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.”