie. Thanks for going into such detail with all this. I revisited my Rubinstein RCA recording of Chopin’s Préludes again, I love his interpretation. What a master!
Can we talk about time a little bit? You have such a strong time and rhythmic precision. How did you work on that?
Richie: Well, that’s an interesting if mysterious story! You see I am of the belief that good time (playing with a good sense of rhythm, swinging, strong and supple ability to make your phrases come alive and lay inside the time) is not teachable in the same way as being able to successfully teach harmony, theory, composition and more concrete subjects like orchestration, sight reading or transposition. Rhythm, especially jazz rhythm is somewhat of a mystery, an enigma, an invisible but nevertheless discernible and clear when it is happening and when it’s not. It can be demonstrated and can be absorbed by osmosis, frequent concentrated listening playing and self analysis, but it can’t in my experience be taught like technique. So how did I do it?By wanting it above all. By pursuing those musicians who had great time and trying to copy their approach. To play with them and especially to play with drummers whenever possible. Also you can not learn how to play with good sense of time, each person must discover for him or herself their own individual time feeling and learn to feel by instinct and repetition their own level of rhythmic stability and ability to hear themselves clearly whether they are swinging in the time and when they are outside of it. The ability to hear oneself objectively is critical for all students of music and jazz in particular. I have been incredible fortunate to have had the rare opportunity to play with some of the greatest drummers in jazz history: Jack DeJohnette, Billy Hart, Jeff Williams, Al Foster, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Adam Nussbaum, Joe Chambers, Christian Scheuber, Mickey Kersting and many more. I have played with consistently and recorded frequently with these guys and they have contributed greatly to whatever developed sense of time I do have.
When my dear friend and trio comrade Jonas Burgwinkel showed my Ben Monder’s incredible album “Excavation” sometime in 2005 my musical world got turned upside down. Ben’s music has had a major impact on me and my writing. When I look at certain compositions of mine I can clearly see his influence ( i.e. “Meta”). Whenever there was a rumor of an upcoming Ben Monder record I awaited each one with great excitement and checked it out as soon as it came out. I’d say I’ve spent the most time with his own records “Excavation”, “Oceana”, “Flux” and “Hydra”. Though I also listened quite a bit to his records with Theo Bleckmann like “No Boat”, “At Night” or “Origami“. I also love his sideman work on records by Jochen Rückert, Paul Motian, Maria Schneider, Bill McHenry, or Tony Malaby.
In this conversation we talk about his process of finding new harmonies, composing, influences, working with Paul Motian, his relationship with Theo Bleckmann, memories of special concerts he attended when he was coming up and much more.
I was very excited to talk to Ben and I’m happy I can share this with all of you here.
I’m happy to share my interview with the great Aaron Parks. I first heard him sometime 2004 on Terence Blanchard’s “Bounce” album. Being very impressed by his playing I began to investigate more and came across lots of recordings that featured his playing. Too many to list here, but I’ll say that especially during that time “Bounce” and “Flow” by Terence Blanchard, Gretchen Parlato’s eponymous record and lots of bootlegs of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s bands with Aaron were particularly inspiring for me. I’ve closely followed Aaron’s music every since. As I tell him at some point during the interivew, I really think that Aaron introduced a fresh new approach to the piano that wasn’t there before he came on the scene.
We also talk about what he’s working on at the moment, his relationship with Thomas Morgan and Ben Street, the different approaches in his trios with Ben Street & Billy Hart vs. Thomas Morgan & RJ Miller, finding a personal approach on the piano, different piano players who are on the scene today, his process of strengthening his musical foundation, listening habits, and daily practices… lots of things! It’s always great to talk to Aaron. I’m happy he agreed to do this interview and that we can share it with all of you. Enjoy!
I’m very happy he accepted to do this interview* with me, it was a real pleasure to talk to him. Enjoy!
*this is the first of my interviews that will also appear in print: German jazz magazine JazzThing will kindly publish a couple of my interviews in their issues throughout 2019. I’m excited about this collaboration!
In this conversation we talk about how Jakob came to fulfill his lifelong dream to play in Paul Motian’s group, his relationship with Thomas Morgan, composing, practicing, putting together a band, finding a personal approach to the guitar and much more.
Being a longtime admirer of Jakob Bro, it was really great for me to get to talk to him. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
When I first heard the Dirty Projectors some time in 2012 I was blown away. (I think it was either “Two Doves” from the “Bitte Orca” record or “Maybe That Was It” from “Swing Lo Magellan”… don’t remember it exactly). I fell in love with this music right away. The creativity and the searching quality of Dave Longstreth’s songwriting and production style simply amazed me. Also the way he leads the band was a big inspiration for me. Actually, it feels strange to single out specific things that I admire about him and this music, it’s the whole package… !
My composition “Longstreth Blues” (as heard on my album “GLOW II“) is my tribute to his music. In it I tried to channel a couple of things I learned through listening to Dirty Projectors.
I went to Berlin to see DP live in August of 2018 and I got the opportunity to interview Dave Longstreth in the afternoon before the concert. I was super excited to talk to him and ask him a few questions. Hope you enjoy our conversation!
Pablo Held:It seems to me that you have an impeccable connection between your ear and your instrument. Everything you play feels so honest and true. No wasted note, it feels compositional and yet totally spontaneous, in a kind of apropos manner, never predictable! In which ways did you work on archiving this connection, being able to play the stuff you hear inside yourself?
Thomas Morgan: That’s the kind of connection I aim for. When I play I try to be aware of whether my attention is fully there; if I realize it isn’t, I pause or simplify my playing in order to take the overall picture in and be ready to hear the next note. Making that a habit can help, I think. Besides that the kinds of preparation that help me most are listening, transcribing, studying counterpoint, and taking every opportunity to play with people I’d like to learn from.
Pablo: Could you tell me more about your study of counterpoint?
Thomas: Mostly I’ve studied Fux’s classic: Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). The exercises made it easier to imagine parts combining without hearing them played, and sometimes to see ahead a bit or at least to have an idea what note might open up more possibilities. All of those skills are useful when you’re improvising in a group. I didn’t finish the book, though; talking about it is making me want to get back to it.
Pablo: Is there a steady practice of yours that you always do to connect to the instrument, even if you only have a short amount of time available?
And furthermore what are you working on right now specifically?
Thomas: No steady practice. Usually I’m getting to know a new bass, finding notes or registers that need special care and looking for what can be done with them.
I have phases of working on different things, but right now I’m mainly listening to music for upcoming gigs. That kind of fits into my overall pattern: I tend to work more on what I can hear than what I can do on the instrument.
Pablo: What did you learn from playing with Masabumi Kikuchi? Can you talk about the process of recording the „Sunrise“ album? It’s a very special record for me, I love the vibe you guys created together.
Thomas: I was lucky to know Poo (that’s the nickname he went by). One thing he taught me was how much one moment can shape the unfolding of an improvisation. I felt I had to learn to focus on each note to play with him, because the music could go anywhere in an instant.
He always wanted the bass at the left side of the piano keyboard, and that was true on the Sunrise session. But Paul Motian was in another room and Poo didn’t use headphones! That made me think their connection went beyond hearing.
Pablo: Wow! That’s wild, I wouldn’t have thought of that – amazing! I suppose he was somebody who didn’t talk about music much, or would he sometimes give advice or talk about specific things he wanted in the music?
Thomas: At times he talked about how he valued dynamics in music, which he meant in a wider sense than usual: not just quiet and loud, but also changes in rhythm, harmony, timbre, etc. And when we played at his loft, we’d record and always listen afterwards. One reason was to make adjustments in the mix, but sometimes he’d point out tracks or sections of tracks that he liked. Or occasionally he’d get frustrated and call off the session. I never knew him to be analytical or prescriptive, though.
Pablo: How about Paul Motian then? Did he give specific notes or advice during touring or recording?
Thomas: I don’t remember him doing that, except instructions about the arrangements. But you could feel it sometimes when he wasn’t satisfied with the way the music was going, which I think made everyone want even more to do the best they could.
Pablo: You guys had such a unique way of playing together, I think you really got stuff out of him that not many people could. How did it feel to play with him?
Thomas: His clarity and focus heightened everything. The feeling you get hearing the sound of his hi-hat on a ballad up close, for example, is unforgettable.
Pablo: Can you talk about some of the ways you worked on your rhythmic flexibility? I’m in awe of our freedom in rhythm, it seems like you could go anywhere at any given moment.
Thomas: I can give an example: in college I heard Indian classical music for the first time and became aware of polyrhythms like 5 against 4. To practice them I got together with a drummer, a schoolmate. I wrote bass lines on Bye Bye Blackbird in 5/4 and played them while he was playing in 4/4. We’d switch roles every chorus and keep playing for a while. As the polyrhythm became more familiar, we could start to make variations and improvise.
Pablo: Where are the origins for your wonderful diversity in sounds and textures? To me, every note you play sounds very different from the preceding note, like every note has a life of its own, yet you don’t abandon the cohesiveness of each line.
Thomas: I’d list Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer, and Lee Konitz as big inspirations in that regard.
Pablo: I remember a long time ago you had a beautiful tune on your MySpace page that I used to listen to on repeat. It was a song where you played the guitar and sang lyrics in Esperanto, I loved that song so much. Can you tell me about where the inspiration came for that song?
Thomas: That song is called Mia Penso (My Thought). The words are by L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and it’s basically about his hopes and fears as he was preparing to publish his first book and introduce the language to the public in the late 19th century.
João Gilberto is a big hero of mine and I was listening to him a lot at that time, especially the album “João Gilberto en México”. In the days before composing and recording Mia Penso, I was practicing the song Falsa Baiana from his 1973 white album. So he was a big influence.
Pablo: Oh yes, there’s so much to learn from João. That white album is also one of my favorites, I’ll check out the one from Mexico for sure. Now that I’m revisiting „Falsa Baiana“ it reminds me how João’s thing is so rooted in relaxation and it seems to me that this is the case with you, too. Is there a story behind your relaxed way of approaching the instrument? Nothing seems stressed, as if you’re only using as much motion as what is needed for the exact thing your playing in any given moment.
Thomas: My cello teacher talked about economy of motion being an important principle. I think it not only allows for facility on a technical level, but also strengthens the music by keeping inessential motion or notes from distracting from it. Of course, judging what’s essential is a very personal thing and it comes down to temperament.
Pablo: Could you maybe go into what your specific learning temperament was or how it developed throughout the years?
Thomas: I tend to get obsessed with something for a period of time. When I was starting to learn the bass, my focus was listening to Ray Brown, followed by Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, and Keith Jarrett, for about one year each. Then starting in college my interests became a bit more numerous and overlapping, with Billie Holiday, Lee Konitz, Glenn Gould, and Bach, to start with. Those periods of maximum intensity gradually shortened. I’m not sure if I’m answering your question, though.
Pablo: I can relate to this obsession you’re talking about very much, it was the same for me. I guess my question regarding that temperament is how you deal with that obsession then. What is your learning process or what are the different steps of getting to know something when you’re focusing on something in that manner?
Thomas: Especially early on, my learning process was listening to as many albums of the same person as possible, focusing on a few of them, and transcribing some parts. Usually not practicing the transcriptions, because for me the ideal is to have the sound in your head pretty solidly but not in your fingers. That way while you’re playing you have to figure out how to translate it to your instrument and to the context at the same time, and that necessitates some degree of creativity.
Pablo: How do you deal with having a bad night, or a musical situation that isn’t happening for whatever reason?
Thomas: I try to return to a more focused position–which could be playing the music as written, further simplifying it to what’s most essential, or simplifying or structuring an improvised idea. The purpose of that simplification is to have space to hear what else could be added; and if the band isn’t together, to give the other musicians a reference point that’s easier to come to or play against.
Pablo: Can you name a couple of recent sources on inspiration for you? Could be records, books, movies, etc. What are you checking out at the moment?
I really love Frank Kimbrough’s playing. I became aware of his music through his record “Play” and which is a fantastic album that I always recommend to anyone who hasn’t heard it yet. Through that album I checked out as many recordings of him as I could. Personal favorites of mine are of course “Play” but also “Chant”, “Solstice” and “Live at the Kitano”. I’m was deeply touched by his music and I felt the need to reach out to him and thank him for all the inspiration so I sent him an eMail. He responded very kindly and said I should let him know if I’ll over come to New York. A couple of years later my trio had a gig at the German Consulate in New York so naturally I invited Frank. Right before we were about to walk on stage he came backstage to us, said Hi and told us that he was looking forward to hear us. I was overwhelmed by this gesture. Of course if a hero of yours comes to listen to your concert there’s the possibility of getting intimidated or too excited or whatever… not with Frank! He has such a nice and supporting vibe… After the show we hung out and had a great conversation. He told me many great stories about Annette Peacock, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, his interest in Morton Feldman’s Music and much more. We really clicked and felt a connection right from the start. It sounds like a cliché, but I felt like I had known him before I even met him. After my gig in New York we stayed in touch via eMail and continued our conversation that way. It felt like a no-brainer to ask Maestro Frank for this interview series and we decided to do it as an eMail conversation. What you’re about to read unfolded over the course of a couple of months. I’m excited to share this with all of you!
Pablo Held: I have been listening to „Solstice“ quiet a lot the last few weeks and today I decided to learn and transcribe Miles & Gil Evans version of „Here come de honey Man”, and while doing that I came across that Shirley Horn version… later today I listened to your wonderful Interviews on NeonJazz and Newport Festival and I learned that you had a deep connection with Shirley… it’s very mysterious how everything is so connected! I grew up listening to Shirley’s playing, because my parents were such fans of her music. She’s one of my most favorite piano players! Remember how we told each other that we both had the feeling we’ve known each other already ? That feeling keeps on growing!
Frank Kimbrough: Oh man – I spent so much time with her – I was at the “Close Enough For Love” session, and others she did with Carmen McRae, and with Toots (duo). I used to go to her house and hang, play, listen with her. She could out-hang any human being on the planet! Once she, Carmen McRae and I went to her house after one of Carmen’s gigs, and all played for each other – it was amazing. I miss her very much – she had quite an impact. Good to see she’s still living on with her music – there’s a new CD out – “Live At the Four Queens” – you should check it out if you haven’t heard it already.
Pablo: Wow, that’s amazing Frank. Do you have any recordings of you playing with her ? I’m sure she had some stories to tell… I have the “4 Queens” and Carmen McRae records – beautiful records… I’m going to check out “Close Enough for Love” now. My favorite ones are „You Won’t Forget me“, „Loads Of Love“, „Shirley Horn with Horns“, „Embers & Ashes“ and „Travelin’ Light“ – she got a SOUND out of the piano… so deep!
Frank: I don’t think there are any recordings of us together – one funny thing I remember is playing solo at a club in the Village in the 80’s, and she would come by when she was in NYC, but the owner of the club wouldn’t allow her to sit in! There are some recordings on Steeplechase too – “Lazy Afternoon” is a good one. Billy Hart played with her when he was a kid (she took him on the road when he was 16), and he kind of got her career restarted by getting her to do a few for Steeplechase – Verve came a little later. As good as some of these recordings are, none of them really do her justice – there was nothing like sitting one meter away from her in a club. She told a story like no one else.
Pablo: Thanks Frank, I’ll check out “Lazy Afternoon”. I dig what your saying about her sound as opposed to her sound on the recording. There’s nothing like hearing somebody in person. What are your thoughts on producing the sound on the piano. Where do you think does your beautiful sound originate?
Frank: When I was young I worked for years to get a “singing” sound. Often, I was playing in places where no one was really listening, so I tried to reach the audience with a beautiful sound rather than with volume, which never works. I think Keith Jarrett actually had a lot to do with that, because his playing often has that “singing” quality” (he used to accompany a choral group when he was young), and I was listening to him a lot at the time. I also played in churches, and with choirs when I was getting started, so it was a natural thing I think. One thing I learned is that to play the sound you hear in your mind’s ear, it takes a lot of work, and it’s not going to happen in a practice room. Each instrument is different, and each room is different, so we’re always making adjustments to get the sound we’re hearing. I never “studied” that really, it was something I was hearing, so I just went for it. I had two very good teachers when I was a kid, but figured out that I could teach myself, so I haven’t looked for guidance in that way since I finished high school. All the really important work is internal after a certain point.
Pablo: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m always amazed by your fluidity in your lines, something that I also admire in Keith Jarrett’s or Paul Bley’s playing. It’s something that can’t be calculated, it’s flowing regardless of bar lines, meters, rules (?)… though I guess it comes through deep knowledge and study of those things, but what happens after that? How did you become free?
Frank: How did I become “free”? That’s an interesting question – one thing that is important is when I was coming up in the 70’s, all music was equal to me – I might listen to Louis Armstrong, and then Weather Report, and then Albert Ayler – I was in an isolated place in North Carolina, and nobody was telling me what to listen to – there weren’t the “camps” that ruin music for people – straight ahead vs. fusion vs. avant-garde or whatever. I also grew up playing classical music, so I was interested in other things that were a little different – I loved George Crumb’s music, and later became fascinated with Messiaen, Milhaud’s Brazilian Dances, and John Cage’s prepared piano music. Later still I became very interested in Morton Feldman’s late works, long pieces that are pianissimo for 90 minutes. That’s a lot different from transcribing Bud Powell solos. Also, and perhaps most important, the idea of time – Bley got me thinking about freedom in time – if you can stretch the harmony, why not the time too? He made an important impression on me that way – he said that with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves and Paul Motian coming on the scene, everything changed, and he was right! So then everything becomes more about phrasing than just metrical time. He called it wave time. And all my mentors thought that way about time – Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Shirley Horn (playing ballads), and Andrew Hill – each of them, as differently as they played from one another – all had that feeling about time. And that feeling about time represents becoming free to me.
Pablo: I know you have a deep admiration for Andrew Hill’s music. Can you explain some of the lessons you learned through listening to him?
Frank: Andrew’s music is unique, as is his playing and musical conception. He came along as the perfect time, because his music is on the cusp of straight-ahead and what some call the avant-garde, and blends the strongest elements of both. Performances and recordings may be sloppy, sometimes by accident, but more important, when by design. I’ve witnessed multiple occasions when he forgot to bring the charts (once for a new suite), and everyone had to hear their way through the music. When he had the big band, he wrote pieces and deconstructed them each night, putting them back together in different ways – the A section of tune #3, then a free tenor sax/drums duo and then on to piece #2, letter E, then a solo piano transition into tune #1. No one on the band knew what was happening next – they used cue cards, and then Andrew would give a big “1”, but the band would have to play the tempo on their own – he didn’t give it to them, so all the players had to be very alert at all times. He was a very generous player and composer, and wanted everyone to sound like themselves, and for the ensembles to use their individual phrasing, so that it never sounds “tight”. The idea is called „heterophony“ – where everyone plays their part with their own phrasing. It’s a stunningly beautiful thing, and the opposite of what most ensembles are going for in terms of playing “together”. It’s disciplined, yet free. It’s mysterious, and conjures images. Sometimes his solo playing reminds me of mountains. It’s ancient and absolutely modern. Andrew was first and foremost about human artistic expression.
Pablo: that sounds amazing! I love that idea of „heterophony“… sometimes we all get too caught up in the desire to „lock in“, sometimes sacrificing one’s personal feelings and individual ideas along the way… Andrew’s way seems like a very inviting and also challenging approach to leading a band. I guess all the masters of this music had their on way of „forcing“ somebody to listen. How do you get somebody to really listen closely? I feel that this is really an art form in itself!
Frank: Listening is an art form, but there’s no way to force someone to do it. It’s a state of mind. As a teacher, I try to make my students aware of it, because in most of what is called “jazz education”, the emphasis is on how and what the player is doing – can you play fast, high, stylistically “authentic”, can you play the “correct” scales over the chords? Books and instruction manuals are written about all these subjects, but you can’t really write a book on how to make the musician standing next to you sound good. That takes heavy listening and experience, and perhaps some conversation, but the important conversation takes place on the bandstand. Music is a conversation between the players (and the audience), not just everyone “talking” at once with no regard for the other participants. Musical conversation is what gives music meaning; without meaning, there’s no music. Listening in real time creates dynamics, structure, and all the things that attract us to a great performance or recording. To really listen, it must be done with intent, and ego needs to take a step back so that the focus is on the group sound, as opposed to how one particular player is playing. ” We” must be substituted for “me.”
Pablo: Absolutely! I didn’t mean „forcing someone to listen“ in a literal sense. I just think you can’t honestly play this music without listening to what’s around you. In that sense the more experienced players subconsciously „force“ you to listen, because their playing oftentimes takes you out of your comfort zone. Usually we start listening more closely once we’re out of our comfort zone. Like when you get lost on a song, you might have gotten yourself in that situation because you’re weren’t really in the moment, weren’t really listening – but usually after that you really start listening! Then there are those players who really go for that feeling especially. Scofield told me that he thinks that Herbie really seeks these moments where everything is almost about to collapse, like almost trying to get lost!
Pablo: This is an ongoing quest, to really learn how to listen. Lots of it happens on a subconscious level, always accumulating more knowledge as we go along, but some things are also unlocked through actual moments of realizing something. Can you tell me some breakthrough moments in your development in this area?
Frank: Most of those moments occur for me away from the bandstand, after a performance or after an important listening experience hearing other musicians play. On the bandstand, those moments will be fleeting, otherwise you’ll not be in the music you’re making at that point in time (the present). Most realizations come to me when I’m relaxed, and away from distractions: in the park at night when it’s quiet, on the subway, or on a plane. Maybe I’m thinking about something that happened in a musical moment, and why and how it happened – what allowed it to happen? The funny thing is – it can’t be replicated – in only happened then. You can learn from it, but you can’t repeat it.
Pablo: I heard that you also like to write away from the piano. I felt it was an important step for me to do that, too. To step away from the instrument, away from my comfortable environment. The stuff I came up with at the piano sometimes seemed too comfortable to me, so I found it very inspiring to start writing music just with pen and paper, only relying on the stuff I really heard inside of me. This really got me to other musical places and in the end it influenced how I was composing at the piano again.What was that process like for you? I suppose something like „The Spins“ was rather composed at the piano as opposed to „Phoenix“ or „Herbivore“ ? Maybe I’m wrong, it’s just a feeling…
Frank: Yes, I compose mainly away from the piano. If memory serves, I wrote “The Spins” at the piano, which is unusual, but I had access to one at the time (for many years, I did not have one at home, and even though I have one now, I almost never play it). “Herbivore” was definitely composed away from the instrument. “Phoenix” was actually composed by Jimmy Giuffre.
I don’t compose unless I have an idea – no “kitchen table”, disciplined composing for me. And I’ve never really thought of myself as a composer, but rather as someone who may occasionally have an idea for a sketch. My pieces are usually one-page things, and usually very simple. I try to write so that the musicians have just enough information, but not too much, so they can get away from the chart as quickly as possible. I don’t write a lot of music; some years there’s almost nothing, and then sometimes a few ideas will come in quick succession. A few years ago I had a record date approaching, and I needed some new music. It was Thanksgiving Day, and that evening, after everything got quiet, I wrote 3 pieces in about half an hour, sitting on the couch. They all appeared out of nowhere, and I still wonder how that happened. We played them all for a recording I did for Newvelle, a vinyl-only label, and two of the three were on the LP. We recorded all three, but we couldn’t fit them all on the record.
Pablo: Oh I’d love to hear that recording for Newvelle Records… It’s with RJ Miller, right? I imagine you guys would sound great together!
What’s important for you when you put together bands? What do you look for in a bassist, drummer … or in any musician?
Frank: When I put a band together, I’m looking for players who are sympathetic in a musical way, are easy going and flexible, both musically and otherwise – I’m not looking for “stars” or “names”. They need to know a lot of tunes, and be free with themselves. I never rehearse except for special circumstances (see below), and almost anything could happen on the bandstand or in the studio. I’m not going to leave a musician hanging or out in the cold, but I also expect them to have a knowledge of standards, yet be willing to go out on a limb without feeling uncomfortable.
For the Newvelle recording, the band was chosen for me by Elan Mehler, the producer. When I said yes to his offer to do the record, he told me he had already chosen the other musicians to play with me. This was a total surprise – No one had ever asked me to do that before, and part of me wanted to resist for obvious reasons. Back in the late ’90’s, Elan was a student of mine at NYU, so my thinking was “I taught him, so now I need to trust him.” Not to trust his judgment was to not trust my own. The other players were J. R. Miller on drums, Chris von Voorst von Beest on bass, and Andrew Zimmerman on tenor saxophone. Before the session rehearsal a few days before the recording, I’d never met J. R. or Chris. Andrew was a fellow student of Elan’s at NYU, and was also in my classes and ensembles there. I hadn’t seen him for 20 years. It was a nice reunion with Andrew – he played well in school, but with 20 years more experience, he played my music as well as anyone – he really brought something special to the date. Since Elan asked me to trust him with personnel, I decided to reciprocate and invite a great trumpet player who was studying at Juilliard to participate. His name is Riley Mulherkar. I brought him to the second day of recording, and he played beautifully!
Pablo: Talking about knowing a lot of tunes… I always learn standards through listening to lots of different versions, at first I’ll usually start with singers and then move on to instrumentalists, learning it by ear and then testing my knowledge through transposing it to a couple of other keys, to see if I can rely on my ears and my subconscious. I also have great memories of more experienced players teaching me songs through playing them for me, I really love that! Seeing how others internalize songs, that’s really interesting to me. What’s your process of learning a song? Any specific recollections of people showing you tunes?
Frank: My favorite way to learn a tune is to play it a bit, and then take a walk, going through it in my head until it’s memorized. I also like to take one tune, and play it for most of an afternoon (when I can find the time), in different keys, different tempos, really taking it apart and putting it back together. Most of the time though, I’m working away from the piano. I love getting into bed with a book of music and going through it, hearing everything in my head. I’ve been doing that recently with Paul Motian’s music – there are two volumes – all of his tunes, in his hand – over 120 of them. Doing this away from the piano opens things up so that you don’t fall into habits/muscle memory and the comfort zone that we automatically go to when playing something for the first time. Sometimes one tune will occupy my brain for days, even weeks at a time. It can be a kind of torture because I feel like it’s overtaken me, but in the end I REALLY know that tune. It takes time.
Many years ago I had a solo piano gig at a club in Greenwich Village. On weekends I played opposite another pianist 40 years my senior. We’d listen to each other play, and he’d often make comments about how I’d played. I learned a lot listening to him……he knew thousands of tunes. During that time in my life I didn’t have a piano in my apartment, so I’d transcribe tunes from cassette tapes, then take my walk and memorize them, and then play them that night -first tune of the first set, and last tune of the last set. It was a long gig – 6 hours, so if I could still remember the song at the end of the night, I could remember it and make it part of my repertoire. I also made 90 minute tapes of one tune, different players, singers, different keys, different tempos, different time signatures sometimes. I recognized that Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk had several tunes in common in their repertoires, so I studied how they each dealt with those tunes – I Should Care, Lover Man, Everything Happens to Me, and others. It was fascinating how different their approaches were, and how totally beautiful.
I’ve always loved unique composers, and love to get inside their music. Paul Bley didn’t call himself a composer, but he used the American Songbook all the time – he didn’t play the melodies, and he’d alter the chords and the form, therefore he’s a composer, but each tune is played only once. Andrew Hill’s tunes have real structural integrity, and can be played many different ways. Annette Peacock is one of my favorites – nobody plays her music, but it’s absolutely beautiful – stark, dark landscapes that are somewhat dreamlike. Motian is another favorite. Duke Ellington, Monk, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill – they all have so much to offer, and if you approach the music organically and honestly, you can play it all and make it work. Shirley Horn wasn’t a composer, but she LIVED the song, almost as if she was writing it right in front of you. Sitting at her side at gigs was an amazing experience. Living in New York City has allowed me to have many an unforgettable night – whether hearing/watching Bley’s abstractions of standards, Hill’s always evolving and mysterious ways, Shirley’s take on standards, or so many others that I don’t have the space to mention here.
Pablo: Oh, I love this Frank… I also like to practice a lot in my head, away from the piano. I feel like everything goes deeper and as you said you’re less bound to the instrument, you yourself are the instrument! If you can play it your head, you can usually play it at the instrument, too. Walter Gieseking, one of my main heroes on the piano was a great example for that, he really relied on internalization of the music through a deep immersion of the score and really taking apart every parameter of the musical contents. It’s such a great way to learn.
Can you talk a bit about Annette Peacock and her influence on you?
Frank: I discovered Annette’s music through Paul Bley’s ’60’s recordings, especially “Blood” on Fontana, and others – “Ramblin'”, Virtuosi, and of course his solo recording “Open To Love”. Her tunes have been described as landscapes for improvisation. They are very specific in how they’re notated, yet very open at the same time. I think that’s one thing that draws me to her work. Most of the tunes have lyrics, and in those lyrics Annette bares her soul in the most intimate way. The tunes have a certain inevitability about them, and that’s rare. Her music is simple yet complex, and emotionally quite raw, but there are also tunes that are very humorous. Some of my favorites are: “Touching”, “Nothing Ever Was Anyway”, “Dreams”and “Butterflies”, all of which are pretty fragile and stark, but still very rich and romantic. “Blood” is violent, and “Cartoon” is really funny. ” Mr. Joy” is almost breezy – – just a couple of chords and a lyrical melody.
I have scores to quite a few of these pieces, and they’re very detailed. When I was in my mid-twenties I tried to transcribe them as best I could, but didn’t really trust the work I’d done because the time in these tunes is so loose. It was very difficult to tell how she might have imagined them. 25 years later, I finally got my hands on the original charts thanks to Marilyn Crispell and Bley’s archives in Ottawa. They are beautiful, and I’m told they’re in Paul Bley’s hand. They have the vocal part, piano part, bass part and chord changes, so they really are quite specific. I met with Annette once in Woodstock, and told her that her compositions’ specificity reminded me of Monk’s music – the music really need to be studied and played correctly in order to get the sound. Voicings need to be correct, and phrasing is very important, in part because her music, as opposed to Monk’s, is almost never in strict time. The compositions I’m talking about were mostly composed in the period of 1965 – 67, when she was Paul’s partner, and writing for him and/or his trio. After that, her composing and general vibe went much more in the direction of rock and electric music. Her “An Acrobat’s Heart” recording on ECM brought her back into an acoustic environment, this time with her vocals and piano and a string quartet, which she arranged. It’s a beautiful recording that like most of her work I feel has been rather overlooked. Her music is not easy listening, but I think it’s so emotional and deep and different that more people should hear it and appreciate it.
Pablo: That’s beautiful, Frank! I had a week this summer during which only listened to „Dreams“, I was obsessing over it. It was almost like a siren song, I couldn’t stop listening and I kept noticing new things all the time. What a vibe!
You nailed it completely, her music is so open and yet so specific. The same thing could be said about Carla Bley’s music as well. I guess that was one of the reasons why Paul Bley was attracted to both their compositions so much. They encourage creativity and exploration and yet they could also totally stand on their own without always having to lead into an improvisation.
Hearing Carla talk about that Paul apparently tried to get Sonny Rollins to play some of Carla’s pieces blew my mind. I think they never got around to do it in the end, but just the thought of Sonny playing one of her pieces makes me smile. Imagine Sonny’s sound on something like „Calls“ !
You recently recorded the all of Thelonious Monk’s compositions for an upcoming record of yours that I can’t wait to hear! How did you go about it on a practical level? That’s about 70 songs- a big undertaking! How did you approach the tunes during the recording? Did write out charts of those tunes that your bandmates hadn’t learned before or did everybody do his own research and preparation in advance?
Frank: Yes, the record is called “Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk”. It will be released in late November this year. The other players are Scott Robinson, Rufus Reid, and Billy Drummond. The recording came about when we played a gig at the Jazz Standard in New York. After the first set, a friend approached me about doing the entire repertoire, and after some discussion, we decided we could do it. For that gig, I had picked the tunes in advance, and sent a list of tunes to Scott, Rufus and Billy. We used the Thelonious Monk Fakebook, which is a book that includes all of his tunes, and they are transcribed faithfully from particular recordings by Monk. Monk’s music is probably some of the most specific in jazz, so that book came in very handy. I hear too many people playing his music that I don’t think have done the research required to play it well, and I didn’t want that to happen with our session. We all spent a lot of time and did a lot of work studying the music and listening. We did not rehearse, but met at the soundcheck and played through some of the melodies. After we decided to do the recording, we did two nights last April at Jazz at Kitano, a small club. Scott couldn’t make the first night, so we played trio, and he joined us for the second night. Again, there were no rehearsals. We played about 15 tunes on each of the three gigs, so we got through about 45 tunes. Everyone had the music, and we all worked on the music separately. Sometimes there were questions about certain differences in different Monk recordings, but we mostly worked that stuff out once we got to the studio.
I’d worked on many projects with the engineer, Matt Balitsaris, and he suggested that I figure out a sequence for each of the 6 CDs to be recorded before we began recording, so I did that, and sent the list to the others so they would know what we’d be doing. Monk wrote 12 blues, and they’re all in Bb, so I put 2 of them on each CD. Then I took the ballads and spread them out the same way, and did the same with the more difficult tunes. Then I filled in the rest. taking into consideration the keys and feels of the tunes. The end result is that the session unfolds almost in chronological order. There are a few deviations, but not many.
We did 2 three-day sessions, working from 11 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the evening. We took 3 days off between the sessions. We recorded in a 200 year-old barn in the country, so there were no distractions. We stayed at a little inn not far from the studio, so we had every meal together during the sessions – that gave us time to hang out and relax in each others’ company, which was wonderful – we had a great time!
Each day we’d arrive, and just “set ’em up and knock ’em down. There were no arrangements aside from little ideas that we night have on the spur of the moment. I asked Scott to decide which instruments he’s play on each tune. He played mostly tenor saxophone, but also plays bass saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone, trumpet, and echo cornet. The first tune we played on the first day was Thelonious, and he played trumpet on the first 2 A sections, then tenor from the bridge to the end of the melody, and solos on tenor and trumpet.
Rufus wanted to play the melody on “Monk’s Mood”, so that’s how that happened – he also wanted to play the melody on “‘Round Midnight” in C minor (that was actually the original key) before the band comes in in Eb minor…..very simple, organic ideas that went down very easily. There was so stress, no ego – a totally fun and gratifying experience. We did 30 of the tunes in one take, and most of the rest in 2 takes. There were maybe three or four tunes that took three, mostly at the end of the session days when we were a little tired.
Pablo: My man – Frank!!! I can’t thank you enough for taking so much time to answer my questions in such great detail. I’m really enjoyed this process, it has been highly inspirational for me.
Norma Winstone is one of the most influential singers of our time. She certainly influenced me and my music in a big way. Her record “Somewhere Called Home” is one of my most favorite albums of all time. Furthermore Azimuth, all of her work with my late teacher John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler and so much more has been a deep source of inspiration for me throughout the years and I go back to those records regularly. Even before I started this interview series I had a strong desire to talk to her about her music. My friend Kit Downes kindly put us together and we went from there. Just days after this conversation Norma came to my trio gig at King’s Place in London and checked out our music. I was really touched by that gesture and I think it speaks volumes about what kind of person Norma is. I’m thrilled I got to talk to her. Hope you enjoy!
Bill Carrothers has been a big influence on me since my teenage years. I first heard him on Bill Stewart‘s classic record “Telepathy” which completely turned me around. From then on I tried to find as much recordings of Bill that I could. I remember finding lots of help and inspiration in a transcript a lesson that he gave. (you can find this on his website).
As I tell Bill right in the beginning of this interview, anyone who’s serious about harmony and this music in general should listen to him! I know hearing his music changed me forever!
We talked for a long time and Bill was very generous, giving lots of insights into his process + he even plays a couple of things at the piano during our conversation! I hope you enjoy!!
I first became aware of Lionel Loueke’s playing on records by Gretchen Parlato, Terence Blanchard and of course through closely following everything that Herbie Hancock was up to. I was completely blown away and wanted to know more about him. That led me to check out his own record “Virgin Forest” and then when it came out I obsessed over “Karibu”– I still go back to that album regularly! All of the stuff he’s done since is amazing. In fact, his new album is released today!
I really admire his unique approach to the guitar and his musicality in general. Lionel is doing things I never heard anybody else do – he’s a true innovator! I was very excited to talk to him. Hope you enjoy this conversation!
Joey Baron has been one of my biggest heroes since my teenage years. I saw him live for the first time in 2004 with John Abercrombie’s quartet at the Domicil in Dortmund and I’ll never forget this concert! During that time I was listening a lot to Abercrombie’s quartet album “Class Trip” and John Taylor’s record “Rosslyn” (my favorite JT album). There are so many records I love that feature his infectious drumming… too many to name them all. Also, I went to see Joey’s fantastic band “Killer Joey” lots of times when they came to play in Cologne, which was always an memorable experience, to say the least. He’s one of my all time favorite musicians for sure!!
I was amazed of how open Joey was to share all of his memories and to give insights into his process. And he was so generous with this time: After two hours of talking to him I said: “I hope you know that you don’t HAVE to keep talking to me! We can stop if you like, OK?” He just smiled and see “No it’s fine, I made time for this” – we kept on talking for another two hours!!
After I had started to edit the interview, I realized there was so much stuff in there that it would be hard to cut it into the usual one-hour-format, so edited the whole thing into four separate parts. Hope you enjoy!
Kevin Hays is one of my absolute favorite piano players, period! The first time I saw him live was in 1996 on a concert of John Scofield‘s Quiet Band and this made a deep impression on me. I’ve been following Kevin’s playing very closely since then. Out of his own records “Andalucia”, “Seventh Sense”,“El Matador” and “For Heaven’s Sake” are my personal favorites, but I do love all the other ones, too! If those records would have been LPs I think I would have worn them all out a couple of times by now. I’ve studied Kevin’s work with Chris Potter, Al Foster, Bill Stewart, Bob Belden, Seamus Blake and many more. He’s outstanding as a soloist as well as an accompanist, a complete musician!
In our conversation we talk about his work with John Scofield, Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes, his touch, rhythmic variety in his playing, going for a personal approach on standards and a lot more. However, the main theme throughout seemed to be finding one’s own voice. Hope you enjoy!
I got to know harpist Kathrin Pechlof sometime in 2008 when she moved to Cologne, we quickly became friends and started playing together in various groups. I was very fortunate to have her on my album GLOW which we recorded in 2010 for Pirouet Records. Furthermore we played together in Niels Klein’s project LOOM and with the EOS Kammerorchester.
In recent years Kathrin has done wonderful things with the Kathrin Pechlof Trio (with Robert Landfermann and Christian Weidner). They just released their second trio album “Toward The Unknown” on Pirouet Records. (Highly recommended!)
Kathrin constantly pushes the envelop of what a harpist can do in Jazz & Improvised music. In a way there’s no precedent for what she’s doing, Kathrin is a true musical pioneer!
I deeply admire her music and I’m very thankful to include her in this interview series.
Again, my sincere gratitude to Samuel Gawlowski who contributed the english subtitles for this video!
I first heard Chris Potter’s music sometime in my teenage years. I immediately became a fan, trying to get all his records as a leader and as a sideman. There’s always something to learn from Chris’ playing… in a way I always feel encouraged to work on something after I’ve listened to him. Especially his records “Gratitude”, “Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard”, “Traveling Mercies”, “Unspoken” and “Presenting Chris Potter” were deep sources of inspiration for me. Moreover I loved his playing on records of Dave Holland, Paul Motian, Steve Swallow, Kenny Wheeler, Alex Sipiagin, Adam Rogers, Antonio Farao, Scott Colley, Billy Drummond, John Patitucci (oh yes – “Now” was a big one for me!) and on lots of bootlegs as well. I heard Chris live very often, but a particularly amazing concert I saw was John Scofield‘s quartet with Chris, Dennis Irwin and Bill Stewart at the Stadtgarten in Cologne. I’ll always remember this!
In 2013 I’ve had the great fortune of playing with Chris Potter on a short tour as a featured guest of my trio and later on in 2016 I went on tour through Europe with his own quartet. I had been following his music closely, so getting to play with him was not only a dream come true but also a deep learning experience for me, to say the least!
Now, I’m really happy I got to include Chris in this series of interviews. We talk about his impeccable ear-brain-instrument connection, composing, leading a band, working with Paul Motian, Dave Holland and Herbie Hancock, how to overcome periods of self-doubt and much more.
Towards the end of our conversation I asked Chris to share a story about Ornette Coleman that he had told me a couple of years before. Unfortunately the video was failing us at that point, but I din’t want to miss the opportunity to share this story with all of you at least in the audio format. Here it is.
You’ll see me geeking out here a little in my conversation with master drummer & composer Bill Stewart. I’ve always loved his playing as well as his writing, so it was like a dream come true to get to ask him a few questions and talk about music with him. We cover a lot of ground here, talking about his records, composing, practicing routines, memorable concerts, his influences and a lot more. I hope you enjoy!
When I decided to start this series of interviews I knew that I had to talk to my mentor and friend Hubert Nuss.
The first time I heard Hubert’s music was when a friend of mine gave me his record “The Shimmering Colours Of The Stained Glass”, I guess this might have been sometime in 2003. At first I didn’t know what to make of it and actually cast it aside for a while. I couldn’t grasp what he was doing, I didn’t know what these mysterious chords were that he played, I couldn’t “hear” them – I was puzzled! Quickly, I felt the urge to go back to it and check it out more, seeking a deeper understanding of what I heard on the record. People told me that Hubert Nuss was deeply influenced by Olivier Messiaen, a name I hadn’t heard until that point. So I did my homework and checked some pieces by Messiaen and also some other records that Hubert played on. This led to me completely falling in love with Hubert’s playing (and of course Messiaen’s music, too)! I couldn’t stop listening to him!! Important records for me during this time were of course Hubert’s own records (“The Shimmering Colours Of The Stained Glass” & “The Underwater Poet”) , but also records by Peter Weniger (“Weirdos” & “Tip Tap”) and “Ouvido” by Alexandra Nauditt (with Hubert, Paul Heller & Dietmar Fuhr).
I’ve had the great pleasure of studying with Hubert for a couple of years and he became my mentor and my friend during this time. We’ve spent countless hours listening to music, hanging and playing together and I’ll cherish these memories forever. Without a doubt he had an immense impact on my musical development and his wisdom remains a deep source of inspiration for me to this day.
Also, I’ve been lucky to get Hubert to play on a couple of my records: GLOW, GLOW II & INVESTIGATIONS which of course means a lot to me.
Sharing this particular conversation gives me a great joy, since it displays a Hubert&Pablo-hang in it’s purest form: talking about music, showing each other stuff at the piano and listening to music together. After every time I get to see Hubert I feel inspired – I hope you feel the same way after watching this.
Big thanks to my friend Samuel Gawlowski who put english subtitles to the video so that everyone who’s not fluent in german can still enjoy the interview!
What is left to say about the incomparable Larry Goldings that hasn’t been said yet?
Frankly, after having shared a couple of these interviews + having written personal introductions to each one of these, I hope it doesn’t sound too repetitive… Why? Because all the stories of what happens when I’m inspired by someone share the same plot: I listen to someone for the first time, get inspired, I try to check out as much concerts/records/interviews/videos/etc as I can… I’ll transcribe songs, look for bootlegs, read the biography, I’ll try to check out the stuff that this person was influenced by… I’ll do everything that helps me understand this person’s process and I’ll do this with everyone that interests me.
This is why all the stories may sound a bit alike. I hope that’s OK.
So back to Larry.
When I was a kid I was listening to Larry’s playing on John Scofield‘s masterpiece record “Hand Jive”. Later when I was getting into playing the piano myself I used to play a long with it a lot. The line up, the repertoire and the amazing playing by Larry on organ and piano just put a spell on me. While my parents became fans of Larry’s music I followed them along, listening a lot to Larry’s own “Intimacy Of the Blues”, Scofield’s “Groove Elation”, Michael Brecker’s “Time Is Of The Essence” and other records. After a while I had most of Larry’s records, either through my parents or through my own purchases. My favorite Larry Goldings Trio record was always “Sweet Sience” and though I love everything that Larry has done, I have a special soft spot for this particular record. There was a time where I would only listen to my three favorite songs from that record : “Asimov”, “This Guy’s In Love With You” and “Spring Is Here” on repeat … to this day I still go back to that record a lot and I keep noticing news things in the music – it keeps on giving!
When I was 17 years old I had a lesson with great pianist and composer Florian Ross and he played me “Sticky Mack” from Larry’s piano trio record “Awareness”, a record that I didn’t know until that point. I was blown away! I’d say that “Awareness” is one of my top five favorite piano trio records of all time!
I got to talk to Larry a couple of times after concerts of him that I attended and he was always very kind and generous in sharing his memories when I asked him about stuff. This is our first lengthy conversation and I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for talking to me, Larry!
I discovered Gary Husband’s majestic & inventive drumming through the music of the late Allan Holdsworth who’s music influenced me a great deal. Soon after I learned that he is not only a world class drummer but in fact a world class pianist as well!! I completely fell in love with his solo piano records (“The Things You See” & “Meeting Of Spirits”) which inspired me a lot. I admire his creative approach in paying tribute to his two bandleaders John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth. And who can’t resist his amazing drumming? Gary is a major force in music today!
For me personally the drum/piano bond is only one of the many things that I feel connected to Gary, since I initially started out as a drummer and then switched to piano when I was about 10 years old. I still think of playing the drums when I play the piano… So Gary is a role model on both levels for me.
I was amazed how open Gary was to share his process, we talked for over two hours! He revealed to me that this was in fact his first interview ever that was centered more on his piano works than on his drumming. I’m super thankful Gary took the time to talk to me. Hope you enjoy our conversation!
Pablo Held: Well, thanks so much for doing this. I’m super excited to talk to you. I have few things on my list that we could talk about, but I’d rather just have a conversation with you.
Gary Husband: Oh, that’s great. Great! I’m excited about this.
Pablo: What have you been up to lately?
Gary: About a hundred different things. In a way it’s the kind of chaos that I like and I kind of thrive on that, I don’t know why – it’s peculiar. But there’s been a lot of work in other people’s music, learning and prepping that music, going and playing one, two or seven dates or whatever, and then home – and that’s it.
But there are some mainstay things that I do in addition to working on developments for my next project at the same time.
Pablo: Can you talk about that already, or is it still early stages?
Gary: Well, there are a couple. One is this solo piano thing with bits of drum kit built around the piano together with a synth. I just started doing some solo concerts featuring this direction for the first time, really.
Pablo: I’m curious about that!
Gary: It’s lonely! (laughs)
Pablo: I know!
Gary: Yeah! You will know all about it! There are a couple of things that I’ve put on a laptop that I can play to, because some of the piano albums I’ve done feature double-piano parts, or even three parts sometimes. So I need to either rearrange them or embellish them with a play-along track that sort of works for it. And that’s not quite so lonely. At least I have a playback of one of the piano tracks there to augment what I’m doing, that I can swear at, give the impression I’m interacting with and introduce on stage! (laughs) But it works pretty well!
Pablo: I was actually wondering about how you’d handle this, because I love your solo records so much.
Gary: Thank you, wow!
Pablo: How would you do it live? I’m also curious about how you actually recorded them. What came first? Because at times the double piano parts are so intertwined and they even change roles sometimes. So I’d like to know more about your process of recording those albums and then translating that to your live performances.
Gary: It’s funny to say – It was a peculiar process. I knew that I was hearing things that couldn’t be performed just in one real time piano. So, I need another piano player… This is where YOU come in!! (laughs) If I can afford you!
Pablo:(laughs) Yeah, sure!
Gary: Some arrangements feature two pianos all the way through, or on others I just decided for it for effect – to expand and bring dynamism or more dimension to an idea, or also simply to embellish stuff. Mainly I just wanted to do whatever it takes to get the right musical effect and get as close as possible to conveying elements or stretches of the arrangements as I was hearing them. I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.
Gary: So as far as projects go, there’s the solo project and I’m also thinking, since I love cello so much, of inviting a friend of mine who is a great cellist. He’s not an improvisor particularly, but he’s a great and celebrated cellist. And I love Indian percussion, so I was thinking about maybe having a trio of tabla, cello and piano – could be nice, huh?
Pablo: That sounds nice!!
Gary: So with the piano I’m kind of thinking about those two lines of endeavour and just letting things come to me.
Pablo: Cool! Can we go back to your solo piano albums for a second?
Pablo: To me they are one of the greatest examples of a „tribute record“, because you’re so creative with the material of both Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin. You not just playing their tunes, you’re making them your own! Am I’m very interested in how it actually started, you know? Did you have the lead sheets from those tunes, or did you just know them out of your experience of playing with those two guys for a long time? And then, what was the process of building these albums?
Gary: Well, first of all, I had run the idea by the both of them before doing it. The thing with it is, I considered the best tribute I could do to musicians of that level and to people that unique, influential and special was to create again, really. Create again on already existing great material as a kind of „thank you“, and express my gratitude and love to and for them that way. Allan was kind of for the idea, because he hated people covering his music and cloning him. He was always saying: „Why can’t people just use their imagination and think of something else?” So, my idea is that if you’re going to cover music, DO something with it. Bring a big piece of you to the picture, and do something in a way that’s born of your own imagination as much as it pertains to the form and integrity of the original. So I made up my mind pretty quickly that I was going to approach it all this way. And Allan, he went with the idea, and he was pretty cool with it, thankfully…after a while anyway … (laughs) but he was curious! He asked me: „What are you going to do with it exactly?“ And I said: „Well, I’m going to take a hammer to it so to speak! In terms of its form certainly, and the building of completely fresh harmony, while on some tracks I’ll address what’s closer to the original. For the most part I’ll completely smash it and build it in another way….and definitely express it all mostly in a new context!“
You know, what always seems to come up with me are these peculiar allusions back to material I had been introduced to when I was a classical piano student – and itsounds very much like maybe you went through the same thing. Because, I was noticing by your playing that…one of the great gifts I got from my classical teacher was something that she called „tops“. That meant in the right hand to really make the pertinent or predominant note sing out, usually the top one, alright?
Gary: And this is accentuated, for expression – chiming out in the forefront, and distinct in comparison to surrounding notes or harmony you’re performing with the same hand. She really instilled this technique in me and it’s still there to this day … and I hear it in your playing too Pablo!
Pablo: Well, thank you! Thanks for noticing.
Gary: I do notice that, because I don’t hear it in a lot of guys, you know?
Pablo: You’ve been one of my role models for that type of thing.
Gary: Ouff… Thank you!
Pablo: But how did she teach you to do it, technically?
Gary: It was just a very gradually developing physical methodology and training. She had me working for many, many months on technical matters. Like everything she did with me … I mean, I have to say, in addition … she was not a particularly nice person!
Gary: It was like strictly Victorian age style of teaching, you know? „You just keep doing it, and you practice it slowly and you stay in that place and you do not move for weeks!” And everything so slow! But … great training nevertheless!
Gary: And she just made me stay on that. Different fingers on my right hand, too. Like the third note has to sing our more prevalently than the rest. Just practicing that. I forgot how she made me do it, but it was literally this application … just over, over and over again. And I was going away for many weeks, sometimes months, solely practicing that.
Pablo: So now it’s not something that you think about, actively – it’s just subconscious, right?
Gary: Yeah. It just went in, like technique dealings should. It should be an invisible process whenever you address the instrument, and physically apply your hands to the instrument. And actually I consider that became a recognisable aspect in my presence as a pianist. That stuff is just there in the background and you never think about it, or should never think about it. I have to say that for many years I in some ways regretted going down the classical route, because my teacher was such a dragon, but at the same time there could have been no better technique to learn. Unfortunately, she was ultimately only interested in potential concert platform performers. She was just into training new young players who she could have compete against somebody else’s student, or another one of her students.
Pablo: Oh oh.
Gary: And I was never ever, EVER going to do that. There was nothing about a competition that appealed to me. Apart from F1 or boxing, I didn’t even like sports … and certainly never saw anything in the least correct about that approach in music! So I resisted. Actually I heavily rebelled! I was quite repulsed by all that actually!
Pablo: What did she make you play? What kind of works? What pieces?
Gary: Chopin. I remember there was a piece by Kabalevsky, the Russian composer… that really stayed with me actually. There was something by Richard Rodney Bennet, the english composer. There were a couple of other pieces… which we dissected and sometimes a bar and a half — months on this!!
Pablo: And only in a technical way or would she also analyse it with you harmonically, compositionally?
Gary: She would get into the analytical process about it. One thing I now relate to – I didn’t at the time, but I’m glad she instilled it in me – was to try to properly acknowledge what that phrase was supposed to say and express. Not that I ever trusted that she could know that, because she wasn’t there when Brahms wrote this or that… (laughs) How do you know that she’s right? But I trusted that she was well enough informed, and I respected that. So she did actually have me look at the interpretation angle, so as to really make my renditions work and convey appropriately too ..as opposed to it all just being about a physical accomplishment all the time.
Gary: So there are several things I see clearly in hindsight that were of value about our term together. But one of the greatest, aside from the technique, was the fact that she introduced me early on to Bartók’s „Mikrokosmos“, which I started to get heavily into, and which as you know are essentially great independence exercises predominately, and coordination exercises, but in the way Bartók formed them he was also gently initiating you into the realm of bitonality! „Heeeey, bitonality!“ And I was thinking: „Wow, these exercises sound really strange! I don’t know what key any of it’s in and they’re kind of … weird – but I LIKE them!“
That really introduced me subliminally to that world of hearing music differently. And intriguingly! You know, how that music went in me was on a level I at first couldn’t really understand or emotionally comprehend, but it touched me for life. No doubt. I started adoring the string quartets shortly after that. It must be pretty much similar for you, Pablo?
Pablo: Well, I always feel I should work more on the Mikrokosmos… But I really know what you mean when you talk about appreciating music without being able to explain what it actually is that moves you so much. You get drawn to it…
Gary: You get drunk to it? (laughs)
Pablo:(laughs) I’m not sure about getting drunk, but I’m talking about getting pulled in and you can’t to do anything about it, you can’t resist it.
Pablo: I love that feeling! And that’s the feeling I get with all the music that has inspired me. It stays with me all the time.
Gary: Yeah. Me too! Exactly the same. Going back to the impressionists, I had a particular passion for Gabriel Fauré, particular his later works. I mean a lot of people only talk about Debussy and Erik Satie under this blanket term that these were the impressionist composers … which apparently Debussy deplored – he hated this reference.
Pablo: Yeah. Because he could be expressionistic and expressive for sure.
Pablo: It’s not introverted, mellow stuff all the time. There’s so much more to it, but I guess people had to call it something.
Gary: I guess. And they still do! Anyway, we digressed. But … there is so much of that music that influenced me and made a big impression on me – and I think that’s clearly revealed on those solo recordings. The influence is surely there – an interpretation of a melody or the harmonic movement, or in the treatment or whatever. It’s all deeply rooted, so … why fight it? I don’t analyse it, I just let it come up and let it do its thing.
Pablo: That’s beautiful.
Gary: Yeah. Hey do you realise this is the first ever interview that I’ve done from my piano angle!?
Gary: Yeah, nobody has ever spoken to me about keyboards, or piano playing, or my things in music from this side of my career.Only drums! Up until now that is! (laughs)
Pablo: Well, thanks for doing it with me!
Gary: So this is a special occasion for me Pablo!
Gary: Well I just had to tell you!
Pablo: I’m feeling a certain pressure rising now… (laughs)
Gary: No, please!
Pablo: But maybe, because nobody did it before with you, we don’t have anything to compare it to, so I can try and find my way.
Gary: Well it’s … fresh! (laughs) It’s a fresh topic!
Pablo: Do you know the Mass by Fauré for children’s choir?
Gary: Yes, I do!
Pablo: Man I love that piece so much!
Gary: Me too! And Stravinsky’s Mass!
Pablo: Yes!! That might be my most favorite piece by Stravinsky!
Gary: Oh yeah. I mean everybody always references ‚The Rite Of Spring‘, but I wonder did they ever hear the Mass!?
Gary: And that’s funny because I asked… you must be aware of the composer Mike Gibbs, right?
Pablo: Sure! I did an interview with him a couple of weeks ago.
Gary: Oh you did? Well you know, it was fascinating to me, because around the time I became infatuated with Stravinsky’s Mass I also discovered the very first Mike Gibbs record on the Deram Label – it’s from the early seventies. So it begins with the piccolo trumpet I think, a classical player playing the solo part… and the way Mike scored for the brass – I was absolutely convinced that he was a Stravinsky Mass nut. And I had a word with him about it, because I got to work with him a couple of times in recent years. I asked him if he knew the Mass and he said: „No, I never heard it!“ (laughs) Isn’t that incredible?
Pablo: I guess it’s also what our mind does, because we’re also in a way comparing things to one another. You know, maybe we don’t need to put labels on it. When we hear something maybe we kind of want to be free, but we also put it into certain contexts. Like myself, when I’ve listened to you I always thought: „He must like John Ireland.“ But I’m not really sure if you like his music, though some things remind me of the piano music by John Ireland.
Gary: Oh that’s funny, because I know of him, but I don’t know anything about his music!
Pablo: OK, I’ll send you a track after this.
Gary: Yeah, please! Also Mike Gibbs actually said to me that there was somebody he thought that I had listened to… another composer and I had no idea! So strange!
Pablo: I think it happens all the time. People have their ideas about what you are or who you must have checked out. Personally, I really love this kind of detective work, trying to figure out somebody’s influences, what that person might have listened to. Because we always go to something – maybe subconsciously- something that we don’t have ourselves. Like we’re listening to Stravinsky’s Mass – we can’t compose like that! There’s something mysterious going on there that we can’t do ourselves, so that’s why we’re drawn to it. But then subconsciously we compare it to something that we already know in order to make more sense of it.
Gary: Yeah, I guess. Yeah! Funny, huh?
Gary: Very interesting, really interesting!
Pablo: Did you play some of those Fauré pieces?
Gary: We touched on it, but she’d take pieces away from me and say: „Oh no, this isn’t going to work!“ (laughs) And I was thinking: „OK“ (sighs)
Pablo: „You’re not ready for this!“
Gary: She would do things like that. She was very brutal – she liked the “cruel blow” approach. The school of cruel blows!
Pablo: But why did you stay with her? And also why did you stay with playing the piano?
Gary: I didn’t – I gave up right after. And I actually started playing drums to really alienate her. I had a plan. She found out that I was interested in jazz music, so she asked me: „If you MUST listen to this infuriating, juvenile music – who do you listen to?“ And thinking foolishly that she would approve I said: „I’m listening to Bill Evans. And there’s this purity and beauty of harmony which to me reveals parallels with certain classical composers” … which I thought she would appreciate. You know I was kind of trying to give her a bridge. A tie between our two respective musical worlds. So she said: “I’ve never heard of this man! You must bring in a recording of him.“ So I took along my cherished record „Bill Evans At Town Hall“ And I said: „Just listen to Side 2“, which was majorly a big long improvisation since his father just died and it was just stunning. I’m sure you know it.
Pablo: Of course, that Epilogue… Oh man.
Gary: Yeah – and the Prologue, too. It’s all beautiful. So when I went to my lesson the next week she said to me: „You haven’t been practicing!“ (laughs) I said: „You know, I have been practicing, but I haven’t been really achieving as you would like – but I have been practicing.“ She said, picking up my record: „And this man…“ with such disdain, throwing the album across the room so that it hit the wall. This had such an deep effect on me, it really hit me emotionally.
Pablo: Of course! Wow!
Gary: The album hit the wall and slid down – just like in a cartoon. And I said: „What are you doing, throwing my record?“ And she said: „I’m throwing your record, because this man is an imposter. He’s a charlatan and an imposter!“ And I said: „WHAT?? What are you talking about?“ She said: „He has nothing! If you must listen to this ridiculous music, there is only one pianist.“ And I kind of knew what she was going to say, but even if I didn’t know what she was going to say, I had to ask: „Which one do you mean?“ And she said: „Oscar Peterson!“ What occurred to me was, she was seeing it – as she saw so much – from merely the technical achievement or technical excellence involved. „Does this man dominate the piano?“, like she used to speak about. „You have to dominate this thing, otherwise it will dominate you!“ Things like this. So she could only find that kind of excellence in Oscar Peterson, but she was only referring to the technique – what about the music? She didn’t get it all! There was nothing that spoke to her about it and the fact that it involved improvisation and spontaneity was even more alienating. So I realised there was just no point in trying to have these conversations with her. My back was really up against the wall at this point, so I thought: She already knows I love jazz music and improvising, so how can I really get to her? I came up with the genius idea that maybe I should play the drums – she would REALLY really like that, and y’know, this will be the ultimate one!And I was plotting and plotting away… So the next time she gave me another dose of cruelty I said to her: „By the way I just started playing drums, what do you think about that?“ (laughs) And she was like…. (laughs) I mean the look of horror and disdain… She said: „I’m going to call your father right now and tell him that this is the last lesson I’ll be giving you!“
Pablo: So SHE actually quit!
Gary:(laughs) I was so joyful inside! I mean we had our time and she did a lot of great things for me, but I must have known that to stick with it … like my dad who was a great piano player and musician insisted, saying „I’ve you’re going to play piano you’re going to go classical! That’s what you’re going to do.“ So I said yes. You know, I was desperate to please him and I knew that it was the truth. But fortunately, she now ceased being a part of my musical life. And after this I didn’t want to go near, or even hear a piano for about a year. It was that profound, Pablo. Really was, I’ll never forget it. Eventually, I got a little tap on the shoulder, you know, like „Hey! Maybe there’s something to find again with the piano!“, so I started making friends with it again under a completely new relationship, which was great.
Pablo: So when you play the drums, do you ever think about her sometimes?
Gary: Yeah, only because I’m hitting things. (laughs). No I don’t mean disrespect, but this was really traumatic for me at that point. But a lot of the great teachers say it should be … particular the old school of that period and before.
Pablo: But maybe you wouldn’t be where you are today without her.
Gary: No, well I certainly wouldn’t sound the same. Not at all.
Pablo: I don’t think you wouldn’t have played with the likes of Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin without the effect that this woman had on you, right? She made you play the drums in a way!
Gary: You’re right. But … going through the classical system, you learn, become acquainted and get better at playing rubato passages for instance. And in Allan’s music there was a lot of rubato, which a lot of his copiers and imitators for some reason don’t choose to pick up on. I mean, he had great time, first of all. But there were always little stretched, pushed or pulled rubato phrases in the interpretation of his music. For the drums to pick up on that was essential to me – rather crucial in fact. This was about the pure him. I used to sit beside him when he was playing these pieces just on guitar, sometimes he’d be tapping his foot and sometimes not. Some of it was just bendy … it just moved and it was different every time. But the movement kind of always occurred in one given, specific place, to launch a particular phrase, and as soon as the time came back the tempo was initiated again from that very point. This would feature in some cases many, many times in a melody of his. So this was a very interesting and most distinctive thing about him. But I think through the classical training and the awareness about being true how to interpret and articulate a phrase in a way that’s correct for these kind of elements, that really came into play rather naturally for me I have to say – in what the drummer should be picking up on in the music. The bigger picture, y’know. I considered it incumbent to acknowledge those important subtleties. Always.
Pablo: Yeah, that makes sense.
Gary: You know, for some reason a lot of people thought all lot of Allan’s compositions were in odd time signatures and actually surprisingly they weren’t! Maybe there was a bar of five here or a phrase that amounted to being nine or three threes or something, but usually it was kind of a four. It was just displaced in the way that he’d do it and that was really about as complicated as it would get. So people would ask him at the bar: „What time signature is this piece in?“ and he’d go: „Well it’s all in one!“ But that crazy summarization actually made a lot of sense to me!
Gary: They’d go: „Ohhh, really ?!?“ Actually, that’s not such a ridiculous thing to say, because I asked him once if he’d explain how he saw that … and I didn’t use to often ask him much, because that wasn’t really his way – he just wanted people to pick up on it. He said: „Well, if I play a phrase like this and it kind of slows down, as soon as it’s coming back into tempo it’s on the one!“ And that’s what he meant with everything being „in one“. You have to understand, he knew nothing about notation, he really didn’t know how to express anything in conventional terms musically. He just had his own way with everything.
Pablo: I’m curious about that. Because I assume he must have put a lot of thought into what he was doing there. He completely revolutionized the way of playing the guitar or also playing over changes. I’m so amazed that he wouldn’t know how to articulate it in a conventional way. How did he show you the songs ? Did he play them for you and you just had to pick it up by ear?
Gary: You know, this is like a thousand years ago, sometime in 1978 or so…’79 when we first started. He’d just be playing with a foot tap. And as I said before, sometimes the foot tap would stop and he’d just pick up back in tempo again. I realized there was something funny about that, but then it was different every time, so I said: „This is TRUE rubato. It’s just felt!“ So I just listened to it and accepted it as being that, that’s all! Whereas a lot of people would say: „Well, if I wrote that out in terms of sixteenth notes, where exactly would that beat come in?“ They’d have to put it in some kind of grid. He just abhorred that idea – this was just alien talk to him. He said: „It’s a little pause and it just comes back on that chord.“ That’s as much as he wanted to get involved in telling you what it actually was – there wasn’t any kind of „what it is!“. It was just floaty in this part and then it was back in time there. Bit I think if you kind of just make friends with that, and get comfortable with it you can take it on board and make it a part of what the drums do, for instance – and then also be creative inside that and within that.
Pablo: That can feel like playing in time, too. With the greatest players it does feel like they’re still playing in time. And vise versa with the masters playing in time can sound like they’re playing rubato. When you hear Tony Williams play those super fast tempos with Miles Davis in 1967… there might be a similar inner-time feel that could be compared to 1964’s „Four & More“ when they’d play fast, but the actual played content is a different animal. It sounds almost rubato, floaty although it’s right on the beat.
Pablo: It’s bizarre. Those same guys, playing the same or similar repertoire in the same tempo, but how they play it is hugely different – and that happened over the course of 3-4 years…How did they get there?
Gary: Yeah. It’s this so prevalent with someone as great as Miles:
there might have just been one note, one little interjection. But such an intriguing one … and it’s also where he put that note! Total magic.
Gary: Oh man. It’s just one of those notes he’d deliver that could be right up in the stratosphere … and where it is you can’t put in a grid. I hate grid music so just for somebody with that kind of magnificent, spontaneous, genius timing to do something like that… as he did … I just never get tired of it! I just listen to more Miles now than ever before and I think it will be like that until I drop dead.
Pablo: Yeah. But going back to Allan showing you guys time feel of those tunes… How was it in terms of chords and bass notes?
Gary: Well, he was peculiar in the fact that he was very indecisive. He chose to be very open about bass notes, and never used to particularly consider them! And … I actually used to love the demos he made, they didn’t have any bass notes! Mostly they were they were the fifths, major sevenths, flattened sixths sometimes or they were raised fourths at the bottom of his harmony. They would sound lovely just up in that register. And with the lowest note as the root, if there has to be a root… Y’know it was almost as if the pure version of it was just him alone, in spite of the fact you’d get great musicians like Jimmy Johnson, who is so immense, who would always come up with fantastic notes.
Gary: Sometimes that we’d be getting a piece together and Jimmy would say: “Maybe I’ll try to B flat on there.” Alan would listen to it and go: “No, I actually preferred the one before when it was an A flat” and Jimmy would say: “Yeah I’ll stick to the A flat”. But usually he’d let guys come up with what they heard.
Pablo: Yeah! He would let you guys build your own parts, right?
Gary: Yeah, kinda. Yeah! He’d be saying stuff without saying anything. He’d ask: “What do you hear with this chord…”or “What do you hear when this chord goes to that” and Jimmy would come up with something great and Allan would go: “Oh yeah that’s great!”. Always very quick.Jimmy would note it down and it would simultaneously become the definitive thing, the notes for the composition. He’d do nothing with me about the drums. He just always wanted something that was ever changing, and he wanted a lot of improvisational motion in the drums even if it was a drum part. If there was a drum part I’d invent that was bordering on something that was the same each time, I’d try to come up with something that established an idea and then come up with the second part for it that echoed that phrase, so that it felt like it was continually evolving and in fact it was loopy without feeling like a loop. He just let me be really free with that approach and really kind of compose things for drums that worked for the compositions in an unlikely way, but nevertheless a considered one and one which came out of a notion this would act as kind of a counter-composition around what’s being stated. So, that’s how those things came out sounding as they did. But hey, that’s just about getting your imagination involved. He loved that kind of input and incentive from musicians.
Pablo: Well it sounds amazing!!
Gary: Oh that’s kind of you, thanks. You know, I’m blessed it all happened, I tell ya! I guess we digressed a lot because actually you were asking me about the solo record of Allan’s music…
Pablo: I actually like digressing – it’s cool!
Gary:(laughs) Yeah, It’s natural … just like music! Let’s see. I didn’t even deal with the guitar harmony in the search for the piano versions. So I had no idea. All I had was a sense of the movement, I mean I knew the compositions so well because I had played them so many times over the many years, but I avoided transcribing stuff, so I was intentionally … specifically unaware of what things actually were. I just knew them and I knew them the more in terms of essence than in terms of accurate notation. So what I did was I used the recordings to get the actually just the top line of the melody or the top line of the guitar chord, which in a lot of Allan’s pieces acted as a melody. I didn’t take any bass notes or any specific Allan Holdsworth harmony, so, completely I formed and rebuilt it – I wanted instinct to come into play and just have ideas suggest themselves to me as to how it could move and how it could be built. There’s a lot of painstaking arranging going on on that record, and on the other (McLaughlin) one, too. They’re built up of nothing specifically taken from the originals. It’s just that I know that it’s a phrase that ascends at this point and descends or whatever, to that. So it was almost like composing! That was it. But I’m a harmony junkie and I love the discovery and the surprises, and if spontaneity happens and imagination is doing its job there’s stuff that can come to me and I’ll find ideas I can go with. It took many months! Both of those records took a very long time to write before I was happy with them.
Pablo: Where did you record them?
Gary: In London, at a friend’s studio.
Pablo: You would go in there from time to time or did you it all in one session?
Gary: Oh no. I worked on the scores on a Yamaha P80 at home, and finished all the arrangements there. Once all of that was done and the scores were finished I booked three days and went in and tried to get the best performance take of it all I could. And it’s probably a nice thing: the constriction of just three days, because it was like an expensive studio and not a great piano just a little rather unstable old Yamaha C4, you know?
Pablo: Man, but You make it sound like a huge thing! It’s amazing to listen to!
Gary: Well, the engineer made it sound as…
Pablo: No no no no no!! I’m not letting you off the hook that easily! (laughs) I can hear that it is a small piano, but the way you play it is so amazing!! That’s a sign of a great piano player: Somebody that can play on a shitty piano but is able to get such a big sound out of it. If you listen to some of those Bill Evans records he plays on a couple of bad pianos sometimes, or they’re out of tune… All the great guys they get a big sound no matter which piano they play on and this is evident on your record, too! I’m actually curious what you think about sound. Is it something that your mean teacher has shown you or is it something that was just natural for you? how do you think about sound and touch?
Gary: I do try to capture what might be beautiful! Well … that’s everything in a way, isn’t it!? The end result. I mean if I want to do something over and over again it will just be because I’m not evoking what I wanted … or usually because the demo was good and I’d already fallen in love with the demo! You know I’d record that demo and think: “Oh well that’s all I have to do. I’ll just play it like that” you know? And I could never get it the same! So, I think I made a decision to stop doing demos or at least demos that I could be happy with. (laughs) So it was just to get the feeling right. I wonder, do you by chance know of a beautiful, special Japanese movie called “Maestro!”? It’s about about a Japanese classical conductor who’s retired, and has since become a very unorthodox guy. The orchestra folds and he retires, but, through grouping together a lot of musicians insist that the orchestra is reinstated. They go in search of the conductor, to lead them again, and it seems like they can’t find him but they DO find this old guy dressed in rags and everything. And it’s actually him, but they don’t know it yet. He’s conducting with bits of tube and a hammer, you know, really crazy. But there are some unbelievable messages in that film! There’s one line that I had to write down, but somehow I lost the paper I wrote it down on. I was on a plane watching this movie and he said this thing at one point which was so moving to me. Passengers on the plane were offering me paper handkerchiefs asking me: “What’s wrong with you?” And I was just weeping at the thing because it was so moving! He said to one of his musicians: “You know, a sound is born and disappears in a second. But if, with that sound in that moment, you can truly manage to resonate with someone’s soul, that moment can last a lifetime.” Isn’t that just so special?
Pablo: Yeah. That’s beautiful!
Gary: And that’s the jewel I’m trying to catch or shape. Even if it’s a technically rough overall performance, I’ll always take that, because it’s the one with the heart. You know, the one with that little moment or interpretation that made it all make sense, and conveys something of what I wanted it to express, in spite of the inaccuracies. I’m just trying to get that special thing. If you ever see that movie, you’ll know. I really recommend that to all musicians because that film beautiful says a lot about real intent and real heart in music. It’s very special!
Pablo: That sounds amazing! I’m gonna look this up! Do you want to get into talking about touch also on a technical level or would you rather not?
Gary: I don’t really know anything about that. I mean, I wouldn’t really know what to say about any of that.
Pablo: Well, that’s perfect! (laughs) I love that as an answer!
Gary: You know, going back to my classical teacher again, she put a little coin on my hand here. So just doing five finger exercises, but getting on to playing the C scale where your thumb goes underneath, if that coin fell off she’d whack me! So there was the insistence on my hand being absolutely flat at all times, no matter what was going on and no matter what the thumb was doing. So in every single scale the hand had to be flat, ascending or descending.
Pablo: That’s what I see when I look at videos of you, or when I see your concerts.
Gary: Really? That’s incredible I guess really because I have not practiced it for decades! But, you know I got a criticism on some video that somebody had put out. I was playing a solo and I got accused of being a piano playing hack! Y’know, “This guy just tries to get volume out of the piano by hitting it as hard as he can! And he’s supposed to coax the power of the sound out of the instrument and not hammer it out”. I thought to myself: “Wow, maybe I do that or the intent or excitement is getting the better of me or whatever. It could be the drummer part of me that influences the articulation on piano, I don’t know. I know I probably do play too hard. I’m always amazed when I see other piano pianists, how lightly and how more likely they are to endure speed and fluency because of that – without excessive force. But it’s probably because of all the electric bands and all these loud drummers that I play with too! Ha ha! I was so used to being in a club where piano couldn’t be heard in the band. So I’m trying to find a way to use force less but make more sound. I don’t know how to do that really and it seems completely against my instinct, but I’m looking into that.
Pablo: It seems like you know exactly how to do that.
Gary: Well, I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’m always amazed and inspired when I see another piano player, because I’ll invariably think: “Wow, it’s actually just fluid body movement and it’s all looking so unforced, not going for the full on application all the time.” But I also realized that I love accents – inside of the improvised runs. Y’know, I think stuff like this reveals a lot of our own presence and character on the instrument. So I have a propensity to maybe hammer accents out more than most pianists would, probably. But it’s absolutely corresponding to the drummer in me I think.
Pablo: I know what you mean! I’m not comparing myself to you obviously, but I actually started out as a drummer when I was a little kid.
Gary: Oh yeah? OK!
Pablo: When I was ten years old I switched to piano and I still think about playing the drums when I play piano. A lot of the things you just said deeply resonate with me, because I actually think about them the same way!
Gary: Oh, that’s really interesting! Wow.
Pablo: And also that part of making yourself heard you know in a band is very important to me. To not to be too reliant on monitors all the time, you know? I want to be my own monitor! I’m trying to constantly improve that, heavily relying on my natural arm weight, pulling the sound out of the piano.
Gary: Yeah! You said it. “Pulling” it out. And I’m not sure I’m that successful doing this as you and many other accomplished people are, but I am aware of it! And one of these things that makes me think about this was… I don’t know if you read any of the Bill Evans biographies? He speaks about his early beginnings in big bands, talking about the days when there wasn’t a PA and those bands were loud!
Gary: You know, acoustic bass player – no amp! Acoustic piano players – no PA! And somehow you had to be in the mix. Bill Evans actually addressed how to try to get presence out of the piano without using brute force … but it must be quite something to achieve it!
Pablo: That’s something that we talked about before: intensifying the sound of the top note the chord.
Gary: Well okay yeah, the tops!
Pablo: I think that’s something that’s very useful with this dilemma. Of course you could hammer out the whole chord, but if you only do it with the top note it sort of takes all the notes along with it and transports them not only to the bandmates’ but also the audiences’ ears. Don’t you agree?
Gary: Yeah I do, that makes sense to me! But beyond this I don’t really know anything about touch, except for just trying to catch what I want to hear and feel. To my credit or not, I guess I just don’t concern myself with it. I’m just after the feeling. That and to be as poignant and as eloquent as I can. And we are the arbiter for ourselves, right? We have the itch that needs satisfying so to speak. We have to feel good about how we’re conveying something first. It certainly has to be appealing to me before I can believe that it’s going to be appealing to someone else.
Pablo: So true! They other way around doesn’t work: trying to please somebody only results in playing a lot of crap that actually nobody wants to hear.
Pablo: I am sure you must have been asked this question a lot of times but I’m still gonna ask: In terms of leading a band, If you compare Allan Holdsworth to John McLaughlin: talk about learning the material or specific instructions… I suppose that McLaughlin uses a different approach at times, Is that true?
Gary: Despite the fact those two gentlemen were born in the same part of the world … the same Shire in England called Yorkshire … where incidentally I was, too –they are polar opposites in terms of character, personality and in terms of how they’d get what they want out of you. Allan’s way, as we have said, was to ask you to come up with something and try and find a way to be yourself. John’s way is more like: “This is what it is and here’s how I want you to feel about it, be yourself in it and approach it.”There’s a lot of direct rhythm in John’s music, a lot of syncopation. Allan’s rhythm was more abstract but curiously all in at the same time. A special mix! But John likes to demonstrate his rhythm through using the South Indian phonetics, singing the rhythms. Since our drummer is Indian, they have this discourse naturally. I am not anywhere near as fluent with konnokol – you know, I know a little bit, but I can understand it enough to be able to decipher what things are. So it’d be complex things, quintuplets… tricky things happening everywhere, you know, intricate Indian rhythmic groupings … There’ll be a lot of things to digest, learn, expand on, but then … improvise on within them. Plus, ince it’s just a quartet I’ll be usually harmony source on a piano/rhodes pad, or rhythm, and on another voice I’m doubling melodies with John. So, I’m doing that. I have to get the syncopation and independence going between both and really practice the pieces for as many weeks as I can before we play them. They’re not easy! But it’s all work of joy. Getting better at something is really a joy isn’t it! But John’s is often demanding music to play.
Pablo: I guess so. I’ve heard the music, it seems pretty hard, but you make it sound very easy!
Gary: Oh, that’s nice of you.
Pablo: Does he send demos or how do you practice them?
Gary: Yeah, he does. John sends pretty good demos usually with drums that are very loud! (laughs)
Pablo: How does he construct the demos? Does he play all the parts himself?
Gary: Yeah. He forms them at home in Protools.
Pablo: But does he play the drums himself?
Gary: Oh … no he doesn’t play real-time drums, he programs them. They are usually loops, but maybe about 4 or 5 on top of each other so that there’s chaos happening. You know, John likes the chaotic, … in a beautiful way! He loves the unpredictable, but he really only demands that the the voicings work and the intricate melody notes are established before we do anything – and then the chaos comes! He is wonderful.
Pablo: I see.
Gary: I love that! Because he’s got that real kind of old school anarchy in his playing and all those rough edges, which I love and associate with electric guitar. You know, growing up in the 60s…
Pablo: That’s so rare these days!
Gary: Yeah, it is. Everybody is going for this totally polished beautification of everything. I understand, you know. It’s very seductive I guess, with that presence to it… Great! But I do like the rough and the grit. Then, regarding my use of synthesizers in John’s group, I always try to get sounds which are just absolutely formed for that particular song and nothing else. The Nord Lead 2x which I carry around is still going fairly strong. It’s quite a hardy and travels well. And it’s really great to be able to just create patches and come up with things. And usually because John’s sound is very highly articulated I’ll choose something which doesn’t have that. You know, it’s almost like he has the percussion at the front of it, so I’ll get something with the front off, or with just a little whisper to the front of the attack.
Pablo: There’s also the part in the concert where you play some drums, too. I love that! You know, my inner drummer is in heaven you when you guys start play together!
Gary: Oh, yeah. It’s really special. I’ve been really blessed to be able to have that kind of platform. But it’s also a band that really works. When you find yourself a nice trio that really works where everybody’s kind of “talking” to each other effortlessly, very successfully, coherently and it’s all working – it’s kind of like that with this band. It’s just the right kind of personnel to work whether it’s earth shatteringly good in one aspect or us finding it together in a different way. Who knows? It’s personal taste, but it certainly works and operates as a band machine very well. We can really go to the point of the cliff’s edge and look down. We can be that close sometime to complete catastrophe! (laughs) I love that too, because I wanted to be a motor racing driver when I was a kid, so I think there’s a little meeting point there. I like to go to the edge, you know? (laughs) And those musicians … they want to go to the edge, too! So we go together, that’s all. But I guess it’s a beautiful thing that we all go and it’s not just one guy…
Pablo: Yeah, and that way you’re in fact helping yourselves by going in the same direction!
Gary: There is a little anecdote: You spoke about direction and the difference between John and Allan…We did a record called down “To The One” with the 4th Dimension. I actually play drums on the last two tracks, I know it’s not mentioned on the sleeve info. There is one kind of uptempo tune and then there’s one ballad, or what I call a ballad and that’s the title track, called “To The One”. John gave us a demo of that and it’s kind in three or a six feeling with a little twist on the end of the second bar making it into a bar of six, it’s like that all the way through the composition. And he said: “Well, I want you to play drums on this.” And I said: “OK”. So the piece was already formed. He took his demo in and I played drums to it first and then we took all the rest of the instruments out and everybody played live to it. And I said to him: “It’s kind of a ballad, right? It has got this three floating thing… And John said: “No,it’s not really a ballad at all!” I was just going by the demo, you know, which sounded like a slow six/eight with these beautiful chords. John said: “No, no. I actually want the opposite. I want the drums to be really reacting and evolving improvisationally all the time. The moment you slip into something don’t stay there – change it up!” And I went: “Really? On a piece like this? You know, it’s such a sensitive melody and this nice little relaxed six/eight…” And he goes: “Yeah!” So I tried a couple of things, but I could not get what he meant at all, maybe because of the demo-danger again. So he said: “Well, look… Would it help if I come out, stand in front of you and direct you?” I said: “Uhm, maybe ?!” And inside I was going: “Maybe,… or maybe not?” I mean I didn’t know what help this was going to be at all. He came out and instead of doing what I thought he would do, he started kind of throwing shapes at me, almost like deformed angles … all kinds of weird movements and stuff. I suddenly realized while I was playing : he wants me to play to what he is expressing. It’s like saying “play that!”, you know, “play this!” and I was following it and it’s not a short piece…! He said: “It has to correspond with me in time and be all relative to the beat, but you should develop and superimpose your ideas and impulses all the time … keep it all moving and evolving!” So I was following all these wild movements and sometimes he was kind of sinister, he would look like a monster! (laughs) You know, rule number one: don’t think while you’re playing! So I said to myself: “No, stop thinking about it!”, but my brain was going: “No, but it’s difficult because he looks really funny doing this!”. But I really got immersed in it and then really tried to just go with what he was “moving” about and what that was expressing to me. I had no idea what I was doing! We got to the end of the piece and I went into the control room where they did a playback of the take. I was thinking: “This is going to be just a waste of time, there’s no way that was impressive in any kind of way!” But during listening to it I was stunned: The harmony was the only static thing in it, it was more or less mainstay. But the drums were kind of coming in and out, reentering here and then playing through there, and making all these kind of crazy rhythmic modulations, because I was following him! I was totally taken aback, I had no idea how on earth I could have ever gotten that out of myself! It took him to do it. I said to him: “You know, so many times I saw you tell that story of Miles asking you to play the guitar as if you’ve never played a guitar before and all these obtuse things… YOU just did a “Miles” on ME!” He replied: “No no no!” And I said: “You did! Because what I’m going through now is exactly what you went through on “In A Silent Way”!” I could not believe it, I was in shock. I mean, to think I almost didn’t want to hear the playback!
Pablo: So, after this experience do you sometimes try to recapture that spirit when you’re playing? I mean, what did you take out of that experience at that time? Because I think that John, out of this experience with Miles, he built a lot of his unique style. He kind of discovered something in himself that maybe was already there, since he was able to do it. Like you, you were able to do it, but it took somebody else to remind you of it, or to pull it out of you. So where do you go from there?
Gary: I can only really continue to aspire. I don’t consider myself being on that level, or necessarily capable of it. Or at least not that I know of! Whether or not it’s attainable – I don’t know. Whether or not you’re born with it – I don’t know. But I certainly think of it like you: he adopted a lot of that methodology from Miles and he allowed it to infiltrate how he became a leader for others. Being able to pick things out of people they don’t know they are capable of necessarily. All these remarks of Miles, like saying to Herbie Hancock: “I pay you to make mistakes, to take chances on stage, to experiment on stage. That’s your job!” I mean… fantastic!
Pablo: The best job in the world!
Gary: To to be given that kind of license… Actually that wasn’t not the only time John did it to me in the studio. There was a tune I hardly knew, on the first record I ever played with John called “Industrial Zen”. I really just stuck to the chords exactly how he voiced them except for the odd interjection here and there, a run here and there, a moody stab here, following the drama and all those things, I kept pretty much to the score. And it was sixteen page score, you know? (laughs) So I did one pass of that after which he said: “Yeah, that’s great.” and then he whipped the score away! He said: “Right now, go again!” I said: “But, John I have no idea what the chords are!” But he just said: “Yeah, play what you hear!”.
Gary: I and go: “Yeah, but based on what? You know I’m reading this for the third time maybe!” And he goes: “Ah, play what you hear. Give me something!” (laughs) When somebody like that stands in front of you and says: “Just do it!”… You know, I can hear an echo of Miles’ voice, going: (whispers) “Just, dooo it!” It’s very close, you know. It’s very close! So I feel really blessed to have had that. When somebody really does that to you on a profound level it’s like they’re saying: “It’s in you. I can feel it and I’m going to get it out!”. It’s a super intuition on another level. Some people possess heightened intuition like that and I would feel happy if I could get near that. even if it was just to give another musician that kind of revelation. It’s the most odd feeling. Not brainwashing, it’s not sinister in any way. It’s more like somebody has been able to tap into something inside you and give vent to it. It was part of me that I never had any idea existed,and made me produce movements that would have never occurred to me. If somebody does that to you they give you a heightened sense of view, conception and perception. If I could sound so pretentious… (laughs) It’s certainly a big ambition! If I could be responsible for bringing about that insomebody else I’d be happy. They’re like Zen Masters these guys. Unbelievable!
Pablo: Yeah! I read in an interview of Wayne Shorter where he talks about that phenomenon of mentorship: It’s like a kid with his father at a street parade. The kid doesn’t see because it’s too short, so the father takes the kid on his shoulders. And in that moment the kid is actually able to see more than the father can see, you know? That’s the kind of the mentor/student relationship. John couldn’t play what you played on drums…
Pablo: He also couldn’t play it on the guitar maybe, but still he heard it. You reached new heights in your abilities at that point. But with those two parts: you and him, it could only happened because he put you on his shoulders, so you were able to see different stuff.
Gary: Yeah, that’s really wild! Because as you’re saying that to me I’m getting all these connotations about it: He’s using his form to present most of that height and the child’s height is comparatively very little. So the mass part of the height is actually him! And also that it takes the child to be an extension of the father to be able to see that. That’s very zen like, too. Wayne Shorter – he is another one for sure!
Pablo: Did you ever meet him?
Gary: Well I was in the same room as him once, but that was it. I met Joe Zawinul once.
Pablo: Wow! I never met him, but do I remember the day he died in great detail. I was hanging out with my teacher Hubert Nuss and we somehow I got the news that Zawinul died. So we just listened to records, looked through all kinds of books, biographies and shared stories about him for the whole day. Somehow it was very emotional, because for both of us he was a big influence.
Gary: Yeah. He was very huge to me, too! Talking about influences: I’ve got these solo concerts coming up. There’s a piece I chose to transcribe and I’ve really transcribed very little of anybody’s solos ever. But it took down a piece called “I Remember Me” by Jan Hammer…
Pablo: From the “Like Children” album, right?
Gary: You know that piece?
Pablo: Yeah. I love that record! My father used to play that record for me. I grew up listening to two Jan Hammer and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I used to sit in front of my parent’s record collection, just looking at the covers and taking on the ones that I liked most. And “Inner Mounting Flame” was my favorite record as a little boy. But I remember my father showing me “Like Children”. You know, as a kid that drawing of on the cover… it’s beautiful! There are so many great tunes on that record!
Gary: Oh yeah. But that piece “I Remember Me” – in all its eastern European magnificence… it’s so special and it sounds great on solo piano, too.
Pablo: Do you listen to recordings of yourself? Do you listen back to live recordings or old records of yours?
Gary: Well, not very often. No. But there are certain solos here and there that I’m fond of because of the sound or because there are some nice bits in it. I’ll go back to those if somebody asks me: “What have you liked that you’ve done?” I’ll point those out. I heard a very early tape of me lately though – this was bizarre. I don’t know if you’ve heard in a recordings of yourself when you were like really young and just starting to improvise? Have you?
Pablo: Yes I have.
Gary: I heard one for the first time and it has to be decades since I heard it. I had no idea how I must have sounded and one of my friends gave me a tape of this recording. I had no idea who it was! I mean it had absolutely no resemblance to how it sound now or how I hear anything now. Nothing in the movement … Nothing! Not even the touch, not even the sound. It was incredible! I was trying to aspire towards a lot of very conventional lines and not really making them, because I might have thought that this is what you had to do.
Gary: It’s a weird thing to have almost seen your own trajectory, your own growth from somewhere like that. And somewhere along the line it started taking shape and I have no idea quite when, you know what I mean?
Pablo: I guess there’s not really one point that you can put your finger on and say: “This is when it happened.” Like while being on a journey you can look back realize what kind of distance you’ve made.
Pablo: But you don’t really see it when you’re always looking forward. You always see what’s in front of you and what you can’t do, right? So when you look back, you might think: “Well, I made it somewhere to a certain degree and accomplished something. There has been some change in me.” And it can be reaffirming to see that you couldn’t recognize yourself, right?
Gary: Yeah, most strange! And If somebody had said well actually that’s not you I would have believed it. Very bizarre.
Pablo: So what are you listening to these days? What are you looking for for inspiration?
Gary: Actually, among a great selection of diverse things actually I still listen to a lot of singers, really special ones. I’m still a big lover of Sinatra. How those guys managed to say what they said in the way they said it. They knew how to make a song work, how to make it penetrate you emotionally. I think this record the Joni Mitchell did with these exquisite Vince Mendoza arrangements, do you know this one “Both Sides Now”?
Pablo: Oh yes, that’s a deep one.
Gary: Oh mama! It’s pretty difficult for me to get through that record, she’s like a goddess. And the way she sings “Both Sides Now” with all that history, with all these years gone by, all her maturity and everything she’s been through…She’s completely “naked”….
Pablo: She sounded wise already in 1968 when she first recorded it, right?
Gary: She did!
Pablo: And I think it must have been like 2000when they recorded that new version. That one another story and it’s hard not to weep while listening to it. You can listen to that song in any kind of situation and completely lose it!
Gary: Yeah. Similarly the Shirley Horn record.
Pablo: “Here’s To Life” ?
Gary: Yes! You know, they did it in bits right? Because she wouldn’t come to the session or something.
Pablo: I heard that it was just just a trio session and then I think Johnny Mandel did the strings later. That’s what I heard, but maybe maybe it was different. I don’t know.
Gary: I heard something like that.
Pablo: She was a deep piano player, I really love her playing.
Gary: Oh god, Yeah. And other piano players… I’m listening to Danilo Perez. – I like his writing. And I find him a really refreshing piano voice. But other than these people, and older influences, I have to to say I’m a big admirer your own playing, too!
Pablo: Wow, thanks so much!
Gary: Oh absolutely. Well deserved! But aside from certain individuals I rarely really listen to piano players.
Pablo: Is that a conscious choice or just you are drawn to other stuff?
Gary: Actually, this is I guess an odd thing to say put I actually get “piano-itis” really fast. You know, I’m good for about 20 minutes.Whereas with other instruments it isn’t like that. I could listen to a really amazing guitar player all night. But with piano for some reason I just can’t. I think this probably shapes the way I play too, and probably affirms that piano isn’t perhaps my ideal instrument maybe.
Pablo: How does that hold true with people like Bill Evans or Jan Hammer?
Gary: They escape it. Probably Joe Zawinul, too. I don’t think I ever got through a solo album of Keith Jarrett. Y’know, of course no disrespect to him, but, I chose bits. I had my moments or periods in it and I’d make a tape up a whole build up to a section which I really loved and then that was it. I couldn’t hang in for the full ride. But I think it’s an audio thing much more than it is about the actual music. It’s just the sonic of the piano. After a certain amount of time it sounds a little wearing or tiring to me. After being at a jazz festival and hearing two or three sets of some amazing pianists, it doesn’t matter how amazing they are, I don’t want to play a note! I want to try to be Miles and just play one note and try to catch a beautiful one, just one! Like catching a beautiful butterfly. But it’s not easy. I think the impact of Bill Evans and Jan Hammer had on me was because of what they didn’t play as much as what they did. There was something considered, always, with very little embellishment. Although, I noticed that with Bill Evans sometimes … particularly towards the later part of his life … sometimes when you’ll hear live concerts of him and he sounds like he can’t wait to finish a piece and generally he’s kind of sounding quite hyper. I liked him the most when he was actually quite somber – when he took his time more and was more considered.
Pablo: Me too.
Gary: The real purity and clarity of his improvisations. They always were so poetic to me, and they weren’t necessarily full-on like you hear from a lot of players today. Like drummers – forget it! I mean when you hear so many of the drummers at the moment, you’ll go: “God damn, when is one of you guys going to leave a hole? Where can I get in this?” Instead of being nailed to the wall by this furious, constant level of information coming at you. I can’t digest it … and I always enjoyed overdrive high fire and intensity in music … and it’s not saying enough to me. I really have to ask sometimes: “Where do you go from there? Where’s the possibility or means to be able to take anything further … and where’s any edit factor or shaping to this!?” But maybe I’m just a different generation. I go back to Miles and everything makes sense and speaks to me again!
Pablo: No, I feel the same way! It’s a weird development. Somebody said to me that nowadays the average attention span of people watching a video is like seven seconds or like a ridiculously low number. So, if that’s what people are expected to pay attention inside of then you have to put everything into it, right? Whereas it used to be 20 minutes – side A / side B or a set length of 45 minutes. Right. So now it’s kind of different, but I don’t think it’s too healthy. I guess some people start thinking about that when they make music nowadays, like: “I need to put everything into those are short clips!” There’s a different way of approaching music, I think.
Gary: Yeah I guess. I was really trying to look into what am I missing most of all when I hear people now most often. You know what it is? It’s the lack of naiveté in young musicians. There’s no innocence, not enough search in there, no dreams, aspirations … stuff that being young is all about. I love to hear an expression of youthfulness, and hear that in their expression. The whole market seems to be saturated with dazzling exhibitionists with so much technique and chops it’s ridiculous. I’m not compelled, intrigued or even interested I’m afraid. If you go back, and listen to the Beatles for instance, there’s something really captivating and poignant and memorable about the songs. And they were short form and they had that charming, youthful naiveté to them. They managed to say so much with so little. On the popular music scene there are good things, well crafted songs … but in my realm – jazz fusion, jazz/rock or whatever you wanna call it, too much. It’s getting like … degenerate or something. Too much of it like this. That’s just me.
Pablo: I can see that yeah. Where would you see the naiveté in somebody like Allan Holdsworth?
Gary: Good question. I’d say his naiveté is revealed inside of a very complex and elaborately formed vocabulary or style of expression. Because he felt it like that. I don’t think understatement necessarily manifests a naive charm in music … but it did so happen to be the case Allan loved beautiful, simple songs and was really touched by them. Then he did what he did. “Every note matters!” he would say… and he said that to me many times… when you consider that he was really into this so-called “sheets of sound”, very rhapsodic, almost Paganini-esque spontaneous invention you get an extra sense of the seriousness and the extent of Allan’s quest. I guess people say how on earth do you get a sense or feeling of naiveté in something that dense? Maybe not. But he was beautifully naive and charming! To me he approached his way of playing inside music on very simple principals, and his motivation was equally simple. He just wanted people to feel something from what he did. And I can’t forget, he was beautifully naive in life sometimes too. Just some basic day-to-day tasks could sometimes be a challenge to him. But he’s there with this super unbelievably revolutionary approach to guitar and this genius personality in music. Weird, eh!?
Pablo: Maybe his naiveté is also manifested in what you talked about before, when he would play those amazing chords without really putting much thought into what bass notes there would be in the end. That could be also something that comes close to this topic, right?
Gary: Yes exactly. The really pure versions of things I like to carry with me, in my heart, were invariably performed by him on a little acoustic guitar into a cassette recorder just playing those beautiful and intensely personal voicings, without any bass notes.
Pablo: Do you still have those those demos?
Gary: Sadly only a few, but I do have a couple.
Pablo: I looked around and tried to find recordings of him where he plays acoustic guitar. There’s this great version of “Kinder” on “Velvet Darkness” where he plays acoustic. I think he also plays acoustic on a couple of tracks on those records with Gordon Beck. But I’d love to hear more of his acoustic playing.
Gary: We used to try to get him to play it all the time. It took as far as the album “Metal Fatigue”, where he played this beautiful solo on acoustic guitar for the first time in many years. He didn’t play acoustic on anything I was on before or after.
Pablo: Wow I have to revisit to that record. I don’t remember him playing acoustic on there, but I will check it out!
Gary: Yeah. The track is called “Home”.
Pablo: I’ll put it on after this. Listen, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me!
Gary: Oh it has been a pleasure!
Pablo: It’s been a pleasure for me, too. Really special to get to talk to you because you’ve been one of my heroes and I’m always very curious what you’ll do next. Your trio idea with cello and tabla sounded pretty amazing already, So I hope you go along doing that.
Gary: Yeah I had to investigate the classical piano trio idea. There are a couple of beautiful ones I love. The Ravel, of course. Oh … oh man this is beautiful. There’s something really pure about that form for a trio, but I just took the violinist away and put the tabla player in his place. We’ll see!
Pablo: Thanks for doing it, man. It was really great to talk to you!
Gary: My pleasure absolutely thank you! I’m very humbled and glad that you wanted to do it. As much as you want to know about me I want to know about you though! So maybe I should interview you next time! (laughs)
Pablo: We can do a Part 2 anytime! (laughs)
Gary: Okay thank you, Pablo. All the best. Keep up the amazing work, OK?
I grew up listening to John Scofield through my parents who are big fans of his music. So each time we’d go on holidays or just went for a little trip in the car there’d be a cassette with Sco’s music playing at some point during the journey. “Still Warm”, “Hand Jive”, “What We Do”, “I Can See Your House from Here”, “Quiet” and also his records with Miles Davis like “Decoy” or “You’re Under Arrest” are are deeply ingrained in my childhood memories.
When I was ten years old my parents took me to see John Scofield for the first time. He was touring with a great quintet (Seamus Blake, Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier & Bill Stewart) playing the music from the “Quiet” album. This was an unforgettable experience to say the least. Since then I’ve seen him live countless other times, collecting his records, looking for bootlegs, reading his interviews and transcribing lots of his songs.
In 2014 my trio got the chance to invite a special guest for a concert at Philharmonie Köln. We expressed our desire to play with Sco and to our surprise he accepted! That first concert became a record (The Trio Meets John Scofield on Pirouet Records) and after the release John asked us to come on tour with him through Europe in 2015. You can imagine how surreal all this felt, but getting to know John, playing and hanging with him has been one of the greatest experience of my life. He’s the nicest guy you can imagine, a musician of the highest order and I’m thankful to call him a friend.
The first time I heard Nelson Veras play the guitar was on a bootleg of his masterclass at Amsterdam Conservatory that a friend of mine gave me. I remember being deeply impressed and instantly drawn to the way he played. Nobody plays like that! Nobody. I became an instant fan and fell in love with his records, mainly “Solo Session Vol. 1” and “Rouge Sur Blanc”. If you don’t have them, make sure to check them out, you won’t regret it! (The masterclass has since found its way to YouTube)
Last year I had the great privilege to put together 4 different groups for an artist residency at Jazzfestival Viersen, so for one of the sets I asked Nelson to play duo with me, an amazing experience for me, to say the least. That led to us playing a small quartet tour with drummer Guilhem Flouzat and bassist David Helm which was equally fun. We were scheduled to play a show with Pablo Held Trio feat. Nelson at Jazz D’or Festival in Berlin which unfortunately Nelson had to cancel, because he had broken his finger. Our conversation took place one week after we were supposed to play together*.
Pablo: Hey man, I was looking forward to talk to you!
Nelson: Yeah! So you’re doing a bunch of interviews?
Nelson: I read the Wayne Interview, but there’s no video on that one, right?
Pablo: Yeah, no video for the Wayne Interview, but my conversation with Mike Gibbs is in video format.
Nelson: Ah OK, cool!
Pablo: So you’re the third person I’m talking to, the second one I’m doing a video interview with.
Nelson: So you’re recording the video? Is that possible?
Pablo: It’s possible, we’re living in the future, man!
Nelson: I’m still way back, I guess… (laughs)
Pablo: Do you listen to cassettes?
Nelson:(laughs) not that way back!
Pablo: How do you listen to music these days?
Nelson: On my phone with earplugs. At home there’s always too much information in order to put on something loud, so…
Pablo: So your son Pablo doesn’t like to listen to music with you?
Nelson: He likes his own stuff, but I don’t exactly know what he listens to. He’s 12 years old and has his own device.
Pablo: I see. What do you listen these days?
Nelson: Actually I haven’t listen to a lot of music these last days. I don’t know – what did I listen to? Oh I was listening to Gonzalo Rubalcaba. You know this record called “Paseo”?
Pablo: Yeah that’s amazing. It’s a pretty scary record.
Nelson: Yes it’s crazy! I have a friend who transcribed some solos on it. So I was checking out which ones he transcribed.
Pablo: Anything comes to mind that stood out for you?
Nelson: I guess Gonzalo’s phrasing.
Nelson: The attack and the articulation. I mean I always noticed this, but it really popped up for me this time.
Pablo: Yeah his phrasing is pretty unique.
Nelson: It’s all over the place. Amazing!
Pablo: I mean, how can you be so precise without sounding like a robot or a machine? He’s got so many different levels of different dynamics in his sound and that he can access all of them at any given moment is very impressive to me.
Nelson: I don’t know how it sounds to a piano player, but yeah it’s really impressive. Also he changed his style a little bit from his first records, I felt. It has a lot more space in it now.
Pablo: Although he’d be totally ready to fill any space in any moment for sure. But yeah, he cooled down over the years. Because he did it all back when he was super young when he was playing with all the masters.
Nelson: But even in the construction of the solos, it’s really nice how he stops and which spots he chooses to stop playing.
Pablo: Do you know these recordings with Charlie Haden?
Nelson: I guess I know the one where they play these latin ballads.
Pablo: “Land of the Sun” or “Nocturne”?
Nelson: I guess it’s “Nocturne”
Pablo: That’s a great one. He has a nice trio with Matt Brewer and Marcus Gilmore. I like that a lot. Did you ever meet Gonzalo?
Nelson: Yeah, maybe 25 years ago or something like that. (laughs)
Pablo: How old were you back then?
Nelson: I was around 15 years old. I used to play with an American piano player who lived in Paris and he was friends with Gonzalo. So one day he called me up and said: “Gonzalo Rubalcaba is here!” So I went there and I listened to them playing together but I didn’t my guitar so I didn’t get to play with Gonzalo.
Pablo: You learned a lesson there, right? Always bring your axe!
Nelson:(laughs) Two pianos… you know? Maybe it was better I didn’t bring my guitar.
Pablo: Right, two pianos and one of them is being played by Gonzalo!
Nelson: Gonzalo is like 3, right?
Pablo: Definitely! Yeah that record “Paseo” used to scare me. I thought: “How can he play like that? And will I ever be in a position, where understand just a tiny little bit of it?” You know? Do you remember that feeling when you were young, when you didn’t really understand music the way you do now. I mean, we don’t understand everything of course, but when you were an amateur, going to music lessons or even before then…. having this giant space of all this beautiful music before you, but you didn’t really understand anything. It was kind of a wonderful feeling, right?
Nelson: Exactly! Sometimes we almost wish we’d still have it – I mean sometimes we have in certain moments. But it’s a great feeling to have, like you’re in a different universe.I remember the first time I went on a concert of Steve Coleman when I was 15 and I was completely lost. I could tell they were playing with their own parameters, but I didn’t know what those were. Any I really loved that feeling.
Pablo: Listen, I wanted to talk to you about something that really impresses me every time we play together, or when I listen to your records, or also when I first heard you on that bootleg of your masterclass in Amsterdam that a good friend of mine gave me: I’m very amazed by your clarity, the clarity in everything that you play. And it also looks like it. When you look at videos of Art Tatum playing the piano, you hear all this virtuoso playing, his amazing sense of time, his huge sound, ridiculous stuff that he plays but no movement at all. It’s the same with you, you have this amazing fluency and clarity and I’m wondering where this comes from. I’m sure this is something you’ve spent a lot of time on. What are your thoughts on this?
Nelson: Yeah it wasn’t on purpose. It was always a little bit like that. Doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling… but you just can’t tell when you see me from the outside, you know? But actually it’s really hard for me to play. A lot of people tell me: “Wow it looks so easy when you play!”. Actually it’s so hard for me, I can’t focus on anything else. I guess two months ago I was playing at a really crowded bar and there was a guy behind me that apparently was drunk and he was about to fall over me. And just heard about that after the set, my friends asked me: “Man you didn’t notice the guy behind you almost falling over you?”. Yeah in fact it’s really hard for me on the inside, so I tend to not notice stuff that happens around me when I play. And then that topic of not moving….
Pablo: Maybe it’s like that because you don’t really move a lot in real life, too?
Nelson: Yeah, I’m not a mover! But there are some specific guitar things that I do, like when you play certain chords your hand is really rigid. Sometimes I play lines that are based on the notes of the chords I play. So it’s more a right hand thing than a left hand thing. It’s hard to explain, but I guess guitar players will understand.
Pablo: Also the clarity regarding your time… There’s never a moment when I’m listening where I’m thinking: “How does he mean it?” or “Did he mean it?” or “Where does he actually want to put this note?”, because it’s evident where it’s supposed to be. And it seems like you can you go anywhere from that with the rhythmical stuff you’re playing.
Nelson: Well, I think I know what you mean. But sometimes I miss the other thing, you know where you don’t really know where it is – it’s not that easy to do for me. (laughs) I guess with practice and time I’ll be able to maybe get somewhere else.
Pablo: But how did you arrive at this rhythmical clarity?
Nelson: I guess I practiced a lot of subdivisions, like quintuplets and stuff like that. Especially when I met drummer Stephane Galland. I couldn’t understand what he was doing because it sounded very loose and precise at the same time. So I asked him what he was doing. So he told me he was really into Sivaraman, who is an Indian percussionist. He explained to me how you could play the same phrases you’d do in 16th notes or triplets but also play them in quintuplets and this is what he was practicing. So I remember practicing this for a while. There’s this record by Sivaraman called “Drums Of India” he does this thing in an almost pedagogical way, the record has a click, too! So you can really relate to what he’s doing. On the second tune he starts in quintuplets, then sixtuplets, septuplets and so on, so it’s really organized that way. I remember I slowed that down in order to understand what he was doing and Stephane explained some things to me, too. And I guess that might be the reason my playing can seem a little quantized. I mean I practiced so that’s what is coming out, but that doesn’t mean I really want to do it like that! (laughs)
Pablo: So you slowed it down that Sivaraman record and played along with it putting notes to the rhythms?
Nelson: Yes or even with one note. I just wanted to understand. And then later I practiced stuff that I was used to practicing in 4/4 in quintuplets, like Bach pieces, I tried to play the same but in quintuplets. It’s the same like we do, when we play triplets, the actual notes stay the same. Then I started to work on whole notes, dotted quarter notes… all the things we do in 4 but now trying it in quintuplets. That what’s harder to do, the longer values. But it has been a while now, I haven’t practiced that stuff for some time.
Pablo: Wow that sounds amazing. I mean that makes sense to me, listening to you talk about this stuff. If you go into these different directions it will make everything you play much clearer in the end, because you’ve been to so many different places of rhythm.
Nelson: A friend used to say. It’s like the definition of a picture… You’ll get more definition or pixels in the end. But another friend also told me that every time you choose a path you’re missing another one. And I think it makes sense. But I guess it helps… What have you been practicing lately?
Pablo: I tried to learn Bach’s two-part Invention No. 13 in A-minor.
Nelson: Why did you want to learn it?
Pablo: Well, always after having played Bach’s music I feel much better. Obviously I’d like to better my fluency in both hands, I guess. I feel like I’m spending too much thought about what to play with my right hand as opposed to my left hand. So playing these pieces where you’re supposed to play a lot with the left hand as well get me out of my comfort zone. There were some spots where Bach takes some very unusual turns, where I’m always expecting different notes to come at a certain point and I’m always surprised about what’s actually written down as the next note.
Nelson: It’s funny you say that, because I was reading a Keith Jarrett interview where he said the exact same thing.
Pablo: I know that interview. But it was a bit different for me. My instinct would tell me to play another note. My instinct in that moment is being made up out of my knowledge of Bach’s music and all of that other stuff. I’m not the world’s best sight-reader, so I have to hear every note that I’m reading and then play it. It’s a matter of hearing it first and then playing it. But when I’m reading music I’m of course putting the reading part in front of hearing. So if I’m reading then I have to hear the note – and sometimes I don’t hear it because my instinct gets in the way saying: “It’s supposed to go that way!” So it can be hard for me sometimes to play the right thing.
Nelson: I know what you mean.
Pablo: There are some moments in this invention which I had to hammer into my head, almost screaming the correct note internally right before I play it. B NATURAL!!! — it has to be a B natural. And when I did that it really made a difference and then I tried to play it with my eyes closed. So you can’t rely on how your finger-movements look like on the keys when you play. You really have to realize what you have to play in that moment and that betters a lot of different levels of my playing. I have to be looking into my head, what are the notes, what does it mean harmonically, rhythmically? And yesterday I had somewhat of a breakthrough with one of the sections of the piece, so I’m actually playing it in my head all the time.
Nelson: Wow. And you practice it slowly?
Pablo: Yeah I always practice super slow in whatever tempo which permits me to hear every note before I play it. I’m not aiming at performing all those classical pieces publicly at some point, it’s more about getting into that music and trying to understand it on a compositional level. I’m really analyzing it then I’m trying to see how I can use it for my stuff. It’s more of a research than a preparation for a concert situation. So yeah I’m trying to learn this Invention and also I’ve been transcribing songs for another PABLO HELD MEETS concert at the Loft.
Nelson: Do you transcribe a lot?
Pablo: I do transcribe a lot of songs, but I don’t really transcribe solos.
Nelson: Never did?
Pablo: I had to transcribe some for school, but most of them I copied in my own writing from transcriptions that my friends gave to me. Obviously I took a lot of stuff off records but it was never a whole solo, more like little things. Like super small wheels in a clockwork. If I would hear a phrase that spoke to me by Dexter Gordon, Cannonball Adderley, Miles or Herbie -well, anyone- I would definitely take it apart. It might even be just 4 notes – anything that I liked I would learn it and see what it means. I was always a bit afraid of transcribing too much, whole solos, because I thought that I might rely too much on the stuff that I had transcribed. A fear of getting stuck, maybe?
More than anything in terms of transcribing I’m transcribing songs. When I learn a standard I won’t write it down. But originals I like, I write them down. I’ve transcribed so many tunes by Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock or Herbie’s reharmonizations of standards… lots of different stuff, also in order to be able bring something to a session or a gig. When I listen to something I like my first instinct is “I want to play!”. Sometimes I’m even listening to music like I’m sitting in the band myself, like I’ll get instincts to play along or interact.
Nelson: Have you ever felt the need to let something go if you like it too much? Like not even transcribing it?
Pablo: Well, I know that feeling, but mostly I can’t resist the urge to learn it, to take it apart. But I know what you mean, it usually happens that you spoil it a little bit. So there’ll be this moment where I’ll go: “Oh, it’s just that….” It loses a bit of its magic, because you’re always attracted to something that you don’t know, something that you don’t have, there’s a mystery there, like when you fall in love with somebody.
Also, we’re listening to all the masters and to us they could be beyond human, super heroes and when we transcribe something and realize what the actual content is, how simple it ends up being in the end sometimes, it puts you closer together with them, because you might see that you can archieve a lot of things without having too much ingredients all the time. Greg Osby said: “A complex thing is usually two simple things put together”. And we’ve all collected to so many simple things throughout our time here that our individual journey is how we put them together.
Nelson: Yeah, it’s how we perceive the information and how we develop it, because everybody will treat it differently.
Pablo: In a way it’s bittersweet in the end after having transcribed something and then arriving at something where you wouldn’t have thought it might be so simple in the end. I realized more and more that it’s less about what they play it’s more about how they play it.
Pablo: Like listening to Herbie’s voicings while he comps behind the melody on Nefertiti, I always thought that those had to be huge voicings, full of notes. But when you actually take it off the record, you’ll see that he’ll only use 2 or 3 notes at times!
Nelson: And it sounds so big!
Pablo: It sounds big because of his big sound!
Nelson: And where he puts the chord, because sometimes if it’s a little laid back it has a bigger sound because you’re not playing at the same time like the other guys. Because it’s not right in the middle of the other guys, it might come out more, right?
Pablo: Yeah! But then also, if you play something exactly at the same time, the various ingredients transcend what they sound like in a way and it becomes a new instrument. Or the textures might give the illusion of more notes being played. Weird, but very nice! […] How did you come about playing Robert Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet” from the “Waldszenen” ?
Nelson: This was Stephane Galland’s idea. He just brought the tune. I didn’t know it before.
Pablo: It’s really beautiful how you play it and also how loose Thomas Morgan is underneath you guys.
Nelson: Yeah. We tried the tune… Thomas, he’s incredible. He started to do some interventions and I thought it might be good to just let him free and me and Stephane could just play the melody, not strictly but how we feel it. And the idea of it being a little long was nice, to me it’s a little trance-like.
Pablo: I had to think of “Nefertiti”
Nelson: Maybe Thomas is Tony Williams on this track.
Pablo: He is Tony on this. And the melody doesn’t get old, although in the first moment you’d think that it might get old, but then it doesn’t!
Nelson: Actually Thomas Morgan proposed to cut it in half, but I tried and I think it didn’t work as well.
Pablo: I also like that you don’t play the chords underneath the melody.
Nelson: Yeah, I couldn’t – even if I wanted to! I’m actually just trying to read through it on the recording. I just played what I could get.
Pablo: The melody sounds so nice on its own.
Nelson: Yes. And also the my hesitation as a result of my poor reading skills doesn’t come out too bad when I listen back to it. (laughs)
Pablo: It doesn’t sound like you’re badly reading something at all. I was assuming you knew the piece very well and just loved it so much that you wanted to play it somehow and then you just left out the chords.
Nelson: No, not at all. I guess to this day I haven’t heard the original!
Pablo: I’ll send you a nice recording. I really love that piece. It also fits the record perfectly. It doesn’t like “Oh now they’re playing a classical piece!” That whole record has a very homogenic feel to it, nothing that stands out in a weird way, nothing where you’d think “oh, why are they doing THAT now?”.
Nelson: Really? That’s cool. That’s good news! (laughs)
I actually like, and I’m not talking about this record specifically, when it’s a little hermetic. When it’s too much different styles or very complete, like there’s everything in it – I’m not too crazy about that. I prefer things that are more targeted with only one thing. So if I want to “eat” something else I just listen to another record. But when it’s aimed to be like absolute I can’t get into it that much. Well, it’s not always like that, I don’t now…
Pablo: What do you listen to when you feel uninspired ? When you feel like you can’t play, or you don’t know what to do next. What do you go to? Something that always works for you?
Nelson: Nothing works always, I guess. But I get the feeling that even if you don’t know in a conscious way you’ll end up finding out what to do. Maybe it means reading a book, or you go to listen to something without knowing why you chose it and that ends up being the right thing to listen to. Sometimes you don’t know why you choose one record over the other one. So maybe in a way you know what you’re looking for but you’re not really aware. But I don’t have any thing that works every time, how about you?
Pablo: It’s not only one record specifically. But I usually feel inspired after listening to Stravinsky’s “Mass”. Most of the times it gets me into the mood to play.
Nelson: Which period is this? When did he write it?
Pablo: He wrote it in 1948. It’s a beautiful piece for choir and chamber ensemble. On the other hand I’ll always get a kick out of Miles’ “My funny Valentine” or the “Complete Plugged Nickel recordings”.
Nelson: Oh yeah, I used to listen to that one a lot when they put out those six CDs. Did you see that interview where they talk about playing “anti-music”?
Pablo: Yeah, it’s also told in Wayne Shorter biography. Do you know it?
Pablo: Oh man, I think it’s my favorite book about music!
Nelson: Did Wayne write it himself?
Pablo: No, it was written by this lady called Michelle Mercer and just does a great job capturing Wayne’s spirit. She accompanied the quartet on tour for a couple of years.
Nelson: Wow. I’ll get that! […] So Pablo, what have you been listening to lately?
Pablo: I’ve been listening to these pieces for piano and violin by Prokofiev, especially the “Songs Without Words” op.35. Actually, on the day where you and me were supposed to play last week I’ve maybe listened to the second movement from “Songs Without Words” about 70 times, I’ve just put it on repeat for the whole day.
We briefly talked about phrasing before, could you name someone who has been an early role model for you and that you really tried emulate?
Nelson: Yeah, my first guy was Helio Delmiro. That’s the first guitar player I heard playing solo guitar, improvising, you know? And he played finger-style to, so I was really attracted to it.
Pablo: What album should I get by Helio Delmiro?
Nelson: You know, the best things I heard him do were radio shows. They weren’t formal recording situations, but he did a few albums. I don’t have his albums though. I’m even not sure if he’s still playing. He used to play with Elis Regina and lots of over big names, lots of sideman work. I guess he played with Sarah Vaughan, they did a duo record.
Pablo: I have this Sarah Vaughan record called “I love Brazil” maybe he’s on there, let me check.
Nelson: He’s probably on that one.
Pablo: He is! I like that record. I mean she’s deep into our late mega-vibrato phase but it’s beautiful. So many great tunes on there. I’ve transcribed Milton Nascimento’s “Bridges” from that album.
Nelson: I’ve got to check out that record. But yeah, I’ve transcribed some stuff from Helio Delmiro. He also wrote some choros that I transcribed, I remember. I always liked his playing. So he was the first guy. I was really sensitive to phrasing, though I didn’t try to emulate that much. Then I remember the first time I heard George Benson, that was crazy! Also Kenny Kirkland….
Nelson: They came to a festival in Brazil and I saw it on TV.
Pablo: Which band did he play with?
Nelson: Branford Marsalis Quartet!
Pablo: What’s your favorite record with Kenny and Branford?
Nelson: I don’t know all of them, but I do remember “Crazy People Music”.
Pablo: Yeah man, that’s the one!! It’s my favorite one, too. I listened to that record so much.
Nelson: Also Kenny’s record is cool, too!
Pablo: Oh man, I adore this record!!!
Nelson: His tunes are nice.
Pablo: I’ve transcribed “Blasphemy” from that record. Do you remember this song? (sings the melody)
Nelson: Oh yes, I remember. It’s with steel drums, right?
Pablo: It might be those batá drums. It’s a percussion keyboard duo, Don Alias and Kenny. In the end Kenny even plays a little solo with a muted trumpet sound through his keyboard… really funny. But yeah, his compositions really have something special. He was a big admirer of Brahms. He might be the reason I really got into Brahms… although I think I also listened to my father play a lot of Brahms’ pieces at home.
Nelson: Did you hear his episode on Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz”
Pablo: Yeah, I like her show a lot.
Nelson: Another guy I first saw on TV was Gary Thomas. I was really amazed. He played with Jack DeJohnette’s band “Special Edition”.
Pablo: Yeah, he has a pretty special way of phrasing.
Nelson: Yes, he has his own way of playing….
Pablo: masculine… in way. (laughs)
Nelson: And he’s the sweetest guy!
Pablo: Did you ever play with him?
Nelson: Yes, we did a few tours with Adam Pieronszyk’s band, he’s a great saxophone player from Poland. So I got know Gary a little bit and he’s really the opposite of that image. He has a special memory for patterns. He always memorized those super long hotel wifi passwords when we were on tour. That sort of comes out a lot in his playing to my ears.
Pablo: No, I can see him coming from a nice place, spiritually or emotionally. But what comes across is a very manly. Intimidating also in a way…
Nelson: He’s like a bodybuilder! (laughs)
Pablo: There are some great bootlegs with him and Herbie out there. His playing is amazing.
Nelson: When I came up Toninho Horta also was a huge influence on me.
Pablo: Oh yeah, thanks so much for recommending all those great records of him to me. I think I came really late to the Toninho party!
Nelson: It’s never too late!
Pablo: I read that you’ve played with Gary Peacock. What was that like?
Nelson: That was just one concert, in fact it was a tribute to Michel Petrucciani in 2000, I guess. It was Aldo Romano on drums, Lee Konitz and me.
Pablo: Wow, what a band!!
Nelson: Yeah. We didn’t rehearse that much. But I got there two days in advance and Gary, too. So I could spend some time talking to him and it was great to hear his thoughts on things.
Pablo: What did you ask him?
Nelson: Man it was a long time ago, but I remember he was really into Zen. I also remember people told me “Please don’t smoke around Gary!” and I think I’ve never met someone who smoked so much! (laughs) Also, he was really into transposing tunes, he could play them in any key. In the beginning we were just hanging at the hotel, but on the day of the gig we’d run through some tunes and I could see he was really easy for him to pick any key and say “let’s go!”. Lately I’ve heard some duos with him and Paul Bley, do you know them?
Pablo: Yeah, they have great rapport. There so many great records with them together.
Nelson: The one with John Gilmore and Paul Motian is pretty special.
Pablo: That’s true. I’ve read that this was one of Keith Jarrett’s most favorite records.
Nelson: Yeah that one and “Footloose”.
Pablo: How do you prepare for a concert?
Nelson: I really love to check out the tunes as much as I can. I hate to sight read, so if I can I like to prepare as much as I can.
Pablo: But what’s your process when you prepare the music?
Nelson: Actually I like to work on stuff that I’m checking out at that time, a rhythmic excercise or whatever, and combining this with the songs that I have to learn, so I’m doing two things at a time. And a play a lot during the day, so I repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…. (laughs)
Pablo: And what’s the first thing you do when you see a sheet?
Nelson: I guess I’ll check if I have an audio version and try to see how it sounds and then I use the sheet. And then I try to memorize as much as I can of small fragments, because if I have to rely on my reading I’ll mess it up. But there have been some situations where I’ve noticed it actually got worse the more I practiced some tunes… So I have to be aware of that, too. (laughs)
Pablo: Do you remember what happened there, why it got worse?
Nelson: I guess, I’ve played it so much so every time I’ve played it I was closing possibilities because I already did it at home. So then when you play with people it can get in the way if you did a lot alone before, because you’ll get habits.
Pablo: I know what you mean. What happens with me is, I try to avoid running through changes of the blowing sections. But then sometimes my discipline might not be super high while I’m practicing a section of a tune that I should practice because I’m not able to play it yet… So I’ll get distracted by looking at the changes and wanting to just improvise, finding myself just playing through the changes, although I really should spend some time getting the song right. I’ll have to remind myself to stay strong and stay with the objective. (laughs)
Nelson: But if the changes are really hard, you’d still have to check it out a little bit, right? Like if it’s not related to the melody for example….
Pablo: Yeah, but then again I really love that feeling of figuring it out for the first time, because usually that’s the best time for me. You’re really open and you’re trying to go places with the harmony. Of course, you might take more chances with the harmonies after you’ve played it a couple of times, but I so love that feeling of being surprised by the changes.
Nelson: Maybe you must have a better relationship to the visual element, I mean looking at something and then playing, than me.
Pablo: I feel good reading chords.
Nelson: You translate quickly when you see chord symbols, right?
Pablo: Yes, but it’s not the same for me with written out stuff, I really have to work on that to get it right…also memorizing it. I can be really scared of playing written-out stuff at times.
Nelson: Really? I didn’t look like that when we played!
Pablo: Well I got more and more comfortable throughout the years, but when I started out I was such a bad reader, maybe the worst reader on the planet. I so much had to rely on my strengths in order to make up for all the bad mistakes I made when I had to read. But it got better over the years because I made myself sightread more and having lots of rehearsals with very different projects learning lots of music together really helped. And also getting your ear better in place with your eye in a way, right? When you I can sing what’s written there, that’s usual a way in. You see an A and then you know how an A sounds like, then you play it and that process gradually speeds up after doing it a thousand times.
But coming back to the surprise element: I also really like to transpose tunes. I don’t like to read standards and I hate the iRealbook that everyone uses now, because nobody knows the melody anymore.
Nelson: Oh yeah, there’s no melody in there….
Pablo: And nobody knows the changes anymore, because they don’t have to remember them – there right in front of them! Even transposing is just a click and then you’re there.
But I love that feeling at a session when somebody asks “can you play ‘Invitation’?” and I say “sure, let’s play!” and I might not actually now how it starts in the beginning, but they count it off and in the moment where the first chord is supposed to come, I play the the first chord.
Nelson: How do you mean this?
Pablo: If you’ve learned a song by heart without sheet music it’s really ingrained in you, it goes deeper than having something like a photographic memory of a sheet.
Nelson: Of course!
Pablo: So you really know what the functions of the chords are, on which pitch the melody starts and how that relates to the chord that the melody lies on. You’ll have a knowledge about the parameters of the song: melody, harmony, rhythm etc. but you sort of forget all of that after a while and it becomes really subconscious.
Nelson: Oh yeah!
Pablo: You know a tune that well so that you can actually “forget” it. You know what I mean? So then if somebody counts of “Invitation” your subconscious will tell you what to play instead of your mind. And then you’ll hear the C played by the bassist and you’ll play the right chord and you might be surprised again by the next chords, but you’ll play them, because it’ll come out of your subconscious.
Nelson: Yeah, that’s the best feeling.
Pablo: I love that feeling so much, but in order to have it I really need to know the song very well.
Pablo: So for the last question: When is your next album coming out?
Nelson: Um, I really don’t know.
Pablo: I think I’m not the only one who really needs another Nelson Veras record.
Pablo: And you don’t have to feel the pressure of making the next masterpiece, because it’s going to be the next masterpiece anyhow!
Nelson: Well, the question I ask myself is: If it’s true that I don’t care, why don’t I just do it?
Pablo: Whatever it will be, I can’t wait to hear it!
*after Nelson’s hand recovered we finally played a gig with him as a featured guest of my trio at JazzDor Festival in Offenburg:
I’d like to thank all of you for all the wonderful responses to my conversation with Wayne Shorter. In this next episode I’m talking to master composer/arranger/trombonist Mike Gibbs.
I heard about Mike Gibbs through my good friend Sebastian Gille, who invited Mike to arrange his music for a special project with the NDR Bigband. I was amazed by Mike’s writing right away. Everything he does sounds so rich and full yet very open at the same time. He’s a true master who has worked with so many of my personal heroes: Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius, John Scofield, Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin, Steve Swallow and so many more.
After a while we got in touch and we embarked on a deep exchange via email, talking a lot about our shared love of Gil Evans’ writing, sending each other music to listen to and exchanging lots of sheet music. I asked him so many questions about all of his encounters with the great masters and he always took his time to answer very thoroughly.
On the other hand he seemed very interested in my trio and our way of playing together, asking for lead sheets of my tunes and commenting in depth about our newest recordings. He even turned up out of the blue on a trio gig at the Vortex in London and after that followed the trio to Almeria, Spain where we hung out for three days.
It’s very inspiring to see him staying that interested in the current scene, eager on learning more and deeply immersing himself in the music all the time. I want to be like that when I’m at his age!
Naturally, when I decided on doing this series of interviews I knew I had to talk to Mike for sure.
I’m very excited to share the first episode of my new interview series. The story of how my conversation with Wayne Shorter came to be is an interesting one – to me everything that has to do with Wayne Shorter is interesting!
When it comes to Wayne one could say that I’m a nerd: I have all of his records; I collect all his interviews and then check out everything that he mentioned in them: books, movies, records etc.; I have hundreds of bootlegs of all of his bands; I’ve transcribed over 50 of his compositions and so on and so forth… To me he is a constant source of inspiration and joy.
More than 7 years ago I heard rumors about a movie being made about Wayne so naturally I got very excited. I tried to find out as much as I could about the details of this production and I found out a film maker called Dorsay Alavi was directing it, following the Wayne Shorter quartet on tour and interviewing lots of his peers. They started a Pledge Music campaign where one could “pledge” (donate money) and get different perks in return. Naturally, I pledged and donated a certain amount and receiving the opportunity to have a 20 minute skype interview with Wayne himself! I reached out to Dorsay Alavi asking her if she’d consider to show Wayne a recording of mine prior to the skype conversation so that he could maybe comment on what he had just heard. To my great surprise and joy she accepted and showed Wayne a recording of me playing a solo rendition of Joni Mitchell’s song “Marcie”.
Of course, I was beyond nervous to talk to my hero, which is why you won’t find me talking a lot in this conversation. What do you reply to a master of this statue? What is there left to say?
After this conversation I met Wayne in person a couple of times, after his shows in Cologne in 2013 and Stuttgart in 2017 and I was amazed that he immediately remembered me, commenting on things we talked about in our first conversation. He would say: “Pablo!! Fast Fingers!! Storyteller!!”
I’m so thankful to both Wayne and Dorsay for making this possible and granting me the rights to share this with all of you. This has been an amazing experience for me. Hope you enjoy!
Pablo: Now you see me – now you don’t! (disappears in the picture)
Wayne: (laughs) What month were you born ?
Wayne: Okay. No I’m not going into the – what do you call it ?
Pablo: Oh, what are you, capricorn ?
Wayne: No, virgo.
Pablo: I see.
Wayne: You’re a capricorn, right?
Pablo: Yeah, that’s right.
Wayne: Yes, Joe Zawinul and I used to say, talking about capricorn: lots of Xylophone players, boxers, pianists and, you know, people who work with wood and building things, you know?
Pablo: Okay, I work also with wood. Wood and strings!
Wayne: There are a lot of actors who are capricorns.
Pablo: Like who?
Wayne: They used to work with their hands, but they became actors. I think Harrison Ford was one.
Pablo: I love Harrison Ford!
Wayne: You know, he used to build houses.
Pablo: Oh yeah, that’s before Star Wars.
Wayne: Right. That was his job, building houses and things like that and then he learnt to fly. He still flies now. He flies, you know, there’s something manual to that. But, my father was a capricorn, he worked with his hands.
Pablo: What was his profession?
Wayne: He was a welder, you know. He built ships, ship panels on the outsides of ships and stuff. He also worked for the Singer Sewing Company in New Jersey. But how are you doing?
Pablo: I’m fine, I was looking so much forward to this! This is like a dream come true, because you’re like my idol!
Actually I was sitting next to your wife at your concert in Maastricht, Netherlands in 2010. There was a empty seat next to me, which was reserved for someone, it was in the front row. And then I saw a lady coming closer and I realized it was your wife, so immediately started talking to her before the show. And I gave her my CD for you, because I was trying to reach you. What do you give your idol? I wanted to give something back to you, I don’t know if it reached you… But now I have you in front of me here and it’s just great to see you!
Wayne: Yeah I think it’s here, I saw the name Pablo. I have a lot of things here today, since my birthday…
Pablo: I was going to say: Happy belated 80th Anniversary!
Wayne: I have to move a lot of things out of the way and I think I’ll find your CD. But I heard you just now! I like what you’re doing, man!
Wayne: You’re going to those other places! Traveling to other places. And when I was hearing you, I said: “I know he appreciates Beethoven!” Not that I hear Beethoven, but I hear the strength. There’s a strength and it’s centered as it moves, you know? And you have that velocity. Inside-velocity and storytelling! This is all after all the music lessons, you know. Charlie Parker used to say: “Try to forget the music lessons and start telling stories!” So, you were travelling in the galaxies without – what do you call it ? – without having a lot of minor seconds all over the place. In the harmony – you know? (laughs)
Pablo: Wow, thank you so much!
I was thinking a lot about what to send you. On that same concert I also did a rendition of your song “Meridianne – A Wood Sylph”, but I thought maybe it would be strange for you to listen to your own song, because I’m so much influenced by how you do it, of course. So I thought maybe this song by your friend Joni Mitchell would be appropriate.
Wayne: Oh Yeah. I think Joni would like that. Because I know she doesn’t have the harmony on the guitar that you do. But I think in her head your harmony… She has the colors in her heard that someone else can contribute. That’s another way of looking at playing music and when your thinking of other people, without being selfish and saying “I’m playing for myself”, you can be contributing to everyone who has been before and coming after.
Like the pop musicians, they say they want to play music to please the public and that’s tricky, because you might think: “oh they’re thinking of people other than themselves” you know. But it can be very…. you know it’s the opposite! The opposite kind can be hidden. (laughs) Because some people do things to please other people and then when they’re in private they’re like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! (laughs) But then if you play music and it sounds like you’re not playing for the people and it sounds like you’re playing for yourself that can be the reverse. That you’re playing what you think people need. If you’re playing or writing a book or something like that of what you think the world needs – that could be part of your mission.
Pablo: You mean my mission?
Wayne: Yeah, it could be part of your mission! I kind of feel you appreciate Bill Evans. I think that Bill Evans had that feeling when he played just before he passed away. But we have to be strong and not let anything takes us over, dominate us and control us to the point that we destroy ourselves, destroy ourselves in the name of some mission. It’s about insecurity and traps, traps that we can fall into. You’re about 24 years old, right?
Pablo: I’m 26 now.
Wayne: I was 25 when I got out of the army and then I met Horace Silver, John Coltrane. I mean I saw them before. I saw Horace Silver a lot before. But I met John Coltrane and then later I met Miles, Art Blakey. I met Louis Armstrong.
Pablo: You met Louis Armstrong ?
Wayne: In the club Birdland.
Pablo: When was this?
Wayne: When I was working with the Jazz Messengers, Art Blakey and me walked into the nightclub and then Art said: “I want to introduce you to Louis Armstrong!” And he was sitting at a table. He stood up, turned around and we shook hands…
I was watching the older musicians… watching Louis Armstrong, watching Coleman Hawkins. Watching those guys whenever I could see them. And I thinking a little bit about how healthy they were. I wondered about how long am I gonna have to be on the road, playing for a mission. Playing new music… there’s a lot of resistance on the radio and in marketing, advertising and so on. So I said to myself: “This is going a be a loooooong journey!”
What I’m getting at, Pablo, is how to sustain and keep healthy and sustain the life, the path that you chose and not let anything destroy you.
Pablo: Yes, I see what you mean. Actually I’m trying to live very healthy, I don’t do drugs or drink alcohol etc. My wife and me we’re about to have our first child in January.
Wayne: Yeah! Congratulations!
Pablo: Thank you. Wayne, I’d like to ask you something about composing.
Wayne: Go ahead!
Pablo: I read that you compose every day, so I’m wondering how you get into the mood to compose?
Wayne: (laughs) That’s a very basic question!
Pablo: Yes, I know…
Wayne: Sometimes I don’t. I just sit there and I have to think about flying and adventures and great stories, people trying to… like the Justice League, Superman, Batman… even the historic people… St. George and the dragon. But I don’t like the negative stuff. Sometimes I have the television on, watching CNN…
Pablo: But there’s a lot of negative stuff on television, right?
Wayne: Right, as I’m looking at CNN, I start thinking of the positive stuff to write, while the negative stuff is going on!
Pablo: … like to fight back?
Wayne: I listen to life, watch what’s going on around and write the opposite.
Pablo: Wow…! I think I wouldn’t get one idea if I turn on the TV here in Germany. But that’s a great idea!
Wayne: Or… this is a statement that just came to me. We teach at UCLA me, Herbie and Jimmy Heath, two days out of each month, when we can. They made an arrangement that we can do this. And one question I got from the students is: “What do you think of when you write? How do you get in the mood? What is it?” And there’s one answer that kind of stays with me: “Try to write and play, and write again, what you wish for!”
Pablo: Yeah, that’s nice!
Wayne: And then answer that question: “What do I wish for ?” and then try to put it in music.
As in: “How do you wish the world to be?” I wish the world was like fairyland! (laughs)
Pablo:(laughs) Actually, that’s linked another question I had. It’s not even a question, more a remark. You’re music to me sounds like the feeling I get when I watch “The Wizard Of Oz” or “Alice in Wonderland” etc. It’s the same feeling. It’s this uplifting spirit that comes with it, that makes you want to jump out of your window and fly!
Wayne: And I hear that in your harmonic story, in your version of “Marcie”. And I hear more than the melodies of Joni Mitchell, I hear YOU going your way, I would say, you’re starting to go do the path that’s least taken in life. Yeah! That’s an adventurous path and it takes courage, because the so-called “reality-people” always want to jump in front of you and say “booohh!”. They always say: “No! There’s no such thing as living happily ever after!” And I say: “Yes there is!!” So I have to be like a little boy.
If you’re playing what you wish for, that’s a pretty open challenge and it’s keeps me on my toes, keeps me awake and it’s always the door that’s open to write something whether you’re in the mood or not in the mood. That door is open – I say: “Who has the key to the door ?” Some people wanna shut that door and lock it forever! Business people! (laughs)
Anyways, you have a nice family and you’re gonna have children pretty soon. I want to wish you a lot of happiness and we’ll be seeing you when we’re gonna come to Europe. I think we going to come to Cologne.
Pablo: I’ll attend two concerts of you in November. I’ll be there in Essen and Cologne and the booker of the Philharmonic Hall in Cologne promised me to bring me backstage after the gig to say hello to you.
Wayne: OK, our tour-manager will watch for you, too. His name is Robert. That Church in Cologne…
Pablo: The Dom ?
Wayne: Yeah, it used to look like melting wax, you know? But they’ve been working on it, right?
Pablo: Yes and there’s a new window, a different window done by the Artist Gerhard Richter. Full of colorful cubes, there’s no religious figures on it, it’s a just great image.
— Skype connection interruption
Pablo: In a recent interview you said that Weather Report was something like a detour, or step away from the mission for you. So I was wondering what you meant by that?
Wayne: Well, after so many years it was time for me to step out and do things that I wanted to do before it’s too late. You know, things that I had in my mind when I was ten years old. I want to continue some things that you have to do without having a collaboration, or cooperative group.
Pablo: Like your mission?
Wayne: Yeah. When I joined the Jazz Messengers, it was 5 years. Then Miles – almost six, five and a half years. Then Weather Report was like 13 or 14, I said: “This is too long.” I started reading a lot of stories, books. I always read books anyway since I was about 13 years old. But I was reading great novels written by people. And I said “Wait a minute, it’s time for me to do some music novels” you know? Something that you have to do by yourself, so that you don’t get buried. Like they say: “Oh, he’s one of the Beach Boys….”
Pablo: I know what you mean.
Wayne: Or the name of a group taking over the individuality.
Pablo: I see. But I have to say this detour has also given me a lot of joy!
Wayne: Yeah. I said to Joe Zawinul: “You Know, Joe I think it’s time for both of us to do our own thing” And we shook hands on it and said “Yeah!”
Even up to that time before Joe passed away I was with him in Hungary, he was in the wheelchair. We always talked by facts and talked about life and watched the boxing matches together. So we said “We’re still partners!”
— Skype connection interruption
Dorsay: We were waiting for your last question, Pablo.
Pablo: Oh ok, I’ll have to decide…
Wayne: Don’t force it. I don’t like force myself!
Pablo: This is another question about composing: Because I was checking out your compositions “Universe” and “Legend” and I found DNA of “Dolores”, “Sweet Pea”, “Two Faced” and “Sanctuary” and other compositions by you in there. So I was wondering how you free mind when you re-compose or de-compose older compositions of yours to start again with a fresh view?
Wayne: Well, actually in reality when we’re five years old we’re maybe two feet tall, then we get older and grow and we’re the same person. And with me, my philosophy is: to me there’s no such thing as the end of anything – or beginning! When they say: “Madonna is re-inventing herself” – Uh uh, no I say: “She’s continuing.” That marketing language, you know? Lady Gaga! Or “you’re doing an old piece of music in new clothes!” And I say: “You’re wrong, the piece is growing!” I have to recognize its growth. If it sounds the same, it’s my fault! (laughs) So I’m recognizing we must grow! OK? So I’m going to see you in Europe, OK?
Pablo: Yeah, I’ll see you in Cologne and Essen! I’ll be there!
Dorsay: Thank you so much Pablo!
Pablo: Thank You, it was so nice! Thank you!
Wayne: OK Bye-bye!
(this conversation took place on September 5th 2013)
click here for more info on “Zero Gravity”, Dorsay Alavi’s upcoming movie about Wayne Shorter.