Before & After: Chris Potter

IMG_0201Juggling schedules and a last minute window of opportunity, we caught up with saxophonist, composer and road warrior Chris Potter at a hotel in Bethesda, MD just after the start of an extensive touring season with Pat Metheny’s Quintet. When he returns home in the fall, he’ll focus on his next ECM CD, the follow-up to his Odyssey-inspired 2013 release The Sirens. For this B&A, Chris preferred to listen to each song in its entirety before commenting.


1. Joe Henderson

“Mamacita” (from The Kicker, Milestone). Henderson, tenor saxophone; Mike Lawrence, trumpet; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Kenny Barron, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1967.


Maybe it’s Joe? That’s some classic, down the middle, mid-60s Blue Note even-8ths blues. It’s a very good example of a certain kind of jazz. Everybody sounds good, within a style but also creative. For a minute I thought it might be Junior Cook, who had a similar sound to Joe, but then he did some little rhythmic thing that was so hip and intelligent and musical that I knew it wasn’t somebody who sounds like Joe. That’s Joe. It feels good. There’s a lot of music I like to listen to, all sorts of stuff. And they all put me in a different space. But hearing this takes me back to home base, which is really nice. It’s not hard to understand and it’s not shallow. It’s the real thing.


2. Randy Weston & Billy Harper

“Congolese Children Song” (from The Roots of the Blues, Sunnyside) Weston, piano; Harper, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2013.


Before: The thing I liked about it is it’s so creative and the time feel is so good. It had a focus from start to finish with a simple, folk-y melody, but harmonically the bass is a half step higher than the key that they’re playing the melody in. And it’s got a kind of marching beat to it. I thought both musicians worked well within that. In other hands it could be too ordinary or too avant-garde shtick-y. I liked what they did with it. They might have been younger generation but I could be totally wrong.


After: That’s Billy Harper? No kidding! That kind of makes sense that it hangs together so well. They’ve got enough experience to take this simple thing and take it out, but it’s still going to be this certain thing. I remember when I first came to New York, Billy was teaching at the New School, which is where I went my first year in the city. So a lot of how I feel about him is from meeting him back then. He was always very kind to me, and a cool guy. I really enjoy his playing. He’s also part of a generation of players that been pretty much overlooked. I ended up working a lot with John Stubblefield in the Mingus Band, Ricky Ford, George Adams and Billy; they had that cool, post-Coltrane out thing that a lot of the younger generation hasn’t really heard. But then a lot of younger guys haven’t heard Paul Gonsalves, so that might be a better place to start (laughs). But there’s a whole scene that I think is worth revisiting. I’m a fan of both these guys.


3. Count Basie

“Roseland Shuffle” (from America’s #1 Band, Columbia/Legacy). Basie, piano; Lester Young, tenor saxophone, Count Basie Orchestra. Live broadcast recorded 1938.


Wow. Most of the Lester Young I listen to is from a little later in his career. He’s so technically on here, executing such difficult saxophone things. I’d forgotten how burning he could be. I assume that’s with Basie’s band. From start to finish that’s killing. The rhythmic propulsion from everybody in the band is something I talk about with saxophone players in particular. Yes, the drummer and the bass player have to have a good time feel, but so does everyone. If everybody in the band knows how to move the music forward and swing like that, that’s when it really happens. There’s not a weak link there. It’s like a freight train. It’s also cool that you could feel it was popular music. People would dance to that. It would be hard not to. As far as Lester Young goes, no one has ever played the tenor saxophone better than that. No one has found any better solution. Everything about his whole conception is complete, there’s nothing missing. One of my favorite records of all time is his trio record with Nat Cole and Buddy Rich. Just how he plays the melody to “I Cover The Waterfront” is so moving, so heartbreaking. He’s really painting the picture of his life. And when you hear this, this is like a celebration, a triumph. Like, let’s have some fun.


4. Evan Parker

“Variation 12” (from Sankt Gerold, ECM) Parker, tenor saxophone; Paul Bley, piano; Barre Phillips, bass. Recorded in 1996.


Before: I really liked it. I was kind of wondering how long it would go on and where he would go with it. Actually, I could have heard a little more. He set a certain mood and then he played some really cool, I don’t even know what it was, but it was a recurring pattern with those overtones. Then it ends on those atmospheric harmonics. That short saxophone piece really worked for me. I go to that zone from time to time with my own band, not like an entire set but maybe for an intro. But it seems that whoever this is has systematically got a whole lot of stuff together in a way I haven’t explored yet. I have no way of knowing whether this guy can play “Giant Steps” at this tempo [snaps his fingers] and sound good or not. But that doesn’t matter. He wasn’t trying to do that. He was doing something else. There are so many things that can be expressed. Sometimes that feels like exactly what I want to hear, or Xenakis. It’s another approach to sound. The only way to gauge whether it’s good or not is if it says something to you. It can be pure sound, or it can be with harmony, or only rhythm. It can be organized in different ways, but it’s a little easier if I’m familiar with the language.


After: I was wondering. It didn’t get into the frenzied energy zone that I usually associate with him. But that makes a lot of sense because whenever I hear Evan, I think his language is really highly developed. It’s very controlled. He’s found his parameters and he works within his language. He’s a serious guy.


5. Sam “The Man” Taylor

“Deliver Me” (from Honkers & Screamers: The Roots of Rock & Roll Vol. 6, Savoy). Taylor, tenor saxophone; Sammy Lowe, trumpet, arranger; Haywood Henry, baritone saxophone; Lee Anderson. piano; Robert Banks, organ; Carl Lynch, guitar; John Hunter, Charley Manz, bass; Herbie Lovelle, drums; The Gospelaires, vocals. Recorded in 1961.


Before: It’s got that gospel, 50s pop sound with that 12/8 piano. And the saxophone almost sounds like Albert Ayler. It made me think of the links there with the full-throated, completely unheld-back saxophone sound with a little growl in it playing church hymns. There’s a line there. I’m not sure who it is. When I was a kid I didn’t like the saxophone that much. I’d hear this sort of thing and didn’t respond to it much. Maybe part of that was it was ‘70s radio and there were a lot of saxophonists then who didn’t have a good sound. But with this, now I get it. Boy, that’s some American music right there. And I hear the roots of the avant-garde in it. You’ve got to tell me, who was that?


After: I don’t know him but I like the phrasing and the sound and the rhythmic feel behind it. I’ve got to check him out.


6. Sam Rivers

“Downtown Blues Upstairs” (from Fuscia Swing Song, Blue Note). Rivers, tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1964.


The frame of reference I’m using is Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard. The drums and bass, I’m not sure. I would have assumed Tony, but he did some stuff at the end that I wouldn’t have expected Tony to do, some kind of Elvin-y stuff. But it’s at that very, very high level. As for Sam, I knew it had to be somebody from that generation who absorbed bebop in that way and then did something else with it. Those particular choices of how he plays out-because it’s out with surprising twists and turns-you’re not able to play out in that way unless you really know what in is. Like you don’t have that range of possibilities of how to mess with the harmony and how to mess with the rhythm and how to construct a line that surprising without knowing about how to play in. He did that stuff at the end with the chordal voicings, the clusters; that’s his thing. Great. It’s amazing how modern this sounds; yet it has grounding in earlier language because that’s the generation they were from. And it’s a straight up blues. The rhythm section was just laying it down with all this out stuff on top of it. It would be hard to find a modern rhythm section that would do that today, especially because we’ve all heard Tony and Ron in their other mode with Miles where they were changing the texture a lot. But here the saxophone player and pianist are both taking it pretty out and the drums and bass are not. That added to the tension of the piece. If they were all going there it might have been great in a different way, but it wouldn’t have had that tension or grounding.


7. Jacques Schwarz-Bart

“Legba Nan Baye” (from Jazz Racine Haiti, Motema). Schwarz-Bart, tenor saxophone; Rozna Zila, vocal. Recorded in 2012.


Before: Interesting. It almost sounded like Josh. I don’t know who that singer was. That was amazing. It’s an unusual texture with just voice and sax like that-stark, sparse, really nice. I was imagining putting myself in that situation. You really do have to follow what the voice is doing. And everything the saxophonist did worked. Usually the saxophone is the voice, but in this context, the saxophonist was in a supporting role. It was just a beautiful piece of music.


After: Haitian? Interesting. Oh, I know Jacques. Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve mostly seen him with Roy [Hargrove]. We’ve hung out a bit. It’s a small scene, everyone knows everyone. I’ve never heard him do anything like this. The singing knocked me out.


8. Eric Dolphy

“It’s Magic” (from Far Cry, New Jazz/Prestige). Dolphy, bass clarinet; Jaki Byard, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Louis Hayes, drums. Recorded in 1960.


“It’s Magic.” I remember it from the Bugs Bunny cartoon. Great. I’m sure I have this record. From the first note, the way he sings the song, it’s obviously Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet. All the great saxophone players, besides whatever stuff they can do on the horn, just the way they sing a song, like what I said about Lester Young playing “I Cover The Waterfront,” or Bird with Strings just playing the melody, or Coltrane Ballads; from the first note there’s no doubt who it could possibly be.


Is that a matter of sound?


Sound and articulation. It’s a complicated thing. It’s sound in a deeper way, like he has a song to sing and he’s got to sing it. You can’t break it down into parts. It’s like a personality. Everything about how someone is—how they talk, how they walk, things they say. And then there’s all the musical stuff. What struck me about this is from start to finish he’s just going for it. Nothing is held back. After he finishes playing the melody and the rhythm section goes into a quasi double-time thing, he’s just playing a pile of notes. Just a lot of stuff with his trademark unusual lines and jumps. As someone who attempts to play the bass clarinet sometime, I always think I’d better be careful or it’s going to squeak at any moment. But clearly he had no such hang up. He was just going for it.


Any favorite Eric Dolphy records?


Out to Lunch is pretty hard to beat. He was consistent, though. His voice was a full-on thing. I haven’t heard any situation where he didn’t shine with Mingus, with Trane. And it was so personal. Can you imagine standing next to Trane, who was a dominant personality for many, many saxophone players? But Dolphy was up there doing a completely different thing, which I’m sure is why Coltrane wanted him to be there. There’s a solo version of “God Bless The Child” that is a tour de force.


If Eric were here right now, what would you like to ask him?


[laughs] I don’t know what I’d ask him, but I’d like to see him do that live. I think I’d learn a lot about how the bass clarinet works. Getting that much of an open sound out of it. Even just to know his equipment. I know that’s a geeky thing to say, but he was able to get such a projection out of it. I’d just like to see him do it. I never got to hear him speak. This is what I value about being on the road with Herbie, and you see him first thing in the morning on the bus. It’s not one thing, it’s everything. To play like that you have to be that. It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect people. Some of our heroes could be pretty nasty from time to time. But the beauty in the music is still beauty.


9. Rudy Royston

“Brownze” (from 303, Greenleaf). Royston, drums; Sam Harris: piano; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Mimi Jones: bass; Jon Irabagon: saxophones; Nadja Noordhuis: trumpet; Nir Felder: guitar. Recorded in 2013.


Before: It’s an unusual drum sound. The toms are unusual. I imagine I know these people but I’m not sure who it is. Everybody can really play. The saxophone player had a real command of the instrument. I liked it. It seemed a little chaotic. In the middle of a set with something before it and something after it, it would really work. So it would be nice to hear this in a performance context. I get that everyone can really play. There was a focus to it. But to get a fuller picture of where everyone is coming from, I wanted to know more about what the ballad before it would sound like.


After: That’s Rudy? Cool. I met Jon a long time ago when he was living in Chicago. We went out for pizza. Good deep dish Chicago pizza.


10. Rahsaan Roland Kirk

“No Tonic Prez” (from Rip, Rig and Panic, Limelight). Kirk, tenor saxophone, stritch, manzello, slide whistle; Jaki Byard, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1965.


Drums are down the hallway. Echo chamber. I really like the theme and the way the piano was orchestrating it. Was that Elvin? That must have been Roland Kirk. It’s funny; at first I thought it might have been Archie Shepp. It took me a while. You realize you don’t hear a lot of jazz now with that kind of energy and spirit to it. It’s serious and it’s fun. Was that Jaki again? That was a great stride moment. Roland Kirk is another, just to see how he did that. To orchestrate it live in three part harmony is not possible, but he did it. His whole thing with playing the slide whistle, the whole spirit of it made me think of The Art Ensemble [of Chicago], who could also straddle that line between serious music and entertainment. Humor in music is very tricky. It’s usually ill advised. That’s a very difficult line to walk with humor and serious music.


11. Ambrose Akinmusire

“The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits” (from The Imagined Savior is Far Easier To Paint, Blue Note). Akinmusire, trumpet; Elena Pinderhughes, flute; Maria Im, Brooke Quiggins Saulnier, violins; Kallie Ciechomski, viola; Maria Jeffers, cello; Harrish Raghavan, bass. Recorded in 2013.


Beautiful. Did that just come out? Is that Ambrose’s new record? Last night I saw that the record had just come out and I was going to buy it today. I remember we were on the road last year with the Monterey Festival On Tour thing and he was telling me he was going to do this record with string quartet. And I had just recorded with string quartet so we were talking about it. I heard some snippets last night and thought they sounded really good. I’d like to hear the whole record. Is that flute in there along with the strings? It’s beautiful. I’m kind of curious what he actually wrote out for that. Maybe just a series of chords? That’s nice. I like Ambrose a lot. He’s very serious about being true to himself. And he doesn’t take this music lightly. He’s careful about what he puts out there and he makes sure it’s something he believes in. Being on the road with him, every now and then he’d go into his Clifford Brown thing. And it’s full on. Something else I like about him is he gets a full sound out of the trumpet, no matter what he’s doing. I mean, he’s got all these extended techniques, and all these unusual lines, but the sound is always beautiful and warm. If he didn’t have that, he wouldn’t be able to pull off all the other stuff. It wouldn’t have the same resonance, at least not for me. So it’s funny you play this for me. That’s what I was going to do when I got to the hotel today.


Three records that changed your life?


Rite of Spring, The Queens Suite by Duke Ellington and A Love Supreme.


This B&A originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of JazzTimes.

Before & After: Jacky Terrasson

IMG_3920After living in New York for the past 18 years, pianist Jacky Terrasson is puzzled and somewhat frustrated that the jazz world thinks he’s still based in Paris. Terrasson spent his formative years studying at Berklee and working with Art Taylor and Betty Carter. He gained international attention by winning the 1993 Monk Piano Competition and signing with Blue Note records. Since then he’s traveled the world, usually working with his highly regarded trio.


1. Eddy Louiss & Michel Petrucciani

“All The Things You Are” (from Conference de Presse, Dreyfus Jazz). Louiss, organ; Petrucciani, piano. Recorded in 1994.

Before: Piano and organ? I’m thinking about Eddy Louiss and Michel Petrucciani. There are not many duos like this. Yeah, this is Michel. He really likes that style out of bebop, the Oscar Peterson influence with very volatile right hand. He plays those long phrases. The challenge with playing two keyboards is that both players need to be strong rhythmically and make sure that the tempo doesn’t slip away. At the same time you don’t want to always play bass lines with the left hand. It’s got to be implied sometime. In the beginning, I thought they had a little difficulty getting into it, but now they’re on track. I like this.

After: I think they made two records together. I remember their version of “Autumn Leaves.” Eddy Louiss is a great player but totally unknown here. He had a good trio with J.F. Jenny-Clark and Daniel Humair. I like his lines but I don’t really look out for organ players. Maybe it’s because I had to play the organ at one point. In Boston it was my main gig, at Wally’s. I came to like it though, playing the Hammond B-3.

2. Jaki Byard

“The Hollis Stomp” (from Solo/Strings, Prestige). Byard, piano. Recorded in 1969.

Before: Is that one guy? Damn, this guy is all over the place. He’s obviously coming out of the stride thing but it’s modern. Something makes me say that it’s someone who really looked into stride but he’s not from that era. Judging by the chops—did you go French on me again?– I want to say Martial Solal, because he has tremendous chops and he could do something like that. I love it; the intro and the descending 3rds, and I’m blown away by the facility. I’d like to hear something else by this guy.

After: Wow. I never saw him but I’ve heard great things about him. Beautiful. I know some people who studied with him and they say he was a great teacher. He’s one of the cats that I skipped for some reason. I was so stuck in the Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk thing for like 12 years and [felt] that was all I needed to know. I was just stubborn with that.

3. Bobo Stenson

“Chiquilín de Bachín” (from Cantando, ECM) Stenson, piano; Anders Jormin, bass; Jon Fält, drums. Recorded in 2007.

Before: Nice piece, long form. It sounds like someone who’s been influenced by the Keith Jarrett Trio. The air in the music reminds me of him. It’s nicely recorded. It’s kind of going for that early ECM thing. Very airy, lots of space. Even the playing is like that. And the piano player, some of his phrases remind me of Jarrett. I’m thinking maybe Danilo [Perez] or Enrico Pieranunzi or Gonzalo [Rubalcaba]. I need to listen to the bass, maybe that will give it away.

After: I know some of his recordings with Charles Lloyd, but I don’t know much of his solo work. I could hear the urge of wanting to let it go free.

4. Alon Yavnai

“Blues for Alon” (from Picture This, Bon Rapport Music). Yavnai, piano; Massimo Biolcati, bass; Take Toriyama, percussion. Recorded in 2004.

Before: Is this Tigran [Hamasyan]? I’m thinking it could be Tigran because he likes to play with those East European, North African sounds. He’s stretching out harmonically with complex rhythms on top of 4/4. It sounds eastern European or Arabic, the scales and muting the strings on the piano. I would think it’s someone fairly young.

After: Cool. I just wish it would have unfolded a little more. I like to hear people tell the story fully. I felt this was just the introduction. [looks at song titles] Oh wow, this guy’s playing one of the Bach fugues.

5. Dick Hyman

“Thinking About Bix” (from Thinking About Bix, Reference). Hyman, piano. Recorded in 2008.

Before: Is this Ellis Marsalis? Marcus Roberts? This is nice. I’m thinking of the bass player’s son, Gerald Clayton. I hear a lot of classical in his playing and this is something he would have studied and nailed. The style is from the ’30s or earlier. It sounds like a classical piece, no improv. This is something that was written, maybe for a movie? It’s meticulous. I like hearing people play that way but I don’t want to play that way. It’s a great interpretation, though. Very well done.

After: I met him years back. So he’s going back to Bix? It’s definitely in that style.

6. George Russell
“Concerto for Billy The Kid” (from Jazz Workshop, RCA Bluebird). Russell, composer; Bill Evans, piano; Art Farmer, trumpet; Hal McKusick, alto saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Teddy Kotick, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1956.

Before: Uh oh. [at start of piano solo, hunches shoulders and goes into deep listening mode] Yeah. Nice. Is this Tete [Montoliu]? I love this. Great stuff, man. Now I’m thinking Sonny Clark; that kind of phrasing on the piano with those angles. It’s very articulate, the message is very clear. There’s a certain eloquence to it. I like the composition, very well orchestrated. Modern. I’m guessing it’s late ‘50s. I should really nail this piano player. At one point it made me think of early Bill Evans, because of the phrasing. Someone from that time.

After: Really? I don’t know this record. I love that kind of phrasing, he’s got his own language. Great stuff. Thanks for playing that.

7. Kenny Barron

“Memories of You” (from The Traveler, Sunnyside). Barron, piano. Recorded in 2007.

[starts singing along with the melody] “Memories of You.” Kenny Barron. That was easy. I heard him playing this two weeks ago at the Vanguard. I love how he plays the tune, takes his time and tells his story. It’s a nice tune, too. I love Monk’s version of this. For me, melody is so important, it’s got to sing. Kenny and I have the same manager and I’ve been listening to his recordings for years. There used to be a club in Paris called Le Village that played one of his recordings all the time, with a great take on “Spring Is Here” (Landscape). Then I heard him there at the club and it was great. I like the way he just locks into his tempo, nothing can disturb him.

8. Bebo Valdés & Javier Colina

“Bilongo” (from Live at the Village Vanguard, Calle 54). Valdés, piano; Colina, bass. Recorded in 2005

Before: Are we in Cuba? Yeah, this could be Bebo or Chucho Valdés. Or it could be the guy from Buena Vista Social Club [Rubén Gonzáles]. I’d love to go to Cuba for the culture and that kind of passion they have for music. It’s just in their blood.

After: He’s 86? Wow. You have to be from there to make it sound like that. This is not someone trying to play in that style. This is authentic.

9. Red Garland

“If I Were a Bell” (from Red Garland’s Piano, Prestige). Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in 1956.

Before: Aw man, why are you doing this to me? Is it Red? Those block chords and that little bounce right there is his signature. I don’t know who the bassist is. It’s not Paul is it? This brings a smile to my face. Drummers don’t play like that anymore. He’s just laying it down. Beautiful. You got to give it up, it’s piano time. It sounds effortless, there’s no stress in his playing, it’s so relaxed. And the swing is so natural. Check out where he places his chords with his left hand. It’s that be-bop language. You don’t have to play like that but you have to know it. I know Red more from the things he did with Miles. This is so simple, yet it’s so meaningful.

After: This is classic. [sees the drummer] Oh, I should have guessed AT. I spent two years with him. For him, it was all about the rhythm section and doing a great job supporting the horns and making sure the rhythm section was locked in, building into climaxes.

Did he teach by example or did he actually explain things?

He rehearsed like a madman. Yeah, we had more time at his house than on stage. We rehearsed every week for about six hours, going through tunes. It was really about where to place the accents. If we were going to play at the Vanguard, we’d rehearse for a month before that. There’s nothing like hearing a band that’s tight. Sure, improv and impromptu things are fun and it’s part of what makes this music exciting. But this trio is really locked. They’re tight. Musicians today might say he’s not doing much on drums but it’s perfect, steady, irreplaceable. It feels good.

10. Keith Jarrett

“Victoria” (from Keith Jarrett: The Impulse Story, Impulse). Jarrett, piano. Recorded in 1974.

Before: Turn that up. Whew! Keith? I hear him developing something, then another line comes in and it gets more complex. There’s a classical approach with great control over the instrument. I have just about all his recordings but this is something I don’t know. If it’s not Keith, it’s someone who’s listened to him. Which recording is that? It’s remarkable.

After: Which track was this? Yeah, I’m gonna have to get that. As a pianist, I really admire the control he has over the instrument. He seems like someone who has three brains and just makes them work together somehow. It’s talent and originality. He’s some kind of genius–I’m not afraid to use that word. I’ve never met the guy.

If you were to meet him, what would you want to talk about?

I’d probably just shut up and let him speak [laughs]. I would want to talk about his approach–it’s beyond music at this point–his approach to an idea, his approach to life. I have almost all of his recordings. This period is one of my favorites. I really love the stuff with Dewey. Those guys were afraid of nothing. When you listen to the raw Keith Jarrett, that shit is so exciting.

Your favorite Keith Jarrett recordings?

Facing You, the first tune is just wild. The compositions are great; surprisingly fresh and adventurous. I like people who just go for it, and he does that. I love all the solo things, the Sun Bear concerts and the stuff with Dewey and with Charles Lloyd. And I love the trio with Gary and Jack, especially from the ’80s when he came back with the Standards.

11. Cecil Taylor & Buell Neidlinger

“O.P.” (From New York City R&B, Candid). Taylor, piano; Buell Neidlinger, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1961.

Before: Duke? No. Cecil? It took me a long time to dig Cecil. Now I love him. He’s just so different. He was at the Vanguard when Kenny was playing. I love that album Silent Tongues, that’s the one that did it for me. His touch–some people just put their hand on the piano and you know. It’s humor, contrast and the unexpected.

For you, does this swing?

Well, swing has such a rigid etiquette to it. You’ve just got to respect this for what it is. I’m all for everyone swinging their own way. Unfortunately, some jazz Republicans would say no. I’m a jazz Democrat. You know, you’ve got to be open. This is wild. People think free music is like anything can happen. It’s really not. It requires a lot of control over the instrument and over the telling of the story. In Silent Tongues, I felt this is the real Cecil Taylor. There were things he played on the piano I had never heard before. This I like, but I’d like to hear everyone really go for it.

After: Chaos is so close to freedom, that’s where the danger is.

So where do you draw the line between them?

You just gotta believe. And rehearse. There’s got to be a thread where everybody’s on the same page. And that’s when I like free music, when there’s a lot of info but they all want to get to one point. It’s not as interesting when everybody’s doing their own thing. I like it when I feel there’s a sense of direction. But then maybe that’s no longer free. You’ve got to re-define free every second.

12. Danilo Perez

“The Saga of Rita Joe” (from Across The Crystal Sea, Emarcy). Perez, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Lewis Nash, drums, Luis Quintero, percussion; orchestra arranged & conducted by Claus Ogerman. Recorded in 2007.

Before: Nice scoring. I like the arranging a lot, the texture. I like the pianist, but in the middle there’s too much stuff, too many notes. I’m kind of thinking Danilo. I love Danilo, what he’s doing with Wayne, the way he opens things up. Did he write this? See, for me right now, this part makes more sense. But I’m not going to say anything bad about Danilo, I love him.

After: Yeah, very nice. This is new? Sorry, Danilo. I didn’t mean to say anything bad. I recorded once with strings for a movie called Primary Colors. I’d love to do more of that. This was a beautiful tapestry. Nice stuff. I’m going to get this. Danilo is a great player: he’s got a musical personality, independence and a great harmonic sense. And he’s not afraid.

Name three or four recordings that changed your life.

“When Will Blues Leave” by Paul Bley on his record Footloose!; Keith Jarrett, “Too Young To Go Steady” from Standards Live, that’s a fantastic trio recording. “Impressions” by Coltrane, and Shirley Horn doing “You Won’t Forget Me” with Miles.


This B&A originally appeared in JazzTimes in 2008. Photograph by Larry Appelbaum.

Before & After: Monty Alexander


Jamaican-born pianist and bandleader Monty Alexander is an old-school road warrior who still loves to rock the house with hard swing and deep island grooves. Though he has good ears and strong opinions, Alexander avoids theoretical analysis when listening to music, concentrating instead on feelings, emotions and experiences. While setting up, we talked about his growing up with mento music and American popular song in Kingston, his love for Louis Armstrong, Lord Kitchener and New Orleans R&B, and his big break in Miami, where he was discovered by Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo. In recent years, Alexander has led his well-traveled jazz trio, as well as a reggae band. His latest release is Calypso Blues: The Songs of Nat King Cole (Chesky).


1. Nat “King” Cole

“Calypso Blues” (from The Nat King Cole Story, Capitol). Cole, vocal; Jack Costanzo, conga. Recorded in 1949.


[chuckles]. Nat. I’ve heard this so many times, and I knew Jack Costanzo very well. The timing of that recording came close to the time that Harry Belafonte did his calypso album. Nat was not a stranger to seeking popularity. He was somebody who could do anything he wanted. He was a natural. He loved music and he loved rhythms from the island. Who on earth would record a song with just a man beating on a conga, especially someone like Nat who was such a swinging musician? And he played so much piano, so that tells you about Nat’s daring, as well as his talent. I knew all these songs, what we called mento songs, and he was a beloved voice in our home. When I was 10 years old I walked down the street and imitated him because of the girl I had a crush on [sings Too Young]. Louis Armstrong also recorded a calypso around that time called “High Society.” So they were my ultimate heroes, Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole. I saw them in Kingston when I was about 11 years old. Incredible. They were artists as well as entertainers. They had that thing, that show biz thing. So you just played a man who’s everything to me. He went for the brass ring, and he got it because everybody loved him.


2. Eldar

“Daily Living” (from Virtue. Sony Masterworks Jazz). Eldar Djangirov, piano, keyboards; Armando Gola, bass; Ludwig Afonso, drums. Recorded in 2008.


Before: I’m speechless. Those are amazing musicians playing amazing music. And they’re operating on a system I don’t really know much about. There’s sophisticated, phenomenal technique, but also the skill and creative talent for playing in different time signatures. It’s astounding to hear and I appreciate it very much, but I don’t live in that world. I just shook my head and said wow, what was that? It might not be something I know how to play or want to play. But it’s very beautiful.


After: I knew Eldar when he was 14 years old. He’s playing on another level now, like the man from another planet. He could have gone down the Art Tatum road or the Bud Powell road. He’s a multi-talented young man. I met his mom and I saw that old school family dynamic and I knew he would go great places. I haven’t seen him in a long time but I keep hearing little bits and pieces of him and about him. And whenever I hear him I’m astounded. But this is a different Eldar to the Eldar of 5 years ago. So who knows where he’ll be in 10 years, another planet [laughter]. Some guys sound like they play once in a while, but this guy plays all day. He’s brilliant. Thanks for playing that.


3. Fred Hersch

“Insensatez” (from Fred Hersch plays Jobim, Sunnyside). Hersch, piano. Released in 2009.


Before: Really, really good. I enjoyed that. It’s somebody who loves harmony and paints a beautiful picture. I feel this beautiful painting unfolding with a beautiful touch. Jobim would love it. I don’t think in terms of chords or keys or analyzing it. So when I hear that, it’s just flying and floating in the air. That person don’t need a bass or a drum. The touch, it’s oozing like caramel dripping.


After: Fred Hersch is all right with me. I met him once and I always hear about him doing this and doing that. He’s a mighty talented guy. This is beautiful. Mr. Fred, my hat is off to you. I have to pick this up. Complicated and slick is fine, but I love beauty.


4. Cyrus Chestnut

“Lean On Me” (from Spirit, Jazz Legacy). Chestnut, piano. Recorded in 2008.


Before: That’s a fine piano player who is open to the street, the popular thing. That’s Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” It’s an inspirational song. It’s a popular spiritual. He’s a two-handed guy and he likes to play a bass line and he’s keeping the song inspired. Good pianist.


After: There you go. Like I said, a good pianist. I know him very well. He has a command of today. But it’s not the kind of song where he’s gonna fly. He’s keeping it enjoyable for the listener who loves “Lean On Me.” But I’ve heard him where he goes off; wicked, swinging. Because he’s one of the few young piano players who tapped into that tradition that was part of the landscape in those days, one of the guys who came after Ray Bryant, playing piano with two hands, reaching down into what you call the bucket. It’s got the church influence. I think the world of Cyrus Chestnut. He’s one of my favorite piano players. You bring your life into the music. This music is supposed to be life. The schooling thing is wonderful, but most of the younger musicians aren’t playing life, yet. Cyrus is playing life.



5. Helge Lien Trio

“Gamut Warning” (from Hello Troll, Ozella). Lien, piano; Frode Berg, bass; Knut Aalefjoer, drums. Recorded in 2008.



Before: I don’t know who the bandleader is, but the first thing I’d say is the bass player should get paid extra [laughter]. He’s working awful hard. It’s a marvelous, experimental trip, walking in space or something. It’s interesting because with new things I’m not sure what I like and what I don’t like anymore. I don’t know if this is a guilt trip I put on myself as I age and the music has changed, but I owe it to common decency to be aware of a lot of things going on in the music world. But so many things come along; I have to make sure I open my mind if I run into these things that takes people to another place. It’s got to take you somewhere or make you feel good where you are. But I don’t want to be transported to a gloomy place. This guy painted a picture that was of, how can I say it, a sinister spirit. It’s a marvelous painting of something dark. It’s like going down a dark alley in an old movie. There wasn’t a lot of motion going on with it. It was a specific thing. It’s not my choice.


After: What can I say? Excellent, good, keep going.


6. McCoy Tyner

“Naima” (from Solo: Live From San Francisco, Half-Note). Tyner, piano. Recorded in 2007.


Before: Life makes us grow in different directions. If that was McCoy, that is an amazing man. In certain years of his life, there was nothing like what he did. He made that piano walk across the stage. There was thunder and lightening. I have such admiration for that incredible artist. If it’s not McCoy, he got from McCoy the desire to slam the keys with his left hand in such a way that was like thunder and lightening dropping. It was a force when McCoy Tyner played the piano. This was someone very influenced by him.


After: [looks at the portrait of Tyner on the cover] I love you. It’s the person and the character. He was playing a whole lot more simply on this than he would have years ago. This man ate up the piano and spit it out. As time goes on you become more gentle, taking your time. So this is McCoy the way he is now. But every now and then the power comes out. I felt his presence on the piano, but it’s a whole different man at a different stage in his life. It’s still beautiful and powerful. He wrote the book with the intensity of his playing; the excitement and the energy, nothing like him.


7. Martial Solal

“Have You Met Miss Jones” (from Live at the Village Vanguard, CamJazz). Recorded in 2007.


Before: Wow. That’s kind of a mischievous fellow. He’s an impish, funny guy. It’s something that a Frenchman would do [laughter]. I never heard anybody in America play like that. I enjoy that the guy is coming with a sense of humor. I appreciate that.


After: God bless you. I’ve heard him. He’s a guy with a very active mind and he can play the heck out of the piano. He’s having fun, which I like.


8. Ahmad Jamal

“Ahmad’s Blues” (from The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings, Legacy). Jamal, piano; Ray Crawford, guitar; Eddie Calhoun, bass. Recorded in 1952.


[immediately]Ahmad Jamal is beyond belief. He’s not coming from playing the piano. He’s coming from a very special place that you can’t touch. It’s mystical. When he makes his music he’s not of this earth. He’s got a great, great gift. I first heard “Poinciana” back in Jamaica in the late ‘50s. It grabbed me. It gave me a wonderful sense and a feeling of all this rhythm, but with all the subtlety. He would just dance on the keys. He’s Horowitz on the one hand, he’s a gutbucket grooving swinging musician on the other. He’s a master painter and he’s a great orchestrator. And along with Nat King Cole, he wrote the book on what this is all about. He’s on another level. There’s joy coming out of his true nature; makes you happy, makes you smile, makes you groove, makes you dance.



Name 3 records that changed your life?


Louis Armstrong Ambassador Satch; a piano record of Eddie Heywood, Soft Summer Breeze; and Errol Garner’s Concert By The Sea. And I can’t forget all the r&b with Ray Charles, Huey “Piano” Smith, Roscoe Gordon, and “Poinciana” itself.

Listening session conducted Nov. 2009. Photograph by Larry Appelbaum.

Conversation with Henry Threadgill

I interviewed composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill on Oct. 28, 2013, the morning after his triumphant Zooid concert at the Library of Congress. We discussed his musical upbringing in Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the story of his life-changing experience in Vietnam, his groups Air and Zooid, and his approach to composition and improvisation.


Before & After: Helen Sung

IMG_0001Along with Beyoncé Knowles, Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, pianist Helen Sung is among the celebrated alumni of Houston, Texas’ High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After preparing for a classical concert career, Sung fell in love with jazz, graduated from the Thelonious Monk Institute and went on to work with Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Regina Carter and T.S. Monk while also touring internationally with her own groups. We met for this midnight listening session following her quintet performance at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May. Sung’s new recording as a leader, Anthem for a New Day, is her first for Concord Jazz.


1. Kenny Barron

“Triste” (from #Kenny Barron & The Brazilian Knights#, Sunnyside). Barron, piano; Lula Galvão, guitar. Recorded in 2012. Continue reading

Listening Session with Arkady Shilkloper

IMG_0009Moscow-born Arkady Shilkloper is one of the leading horn players in jazz. In the 1970s and 80s, he played French horn in the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra and the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony. Since then, he’s collaborated with folk, fusion and progressive rock ensembles, and is perhaps best known in improvised jazz circles for his work with the Moscow Art Trio, Elvin Jones, Lew Soloff, Pierre Favre and the Vienna Art Orchestra. While I’d known Shilkloper’s recordings, I finally got to see him perform in the summer of 2012 at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv, Ukraine. Two days later we met for this session. [Photo by Larry Appelbaum]

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