The first time I heard Richie Beirach was on his wonderful solo album “Continuum”, an beautiful gateway into his musical world! Naturally I started checking out other records of his and stuff that he played on. Among my favorites are his trio albums “Trust” & “Elm”, his duo album with the great Zbigniew Seifert (only available when purchasing the great book on Zbigniew Seifert by Aneta Norek), Zbigniew Seifert’s landmark album “Passion”, Dave Liebman’s “First Visit”, Chet Baker’s “You can’t go home again”, Stan Getz’ “Live at the Left Bank”, George Adams’ “Sound Suggestions”, his duo album with George Coleman and the magical “Tribute to Coltrane” from 1987… and of course his work with Quest, with John Scofield and John Abercrombie.
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 there and 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.