Tuesday, December 15, 2009

This Friday @ 4PM: Christian McBride

Christian McBride was born on May 31, 1972 in Philadelphia. Electric bass was Christian's first instrument, which he began playing at age 9, followed by acoustic bass two years later. His first mentors on the instrument were his father, Lee Smith (a renowned bassist in Philly) and his great uncle, Howard Cooper (a disciple of the jazz avant-garde).

While intensely studying classical music, Christian's love for jazz also blossomed. Upon his 1989 graduation from Philadelphia's fertile High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (C.A.P.A.), Christian was awarded a partial scholarship to attend the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York City to study with the legendary bassist, Homer Mensch. That summer, before making the move to the Big Apple, the already in-demand bassist got his first taste of touring, going to Europe with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, and traveling the U.S. with the classical jazz fusion group, Free Flight.

McBride never had a chance to settle into his Juilliard studies. Within the first two weeks of the semester, he joined saxophonist Bobby Watson's band, Horizon. He also started working around New York at clubs such as Bradley's and the Village Gate with John Hicks, Kenny Barron, Larry Willis and Gary Bartz. After one year at Juilliard, McBride made a critical decision to leave school to tour with trumpeter Roy Hargrove's first band, electing "experience with as many musicians as possible" as the best teacher. In August of 1990, he landed a coveted position in trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's band, which lasted until January of 1993.

In 1991, legendary bassist Ray Brown invited the young wunderkind to join him and John Clayton in the trio SuperBass. After being hailed “Hot Jazz Artist” of 1992 by Rolling Stone, Christian continued to prove it as a member of guitarist Pat Metheny's "Special Quartet," which included drum master Billy Higgins and saxophonist Joshua Redman. While recording and touring with Redman the following year, McBride signed to Verve Records in the summer of 1994, recording his first CD as a leader, Gettin' to It. He also graced the big screen playing bass in director Robert Altman's 1940's period piece, Kansas City (1996).

Christian recorded three more career-shaping albums at Verve: Number Two Express (1996), the soul-jazz fusion project A Family Affair (1998 – featuring Christian’s first two songs as a lyricist), and the critically acclaimed SCI-FI (2000), marking the inaugural execution of Christian’s concept of music being boundless by genre. The following year, he continued to expand his audience with two endeavors. He dipped into hip hop with a side project dubbed The Philadelphia Experiment, a “jam band”-inspired CD that reunited Christian with his high school friend, drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (leader of The Roots) and featured keyboardist Uri Caine and guitarist Pat Martino.

Later that year, pop star Sting invited Christian to become a key figure in his 2001 All This Time CD, DVD and tour. Then in 2002, Christian supported George Duke by becoming a member of his band and recording on his landmark album Face the Music: the legendary keyboardist’s first album on his own recording label, BPM. “Christian is a monster on that bass,” Duke states with pride. “It isn’t often these days to find a young musician so dedicated to his craft. Christian is my kind of musician, one that is open to new ideas, good at playing different styles, reads music prolifically and is dedicated to furthering the growth of music not only as a musician, but as a young representative of his profession. There isn’t anyone better. And besides that, he’s a great cat!”

There have been very few artists who truly embody the genuine, heart-felt passion for music in all areas as has Christian McBride. By boldly continuing to leave his mark in areas of musical performance, composition, education and advocacy, he is destined to be a force in music for decades to come.

George Garzone: Shedding New Light On Coltrane

Since the landmark release of Giant Steps, musicians have struggled to explain how John Coltrane created his trademark "sheets of sound." In his new DVD, George Garzone, successfully does just that with his "triadic-chromatic" approach to improvising.

Garzone's new concept for improvisation is a product of more than twenty-five years of teaching at such institutions as the Berklee College of Music, The New England Conservatory, The Manhattan School of Music, and New York University. While his playing today may be classified as avante-garde, Garzone came from modest beginnings, learning the art of swing in the back of a pizza parlor.

Growing up in Boston, Garzone began playing to carry on the family tradition, including a fat sound that he credits as an heirloom of his Calabrian descent. His earliest influence was his Uncle Rocco, a successful tenor saxophonist who'd worked in various big bands during the thirties and forties but gave up music to settle down. In order to support his family, Rocco set up a pizza shop, (Rocco’s Pizza, located at Norfolk and Geneva in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood,) which went on to become a Boston institution unto itself.

George would come by every week, and his uncle would school him in the fundamentals of music, and introduce him to artists like Stan Getz, but it was the Italian culture of romantic music, which so influenced the "family sound" he inherited. Garzone still repeats the words of his uncle, who spoke of "romancing the instrument" and “sensualizing the sound.” As he told the audience, the "sound comes from life experience," likening his uncle's vibrato to something "that you could cut cheese with.”

Eventually, Uncle Rocco realized that his student had outgrown his instruction, and convinced his old friend Joe Viola to take the 15 year-old under his wing. Viola had founded the Berklee College of Music’s Woodwind Department, and taught only their most advanced students, but the relationship was immediately fruitful. “Joe was a guru,” Garzone said. “You could learn just by sitting next to him.”

Garzone officially enrolled at Berklee in 1968, encountering young hotshots like Kenny Werner, Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman, but it was a seventeen year-old Joe Lovano who really blew him away. He first saw Lovano playing in Herb Pomeroy’s band, and recalled, "I never heard anyone play like that before. Joe was playing, and we all left literally crying. I was in tears because I had never experienced music like that."

Shortly thereafter, the two were practicing Coltrane's "Giant Steps" in adjacent practice rooms at Berklee when Lovano literally kicked open the door and grilled him, asking, 'man, what are you practicing?' Garzone, stumped for how to respond, replied with the same question, at which point Lovano introduced himself, beginning a lifelong friendship.

A few years later, fresh out of college, Garzone went on tour with Tom Jones, stopping in Cleveland, where Lovano invited him over to his family's house for a wonderful Italian meal. Garzone "can still smell the tomato sauce" from when he walked in the door.

After the large meal, Garzone was ready to plop on the couch and watch television, but Lovano invited him down to the basement where they jammed along with Lovano's father, "Big T," one of Cleveland's top tenor players. "It was Joe on one side and Big T on the other. We started playing bebop tunes and blues, and they were so intense that they just squeezed me out of there. I couldn't hang with it, and I watched father and son go at it. It was a spectacular moment for me, to see something like that: dad and son, schooling the kid."

After a year in Tom Jones' band, Garzone was stuck back in Boston and in need of work. There he formed his long-running band, The Fringe, with drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood, who also got him a gig teaching at Berklee in the ensemble department.

Eventually he worked his way into teaching saxophone department, and there he began to develop his triadic chromatic approach to improvisation. "This concept, the triadic-chromatic approach, is really coming from Coltrane, but it's something the students really helped me develop because they would come and listen to my band The Fringe every week, improvising freely, and they would ask me, 'how do we do this?' So I had to figure out how I could give them a very layman's version of how to do something that I didn't even know how to do."

As Garzone's reputation grew, he began teaching at multiple institutions in New York and Boston on a weekly basis. It was in his regular drives between the two cities that Garzone listened more closely to Coltrane and discovered "subliminal messages that he left in his improvisation that were very triad-oriented."

Teaching at these schools, Garzone worked with many young virtuosos, whom he needed to give new material to. "When you have students like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Donny McAslin, Branford Marsalis, they're already playing, so you need to go in and find something that challenges them, and that's what I did through figuring out this concept because of these high-level players I've had. These kids can really play. Especially today, I'm dealing with people that can go neck and neck with me on a gig, but the only thing that gets them is this: major triads with half-steps in between, random inversions, don't repeat yourself. That gets them."

It was one student, guitarist Chris Crocco, who really pushed Garzone to clearly formulate and organize his triadic chromatic approach. Crocco studied with Garzone every week for seven years during the nineties, and in Garzone's estimation, he is the only other person, besides himself, who is really fluent in the triadic chromatic vocabulary. The two demonstrate and outline this concept in a brilliant lesson format on Garzone's new DVD: The Music Of George Garzone & The Triadic Chromatic Approach.

While his name may not ring out in the pantheon of jazz tenor players in the way that John Coltrane's does, Garzone's influence on the jazz scene, through the proliferation of his ideas, is immeasurable.

George Garzone plays the standard "I Want To Talk About You," inspired by John Coltrane's rendition, and then speaks about his approach to saxophone and unraveling Coltrane.

Monday, November 30, 2009

This Friday @ 7PM: Jack DeJohnette

Born in Chicago in 1942, Jack DeJohnette is widely regarded as one of jazz music's greatest drummers. He began studying classical piano at the age four, continuing until he was fourteen before starting to play drums with his high school concert band.

In his early years on the Chicago scene, he led his own groups and was equally in demand as a pianist and as a drummer. He played R & B, hard bop, and avant-garde and was active with the experimentalists of the AACM in its early days, with the likes of founder Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman. In 1966, he drummed alongside Rashied Ali in the John Coltrane Quintet.

International recognition came with his tenure in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, one of the first jazz groups to receive cross-over attention, also alerting the world to Keith Jarrett's skills. Jack DeJohnette has collaborated with most of the major figures in jazz history including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Jackie McLean, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Chet Baker, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter, Lee Morgan, Charles Lloyd, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter and Eddie Harris, who is responsible for convincing DeJohnette to stick with drums because he heard DeJohnette's natural talent.

It was in 1968 that DeJohnette joined Miles Davis's group in time for the epochal upheaval marked by Bitches Brew, an album that changed the direction of jazz. In his autobiography, Miles Davis said, "Jack DeJohnette gave me a deep groove that I just loved to play over."

Miles also brought about collaborations with John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. In 1968 he recorded his first album as a leader on the Milestone label, called The DeJohnette Complex, where Jack played melodica along with his mentor Roy Haynes on drums.

Jack began to record as a leader for ECM, with each of his successive groups Directions, New Directions, and Special Edition making important contributions to the evolution of jazz. The New Directions band featured two musicians who would have long-term associations with DeJohnette: John Abercrombie and Lester Bowie. A friend from his Chicago days, Bowie played intermittently with DeJohnette until the end of his life. Most notably, Lester and Jack collaborated on a duo album called Zebra, which was a world beat influenced video soundtrack and CD.

While continuing to lead his own projects and bands, DeJohnette has also been a 25-year member of the immensely popular Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette Trio and appeared on more ECM albums than any other musician.

DeJohnette’s latest release is Peace Time, an hour-long continuous piece of music composed and performed by Jack: “flights of flute, soft hand drumming and the gently percolating chime of cymbal play, moving the piece along a river of meditative delight. Subdued layers of overtone singing and the distant drones of sitars waft in and out like comforting and familiar spirit guides that manifest themselves in sound.” (eMusic)

Here is a clip of Jack DeJohnette playing with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock in 1985:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

John Abercrombie: Searching For A Sound

John Abercrombie took quite a while to find his way in the musical world. A defining artist of the ECM record label, best known for his work with Billy Cobham , but growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut in the 1950's, it wasn't until around the age of nine that he started consciously listening to music.

It would be several more years before he discovered jazz, but he was first drawn to artists like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Years later he realized a connection. ”The thing about that music that I always found interesting was, when I went back to it, years later, I still found that I liked it because there was something still connected to jazz about it that I thought later music wasn’t. Some of the players were really good. Some were probably aspiring jazz players at the time and they wound up in these rhythm and blues bands.”

Right from the start, Abercrombie found he was particularly “attracted to the sound of the electric guitar... I didn’t know the difference between an electric and acoustic guitar. I didn’t even know what electricity was, but I know there was something about the electric guitar, or that sound I was hearing on records that drew me in.”

Noticing his interest, John’s parents bought him a cheap acoustic guitar for forty-nine dollars, but the steel strings always hurt his fingers. He says it was such an awful instrument that he "actually used it to play baseball a few times. I didn’t have a bat; 'well, I’ll use my guitar.'”

Surprisingly, Abercrombie's first encounters with jazz came through the Perry Como television program. Como “was a very low-key kind of a singer. He looked like he was going to die as he was singing. He was beyond mellow, but he had kind of a nice quality to his voice, and there was always a section of his show that was called ‘Dear Perry: Dear Perry would you be so kind to fill a request and sing the song I like best.’
Perry would waddle out, and behind him there was a guitar player on a stool with just a Gibson guitar plugged into an amplifier, and the guy was Tony Mottola.”

What grabbed John’s attention was the pretty chords that Mottola was playing, and he asked his teacher to show him what he was hearing. Note for note, he learned chord-melody renditions of standards like "Tenderly" and "Misty." He recalled that, he didn’t really know what he was doing, “but, like most guitar players, I just knew that if I put my fingers like this, and I did that, I got a sound.”

Eventually, jazz came along as a revelation when some friends played him Barney Kessel. To John’s ear, Kessel's bluesy bebop wasn't a big stretch from the Chuck Berry licks he was familiar with. From there came the music of Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, which he found equally inspiring.

As the 1960's began, Abercrombie started making regular pilgrimages to New York to see jazz at the legendary Birdland club, even though sometimes he wasn’t quite ready for what he was hearing. Once he saw a double bill of the Bill Evans Trio (possibly with Scott LaFaro) and the John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy in 1961, and John remembers thinking at the time that Evans was "too tinkly: like cocktail lounge music," while Coltrane was "too far out." Of course, later on, both became great influences of his.

Abercrombie's first serious study of jazz came at the Berklee School of Music, where he worked with first-year teacher Jack Peterson. Just as John was trying to find his way in the music, Peterson was still searching for the best way to teach. "He was kind of scatter-brained as a teacher because it was his first year of teaching, and it was my first year of learning," but each week, the two would get together and Peterson would tell him, 'well, I don't know what to show you Johnny. Here, try this.'

The next week, Abercrombie would come back and say 'I tried this,' and Peterson would reply 'oh, forget about that. Look at this thing. Have you seen this thing by Ravel?'

Every week was a new adventure, but Abercrombie was making progress and getting exposed to new kinds of music and new schools of thought.

By his second year of college he was gigging regularly with a variety of groups, playing mostly incidental music at restaurants and lounges. There was one memorable stint with a Tijuana-styled brass band where he’d have to dress up in an outlandish frilly yellow outfit. He recalled the bass player joking one night, 'I feel like an explosion on the surface of the sun.'

Eventually, John got to be a regular at a supper club named Paul's Mall, which featured a range of acts including singers, dancers, and comedians. The club was right next to Boston's famous Jazz Workshop, and was owned by the same person, so Abercrombie would take his breaks, walk through the kitchen, and take in a set by John Coltrane or Horace Silver.

It was rare for the kitchen traffic to go the other way, as most of the touring groups never bothered to see what was going on at Paul's Mall, but John remembers the Brecker Brothers stepping in one night during a break in their sets with Silver's band. As Abercrombie recalls, "they liked something they heard, and they invited me to come to New York and audition for a fusion band called Dreams."

He landed that gig, and started making regular trips down to work in New York, gradually meeting more and more of the top musicians on the jazz scene. He took a job with Chico Hamilton, playing in the breaks at a discotheque for two or three months, and though it might not sound like much, it afforded Abercrombie the chance to take his "girlfriend, guitar, and one pair of shoes" down to New York.

John finally made the move there in 1970, got a place in the East Village, and it marked a turning point in his career. As he happily told the audience, "once I moved to New York, I never played another wedding or bar mitzvah."

From there, everything he did was either in the jazz idiom or influenced by it. As Abercrombie recalls, "it was a different time than it is now. There really wasn't a lot of competition for what people wanted me to do. It was the seventies, so it was the Mahavishnu Orchestra time. Everybody wanted to make a record that sounded kind of like Mahavishnu, and there weren't that many guitar players who could sort of cover that--believe it or not. Not that I could, but it was myself, Joe Beck, Sam Brown, and Steve Khan.”

As Abercrombie remembers it, those four guitarists found themselves on nearly every record date because “there was just nobody else. We were the only guys that could sort of cover that [sound,] yet still understood harmony and were more or less jazz musicians. We were just trying to break in, make a living, and meet people, and this is what we got hired to do."

While it might have been a chance to play, learn, and grow, it was not a period John sees as a proud achievement in music. "I think I did some of the worst recordings known to man from about 1968 to 1973." Years later, he heard the late Joe Beck recall the same thing, telling Abercrombie “I made so many shitty records back in the seventies.” The two vowed to someday get together, dredge up all of the horrible music, and see who actually won. Sadly, Beck passed away before that could happen.

Still, those times weren't all bad. "It was kind of fun. In those days, you almost couldn't take it seriously. We were [serious,] but when I go back and listen to some of that stuff I realize we sucked and a lot of the music that was being played sucked, but that was just the times. The sessions were done so quickly and so haphazardly that they couldn't possibly have turned out that well. I think there was something about this fusion kind of music that, this done-in-a-day session didn't work. The music needed more production to make it sound halfway decent."

Besides the production methods, Abercrombie felt the music was "a little superficial. You never heard a drummer go ding-dinga-ding and try to play a swing jazz feel. You never played with an acoustic bass player, and you never played over chord changes, except one."

Abercrombie was getting regular paychecks, playing on a lot of recording dates, but his stature on the national stage really took off when he joined Billy Cobham's band. Abercrombie and Cobham had worked together in Dreams, Cobham moving on to become a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and this new group would continue in that vein. Abercrombie felt the music was "quite good," and said Cobham was "a force to be dealt with, and I loved playing with him."

In those years, Cobham’s band was playing arenas and opening for acts like the Doobie Brothers, The Average White Band, and Chicago. The pay was great, and, "you were on a retainer too, so they would give you money for even the weeks you didn't work. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to keep you going, and you didn't have to find a whole lot of other gigs. You were kind of always on call."

"It just felt really unreal in a way. When you start to play for that many people in those kind of venues, something happens, and there's just no audience contact. You just see these thousands of people out there and there's no connection, and the kind of music you're playing is so loud that there's no intimacy, there's no interaction going on that I was interested in. It was a physically fun music to play. It was more physical than anything. You just felt good to try and play fast, and then Billy was so amazing, he could make anything I played sound good."

After a while, though, Abercrombie began to feel like something was missing. There was very little harmony and no swing feel in the music. "I finally realized this isn't what I set out to do... After years of not getting to do [the kind of music] I had originally fallen in love with, I realized I had to do something, and I had a savior. His name was Jack DeJohnette."

Though they’d never met, DeJohnette had heard of Abercrombie, and called him out of the blue to play some music. Abercrombie went to Jack's house in New Jersey where they played outdoors under the trees with bassist Miroslav Vitous. Saxophonist Steve Marcus, who lived across the valley, heard the music and walked across the field to come play with them as well.

His work with DeJohnette led to a chance meeting with Ralph Towner, one of the pioneers of ECM, who introduced him to Manfred Eicher, founder and owner of the European record label. On his first encounters with the label, Abercrombie said, "I was amazed that this kind of music existed. This was something completely different. It wasn't ding-dinga-ding jazz, and it wasn't bebop. This was something else that I didn't quite know what it was. I was transfixed. I loved the music, but I was also mystified. I felt stronger classical influences and folk influences and things that I hadn't dealt with yet. I was still dealing with earlier jazz and then fusion jazz, and then, just coming out of that, trying to find my way, all of a sudden I heard all this stuff, with strings, and it wasn't chord-change oriented at all."

The new music was revelatory for Abercrombie, and he recorded his first album for ECM in 1974. That record, Timeless, featuring DeJohnette and former Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer, was received incredibly well.

The music Abercrombie was exposed to through ECM opened up new possibilities. As he said, "I was getting in touch with different ways to play improvised music. Yeah, there was swing music, there was Dixieland, and there was bebop, and whatever Miles did, and then here were all these guys without that American tradition, but they'd listen to American jazz. They'd play some of it, but they were also writing their own music, and some of it didn't sound anything like what we do, yet they were improvising, and they were playing, and it sounded really good to me, so I got thrown into some of those situations."

Abercrombie is still very proud of his relationship with the Manfred Eicher and ECM. As he told the audience, "that label has persevered for forty years. That's amazing. There's not many labels that can attest to having this longevity, and also with the kind of music Manfred puts out, it's not, and never has been geared towards the mainstream."

Abercrombie has been a part of ECM for most of those forty years, and his recently released album, Wait Till You See Her, marks his twenty-seventh effort for the label as a leader.

He was eager to talk about the new project where he worked with violinist Mark Feldman. As he pointed out though, "it doesn't have as much to do with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt as somebody might think. As much as I like that music, that was not the inspiration for this particular band. This was more, thinking of Mark Feldman's pure beautiful sound to play my melodies."

Wait ‘Til You See Her, marks the fourth record with this lineup which includes Joey Barron on drums and Thomas Morgan on bass. "They were all done with about one rehearsal: one three-hour rehearsal. Then we head into the studio and take two days to record it, one day to mix. We have a pretty good idea of how we're going to approach a tune, but that can change in the studio because nothing's written in stone. It's a lot of improvising going around all over the place, not only from the musicians, but also the recording engineer, Manfred, and the producer. Everyone's involved when we do one of these records, which is really nice because I've done plenty of record dates where no one's involved."

Over the years, Eicher has given Abercrombie the freedom to experiment, but always pushed him to find sounds that came to define the ECM style.

John has always gravitated to guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall because their notes seemed to sing a little more. In his own sound, Abercrombie was much more reliant on his equipment to develop a unique singing voice though. As he said, "I see the guitar and the amplifier as one."

"Basically the guitar is a piece of lumber. Some are made of a little better lumber than others, but it almost doesn't matter. Once you put an electronic pickup in the guitar, and you have a cable, and you plug it into an amplifier that sits outside of you, your sound's coming out of there... I can understand why the rock 'n' roll players need to use stacks of Marshall amps. This gives them what they want. They need to play that loud. They have to. That's part of the sound. I didn't need to play that loud, but I needed a sound, so I just had to try different things until I came up with it. I realized the guitar was the least important part in my sound. A lot of the possibilities come from whether it's just a single amplifier with no reverberation, or whether it's a stack of Marshalls, or whether it's some sophisticated setup."

It may have taken John Abercrombie some time to find his place in the musical world, but he’s certainly left his imprint on jazz. His unique voice on the guitar can be heard on well over 200 recordings, but he’s far from finished saying his piece.

Here are some excerpts of John Abercrombie speaking at the interview:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This Friday @ 7PM: George Garzone

George Garzone (born September 23, 1950) is a renowned saxophonist and jazz educator residing in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

Garzone is a member of The Fringe, a jazz trio founded in 1972 that includes bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Gullotti, that performs regularly in the Boston area and has toured world wide. The group has released several albums. A veteran jazzman, Garzone has appeared on over 20 recordings.

He began playing the tenor saxophone when he was six, played in a family band and attended music school in Boston. In addition Garzone has guested in many situations, touring Europe with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and performing with Danilo Perez, Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, Rachel Z and John Patitucci among others.

Garzone has pioneered the triadic chromatic approach and students of his have included Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Teadross Avery, Luciana Souza, Mark Turner, Donny McCaslin and Danilo PĂ©rez, to name a few.

In 1995 he recorded a fine tribute to Stan Getz on NYC called Alone; Four's and Two's followed a year later with compatriot Joe Lovano, which earned him four stars in Downbeat magazine, and in 1999, Garzone returned with Moodiology. Fringe in New York was released in summer 2000.

Garzone is a member of the Grammy-winning Joe Lovano Nonet, and performed and recorded with this group at the Village Vanguard in September 2002.

Here is a clip of Garzone playing with The Fringe in 2006:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Benny Golson: Exceeding Even His Own Expectations

To the average person, Benny Golson might be most recognized as “that guy who appeared in the end of that Tom Hanks movie.” This would, of course, be a reference to the cameo Golson made as himself in the pinnacle scene of Steven Spielberg’s 2004 feature, The Terminal. To jazz enthusiasts though, he is known as the man behind such standards as “Killer Joe,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Along Came Betty,” “Stablemates,” “Are You Real?,” and “Whisper Not,” while establishing a unique voice as a tenor saxophonist in such groups as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and his own Jazztet with Art Farmer.

When he first began playing music, Golson did not foresee a career in the jazz world though. At the age of nine, Golson started playing classical piano, and for the next five years, he “went at it assiduously.” He hoped to become a concert pianist, which, of course, “got a few chuckles in the ghetto. You know, everybody’s playing the blues but I’m talking about Chopin.”

It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Golson was converted to jazz. As he recalls, he went to see Lionel Hampton at the Earle Theater. At that point, Golson had never seen a live band and “it was so exciting. It was like a whole revelation. Something new was happening to me... I was like a Beatles groupie, but silently, ‘cause my heart was pounding and I was bungee-jumping and sky-diving inside.”

As the curtains opened, saxophonist Ornette Cobb walked towards the front of the stage to take a solo, and Golson recalls, “when he started playing this solo, right there the piano started to fade.”

From that point, Golson was hooked, and after doing his homework everyday, he would “turn on the radio and listen for saxophone solos.”

Golson may have been a real innovator in terms of listening technique though. He recalls that in science class one time, his teacher hit a tuning-fork, and then placed it on his forehead. He was amazed to find how the sound enveloped him, so he found a way to listen to records with that same intensity, placing the stylus from the phonograph in his teeth, which he then dropped to the record surface. Golson told the audience, “I think I discovered stereo because man, that band jumped in my head.”

He had one problem though: synchronization. It took some work to move with the record at the right speed, but once he got it, he started showing some of his friends. Golson remembers, “we could always tell who was doing that because they came out on the scene with smudges on their faces.”

His mother soon caught on to his appreciation for saxophone and asked him whether he wanted to play one. Golson said “yes,” so she continued, ‘well, what kind would you like?’ At the time, he did not know the correct nomenclature, so he told her, “the kind that’s got the curve in it,” referring to the tenor.

Golson recalls that his family “was still on welfare,” but the next day, his mother came home carrying a long case in her hand. He was hoping maybe he’d get “an old, dirty, greasy” saxophone from the pawn shop, but when she opened the case it was a brand new tenor. The only problem was, he thought it would come together, but the instrument came in a set of pieces.
Thoroughly confused, Golson’s mother suggested they take the instrument down to a neighbor who played the saxophone. After he had demonstrated how to put the instrument together, the neighbor put on a recording of Duke Ellington playing “Main Stem,” and he proceeded to play along with Ben Webster’s solo. Golson couldn’t believe the sounds coming out of his own saxophone.

The neighbor then handed the instrument to Golson, who had no idea what to do, and he remembers it sounding like “an animal being led to slaughter.” Being that it was summer, when he started to practice his saxophone everyday, all of the windows were open, and he recalls, “everybody on the block could hear me, and everybody wanted to kill me.”

Before long, he gained a reputation as a saxophonist though, and he knew he was getting better when he would go to the market and people would ask whether he knew “Stardust” and “Don’t Blame Me.” In order to get the neighborhood on his side, while he was “doing all of the horrible stuff,” he learned the melodies to those tunes.

Golson learned those pieces, but he was more interested in emulating his idols, including Don Byas, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins. In particular, he remembers transcribing Hawkins’ hit recording of “Body & Soul” from 1939. Hawkins became one of his greatest influences, and Golson learned this solo so well, he ended up playing it at several school functions. He gained a reputation as the kid who played “Body & Soul.”

As he got older, Golson became close friends with John Coltrane, another young musician in Philadelphia, and the two worked together to figure out the music scene. Golson remembers they went to see Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play in town once, and Parker “was so different.” They went to get his autograph and then walked with him to another gig he had at a jazz club three or four blocks away. Coltrane carried Parker’s case on the left, and Golson walked along the right quizzing Parker about what kind of horn he used, “what kind of reed, what kind of mouthpiece.”

The two starstruck teens went home and tried to mimic what Parker was doing with a new reed and mouthpiece. Coltrane called up Golson a few weeks later asking, “did anything happen?” Golson said, “no,” and Coltrane replied, “me neither.” Looking back, Golson said, I guess it “was more than the mouthpiece and the reed, but he was playing so different, I didn’t try to grasp the style, it just sort of opened my mind up to other possibilities.”

Not long after, the two fledgling musicians drove up to New York for the first time. They figured they would see famous people everywhere, but they could not pick out a single recognizable person on the street, so they thought they’d head up to the Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, it happened to be a rhythm and blues revue that night.

Just when they were about to give up hope, Golson spotted Thelonious Monk walking down the street towards them. The two looked at each other, struggling to think what they might say to him when he passed. Golson, sixteen at the time, figured he was hip, so he took the appropriate stance, dropping his right shoulder and letting his arm dangle by his side. When Monk finally approached, Golson asked, “Mr. Monk, can you tell us where something is happening?” Monk scoped out the two and then replied, ‘you kids are too young to be messing with dope.’

Afraid he’d blew his chance, Golson inquired, “no, we want to see the musicians,” to which Monk replied, “you’re not going to see the musicians. Everybody’s sleeping. They worked last night.’

Golson and Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, a bit disappointed at their lost opportunity, but when all of their friends asked ‘what happened?’ Golson would told them, “yeah we went up to New York. We were hanging out with Monk.’

Back home, they still had trouble sometimes getting recognized for their talents. They thought they were doing well playing for a local group called Jimmy Johnson and the Ambassadors, but one night, Johnson sent his son over to tell the two saxophonists their gig that night was cancelled. Golson’s mother, realizing that the job couldn’t have possibly been cancelled only two hours in advance of the show encouraged them to head down to the theater anyways and see if it had gone on without them. Sure enough it had, and the two sulked back to Golson’s house. Golson told the audience he was just about ready to cry—although he and Coltrane were “too hip to cry in front of each other”—but his mother was waiting there to comfort them, and she told the boys, ‘don’t worry, one day the two of you will be so good they won’t be able to afford you.’

Only a few years later, the two would indeed make their mark on the jazz world. At the recommendation of Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane was called up to join Miles Davis’ band. About a week after Coltrane went up to New York to start rehearsing, he called on Golson to see if he had some tunes, as Davis was short on material. Golson had a knack for writing even then, and he’d been handing pieces out to people whenever he had the chance. He did not want to be too cocky though, so he just sent up one new composition of his, which had an odd lilt to it. To Golson’s shock, Davis ended up recording this piece, the now standard, “Stablemates.”

This was quite a boon for Golson, as many of the people whom he’d given charts too before realized they had other compositions by this young writer who was recorded by Davis, and he started to gain a reputation as a budding composer.

According to Coltrane, Davis really dug the new tune, but years later, Golson got to meet Davis himself, at which point Davis simply asked him, “what were you smoking when you wrote that?”

Golson was restless to get out of Philadelphia himself, so he took the first gig he could find that would get him on the road, joining Bull Moose Jackson and his Bufallo Bearcats, a rhythm and blues group in which Tadd Dameron was playing piano at the time. Dameron took Golson under his wing, teaching him some of his thought process behind composition and arranging. Before too long, fans began giving credit to Dameron for Golson’s arrangements, as he so matched his style. Golson happily told the audience, “I owe my beginnings as a composer to Tadd Dameron.”

It may have been a small beginning, but this got Golson well on his way, and throughout the 1950's he had the opportunity to play as a sideman in several notable groups, such as Lionel Hampton’s Jazz Orchestra, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where he brought in several fellow young Philadelphians, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merrit.

Speaking about Blakey, Golson told the crowd Art was “the biggest liar in the world, but the best drummer I’ve ever played with in my whole life. That man did not know how not to swing, and he was didactic. He was a natural teacher: intuitive. He was not academic, but he knew all the right things. He just had the ability to swing, and he could sound like Art Blakey no matter whose drums he was playing and whose cymbals he was using.”

In the early 1960’s, a few years after leaving Blakey’s group, Golson decided to put together a sextet with Art Farmer that eventually became know as the Jazztet. It was Golson’s responsibility to bring in the piano player, so he called a young guy he’d heard down in Philadelphia recently: McCoy Tyner, who was himself eager to hit the road at that time.

As Tyner drove up to New York for the first time though, his car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike. Golson did not have a car at the time, so he couldn’t meet him, but he called a friend to go pick him up. Eventually Tyner made it and played with the Jazztet for about a year, but it was John Coltrane who had been gracious enough to pick up Tyner in the middle of New Jersey, and before long, Tyner left to join Coltrane’s group.

Looking back, Golson is happy that Tyner went to play with Coltrane though, because with “the way McCoy was playing, he really belonged with John Coltrane.”

As the 1960’s progressed, Golson started working more on orchestration under the tutelage of Henry Bryant. He did not have much use for it on the New York jazz scene, but soon Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson convinced Golson to join them out in Hollywood, working in the movie business. Before long, he was writing music for such landmark television programs as Mission: Impossible, The Partridge Family, and M*A*S*H.

In fact, it was because he lived in Los Angeles that Golson became subject for The Terminal. When the project was first proposed to him, he was a little leery. He’d auditioned for movies a few times before. Twice Woody Allen had asked him to come play a part, but each time he got to the audition and found it was a cattle-call, which left a bad impression.

Spielberg specifically sought out Golson though. In the film, Golson plays the only person from the famous photograph “A Great Day In Harlem,” which the main character, played by Tom Hanks, does not have the autograph of. He is seeking out Golson to complete his collection. As Golson told the audience though, “at that time, Sonny Rollins was still alive, Hank Jones, Horace Silver, Marian McPartland, Johnny Griffith.” He had to ask Spielberg, “why me?”

Spielberg had plenty of people he could have used to fill the role, but he told Golson he had wanted to use him because he used to go and see him play when he was a student at California State University Long Beach. Golson was surprised to find that Spielberg and Hanks loved jazz as much as he did, and he continues to keep in touch with both of them.

It is safe to say that Golson’s mother made a fair prediction as to the careers of those two teenage boys. John Coltrane, of course, went on to redefine the direction of jazz with touchstone albums such as Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme, creating his famous sheets of sound, and giving prominence to the free jazz movement. Golson, oddly, the more talkative of the two, took a quieter route to the top, but he has nonetheless made a profound mark on jazz with both his compositions and blissful tenor playing. Golson himself has become an idol to which others aspire to follow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Friday @ 7PM: John Abercrombie

Over a career spanning more than 40 years and nearly 50 albums, John Abercrombie has established himself as one the masters of jazz guitar. Favoring unusual sounds (he played electronic mandolin on McCoy Tyner's 1993 album 4x4) and nontraditional ensembles, Abercrombie is a restless experimenter, working firmly in the jazz tradition while pushing the boundaries of meter and harmony.

Born on December 16, 1944 in Port Chester, New York, Abercrombie grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he began playing the guitar at age 14. Like many teenagers at the time, he started out imitating Chuck Berry licks. But it was the bluesy music of Barney Kessel that attracted him to jazz. Abercrombie enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music and teamed up with other students to play local clubs and bars. One of those clubs, Paul's Mall, was connected to a larger club next door, the Jazz Workshop, where Abercrombie ducked in during his free time to watch John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Abercrombie's appearances at Paul's Mall led to several fortuitous meetings. Organist Johnny Hammond Smith spotted the young Abercrombie and invited him to go on tour while he was still a student. During the same period, Abercrombie also met the Brecker Brothers, who invited him to become a new part of their group Dreams, which would become one the prominent jazz-rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Abercrombie appears on the group's eponymous debut album.

After graduating from Berklee, Abercrombie headed to New York, where he quickly became one of New York's most in-demand session players. He recorded with Gil Evans, Gato Barbieri, and Barry Miles, to name a few, and he was also a regular with Chico Hamilton's group.

It was in Billy Cobham's band, which also featured the Brecker brothers, that Abercrombie first started to build a following though. He was featured on several of Cobham's albums, including Crosswinds, Total Eclipse, and Shabazz, all of which staked new ground in fusion jazz. The group was booked into large concert halls and arenas, appearing on bills with such top rock attractions as the Doobie Brothers. It was not, however, the direction Abercrombie had hoped his career would go. "One night we appeared at the Spectrum in Phildelphia and I thought, what am I doing here?" he said. "It just didn't compute."

In the early 1970s, Abercrombie ran into Manfred Eicher, who invited him to record for ECM. The result was Abercrombie's first solo album, Timeless, in which he was backed by Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette. Abercrombie's second album, Gateway, was released in November 1975 with DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland; a second Gateway recording was released in June 1978.

Abercrombie continued on this path, playing in a variety of settings for ECM over the next 30 years, recording with the likes of Ralph Towner, Peter Erskine, George Mraz, Adam Nussbaum, and Joey Barron, continually pushing the boundaries of jazz and music as a whole.

Here is a clip of Abercrombie playing with the Kenny Wheeler Quintet, also featuring Peter Erskine (drums), John Taylor (piano), and Palle Danielsson (bass).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lenny Pickett: Pushing The Boundaries Of Music

For Lenny Pickett, the path to success and notoriety as director of the Saturday Nigh Live band was not at all clear, but the experiences he gathered along the way helped to shape a very unique musician who consequently redefined the role of the saxophone in popular music. Over the course of his career, he has played with such diverse acts as David Bowie, Frankie Valley, Meatloaf, The Talking Heads, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Cindy Lauper, and Paul McCartney, often as a member of the Tower Of Power Horns. It has been a career that has often lacked definition, but in Pickett’s opinion, that’s exactly the way it should be.

His first musical inspiration came from an Art Linkletter television program. Picket remembers “the theme song had a clarinet in it.” He was drawn to the sound of that instrument, and so he told his parents he wanted to play it, only at the time, he didn’t know what it was called. He recalls it having that “sort of oodly oodly sound,” so he called it the “oodlehorn.” Of course, nobody around him knew what he was talking about, so several years went by before, in elementary school, he was demonstrated all of the instruments. When it came to clarinet, he knew it was “that one. That’s the sound I want to play, so I got my folks to rent me a clarinet for a while and proceeded from there.”

Pickett’s parents, who split when he was young, exposed him to a broad range of music. His father “was never a musician, he was a mathematician, but he felt like classical music was something he should like.” On the other hand, his mother, a beatnik, “lived a sort of bohemian existence.” At her house, Pickett would always find “jazz on the radio,” and she would take him to barbecues where they listened to R&B. She would take him to poetry readings and jazz festivals, and at the age of eight, he saw John Handy play at Stern Grove in San Francisco.

At the time, Pickett did not see himself as a musician. “I just was aware that they existed.” This would begin to change when his mother remarried to a jazz musician. His new stepfather would encourage Pickett to practice. Before long, Pickett would accompany him to jam sessions, playing with people who may not have been “well known, but they understood the music as well as anybody did.” On one particular occasion, when Pickett was thirteen, he remembers improvising together with the other musicians and thinking, “you know what? I can’t ever do anything else. This is my universe from now on.”

In junior high school, Pickett had a teacher who could sense he was looking for something in music, and she let him take home a tenor saxophone the summer after 8th grade. When he first started playing the instrument though, he tried to use his clarinet technique, forcing the instrument to “do things that it really wasn’t intended to do.” This led to Pickett’s comfort playing in the altissimo register of the instrument, a unique quality that set him apart throughout his career.

A few years later, his mother moved to a new neighborhood where Pickett would meet his mentor, avante-garde jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson. Wilson had polio when he was young, and the two formed a bond, as Pickett would run errands for Wilson and help him get outside more, while Wilson would show Pickett more “esoteric aspects of jazz harmony” and got him transcribing Charlie Parker solos. Pickett found that for anything he asked, Wilson “had something to offer.”

Pickett would not follow Bert Wilson’s path though, and his playing hardly resembles Charlie Parker. He had always been an honors student, but by the middle of the ninth grade, Pickett dropped out of school and began to support himself by playing saxophone in rock bands. As he explains, “it was kind of tough for a fourteen-year-old white kid to break into the jazz business... I just didn’t look the part.”

Pickett’s mother also picked up and left when he was sixteen, furthering the need for a job. Having grown up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin along with the rest of his peer group, he got into bands playing that music. Pickett told the audience, “it was an automatic way to make a living. We were playing fraternity parties, and dances, and bowling allies, and what have you. Whatever you could find, we got jobs.”

In addition to providing Pickett with an income, he found that these bands were “fun. I really enjoyed it because you were playing for people dancing, you were playing for your peer group sometimes. It was pretty exciting.”

Practicing upwards of six hours a day, Pickett soon became “notorious for being this kid that played the saxophone.” His reputation from various groups and his association with Bert Wilson got the attention of Tower Of Power, who eventually asked him to join them on tour. It was not simply his playing that got Pickett the gig though. As he told the audience, “I think they hired me mostly ‘cause I was just so odd... and I could play these crazy high notes, and I could do this dance, and they liked it, and they thought, ‘well, we’ll hire him.’”

Pickett may have been an enigma to some, but he sees himself as simply the product of a very particular upbringing. He would tell the audience, “when I’m playing, I’m just playing the sum total of all of my influences at the moment.”

Those influences were more diverse than just the artists introduced to him by his parents and mentors though. Growing up in Berkley, California, Pickett was also exposed to a lot of gospel, blues, and early rock, which he would find on 78's at the Salvation Army. As he explained, nearby Oakland “was a ship-building area, so during the wars, when they started building a lot of ships, a lot of people came up from the south to work in those shipyards,” and their records, like anybody else’s, eventually ended up in the second-hand shops which Pickett frequented.

His exposure and love of a diverse array of music informed the choices Pickett made over his career. This, coupled with his willingness to say “yes” to any gig led him down a very particular path. Pickett noted, this approach “may have gotten me into a few places I shouldn’t, but I like the adventure.”

The adventure, through a notably odd series events, eventually took him to Saturday Night Live. Pickett recounted the “series of happy accidents” as starting because he wrote some music, which he played “at a little place called Dance Theater Workshop.” A woman there, named Marta Renzi, asked if he would record the piece, and the engineer he eventually found to help him record recommended he play a benefit show at the Apollo Theater. The benefit turned into a triple-platinum selling album and an HBO special featuring David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick of the Temptations. They liked the way he played, so he went on the road with the band, which included guitar player G.E. Smith, who happened to be married to Saturday Night Live cast member, Gilda Radner. Not long after, Howard Shore, then musical director for the television show, was looking for someone “who could make that saxophone sound [they] used to have on the show.” G.E. recommended him, Pickett auditioned, and the rest is history.

Twenty-five years later, Pickett is now himself musical director for the program, a job he admits often has little to do with making music, as he spends much of the week sitting through meetings. He likened the band’s work on the show to “rodeo clowns,” as they try to keep the live audience involved while nothing else is going on, diverting attention away from the cameras and behind the scenes work of the show. The job has allowed him to settle in New York though, giving him a chance to raise a family.

Looking back, Pickett realizes that if he hadn’t said “yes to Marta Renzi to make her music, for this dance piece that she wanted to do, [he] would be doing something completely different.” This alternate path may have led to more recording–to this day, Pickett only has one album, Borneo Horns, to his credit. That album featured an odd instrumentation of three saxophones and drums, and as Pickett explained, “it was really hard to get people to take it seriously, but its what was I was hearing in my head at the time.”

There is no doubt that Pickett will continue to push the boundaries of music though. As he told the crowd, “I get bored really easily, and I like to do things that are different.” Surely Pickett will continue to shape the course of music, just as he has over the past forty years, venturing into unclassifiable territory.

Here are some video clips from the interview:

This first one is a performance on tenor saxophone with a recorded track which Pickett put together of different sampled pieces of music.

Pickett later played solo clarinet, which can be heard in this clip.

Here Pickett speaks about his childhood and the music that informed his career.

Pickett discusses his time with Tower of Power and on Saturday Night Live.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

This Friday: Benny Golson

Multitalented and internationally famous jazz legend, - a composer, arranger, lyricist, producer - and tenor saxophonist of world note, Benny Golson was born in Philadelphia, PA on January 25, 1929.

Raised with an impeccable musical pedigree, Golson has played in the bands of world famous Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Earl Bostic and Art Blakey.

Few jazz musicians can claim to be true innovators and even fewer can boast of a performing and recording career that literally redefines the term "jazz".

Benny Golson has made major contributions to the world of jazz with such jazz standards as: Killer Joe, I Remember Clifford, Along Came Betty, Stablemates, Whisper Not, Blues March, Five Spot After Dark, Are you Real?

For more than 55 years, Golson has enjoyed an illustrious, musical career in which he has not only made scores of recordings but has also composed and arranged music for: Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Mama Cass Elliott, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Shirley Horn, David Jones and the Monkees, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Anita O'Day, Itzhak Perlman, Oscar Peterson, Lou Rawls, Mickey Rooney, Diana Ross, The Animals (Eric Burden), Mel Torme, George Shearing, and Dusty Springfield.

Come to listen and ask questions of Benny this Friday at 7:00 at Barnes & Noble (86th & Lexington).

Here is a clip of Benny Golson playing his classic "I Remember Clifford," when it was still a new composition, with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, featuring Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bobby Timmons on piano:

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lenny Pickett Live Interview At Barnes & Noble (NYC)

On Friday, October 30th at 7:00 p.m. Lenny Pickett will be joining our interview series at Barnes & Noble. Lenny Pickett is a saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist, composer, arranger, music director and teacher, and one of the most unique and talented musicians on the scene today. He was a member of the Tower of Power Horns from 1972 until 1981, and since 1985 has been the tenor saxophone soloist with the Saturday Night Live band. He has served as the Saturday Night Live band's musical director since 1995. He is known particularly for his skill in the altissimo register (executed by using a combination of embouchure control, air stream control, and alternate fingerings), which can be heard during the opening credits of each episode of Saturday Night Live.

Pickett grew up in Berkeley, California. He has no formal musical training, did not attend high school beyond the ninth grade and did not attend college. Except for a brief period of study with the jazz saxophonist Bert Wilson (another player known for his facility with the altissimo register) after dropping out of high school in Berkeley, he is completely self-taught in the saxophone. While with the Tower of Power Horns, which he joined when he was 18 years old, he performed with Elton John and many other rhythm and blues and soul groups. He has also worked as a saxophonist and an arranger for artists including David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson. As a composer, he has written for his group, the Borneo Horns, and has received a number of commissions to write works mixing classical and popular idioms for a variety of musical ensembles, including the New Century Saxophone Quartet, as well as music for theater and collaborations with dancers, poets and filmmakers.

Barnes and Noble
150 East 86th Street
New York, NY 10028

Chico Hamilton: Still Swingin' His Keester Off

You may have never heard of drummer Chico Hamilton before, but chances are you’ve heard him play. He has worked with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Slim & Slam, T-Bone Walker, Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett, Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne, with whom he spent eight years before striking out on his own as a band leader in 1955. Over the years, he also discovered many talented young musicians and introduced the jazz world to such notables as Jim Hall, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Lloyd.

Now 88, Hamilton looks a bit frail, but his wit is as sharp as ever. In this interview, he took over before Dr. Schoeder could get in even a word, telling the crowd, “you can ask me anything you want to ask me. First of all, I was born.” This got a slight chuckle from the audience, but after a long pause, he continued, “upstairs by the kitchen sink. And how do I know? I heard the water running.” Discontented with the mild response to his joke, Hamilton told the audience “I ain’t gonna be no funnier than that.” The crowd responded much more heartily to this last comment, although the stated fact was false.

Hamilton had many more one-liners throughout the afternoon. When a member of the audience got up to leave halfway through the interview Hamilton was quick to ask whether he was “boring” him, insisting “you’re gonna miss the best part.” Again, he milked the scene, pausing before telling the crowd “I’m gonna take my clothes off.”

It was Hamilton’s wealth of stories that held the audience’s focus for more than an hour though. He told the gathering about one occasion, when he was about ten years old, he got a gig playing with a few of his young peers and one their fathers, who led them on trumpet. Every time he’d go to pick up his sticks to play with that group though, the elder trumpeter would look at him and say, “put them sticks down boy, get them brushes.” This was revelatory for Hamilton, who claimed that on every gig he had since then, the most money he ever made was when he kept “time with those brushes, playing for them girl singers.”

Throughout the afternoon, Hamilton was full of such wisdom. He was grateful to the people that helped him rise from being a “lowly street urchin,” and in return, he hoped to pass on some of the lessons he’d learned to the next generation of musicians.

Not all of these lessons came easy though. Hamilton got his first big break at the age of 16, dropping out of school to join legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band. Within three weeks, he had been fired though. As Hamilton explained, “I could play, I could swing my keester off, I had a hell of an ear, but I couldn’t read music.”

Around that time, the Count Basie Orchestra came to town, and he got a chance to meet his hero, Basie’s drummer Joe Jones. When he finally got a chance to talk to him though, Jones simply told him ‘stay in school.’

His approach to drums was changed when he first saw Art Blakey playing with the Billy Eckstine band. He told the audience, “I never heard anything like that before in my whole life. I didn’t believe this guy. This guy was kicking, keeping time with his right hand. His left hand was doing something. His left foot was doing something different. His right foot was doing something, dancing all over the place, but that rhythm, that thing was there. It shook me up.”

Hamilton was quite the revolutionary himself though, leading one of the first jazz groups not to feature a piano. As he explained, “all the piano players I wanted to play with had their own thing happening.” Consequently, he went into the studio to record with guitarist Howard Roberts and bassist George Duvivier. The resulting 1955 album is one of the first examples of a jazz group where “the rhythm section instruments became the solo instruments.”

He continued to break ground in terms of instrumentation when he formed a band with flautist Buddy Collete, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Carson Smith, and cellist Fred Katz. In speaking about that group, Hamilton explained that the instrumentation was the least of their problems. The group was racially mixed, and their regular gig was at a bar in Long Beach, California, a highly prejudiced Navy town. The place “wasn’t clean. It was nothing but hookers and sailors.” Hamilton asked the crowd, “could you imagine us going in there and playing? These two black dudes and these three white dudes with a cello?” Hamilton and his group did get to play though. The one week gig lasted for six months and the group “turned Long Beach completely around.” Hamilton tacked on, “we even started making money.”

The group gained enough notoriety that Hamilton was soon able to secure a job at Paramount Pictures working as the house drummer, “keeping time for Marilyn Monroe, Sheree North, and all those dance directors.” The Chico Hamilton Quintet was even featured in the 1957 Burt Lancaster classic, Sweet Smell Of Success.

Hamilton insisted that he’d been in the movie business since he was a kid though, beginning as one of “those little jungle dudes” in the Tarzan movies. In those films, Hamilton was able to get fifteen dollars for a day of work. The studio wouldn’t allow anybody back for more than one day though. Hamilton told the audience, “once you’d get painted, I used to hide, so I could get more than one day.” This was a running theme through Hamilton’s career, as he told the crowd later on, “if I didn’t have a gig, I’d go out and make one.”

Hamilton really got the crowd going though, when he demonstrated “the oldest drum beat.” He then handed his microphone over to Dr. Schoeder and began a simple repeated pattern of two claps. He soon began to chant, “Charleston,” right along to his rhythm. Hamilton then got the audience to join him in clapping and chanting the Charleston beat. Before long, he brought the room to a halt, telling the crowd to do it one more time so he could “blow a little bit.” This time he started up the rhythm by singing a great vaudeville-style introduction, and after helping the audience get the beat started once more, he took a wonderful solo, scatting a little melody overtop the beat.

Throughout the afternoon, Hamilton happily recounted story after story, each one making up only a sliver of his long and brilliant career. He continues to make music at a high level, going out on the bandstand and swingin' his keester off. He even put out a new album recently, Twelve Tones Of Love. As the interview came to a conclusion though, Hamilton was asked whether there was anything left for him to accomplish. In his response, Hamilton found an opportunity to get in one last zinger, telling the crowd, “I was thinking about becoming a zillionaire.”

Here are some clips from the interview:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ron Carter: Finding The Right Notes

Ron Carter was the subject of a recent interview at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street, hosted by Dr. David Schroeder, Director of the NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies Program. Although he has been heard in numerous settings, Carter is most notable as the bassist in Miles Davis’ famous “second great quintet” of the mid 1960's. With that group, he was at the forefront of a movement in jazz, altering the course of music history, and eventually leading to the advent of electric instruments in jazz. The innovations and music of that group continues to be studied and analyzed by jazz musicians throughout the world.

Following his stint in the Davis group, Carter went on to an illustrious recording career as both a leader and sideman to numerous artists including Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Jim Hall, Milt Jackson, Joe Henderson, and George Benson. He can be heard on more than 2500 recordings, making him one of the most prolific musicians ever recorded. Recently, Carter has released an album dedicated to Miles Davis, called Dear Miles, and is the subject of a new biography entitled Finding The Right Notes, both of which he promoted at the jazz interview series.

Before a question could be asked though, Carter serenaded the crowd with a couple of duets he played along with guitarist Russell Malone. While the tunes were simple in form–the first loosely based on rhythm changes and the second on the blues–the chemistry displayed by the two musicians was something to behold. The two have played together semi-regularly over the course of the past decade in the Ron Carter Trio along with pianist Mulgrew Miller. That group will play a week long run at The Blue Note in New York beginning October 27.

Carter and Malone had an obvious appreciation of one another. Malone’s guitar was barely amplified. He relied on an acoustic sound so as not to “overshadow Ron.” As a guitarist, Malone had plenty of opportunities to play overtop of Carter’s accompaniment, but he continually relinquished the spotlight to Carter, playing on an even plane with him as the two interwove their lines together. Speaking directly after the performance, Carter mentioned that he “trusts Russell.” The trust was mutual, as the two had a unique chemistry. With both instruments amplified minimally, the audience was treated to a special performance where both musicians could be heard communicating in their most stripped down form.

During the interview, Carter expanded on his astounding resume. Originally a classical musician, Carter attended Eastman School of Music as a cellist in the 1950's, where he learned “the value of discipline, how to practice, and a solid understanding of the rules of music.” Carter found this training an important foundation for his career, as, he said, “it's hard to break the rules when you don't know what they are.”

Carter moved to New York City in August of 1959, where he soon switched to the bass out of necessity. Joining an active jazz scene, Carter spoke of his fellow young musicians at the time, saying, "we were all looking to play, all the time. It didn't matter when, where or with whom..." He insisted that the experience was invaluable, and urged young musicians today to "find your own places to play, because you need to find out what you don't know."

After joining Miles Davis' group, Carter was thrust to the top of the jazz world, but he noted that his relationship with Davis began on surprisingly even terms. Carter was playing a two week gig with Art Farmer at the time. Davis was insistent that Carter join him on tour immediately, to which Carter replied, "Mr. Davis, you'll have to talk to Art. If he says it's okay, I'd be happy to come with you, but if he says ‘no,’ I'd be just as happy to stay here." That honesty and respect between the two men would shape their relationship for all the years that followed.

Carter gave the crowd a few other tidbits about his time with Davis, but more often than not, he pointed to the new biography as a way to find out those stories.

As the consummate sideman, Carter had plenty of advice about working with other musicians. Responding to an audience member’s question about his association with drummer Lewis Nash, Carter noted, “I always insist that the drums be tuned properly so that they are tuned to my bass. That way the drummer can hear all of the frequencies and can really hear the pulse.” According to Carter, it was an aspect that Nash had rarely thought of before, but the two were really able to open up and compliment each other when their instruments were tuned to complimentary frequencies.

Responding to another audience question, Carter brought the discussion back around to his performance with Russell Malone. Speaking about the relationship the two have on the bandstand, Carter said, “I try to hear everything, and I try to anticipate where Russell is going. I trust his judgment and that he will take me someplace that I wouldn't have thought of, but I also want to make him play something that he wouldn't otherwise play at his house, so I need to start listening to where he's going even before he starts playing.”

Carter pointed out that each person he encounters “plays differently, and what I want to do is find the notes that fit with each player, to make that player sound better than he really is!”

Although Carter seems to have accomplished more than any musician could dream of, he continues to go out on the bandstand each night “trying to find the right notes.”