Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This Friday @ 7PM: Medeski, Martin, & Wood

Medeski Martin and Wood's story is - like most great stories - one of humble beginnings, friendship, determination, a happy ending and a very bright future.

The trio of keyboard/organ/piano player John Medeski, drummer/percussionist Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood formed not in some vastly creative alternate universe, but rather in the neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, known as D.U.M.B.O. (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in 1991. Medeski and Wood, students at Boston's prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, decided to move to New York City, with intent to explore the late-night underworld of the city's burgeoning jazz scene.

John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood were looking to create music that reflected who they were, individually and collectively. The trio began experimenting with contemporary hip-hop beats that could swing as hard as jazz rhythms, yet remained essentially simple and propulsive, giving the musicians ample room to create hypnotic textures and sounds that were brimming with both improvisation and harmony. "In the beginning, as it is now, we went by gut instinct," says Wood. "We have a natural connection between us, as people and as musicians, and we just let things flow in whatever direction they went."

Gigs turned into multiple engagements, dates at small clubs led to performances at legendary New York City downtown hotspots like the Village Gate and the Knitting Factory, and soon the band was packed into Billy's van, traveling up and down the North Eastern United States. The next step was a natural one for any band - capture the music for posterity - and so MMW recorded their debut, "Notes From The Underground," which they released independently on hap-jones records in early 1991.

More gigs followed, and soon it was time for another release. This time, Medeski Martin & Wood inked a deal with Gramavision, a larger but still independent label that afforded them substantial freedom to create music the way they felt it should be played. In the summer of 1993 they released "It's A Jungle In Here," purchased an R/V, and hit the road for nearly half a year.

Communal, on-the-road living has broken up many bands, but true-to-form, MMW thrived in this potentially treacherous situation. Their secret was a unique combination of individual personalities, with each band member taking on additional roles that suited their own aptitudes and interests. As always, nothing was planned out; it just happened.

John, with his love for cooking, was the band's chef, preparing incredible meals that made life on the road more bearable. Billy, who worked well with his hands, could fix anything up to and including the band's RV. And Chris, with his head for business, took care of the group's accounting. As it was with the music, Medeski Martin & Wood balanced each other out perfectly.

"We have a certain chemistry between us, musically," says Martin, "and in addition to that we have a strong friendship that goes beyond the music. Even when we have ups and downs, the music and our friendship carries us through."

1994 saw the release of "Friday Afternoon in the Universe," and by 1995 it seemed like MMW was truly touring the universe, as their concert itinerary spread out and around the entire United States, and into Europe and Japan. In 1996, the band released their final Gramavision disc, "Shack-Man," which they celebrated with an 8-week Monday night residency at New York's Knitting Factory.

With much fanfare, the band then signed with another record label - the legendary jazz imprint Blue Note Records. At the turn of the new millennium, they released their all-acoustic album "Tonic," named for the Lower East Side club (and former kosher winery) where it was recorded. The band's affiliation with Blue Note resulted in three discs (plus a best-of set), and found them again pushing their sonic boundaries, incorporating percussionists, horn sections, and turntables into their already potent sound.

Which brings us to the here-and-now. Medeski Martin & Wood are no longer signed to anyone else's record label; they have come full circle by establishing their own label, Indirecto Records, as an outlet for their music. Which, quite happily, brings them neatly back to the way they did things in their formative years. Releasing their own music, their own way, in its own time.

The trio's first Indirecto release, "Out Louder," is a four-way collaboration with guitarist John Scofield, which true-to-form is heavy on group improvisation, irresistible grooves, rich harmonies, and strong melodies. While nothing definite is planned - as always, the band are taking each day and each opportunity as they come - it is possible that "Out Louder" could be the first in a series of independently-released projects that Medeski Martin & Wood will do in collaboration with other artists.

"By having our own label, we can make music however we want, and make as much as we want," explains Medeski. "In the history of man, recorded music is just a blink of the eye, just a small part of that vast history. The real thing is playing music live, and that is what we do. Beyond that, we'll be putting out recordings as often or as infrequently as we want."

The band also plan another first - a disc of children's music titled "Let's Go Everywhere" - set for release in early 2007 on the Little Monster/V2 label that promises to be as engaging for their established fan base as it is for the kids. "It's got everything, instrumentals, vocal songs, our kids are singing on it" says Wood.

Plus, there are the usual side projects going on, creative outlets which all three band members say serve to strengthen and add to the sound of the trio when they converge. Medeski Martin and Wood live in our world, playing music that reflects their surroundings and communities. At the same time, they are a small world unto themselves, where creativity and spontaneity are honored, revered, and encouraged. And the world-at-large is a much better place for it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chris Potter: The Obsessive Musician

Chris Potter has long been touted as one of his generation's most talented performers. Even as a teenager, well before he moved to New York, he was named an heir to the traditions of Charlie Parker. In spite of the praise, Potter has been a self-driven individual striving to satisfy his own preoccupation with music.

Music was a constant part of Potter’s life growing up. He was born in Chicago, but by age three he moved to South Carolina. He grew up in the south, but the influence of the big city remained in his household. His family had a "quality record collection” including, among others, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, and the Beatles. These became Potter's earliest influences.

For Potter listening was never enough. He was interested in creating music. "I always had to play it." Whenever his family went somewhere where there was a piano, he had to noodle around on the instrument. He would figure out the melodies he'd heard on records being played at home, but Potter was also keen to figure out his own ideas, improvising long before he had any formal training.

As he got older, he discovered the more obscure parts of his parents' collection: Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, and Dave Brubeck. Potter says it was the tone of Paul Desmond's saxophone on the Brubeck Quartet's legendary album Time Out, which inspired him to take up the instrument.

By age ten he began playing alto saxophone because, at the time, he “was a little small to play the tenor. As soon as I got it I tried to figure out how to play all those tunes on Time Out, and I had some really helpful people early on: my elementary school music teacher and my first saxophone teacher. They were very happy to show me they were improvising over a form and what notes were in a scale and the basic stuff, and I was off and running. I was just obsessed.”
At this point, Potter's saxophone influences were primarily the early figures of the Ellington band: Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, Harry Carney. “I wasn’t really hearing Charlie Parker. I didn’t understand what he was doing. I didn’t really like it.”

Those early Ellington influences can still be heard in Potter's fat tenor sound, but by the time he was twelve, he started getting into Parker and diligently worked to emulate his sound. “It was like a light went off, and I spent a long time trying to figure out what is he doing, how is he getting that sound? A lot of what I would do would just be to play along with the records, not even necessarily write anything down, sometimes not even knowing the tune, but just trying to play along, just trying to play like they did, sound like they did, phrase like they did, figure out what notes they were using.”

By the age of thirteen he was already becoming an acclaimed musician, praised by renowned jazz educator Jamey Aebersold as a "reincarnation of Charlie Parker." At one particular Aebersold camp, he was singled out to play with the instructors instead of his peers, as they saw him as a player on their level. Looking back on it, Potter recalls it being "a little weird. The Charlie Parker reincarnation thing kind of freaked me out. There was another one of the teachers that asked me about it in private once, and I told him ‘I have no idea whether it exists or not. I certainly have absolutely no feeling that I was Charlie Parker in a previous life,’ and he said ‘yeah it’s probably just a bunch of junk, but if you are Charlie Parker, don’t take drugs this time.’"

Back in South Carolina he was a regular at a local jam session. “On Tuesday nights these guys didn’t want to hear anything except bebop, just total bebop heads, and then Wednesday nights would be just anything goes. We’d do an old standard, but then we’d play free, and then we’d play a Rolling Stones tune. So it was good to have both of those things, and then a lot of weddings. I drove all over South Carolina as soon as I could drive.”

After high school, Potter moved to New York where he began studying at the New School, and within a few months, he was invited to join Red Rodney's band. The former Parker bandmate made Bird's music a central part of the repertoire, and Potter found this to be among the best parts of his training. “It was great having the chance to play all of these Charlie Parker tunes with the guy on the record.”

Rodney was quite a character as well. By that time, Rodney had stopped smoking cigarettes or doing any drugs, but he still had a penchant for “getting away with stuff. There was something about the whole having to ‘score’ something that he still just had to do. It took the more innocuous form of, if we were getting on a plane, he would fake a limp so that he could get on first and everybody would be really really nice to him. It was that kind of stuff, but just constantly. There was always stuff like that going on.”

Rodney was also famous for posing as an Army inspection officer. This rumor grew to myth in the jazz community over the years, and Potter recalled hearing the story from Rodney “a couple times with slightly different details each time. There must be a nugget of truth in there somewhere, but it sounded pretty deep. He saw an article in the paper about this general who dropped in on Air Force bases unannounced and he thought, ‘wow, that guy looks just like me only with gray hair.’ So he died his hair gray, and he got a uniform, and he showed up at Army bases and inspected everything. That was his thing. I don’t know what exactly he got from it.”

After three or four years in Rodney’s band, Potter began to work around New York in other capacities as well. He was still just twenty-two when he began playing in the Mingus Big Band. One night, Steely Dan's Walter Becker happened to attend a performance and loved Potter's playing enough to seek him out for the upcoming Steely Dan tour.

Suddenly, Potter was thrust into huge performance venues playing for thousands of people a night. He remembers one of the interesting things about his experiences in that group was, while the band was extremely experienced, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the group's leaders, hadn't toured since 1972. They had since scored a number of hit albums and singles and amassed a large fan base, but they had always stayed in the studio up to that point, and they looked like "deer in the headlights" performing for such large numbers of people every night. It was the leaders who were stunned.

Fagen and Becker wanted to tour, "and they knew at this point they could ask for first class everything. The leaders were used to working in the studio, and that was about it, so to go out there every night, it’s hard for me to imagine. They were kind of like deer in the headlights looking at sold out twenty-thirty thousand people. It was very exciting and very good music. That was music that I listened to growing up to. I was familiar with most of the tunes, I just wasn’t ever expecting to actually play it.”

As Potter found himself suddenly in the top-tier of the music community, he was humbled by the people he began to work with, including Randy Brecker, Jim Hall, and Ray Brown. “Any time you have a chance to actually work with somebody you’ve listened to a lot, and to hear how they react to you. It takes a little getting used to, and it’s such a learning thing too, not just the music part but getting to know them. You start to get to know people as people as well as how they play, and it all starts to make sense. My experience also is the really great musicians are all very humble about what they’re doing because making music on the highest possible level takes a lot of dedication.”

When he was given the chance to make his first album, it was an all-star effort, featuring Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and John Scofield as his sidemen. He hadn't even played with Holland before and was pleasantly surprised to see that they all showed up for the session. "I remember I was flying in from somewhere else and I was late, so those guys were sitting around for hours waiting for me. I was completely terrified for about five minutes and then we started to work on the music, and I realized it’s just like playing with my friends. We’re looking at the tunes. We’re trying to figure out what’s the best form, what should we do with the solos, what kind of feel, just completely working on the music, no weird stuff at all. It just felt completely at home. It wasn’t foreign at all. It was just a guy trying to figure out what’s the best part to play on this tune, and it just happens to be John Scofield and he has a tremendous amount of experience and a real unique voice, but that doesn’t help him when he just walks in and he’s trying to figure out what to play. He has to sit there and figure out what to play just like anyone else."

At the interview, Potter performed two solo pieces, Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear” and the old standard “It Could Happen To You.” He has never performed a full solo concert, but it is something he’d be interested in doing and practices all the time. Playing alone informs the way he approaches improvising in a group. “You don’t want to feel like you’re relying on these other people and you’re floating over the top of it. The way that really great jazz is made is when everyone knows what’s going on and can add something informed and interesting to the conversation. The more everyone in the band has control of every aspect of it, the drummer knowing the form and the saxophone being able to take care of the rhythm without needing help, it just frees everything up.”

Potter compared group improvisation to citizenship within a community. Jazz “is the only kind of music that I know of, in history, that’s ever really had that group improvisation aesthetic. It’s really special. Philosophically too, it requires everyone to be very well informed about what the situation is, and to be considerate, but not to be wishy-washy, to jump in when needed. It’s all the kind of things that, if you look at it in another situation, can make a good citizen or a good family-member. This is the big thing behind what this music means to me. It’s a whole way of life, and the more that I’ve had a chance to work with people on the highest level you realize that’s really where it’s at. That’s the way they’re looking at it.”

While Potter’s take on improvisation was illuminating, his advice for upcoming musicians was to just keep at it. “Everybody has a different path, a different story, and that’s how it should be. Being a jazz musician, there's nothing cookie-cutter about it. It’s obviously not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy way to make a living. I’ve been very fortunate, but I know a lot of people that are very talented. It’s not that easy, but it’s the kind of thing that if you need to do it, you need to do it. That’s how I felt from the very beginning. There wasn’t even any question really. It was just what I needed to do.”

Potter's journey follows one of those unique routes. He has been a consistent figure in jazz for nearly twenty years, garnering great admiration even as a teenager. He continues to churn out memorable performances, and as his obsession with music continues, there are sure to be many more in the decades to come.

Here are Chris Potter's two performances from the interview:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Friday @4PM: Stefon Harris

Vibraphonist-composer Stefon Harris is heralded as “one of the most important young artists in jazz (The Los Angeles Times).” He is unquestionably developing what will be a long and extraordinary career.

A graduate of Manhattan School of Music, Stefon received a B.M. in Classical Music and an M.M. in Jazz Performance. He is a recipient of the prestigious Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center and has three consecutive Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Album including the 2003 release of The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note), Kindred (Blue Note) and Black Action Figure (Blue Note). Harris.. 2004 recording, Evolution (Blue Note) features his band Blackout and was voted by Jazz Times as one of the Top 50 CDs. His forthcoming 2006 CD combines arrangements of rarely performed Ellington music with an original suite, The Gardner Meditations commissioned by The Wharton Center at Michigan State University. North Sea Jazz (Netherlands) named Harris for the prestigious International 2002 Bird Award for Artist Deserving Wider Recognition. He has been voted Best Mallet player by the Jazz Journalist Association (2005, 2004,2003, 2002, 2001 & 2000), Debut Artist of the Year by Jazz Times and Chicago Tribune, Downbeatís Critics Poll Winner for Vibraphone & Rising Star, Vibraphone (2004) Newsweek..s Best Jazz CD, Best New Talent and 1999-2000 Readers Poll Best Vibraphonist by Jazziz Magazine.

Mr. Harris has performed at many of the world’s most distinguished concert halls, including Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, The Kennedy Center, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, UCLA’s Royce Hall, Chicago’s Symphony Center, Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, and The Sydney Opera House. He has toured and recorded with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and performed his original compositions with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra in Den Hague. An active educator Mr. Harris conducts clinics and lectures worldwide, teaches at New York University and has been Artist in Residence at San Francisco Performances and at the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. He has received special commissions from The Wharton Center at Michigan State University (debuting April 2005) and The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which spawned The Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note).

Harris performs here in a sound check with Greg Osby at the Jazz Standard:

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lionel Loueke: The Unimaginable Tale Of One Jazz Musician

On the surface, Lionel Loueke would seem to be one of the least likely people to enjoy a successful career in the American jazz community. He rose from modest beginnings in West Africa and has now become a regular collaborator with icons like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and an essential part of the modern jazz world.

Growing up in the former French colony of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin,) Loueke knew music as an integral part of everyday life. Like a pickup game of basketball or football, Loueke and his childhood friends would meet up to play in drum circles. He insists that nearly everybody played an instrument, and if they didn’t, they danced. “We play music to celebrate birth, death; any occasion, music is always there. Even as a kid, I remember playing music with other kids, but in my head it wasn’t music. It was just a part of life. At nine years old, I remember we had a percussion ensemble with nine to ten kids and one dancer, and we just played to get some coins from street to street.”

As a teenager he was first exposed to American jazz, and he remembers appreciating the openness of the music. “I liked the parts, the improvisation, the freedom in jazz. [At first,] I didn’t see the connection with African music, but I saw it later. I realized when I was playing in Afro-pop bands, I wasn’t always playing the same lines like you’re supposed to, and I was getting in trouble sometimes. My friends told me ‘you’ve got to play the same line.’ I always liked to have that freedom.”

At eighteen he moved to Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to study at West Africa’s only conservatory: The National Institute Of Art. There he learned music theory, solfège, classical music history, and how to notate music. Then in 1994, after two years in Côte d'Ivoire, he moved to Paris to pursue jazz at the American School of Modern Music before moving again to America where he’d received a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music.

It was at Berklee that he first met bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who would later form the Lionel Loueke trio. Both Biolcati, raised in Sweden from Italian descent, and Nemeth, from Hungary, had studied African music extensively and the three were drawn to each other and to making music that melded their various influences. Together, they began to fuse jazz technique with motifs from Loueke’s African heritage.

In 2001, after graduating from Berklee, Loueke had an opportunity to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles playing for a panel that included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. Of course he was nervous, but mostly because he felt he didn’t have a strong background in jazz to draw on and thought it unlikely he’d be selected. Rather than try to prove he was something else, Loueke simply played the music he knew. He remembers thinking, “‘man, just be yourself because I can’t impress those guys. That’s not the point. It’s about music, so I’m just going to do my best, if they like it or not,’ and they liked it.”

The audition committee was very impressed, and in selecting Loueke—along with Biolcati and Nemeth—they stood to learn as much from him, given his unique background, as he was from them.

It took Loueke a long time to synthesize the different styles of music he was exposed to and develop his own sound. While in Los Angeles, he took a semester’s worth of classical guitar lessons to refine his playing technique and he began to use his fingers much more. This allowed him to play more complex rhythmic patterns, as he now had several fingers to play at once rather than one pick, reflecting much of the popular Spanish and Puerto Rican music he remembered hearing in Benin. He began to play nylon-string guitars at this time as well, giving him a more earthy sound. “Even at Berklee I still was getting so much information and trying to digest it all. At the Monk Institute I was still getting information, but they were helping me to develop my own voice.”

Loueke’s playing went through several other transformations as he sought create sounds that mimicked instruments from Africa. One came through the use of effects pedals. “I use my musicality, of course I use my pedals, and most of the time I use pedals that are not made for that type of sound. Because I try to imitate a lot of instruments, especially African instruments, there’s no pedals made for that, so I can use a wah-wah or wammy pedal to get that sound.”

(During?) At the interview, Loueke was kind enough to demonstrate his particular style of playing, which included a piece of pink paper placed between the strings by the bridge of his guitar, dampening the resonance of the instrument. “I came up with that because I wanted to get a sound close to the kalimba—thumb piano—so the paper between the strings makes the strings vibrate differently, and before I got to that, I used a plastic bag, a comb: I like to try different things. I was playing in Philly, and in the dressing room they had pink paper. Usually before I get on stage I get ready and get a piece of paper. That paper worked so well, I asked them if I could take the whole block, and they said yes, so I’m still using it.”

Singing is another major element of Loueke’s sound. “I don’t consider myself a singer, but I do use my voice like an effect, like a pedal device on my instrument. Because every single note I play I always sing, it helps my phrasing to play better. A few years ago I realized that everything I was playing and singing, after a solo I couldn’t breathe. I questioned myself, and the answer was there: I was playing too much.”

In between singing notes, Loueke will often add click noises with his mouth, which serve the function of a percussion instrument. He says that the click sounds came about in “the most natural way. I used to listen a lot to music from South Africa and it’s part of the language. I don’t speak that language, but I get inspired by the language. If I sing one note, a click, and have a different thing going on the guitar, I can have three parts going on at the same time. For me it is just percussion because I don’t speak that language.”

As Loueke develop personally, so did the sound of his trio. Coming from an institutional background, he used to always notate his music for the other members of his group to read as they were learning new pieces. Sometimes the time would be written with thirteen or seventeen beats a measure, and they were not all on the same page about how to feel that. Each of them had their own interpretation, so now he tends to teach his music by (‘rote’ is the word) wrote, harkening back to his roots. “When you play music, it’s not about the paper. It’s not about the chart. It’s about the ears. That’s how we grew up in Africa. Of course, it’s important to learn music, to learn how to notate, but I think the most important thing is to develop your ears.”
Loueke finds that his music also translates well with audiences. “Talking is not my thing. I like to play. That’s what I do. That’s how I connect with people. Even when people don’t even speak my language or don’t understand what I’m saying, they still can get a feeling, get an idea. People always go home with something in their mind. It’s important, as an artist, to be able to share that without words. Of course, I can do that with words, but I personally prefer to let the music talk.”

Amidst the wide variety of music available today, Loueke’s truly sticks out, and his path to that destiny could have never been planned. “I never thought I would meet one day Herbie Hancock: I mean even shake his hand, or Wayne Shorter. I want to say it’s a dream come true, but I can’t even say that because it wasn’t even part of my dream.”

Unlikely as seems, even to Loueke himself, he is now an established member of the jazz community, with two solo releases for Blue Note Records, and an appearance on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-award winning effort: The River. He has an open mind about music, believing that “every music has a message, even if you don’t get it.” He is sure to be around, influencing those within and outside the jazz world for many years to come.

Here are the two pieces Lionel Loueke played at the interview:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

This Friday @ 7PM: Dave Holland

Born in 1946 in Wolverhampton, England, Dave Holland was a steady figure on the London jazz scene when Miles Davis saw him at the fabled Soho jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in1968, playing in a combo that opened for the Bill Evans Trio. “Miles heard something in his sound and his ideas," recalled Jack DeJohnette, who was Evans’s drummer on the date. A month later, Holland was on the bandstand with Davis at Count Basie’s Harlem nightclub. He then joined the rhythm section on Filles de Kilimanjaro, and the revolutionary In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew sessions. It was a heady two years, but Holland was quickly developing his own ideas about music.

Eager to pursue his own radical new sounds, Holland did what many of his peers would not have contemplated. He quit Davis’ band, giving up the arena gigs at vast venues like Madison Square Garden to commit to the creation of his own music. And then he got even busier. The 1970s found Holland prolific. Solo, and in collaboration, he became a dominant voice in the new music. Along with fellow Miles alum Chick Corea, he formed the shortlived supergroup Circle, and then joined Rivers for the epochal Conference of the Birds. The 1972 album, one of Holland’s first for the ECM label, was a quartet session that also featured multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul (both of Circle). Inspired by the birds that frequented the yard of Holland’s London home, and a 12th century Persian epic written by Farid ud-Din Attar, the album became a classic: outward-thinking music that made the avant-garde swinging and coherent, suffused in feeling yet attentive to form. Holland also explored the essence of his instrument in the duo record with Barre Phillips, Music for Two Basses (1971) and the remarkable solo album Emerald Tears (1977).

It was Holland’s strengths as a collaborator that marked many of his most notable efforts of the decade. His ongoing association with Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler saw Holland’s presence on a slew of important sessions, including a pair of improvisatory duets with Rivers and multiple credits on Braxton’s Arista recordings, such as the splendid New York (Fall 1974). Joining forces with DeJohnette again and guitarist John Abercrombie, Holland joined the collective Gateway trio from 1975-77 recording a pair of albums for ECM. (The trio recorded twice again in the 1990s and continues to play the occasional concert).

Ever versatile, Holland also recorded with folk and rock musicians. As the only acoustic bassist living in Woodstock, NY, at the time, the Englishman was in demand. Michael Cuscuna, who produced several Braxton sessions with Holland on board, solicted his talents for Bonnie Raitt’s Give It Up. Holland also got in the studio with bluegrass legend Vassar Clements and John Hartford. (It was in the same spirit that Holland found himself jamming with Jimi Hendrix one fleeting night in 1969 with drummer Buddy Miles).

Holland formed his first working quintet in 1983, featuring alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, trumpeter Wheeler and trombonist Julian Priester. A series of albums recorded over the next four years – including Jumpin’ In, Seeds of Time, and Razor’s Edge – laid the foundation for Holland’s songbook.

Subsequently, he formed the Dave Holland Trio (with Coleman and DeJohnette) for the 1988 album Triplicate, and teamed with Coleman, electric guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith for Extensions in 1989.

The bassist also continued to enjoy strong collaborations with a vast range of his peers, often connecting with celebrated figures from the previous generation of jazz icons. The following year, Holland got together in a unique trio of jazz legends, drummer Billy Higgins and pianist Hank Jones to record The Oracle – a genuine power summit. Other stellar projects included Question & Answer with Pat Metheny & Roy Haynes as well as Like Minds with Gary Burton. This has been a consistent pattern in Holland’s career. During the ‘90s, he renewed an affiliation, begun in the 1970s, with Joe Henderson, joining the tenor saxophonist on So Near (So Far), Porgy & Bess, and the Joe Henderson Big Band. Likewise, Holland reunited with vocalist Betty Carter, touring and recording the live album Feed the Fire. Fellow Davis album Herbie Hancock invited Holland to tour with him in 1992, subsequently recording The New Standard, Holland joined Hancock’s band again in 1996 and, more recently, was part of the sessions for River: The Joni Letters, winner of the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year.

Holland also formed his current quintet, which includes tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks and, a more recent addition, drummer Nate Smith. Among their notable recordings are Not for Nothin, Prime Directive and Extended Play.

In 2005, Holland formed Dare2 Records, after a 34-year relationship with ECM Records, the label where he became a signature artist. Originally, Holland created Dare2 Records as an imprint “to have more control over the entire process of releasing an album,” he says. “But in the long term, there’s a lot of promise in making music this way, especially with the changing environment in the recording industry.” Sharing the bandstand with the best of a younger generation of players in his fan-favorite quintet, he now has three albums out on Dare2: the Grammy-award winning Overtime (2005), Critical Mass (2006) and Pass It On (2008). The debut recording from the Dave Holland Octet, entitled Pathways, will be released in the fall of 2009 on Dare2 also. As he has in his music, Holland has embraced change and new ideas in business like few of his generation or younger.

Here is a clip of Dave Holland playing at the Montreal Jazz Festival with his quintet, including our interviewee from two weeks ago, Chris Potter.

Monday, March 8, 2010

This Friday @4PM: Chris Potter

A world-class soloist, accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, saxophonist Chris Potter has emerged as a leading light of his generation. Down Beat called him "One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet" while Jazz Times identified him as "a figure of international renown." Jazz sax elder statesman Dave Liebman called him simply, "one of the best musicians around," a sentiment shared by the readers of Down Beat in voting him second only to tenor sax great Sonny Rollins in the magazine's 2008 Readers Poll.

A potent improvisor and the youngest musician ever to win Denmark's Jazzpar Prize, Potter's impressive discography includes 15 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 albums. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his solo work on "In Vogue," a track from Joanne Brackeen’s 1999 album Pink Elephant Magic, and was prominently featured on Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning album from 2000, Two Against Nature. He has performed or recorded with many of the leading names in jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, John Scofield, the Mingus Big Band, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas, Ray Brown and many others.

His most recent recording, Ultrahang, is the culmination thus far of five years’ work with his Underground quartet with Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, and Nate Smith on drums. Recorded in the studio in January 2009 after extensive touring, it showcases the band at its freewheeling yet cohesive best.

Since bursting onto the New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney (who himself had played as a young man alongside the legendary Charlie Parker), Potter has steered a steady course of growth as an instrumentalist and composer-arranger. Through the '90s, he continued to gain invaluable bandstand experience as a sideman while also making strong statements as a bandleader-composer-arranger. Acclaimed outings like 1997’s Unspoken (with bassist and mentor Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Scofield), 1998’s Vertigo, 2001’s Gratitude and 2002’s Traveling Mercies showed a penchant for risk-taking and genre-bending. "For me, it just seemed like a way of opening up the music to some different things that I had been listening to but maybe hadn’t quite come out in my music before," he explains.

Potter explored new territory on 2004’s partly electric Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (with bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hays) then pushed the envelope a bit further on 2006’s Underground (with guitarist Wayne Krantz, electric pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith). As he told Jazz Times: "I've wanted to do something more that seems to be in the air, all around us. But also keep it as free as the freest jazz conception."

He continued in this electrified, groove-oriented vein with 2007’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (with guitarist Adam Rogers replacing Krantz in the lineup). Says Potter of the adventurous new path he’s carved out for himself with his bass-less Underground quartet: “There was a point where I felt like the context I had been using before wasn’t quite working to express what I wanted or to move forward in some kind of way. My aesthetic as a saxophonist has always been based in Bird and Lester Young and Sonny Rollins and all the other greats on the instrument. What I’ve learned from them in terms of phrasing, sound, and approach to rhythm I’ll never outgrow. However music’s a living thing; it has to keep moving. I’ve been touched by many forms of music, like funk, hip hop, country, different folk musics, classical music, etc., and for me not to allow these influences into my music would be unnecessarily self-limiting. The difficulty is incorporating these sounds in an organic, unforced way. It helps me to remember I want people to feel the music, even be able to dance to it, and not think of it it as complicated or forbidding. If I can play something that has meaning for me, maybe I’ll be able to communicate that meaning to other people, and the stylistic questions will answer themselves.”

Looking back over his 20 years since arriving in New York, Potter says, “I’ve had the chance to learn a lot from all the leaders that I’ve worked with. Each gave me another perspective on how to organize a band and make a statement. It’s taught me that any approach can work, as long as you have a strong vision of what you want to do.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Christian McBride: Pushing Himself & Inspiring Others

Christian McBride is only thirty-seven, but he's already made a remarkable impact on the jazz community. He's been a high profile musician for nearly twenty years, and at this point, he could do just about whatever he wants. He came into the interview looking savvy, dressed in a dark suit and twirling a cigar as he nonchalantly answered questions about his illustrious career, but he'd rather not sit back and rest on his laurels. He continues to push himself and those around him in a range of styles and roles, as performer, teacher, creative chair for jazz with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

McBride, who grew up in Philadelphia, has always had music in his blood. His father and great uncle were both professional musicians. "My dad, up until the time I was six or seven years old, was primarily an electric bass player playing in a lot of the great legendary Philly soul groups like Blue Magic, and The Delfonics, Billy Paul, Major Harris--and by the time I got old enough to really appreciate what he was doing. He started working with Mongo Santamaria, so he kind of left the R&B world and started getting into the jazz scene."

His great uncle was playing in a very different setting with avant-garde jazz musicians such as Khan Jamal, Sunny Murray, and Byron Lancaster. On his mother's side, he had another uncle who worked for one of the city's popular African-American radio stations: WHAT. "Between seeing my father play with Mongo, hearing my great uncle playing with the guys from Sun Ra’s band, and then going to an R&B show, I was just surrounded by music every minute of the day.

When he was nine, McBride's mother bought him an electric bass. "I knew the minute I touched it, that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life." His father, who was often on the road, came by to give him his first lesson, showing him how to play 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone.' "I remember thinking, 'wow, this isn’t too difficult. Show me something else.' He showed me a few more songs, and I think I had that electric bass on my body for the next three days straight."

For the next two years or so, McBride’s approach to learning was mostly picking up bass lines he could hear on the radio. When his mother saw that he'd become passionate about that instrument she made a point of sending him to Pepper Middle School, which had one of the better music programs in the city.

When it came to picking an instrument to play in the school orchestra, McBride applied the logic of an eleven-year-old, and decided it would be dumb to take up the acoustic bass. "Why would I want to play two basses, I already play the electric bass." Instead, he tried the trombone, but when he couldn't produce a single sound from the instrument, the teachers suggest he give the acoustic bass a try. After scoping out the instrument, he realized it was just the same as an electric bass, only twice as big and turned on its side, so he started playing the bass line to “Beat It,” and all the teachers looked around and said, “He can play that!" to which Christian quipped, “It’s just a big electric bass, it’s nothing.”

Shortly thereafter, McBride began his formal training on the instrument. His first teacher, Margie Keefe, was actually a cellist, but she introduced him to the beginner books like the Simandl Method and he started learning to read music and the rudiments of music theory. "Slowly but surely I fell madly in love with the acoustic bass, and I'm forever grateful that [my teacher] took that trombone out of my hands."

It was in middle school that McBride also first got into jazz. All his teachers were "professional musicians, and they would bring their Real Books to school. One of the teachers, Mark Johnson, showed me how to read a chord sheet. He brought in Satin Doll, Misty: easy songs like that, which I could pick up quickly."

Once it became apparent that McBride had taken a real interest, his great uncle called and said, “get over here right now. I’ve got something for you.” As McBride recounted, "I went over to his house, and, I’m not exaggerating, his record collection was about as big as this store. He had every record known to man, so he said, 'you know who Paul Chambers is?' 'No.' 'Well I’m going to show you right now.'”

It was 1983, and like every other eleven-year-old, McBride was listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, Cindy Lauper, and everything that was hot at the time. Unlike many jazz aficionados, who can be "dogmatic about what the music is and what other musics aren’t," McBride's great uncle was encouraging of him enjoying all different kinds of music. He remembers being told, “I know you love Michael Jackson, I know you love James Brown, Prince. They’re ‘bad’ too, but just add this on so you can see where it all comes from.” It was this strong influence that led McBride to embrace all different styles of music.

The following year, Ms. Keefe had him audition for the all-city and Settlement Music School jazz bands, which were usually reserved only for senior high school students. McBride showed an exceptional ability on the instrument though, and he made it into both.

It was in the Settlement group that he first met Joey DeFrancesco. McBride remembers, "he was a year older than me, and for the next year, we became inseparable. He was about my earliest musical compadre. We played together every day, and the way he plays now, he played like that back then."

Once they reached high school, attending Philadelphia's High School for Creative and Performing Arts, the two still felt like outsiders, listening to jazz, and constantly conversing about "the Basie band, or Lester Young, or Sarah Vaughan, or Miles, or in Joey’s case a lot of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Charles Earland. I probably know about more organ players than I do bass players hanging out with Joey."

Soon McBride also became friends with Ahmir Thompson [commonly known as ?love, drummer of the popular hip-hop group The Roots], but the three fledgling musicians never hung as a trio. "It would have made sense that we do that, but Joey was a hard-core jazz-head, Quest, was a hardcore funk-head, and I was always caught in the middle philosophically anyway. So, I would hang and play standards with Joey, and then I’d hang with Ahmir, and we’d talk about James Brown all night long."

Around that time, McBride also began playing regular gigs with an old Philadelphia stalwart:, Joe Sudler. Sudler had actually replaced Harry Carney in the Ellington band after Carney passed away and then went on to lead a local big band in Philly, "which was like a rite of passage for all the young cats growing up in Philly. The band was mostly made up of the members of the MFSB band: guys like Zach Zachary...Uri Caine…John Swanna, Bob Howe. All of these local Philly legends were in that band, so Joe started using me just after my fourteenth birthday. It was great because it was real life. I really had to learn how to be a professional quickly. We played a lot of parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs. The experience of that band was unprecedented."

As McBride began to find success as a young musician, he had a team of mentors and teachers who helped him achieve. Among them were such respected Philadelphia educators as Lovett Hines, who drove him to and from all of the gigs with Joe Sudler's band, and Dr. George Allen, the musical director at Overbrook High School, who first introduced him to Wynton Marsalis. Then there was Robert Lamdon, the current baritone player in the Ellington band, who became McBride's "number one mentor." Lamdon turned him onto more modern jazz like Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner, and helped him to remember harmonic progressions without a Real Book.

By the time McBride was graduating from high school, he found Philadelphia stultifying. "I've always said this with great trepidation, but it bothered me a lot--it still bothers me to a certain extent--that a town like Philadelphia, which has such a strong and great legacy of jazz, [was full of musicians that] to me, didn't think big. They were satisfied playing the same songs on gigs. It felt like nobody was really thinking about showing how great they really were. So, I was in Philly just biting my fingernails off just thinking, 'I can't wait to go to New York because I want to see just how good I can really be. I want to see the baddest cats who can challenge me, and make me feel bad, so I can work harder and get better.'"

In 1989, McBride moved to New York and began studying bass at Julliard with the legendary instructor Homer Mensch, but his studies were soon pushed to the backburner, as he was offered a position in Bobby Watson's band. He had been in New York for all of two weeks, "and Bobby came and literally pulled me out of school one day and said, you're working at Birdland this weekend with James Williams and Victor Lewis. I thought, 'oh man, no warm up gig, no minor league game. I got called right to the bigs.' I started working around town a lot, and needless to say, my schoolwork suffered because I'd be playing at the Village Gate, or Bradley's, or the Angry Squire till three, four o'clock in the morning, and I had to be at orchestra rehearsal at eight. It was very tough."

McBride continued to attend classes, but by the end of his freshman year, he dropped out to begin a career, working with Freddie Hubbard, Sting, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Carly Simon, James Brown, Chick Corea, and countless other luminaries.

Ray Brown was a particularly big influence. "The first time I went to see Ray Brown play live I was with Benny Green, and we went to the Blue Note. He was so nonchalant, dancing with the bass, looking around, giving verbal instructions, and he got this big fat woody sound from the instrument, which was coming mostly from the instrument, not the amplifier. He didn't seem to be straining himself, yet he was still putting a nice muscle into the instrument. That floored me. When he said he was going to put together a band specifically for myself and John Clayton called SuperBass, that was the ultimate honor. "

He is quick to point out that not all his great memories were with legends over sixty-five. "Some of my greatest moments as a musician have come with my peers. For many years, the Christian McBride Band, with Ron Blake on saxophones, Geoff Keezer on keyboards, and Terreon Gully on drums, we felt like superheroes every time we went on stage because we could morph into straight ahead guys or into grunge-rock guys in the same tune. We would all look at each other and give our Green Lantern ring flash."

Playing in Freddie Hubbard's band was a particular thrill; or, putting it in terms any ‘video gamer’ would understand, like "playing Madden for the first time on the ‘All-Madden’ level. It's like everything's moving fast, more interceptions, you can't bust those eight, nine-yard runs. You're getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. That's what it was like playing with Freddie Hubbard. To hear somebody play a trumpet like that was just mind-boggling. You listen to him and you go, 'well, are we supposed to match that? Are we supposed to play like he plays? That's not going to happen.'"

McBride did love the challenge though. "I enjoy music that makes me sweat a little bit. I've seen a lot of musicians do this once they get to a certain place in their careers. They'll try to manage the music to make it so they don't have to work so hard. I plan on never doing that."

While he continues to challenge himself, McBride always wants to give back to others. "I always made a very conscious decision that if I was ever in a position where I could help to inspire some young teenager like all those guys did for me: that's a no brainer for me. I can't tell you how important it was when all those great Philly musicians took the time to hire me at fourteen and fifteen and let me come out there and make mistakes, and stumble, and learn, and give me another shot two, three, four, or five, or six times over. I keep them in my heart every single day, so I'm more than happy to pass that on to some up and coming cats."

Christian McBride has already established a legacy to be proud of and a lasting impression on both jazz and the larger musical world, but as he continues to challenge himself, those of us lucky enough to encounter his playing and vivacious personality should look forward to plenty more exciting projects over the years to come.

Here are some extra anecdotes from the interview, with McBride discussing moving to New York, his process for composing, and working with such jazz icons as Ron Carter, Hank Jones, Joe Henderson, and Illinois Jacquet: