Jim Beard is one of my most important influences as a pianist and composer. Whenever I feel uninspired his record “Advocate” is among the first things I listen to in order to reconnect to what I love about music.
I first heard his music as a young boy when my parents discovered his records. I think “At the Glee Club” was the first of his songs that my mother showed me and I can still tap into how I felt when I first heard it. Right then and there I fell in love with his music and I couldn’t stop listening! I guess “Advocate”, “At The Carnival” and “Song Of The Sun” are the ones I listened to the most, but I love all of his other records, too! Also, his work with Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Dennis Chambers, Michael Brecker, John Scofield and many others was a deep source of joy & inspiration for me.
In 2017 I had the great privilege to invite Jim Beard as a featured guest to my trio for a show at Jazzfestival Esslingen and this was a big honor and an absolute highlight for me & my trio!
Over all the years I was always searching for new interviews by Jim talking about music – there are not many of them out there! The ones I found were really important for me and I went back to some of them quite a lot. Of course, when I had the chance to play with Jim, I already asked him many questions back then, but I knew I also wanted to reconnect with him and talk some more, when I began doing these interviews.
I’m really happy he accepted to do this with me and it’s great to share it with all of you now! Enjoy!
Pablo Held: As you know, I’m a big admirer of yours on a lot of levels. Let’s start with your unique way of composing. The way you write has made a big impression on me. I always feel like you’re telling a story, yet one can never expect to know the full extent of that story while hearing it. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of music out there which tends to be very predictable… And with your music that’s totally not the case: When one assume all of the written material has been played and the song is ready to move into a blowing section, another written development of the material comes along, almost like the song is improvising itself. At times the tunes end up in a different places than where they started out – I love that!
I’m wondering how your creative process starts when you compose a tune and which different stages you go through.
Jim Beard: The first stage of my writing usually involves rejection. For every idea I come up with that I deem worth pursuing, I throw out about nine others. I need to convince myself that a dozen or so bars of music ‘feel’ right for me to continue.
That initial idea usually begins in one of three ways. It may simply start out as a rhythmic idea with a bass groove and a few chords (“Ode to the Doo Da Day’“ “Bakers Annex“). It may be a longer sequence of chords that I find evocative and worth exploring (“Parsley Trees“ / “Crossing Troll Bridge“). Or it might be a harmonic game I come up with such as minors moving by majors or majors moving by minors (“The Gentleman and Hizcaine“ / “Holodeck Waltz“). No matter how simple or complex that seed idea may be, my one overriding rule is that the end result should sound like music, not a graduate physics thesis.
Once I accept a germ idea, it’s not too long before I feel like the song is writing itself. I am just harvesting the music from the ether. And what you ask in your question is quite accurate. I do feel like some sort of story should take place. Many times I imagine there is a main character in this story so the job becomes what kind of character is this (joyful, melancholic, introvert, extrovert, etc) and how is this character navigating the musical landscape. I guess you could call it a total indulgence in fantasy. I often imagine who would be great players on the composition as I’m writing it and that can shape the direction also.
I never really regarded myself as a writer when I was young. Within 18 months of moving to New York (1985), I ended up touring the world with Wayne Shorter. The bulk of our sets then was music from the albums “Atlantis” and “Phantom Navigator”. It had a huge impact on me and I think it’s safe to say that Wayne’s writing feels ‘like the song is improvising itself’.
Pablo: Absolutely! Can you take me through the writing process behind a couple of pieces of yours? I’d love to hear the story of “Jambolay“, one of my all time favorite compositions of yours!
Jim: I wrote “Jambolay“ and the other pieces from ‘Advocate’ during the time right after my second child (Caitlin) was born. I was in a brand new phase of life. A relatively new marriage with two children under the age of four, a new Upper West Side home and making new friends with other new parents. The ideas really were flowing during that time. Whatever the story is with “Jambolay“, it is a backwards story. This might be the only piece where I wrote the end first and the beginning last.
Pablo: And how about “Hope“ ? I love that piece… What was the musical process behind it?
Jim: I find it really difficult to describe the writing process with words. It would be much easier for me to give you my recipe for goan curry clams.
“Hope“ began simply enough, with just the 2 bar (in cut time) motif at the very beginning. The following ‘A’ section (in Eb) came soon after as did the ‘B’ section (Ab minor) and a reprise of the ‘A’. So I had my ‘A’ and ‘B’ sections. Many jazz composers would have called it quits at that point. Just have someone blow over that for 6 minutes and we’re done, right? Well, the devil’s advocate started talking to me and pointed out that, so far, the piece was on the pretty side of things and that maybe I should take a sharp turn down a darker alley. This led me to the more menacing Db Alt ‘C’ section sharing the same first two melody notes of the ‘A’. Going to another ‘A’ or ‘B’ didn’t feel right to me at this point so I came up with the ‘D’ development (starting on E minor). Soon after, the song was writing itself. Another ‘A’ in a different key, another more sinister alley and development section. A reprise of ‘A’ and go out on the hope of ‘B’.
I tell my students that composing and improvising can be seen fundamentally as a binary process. V – I, tension – release, away from home – returning home. The challenge and fun is how you navigate that. Let’s say you like taking a walk every day. You could leave your house, turn right and walk for 10 blocks, turn around and walk 10 blocks back home. Or you could leave your home, turn right for 4 blocks, make another right for 4 blocks, repeat until you are back home. Or you could leave your house, turn left and walk through town to the woods on the other side. Choose an enticing looking path and follow it. It may lead you to that river, which you know if you follow, will bring you back somewhere close to home.
Pablo: That’s excellent advice. I remember you told me already that “Fever“ is sort of a tip of the hat to Joe Zawinul, who I know had big influence on you. But Joe also had great respect for you. Can you describe what you’ve learned from him and how that may have informed “Fever“ in particular?
Jim: What I learned from Joe has more to do with character and perspective than anything dealing with the mechanics of music. For me, the attitude of “Fever” feels ‘Joe’ like. The chords and melodies are just more organized notes and phrases. Bla bla bla… as they say.
I had the great fortune to get to know Joe very well and consider him a good friend. My first introduction to him was quite a humdinger. I had been working with John McLaughlin Mahavishnu and a long USA double bill tour with Joe’s Weather Update was scheduled. I was getting to hang with him on pretty much a daily basis (not to mention the rest of his band: Steve Kahn, Peter Erskine, Victor Bailey and Robert Thomas Jr). The following years, I was with Wayne Shorter and many of our festival gigs were co-bills with Joe’s group. I could write endless pages of anecdotes about memorable hangs and times (watching and hearing Joe and Wayne play together for the first time since Weather Report broke up: “In a Silent Way” duet). But I won’t.
One lesson Joe reinforced for me was: accidents are good. I was attending a show at one of his Blue Note runs. Richard Bona was taking a kalimba/voice solo and it was a very intimate moment. Joe stood up to get the attention of a waitress for a drink refill and his belly hit one of his keyboards creating a very loud, obnoxious sound that startled everyone in the club. He sat back down with a concerned look on his face and repeated it (with his hands this time). Then again, and Paco picked up on it. Soon, it was a wonderful, raucous introduction to the next piece
Joe was complex, multi layered. He had this sort of tough, macho exterior yet had an uncanny ability to write and play some of the most beautiful and sensitive music. Right away I learned that you can’t always believe what you see, or, don’t judge a book by its’ cover. And he had this blunt, matter of fact way of saying what he thought. In the early 90s, there was all this talk about how electronic instruments don’t really belong in jazz. Joe said (in his gruff voice); “The synthesizer IS an acoustic instrument!”. He had no problem flipping the bird when he felt it.
Regarding the respect part of your question. When Joe lived in New York, he would invite me to his apartment for dinner/listening hangs. And one of the nicest compliments I ever received was him saying (in typical Joe fashion): “Jim Beard is my favorite keyboard player… besides myself”. Once, he invited me to dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel. It was a nice restaurant and I decided to wear a jacket. When he saw me he said: “Jim, you look like a f***ing lawyer”. I replied: “Joe, you look like a f***ing shoe factory worker”. We both laughed and had a great meal.
Pablo: Wow, I love hearing those anecdotes! Was this Joe &Wayne duet of “In Silent Way“ the one that ended up on Joe’s “75“ record? And furthermore, what would you guys listen to in those listening hangs?
Jim: No. What I saw and heard was in 1987 in San Sebastian, Spain. I don’t believe there is a recording of that anywhere, but I can tell you it was magical.
At Joe’s get togethers, we would listen to a wide variety of things. Classical, jazz and other ethnic music. The jazz tended to be rare bootleg recordings and Duke Ellington seemed to come up more than anyone else.
Pablo: Getting back to “Advocate“, I’m very curious about the process behind your magnificent tune “Jazz“. It’s not only a fantastic composition, but it also sounds like you had so much fun producing it, adding layers and layers on top of each other. How do you go about when you produce your own records? It seems to me, you’re hearing things that nobody else would think of. (I always felt that ‚Jazz’ and “At the Glee Club“ were like distant relatives…doesn’t that character from “Glee Club“ pop in at some moment during “Jazz“?)
Jim: You are picking two pieces that do have unique approaches different from my typical approach to writing. Both “Jazz“ and “Glee“ are, to me, soundtracks for an insane world. I have to give credit here to Zach Danziger and Tim Lefebvre who had a band / project called “Boomish“; a very anti-establishment enterprise. The layering of textures is an important part of the process and yes, it is fun. In both pieces, the “A” section, or the ‘home’ section that is returned to, does not have a melody but rather is a musical event aimed at evoking a feeling or an image. In “Jazz“, the ‘A’ sections are Matthew Garrison and me spontaneously having an avant-garde playing frenzy in an intentionally insensitive manner. With “At the Glee Club“, it is Pete Davenport doing the insane improvising with words and yes, that is him making a cameo on “Jazz“. Pete was an important part of a lot of “Boomish“ work and it was great fun to have Zach, Tim and Pete performing on “Advocate“. There is no formula or secret I have when I produce my records. I am just following my ears.
Pablo: I was always fascinated by your unique way of playing lines. Similar to your compositions, I’m always surprised by the way your melodic lines move. Your solo on “Fever“ is not only a great example of that, but also it’s one of my all-time favorite solos, period! Very unpredictable & daring, yet totally logical & deep. How did you work on that?
Jim: The only thing I really worked on with Fever was programming that solo synth patch. It’s a Roland XP-50 with an analogue sound card in monophonic mode with the velocity and aftertouch affecting the filter. And the sound doesn’t have a hard or percussive attack. It’s the closest thing I’ve made to feeling like a horn player. I’ve always been a bit envious of brass and reed players and their ability to scoop notes, get interesting tones with alternate fingerings and with embouchure. I remember the first time I heard Trane doing his heeblia hobblias. I got goosebumps and felt his emotion but I also got a little depressed because I knew I would never be able to do that on a piano. So with this new sound I felt somewhat liberated and was trying things that I wouldn’t, had it been a polyphonic keyboard with a percussive attack.
Pablo: In what way did your work with electronic instruments inform your way of approaching an acoustic instrument?
Jim: I think the opposite is what happened with me. My experience and love of acoustic instruments influenced my approach to electronics. I’ve always viewed my synths as a poor man’s orchestra.
Pablo: Well, you always get a very rich sound out of them! I’m curious about your sense for harmony. I once read that Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin“ is an important piece for you. When I listen to your music I feel like you have a deep knowledge and love for the great composers. Can you talk about some of your classical influences?
Jim: I was very fortunate to have had an incredible piano teacher for close to 12 years. Her name is Mary Anne Rietz and she is still among the walking. I started with her at the age of 6 and within a couple years, she had me performing in recitals. I could write a book about her, but basically she had me go through so many of the classics: Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Bartok and many more, and also started me in theory and harmony by the time I was 9. Mary Anne arranged for me to meet Arthur Rubinstein when I was 12 and also was the one who told me I should check out George Shearing giving a masterclass when I was 14. I would be nothing without her.
“Le Tombeau de Couperin“ is absolutely in my top 5. Especially the “Forlane“ movement. Maurice originally wrote the piece for piano and later orchestrated it. It’s one of the best orchestrations and how can you not love it? It has everything. Simple beauty and complex darkness working perfectly well together. You can dive in deep and discover all of the evocative strangeness, but there is a basic and pure musical oversight happening. But you have to find recordings of it that aren’t too fast, That’s the problem with so many classical artists. They seem to always want to play everything so fast.
Getting older, I still enjoy playing through the classics. I’ve been having an on and off affair with Bachs’ “3 part invention #9 in F minor“. Even though I played a good deal of Chopin in my teens, I feel that having a decade or two under my belt really helped me be more appreciative of him. I believe Chopin is an important and somewhat under-credited connecting link to many modern music forms. How about the left hand of his “Etude in A minor, opus 25“? Stride piano anyone? And that E major section of his “Scherzo in Bb minor opus 31“. Sure rings a bell with the chorus of Billy Joels’ “Piano Man“. But, as the saying goes and we all know, good composers borrow, great composers steal.
Pablo: So true. It’s wonderful to hear your take on these pieces. The “Forlane“ movement is also one of my absolute favorites by Ravel. There are certain pieces by him that somehow made me think of you: For example‚ “A La Maniere De Borodine“‚ “Le Petit Poucet“ from “Ma Mère L’Oye“, or the second movement from his piano trio. Do you have a relationship to these pieces?
Jim: I love those pieces also. I’ve played the first two but not the piano trio.
Pablo: You’ve mentioned George Shearing – what was he like as a teacher?
Jim: George never really taught me in a clinical fashion but rather more by example. He had two Steinway upright grands in his studio (and a Bösendorfer in his living room) and we would basically just play songs together with lots of trading. Often, I would stop playing and stand up behind him to watch his technique and try to visually grab some harmonic goodies. I was such a sponge then and for this teenager to be in the presence of that master was an overwhelming, intimidating and enlightening experience.
One lesson, he took a phone call and when he hung up (that’s what you did back then), he asked if I would mind if another young pianist could come up and join us. I said ’sure’. It was Fred Hersch and the three of us took turns playing duos. At the end of another lesson, he said ‘before you go, I want to play something for you’. Next to his studio was his listening room full of file cabinets of albums. The lights were off (George was blind) and he started opening drawers and reading the labels in braille. I couldn’t see a thing but he was perfectly comfortable finding a record, putting it on the turntable and playing it. In his gentlemanly British accent he said: “I think this music is just marvelous!” and he played me Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather“ for the first time.
Pablo: Wow, that’s deep! I remember reading an interview where you talked about that George Shearing album called “My Ship“. What a great record, I really have to thank you for mentioning it! It must have been quite an experience to witness his sound up close in person! Can you talk about other albums that mean a lot to you, that you always revisit throughout the years?
Jim: Geez, there are so many. Many Herbie records: “Speak Like a Child“‚ “The Prisoner“, both Headhunter records. So many of the 60s Blue Note records. Many of Miles. Many of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin. Many classical records. Everything from Corelli Trio Sonatas to Stravinsky’s “The Soldiers Tale“. I could go on and on…
Pablo: What are you checking out at the moment? What’s the last thing that really moved you?
Jim: I try to keep my finger on the pulse of my contemporaries; Brad Mehldau, Gwilym Simcock, Larry Goldings, you, Chris Potter, Sullivan Fortner, etc., etc.
On the pop side of things, I’m at a loss. I remember when Radiohead, Björk and Beck were ‘new’ and I was really into them, but all of the currently new pop artists seem either so melodramatic or derivative (or a horrible combination of both).
Who/what am I missing?
I’ve really been knocked out by Jacob Collier most recently, and for a while now. Some of the things he does literally gives me goosebumps.
Pablo: Wow, I’m flattered you included me in that list! And how about some concerts you’ve attended that had a big impact on you? I’m sure you also have these go-to memories of important concerts which really struck a chord with you and that you still think about from time to time. What comes to mind there?
Jim: There’s a few that come to mind.
When I was around 13, my parents took me to see Van Cliburn play Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto #1“ with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Everything was fine until we got home at which point I completely broke down sobbing. This seemed to come out of nowhere, but later I realized the power of the music and performance really did get to me.
When I was 17, my older brother Bill managed to sneak me into the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia to see Horace Silver’s group. That was amazing but it was also the first time I saw a stand up comic live (the opener). I laughed so hard during his set. I can’t remember his name.
Also when I was seventeen, I saw Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock playing duo piano at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia. Now, of course they were brilliant beyond comparison, but two things besides piano playing really stick out for me here: one is that I finally got the nerve up to ask a flute player in the high school concert band who I had a terrible crush on to go on this date with me. I was such a nervous wreck. The other thing is that there were these assholes sitting right next to us (and elsewhere in the theater) that kept shouting at the top of their lungs: “HEADHUNTERS!!!! RETURN TO FOREVER!!!”. Did they not know they bought tickets to an evening of acoustic piano?
Then there’s the Frank Zappa concert (with Vinnie and Ruth) I went to in Bloomington, Indiana around ’79. Complete off the charts kick ass delivery. Everyone on stage was totally present and so was the audience. Frank had started his “let’s divide the audience into sections“ thing by then.
Another concert that sticks out for me was in Boston in 1992. I was touring with Pat Metheny, we had a night off and some of us went to see James Taylor at the Orpheum Theater. Besides being absolutely perfect musically (Steve Gadd and Don Grolnick were amongst James’ band members), the live sound was the best I’d ever heard up to that point in my life. It sounded like a beautifully mixed record being played through a beautiful sound system. Except it wasn’t a record. It was live people, and a live sound guy….
Pablo: Beautiful, thanks for sharing those memories with me.
We’ve already touched briefly on your work with Wayne Shorter. I’d like to talk about that time a little bit:
In particular, I’m interested in his way of leading a band, his approach to rehearsal and working on tunes (live and in the studio). How about comparing the process behind “Forbidden, Plan-iT!“ and “On The Milkyway Express“ or even his reworking of older tunes like “Sanctuary“ and “Footprints“ ?
Jim: Being able to work with Wayne is probably the greatest highlight of my career. I did an interview in 2013 for a Jazziz Magazine article celebrating Wayne’s 80th birthday and they were interested in what you asked as well so if it’s ok, I’ll quote myself from that interview:
If I had to describe Wayne’s band leading methods with one word, that word would be ‘metaphor’. Rather than tell players what they should or shouldn’t play, he would describe a feeling, a situation, an evocative scenario that he remembered or imagined. One of his favorites was the telling of a movie scene: “Remember in such and such movie where so and so walked into the room and discovered that the charm had been there all along? I want it to sound like that!”
His references could be from something from the past or what he saw as being the future. I remember him talking to rhythm and percussion players one time and telling them that the groove should feel like ‘the brigade is coming up over the hill’. It could be a colonial British brigade or also could be a space brigade in another galaxy. Wayne was always very present tense, meaning, he always had one foot in the door of the past and the other foot in the door of the future.
In the studio he was very much the same. We recorded ‘Forbidden Plan-iT’ at Chick Corea’s Mad-Hatter studio in LA. He kept describing what he was looking for as a kind of “fugue from another world“. And when we recorded “Long Bashels“ from my “Song of the Sun“ album, he described the piece as beautiful in an ‘other worldly’ way, but wanted his approach to playing the melody to be similar to how he and Lee Morgan used to play unison melodies together; not completely in time together, but tugging at each other around the time.
His approach to reworked older pieces like “Sanctuary“, “Orbits“ or “Angola“ was very similar to that of his epic 80’s and 90’s pieces being that he seemed to be rooted in a classical esthetic with those. My favorite time performing with him would have to be the mid 90’s when we were doing pieces form “Atlantis“, “Phantom Navigator“ and “High Life“, but mixed throughout the set would be some of these older gems in their original Blue Note form. Songs like “Footprints“, “Chief Crazy Horse“ and “Valse Triste“.
Pablo: Do you remember any specific advice that he gave you throughout your time with him that still resonates with you? And if so, can you explain in what way that helped you?
Jim: For those who are paying attention, Wayne is always giving advice. With his actions and words in all areas; personal, social, business, music, etc. It isn’t blatantly forthcoming but rather subtle – under the radar advice. A look on his face, a whimsical reply, a shared memory that at first seems unrelated, but later the lightbulb goes on. He is always encouraging people to connect the dots…. or not….
I lost someone very close to me some years ago and Wayne was one of two people I reached out to for comfort and advice. He said this to me when I asked him how to move on: “Do you remember the time in your life before you met? Well, you are on the other side of that now”. Those words helped me immensely.
Pablo: Wow, thanks for those memories Jim! Can you tell me what you’re working on at the moment when you’re sitting down at the piano?
Jim Beard: Right now I’m reviewing some Steely Dan songs. We leaving for a tour in a few days and we will be doing several different album nights including Fagen’s “The Nightfly”. And I just finished making a duo record with Jon Herington. Some originals and some covers. Just piano and guitar. Thanks and take care…
Pablo: Yeah Jim, thanks so much for doing this with me!!