Before & After: Steve Wilson

Steve Wilson

By Larry Appelbaum


Multi-instrumentalist and educator Steve Wilson is busier than ever these days. He’s got his own group and has appeared on more than 150 recordings from duets to big bands. In addition to being a much-in-demand clinician, Wilson teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, the City College of New York and the Juilliard School. His most recent release as a leader was Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions (Random Act), and his next vinyl-only release Sit Back, Relax, & Unwind (J.M.I.) is due out later this year.  We carved out some focused listening time at the Watergate Hotel prior to Maria Schneider’s Orchestra sound check at the Kennedy Center.




Nate Smith

“Bounce Parts I & II” from Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (Waterbaby Music). Smith, drums; Kris Bowers, keyboard; Fima Ephron, electric bass; Jeremy Most, guitar; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2014.


Before: [10 seconds in] I love it already. I know right away that’s Chris Potter, tenor. He’s got a very distinctive sound. When the horn is in his mouth, he’s always in that flow. I love the groove, man. I grew up on funk and that was just very funky. Great line that they wrote on that. The drum and bass groove was really happening. There’s that dance factor, so it pulls you in. And even the line they constructed; it wasn’t as if they tried to superimpose anything. They put it right in the fabric of the groove. Even if you’re doing an asymmetrical rhythm, if it’s in the groove it’s gonna work. Interesting about the second part, what you might call lounge vibe. But I dug it. I also like the length of the piece. They said what they needed to say, then let’s take it out. I loved it. It resonated with me. Was it Dave Binney on alto?


After: Oh, this is Nate’s record? I had a feeling it was Nate on drums. He just played in my band a few weeks ago. Nate’s fantastic, a great musician. Is this the one that just came out? He was just finishing this up when we worked together, he was telling me about it. I have to get this. I love it. Yeah, Jeleel. That makes sense. That groove is deep.


Frank Wess

“I Hear Ya Talkin’” from Opus De Blues (Savoy Jazz). Wess, alto saxophone; Thad Jones, trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Hank Jones, piano; Eddie Jones, bass, Gus Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1959.



Before: Fantastic. First thing that comes to mind is that’s probably a 1960s recording. I love the sound of the 60s, stereophonic. Secondly, that’s still like the Golden Age because those guys were doing sessions all the time, so you had this proliferation of great players, great writing, it was just the order of the day. I’m not sure who these players were, I was going to say Jerry Dodgion, but there’s a lot of Hodges in there. I think it sounds like Dodgion and his work with Oliver Nelson and Thad & Mel. He’s one of my role models, one of my musical godfathers. A lot of what I do as a lead alto comes straight from Jerry Dodgion. I love the sound of those dates, the craftsmanship. It’s swingin’ and tippin’. I love it. I could live by that all day long.


After: Ah, Frank. Oh, man. This is great stuff. You know, I used to tell Frank I want to be like him when I grow up. He had such a long, distinguished career and played with so many people. He was like money in the bank. You knew if he was on the gig it was going to be great. Same with Joe Wilder, with their consistency and identifiable sounds and total musicianship. They didn’t set out to be stars. Of course, they’re exalted among their peers. And to me, that’s what really counts. I have to remind myself of that because I came through the Young Lions phase in the ‘80s. When I came to New York, I set out to find the Frank Wess’s and the Joe Wilder’s to see how those guys conducted themselves. They were respected by everyone who worked with them, and for good reason. No frills, no gratuitous writing, it’s like let’s just swing and have a good time. It doesn’t get any better than that.


Vitral Saxophone Quartet

“Wapango Afro” from Kits Over Havana (Sunnyside). Oscar Gongora on soprano, Roman Filiu on alto and soprano, Alejandro Rios on alto and tenor and Raul Cordies on baritone saxophone. Recorded in 2014.



Before: That’s a fun little piece. I got a deeper appreciation for classical saxophone a few years ago. I love the baritone sound and the soprano player. The alto and tenor, the prototypical classical sound is tricky, particularly the alto because the alto saxophone is the hardest to master. Even when you play it in tune, it doesn’t have the same colors. It’s a tricky animal. So while I think this is well played by the quartet, compositionally I thought they could have skipped some of the middle because it kept going back. I liked the composition; it was fun. It’s playful. It didn’t excite me but I liked it.


You chuckled at the end. Why?


It was the sharp 9 chord. I like the soprano part up in the altissimo register. It’s hard to nail those pitches up there. I’ve only played one classical piece in public but you get so much from it in terms of knowing your instrument and becoming a better player. These guys sound really good together.


After: I’ve never heard of them. The baritone sound was so open but the sound of the alto was somewhat closed. That’s a very hard balance to negotiate.


Steve Lacy/Elvin Jones

“Evidence” from That’s The Way I Feel Now (A&M). Lacy, soprano saxophone; Jones, drums. Released in 1984.


Before: Uh, oh. What instrument is that? This is not a saxophone. Or maybe it’s a soprano with the mic inside the bell? There’s some Elvin going on. I love the tone of the drums. Wow. That’s some serious altissimo. It’s a bit nasal and I wondered if it was Lovano with his taragato. I was confused because it’s “Evidence,” but it sounded like they left the form and I assumed they meant to do that. I’m more intrigued by the sound of the saxophone than anything. It’s different. He’s got some chops. That’s impressive. Drummer’s coming out of Elvin Jones.


After: That’s Steve Lacy? Wow. The mic’ing is weird. The sound is very narrow. I’ve never heard him sound that nasal. And he left the form [laughter]. Elvin is crisp. Lacy is one of the great pioneers. I haven’t listened to a ton of him. Some of the things with Gil Evans. I saw him live with Roswell Rudd. It was a fun gig. He’s not one of my favorite soprano players but I appreciate him greatly. It’s just a taste thing. I have a great deal of respect for him.


Earl Bostic

“Up There in Orbit” from Dance Music from the Bostic Workshop (King). Bostic, alto saxophone, unidentified rhythm section. Recorded in 1958.


I know this one: “Blues in Orbit.” Man, I use this piece in the saxophone class at CCNY. Earl Bostic was one of the great technicians of the saxophone and John Coltrane played in his band for a minute. He’s one of the pioneers of R&B saxophone. So when guys talk about altissimo register, I say check this out. The first time I heard this it sounded like a Dick Dale kind of thing. Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Lou Donaldson all told me Earl Bostic could do stuff on the saxophone that nobody else could do. There was nobody who could outplay him. He had range and amazing technique, and that piece particularly because it builds and builds and he goes up to a double high C, which is like insane. We think of extended range as an octave above the F that’s on the horn. And he goes another fifth above that. That’s fingering and embouchure. And the higher you go, the more exacting you have to be. You can’t just bite the reed or the mouthpiece. That takes years and years to develop that. You try to do that now and you could hurt yourself (laughs). I love the look of young guys when I play this for them.


Bohemian Trio

“Tarde en la Lisa” from Okónkolo (Innova). Orlando Alonso, piano; Yves Dharamraj, cello; Yosvany Terry, saxophone, percussion. Recorded in 2016.



Before: I like that. It reminds me of some of the stuff I did with Billy Childs. And I’d like to play more of this kind of thing. Nice piece, exciting piece. To hear the cello and saxophone together is beautiful. Great playing, everybody. It’s uplifting, energetic, bends your ear a little bit, takes you places. I love the concept. I think we’re going to hear a lot more music going this way. A lot of players coming through school are studying both classical and jazz, and a lot of classical musicians want to play more music with an improvisatory element. I love it.


After: Yosvany! I’ve never heard his soprano playing. Wow. Oh man, when I see him I’m going to tell him I loved this. So that’s Yosvany’s piece? I’m going to have to check this out some more.


Bernard Herrmann

“Theme from Taxi Driver” from Original Film Soundtrack (Arista). Tom Scott, alto saxophone; Uan Rasey, trumpet; unidentified orchestra. Released in 1976.


Before: That’s a beautiful alto sound. The first thing that came to mind was Benny Carter. It’s a beautiful piece and the composition sounds like Benny. The trumpet was ear bending. It sounds like a movie soundtrack. It has that film noir kind of vibe, like a Mickey Spillane detective story. I enjoyed it. I love that kind of alto playing.


After: That’s Tom Scott? Whoa. I would have never guessed that in a million years. This gives me another dimension to Tom Scott. I knew of him from the L.A. Express and Joni Mitchell. He was front and center in the 70s and he did those television shows, like Baretta. I love Baretta and I was digging that stuff back then, but I had no idea he could play like this. Quite impressive.


Flute Force Four

“T.B.A.” from Flutistry (Black Saint). Henry Threadgill, James Newton, Pedro Eustache, Melecio Magdaluyo, flutes. Recorded in 1990.


Before: Whoever is playing bass flute is doing some heavy lifting. That’s hard. I like the piece. What strikes me is at least two of those players are probably saxophonists who double. It’s something in their articulation and attack. That’s not a negative thing, it just gives it a more percussive feel. Compositionally, it feels like they’re kind of loose with it, more organic. For me, it could have been more exciting with some dynamics, but I like the piece. That’s a lot, playing flute like that over 5, 6 minutes. So I give a lot of credit for keeping up the intensity for that long like that. Occasionally I get together with some friends and we play flute duos and trios and it’s a lot of fun. But you have to do it for a long time to build up the sound and the strength.


After: Threadgill? I like that. James Newton, yeah. I haven’t been hip to this record. I want to check this out. I like it. Nice vibe on it. A flute quartet has the potential to be really corny. And it’s not a heavy texture. So the writing has to be good or the playing has to be intriguing.


Who do you think are the exceptional flutists in jazz today?


Hubert [Laws], still. I saw him with Chick not long ago. He’s still got it. There’s a young player named Elena Pinderhughes; her sound is really amazing. She’s been playing with Christian Scott. She sounds great. I’ve been hearing a lot about Nicole Mitchell.


What do you think of your own flute playing?


A work in progress (laughter). I’ve been working on it more lately, both with Maria [Schneider], and I just recorded with Chick and he had me playing a lot of flute. I love playing flute. I don’t play it much with my own band because I haven’t written music for it, but I’ll probably start playing it more now.



Heads of State

“Sippin’ at Bells” from Four in One (Smoke Sessions). Gary Bartz, alto saxophone; Larry Willis, piano; David Williams, bass; Al Foster, drums. Recorded in 2016.


Before: “Sippin’ At Bells.” Bartz? Yeah, I know Bartz’s sound very well. He’s one of my favorites. He’s a storyteller, a musical griot. Back in the ‘90s, James Williams had a week at the Blue Note and he put together a saxophone group with me, Bartz, Chris Potter and Eric Alexander. Needless to say, Eric and Chris, whew! They can do anything on the saxophone. Just unbelievable. But on that night Bartz would generally take the last solo, and no matter what any of us played, he would come in and with one note he would wipe the slate clean. You were just pulled in. He’s telling a story, and I used to see him a lot at Bradley’s and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. As you know, he does a lot of sets where he just segues from one tune to another and you’re just captivated from when he starts until he’s done. He takes you on a journey. And all of his solos are like that; he has a lyrical way of playing that’s also spiritual and soulful and melodic and everything has a purpose. There’s a sincerity and a depth there and you don’t think about how much he knows about the saxophone. He just has a sound, his personal sound. And also the reason he’s important for me, his musical vision has validated my own. I first became aware of Bartz when I was a teenager listening to those Blue Note records with Donald Byrd and the Mizell Brothers stuff. I’d come home from school and listen to it and I’d always hear the saxophone solo and ask: “Who is that?” And finally a friend gave me his record Love Affair on Capitol. And that totally changed my world. His version of “Giant Steps,” which I still think is one of the most perfect solos ever recorded, I still have the transcription I made of it in ’77 or ’78. From beginning to end, you couldn’t compose a better solo than that.


Have you ever told him that?


Oh yeah, many times. Too many people dismissed it at the time because it was done to a samba beat and it wasn’t the Coltrane version. But over the years, a lot of saxophonists have come to appreciate that solo. I have some of my students working on it. He’s all inclusive, he doesn’t separate; like now I’m going to play funk or now I’m gonna play straight ahead. You listen to NTU Troop, it’s all there. It’s all part of the same continuum. That’s his philosophy, not just musically but culturally. So for me he’s been a really important voice.



Miguel Zenón

“Corteza” from Típico (Miel Music). Zenón, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass; Henry Cole, drums. Recorded in 2016.



Before: [chuckles at ending] Great composition, great structure. Not too long. They could have gone longer but they said what they needed to say. The rhythms were difficult and intriguing but they didn’t overdo it. Keeps you engaged and it sounds purposeful. I love the solos. They take you somewhere. They’re agitating but it’s not forced. It gets right on the edge at times but that’s cool. I love the piano solo; the saxophone solo is great too. Sounds like Jaleel, but I’m not sure. Usually I can tell the age of someone from their sound. And this band sounds like they’re all under 40 years old or somewhere close. It shows up in the phrasing of the lines, the grace notes, some of the rhythms. It’s all under control. I really dig it.


After: Miguel. That’s easier than some of the stuff he writes. One of my students plays in his big band and showed me the charts. I said if you ever need a sub, don’t call me [laughs]. I met him when he was a Master’s student at Manhattan School. He’s a great musician. He can do the traditional stuff and he can play in a big band. Amazing musician.


Phil Woods

“Medley 4” from The Solo Album (Philology). Woods, alto saxophone. Recorded in 2000.


[immediately] Phil.  Ain’t gonna get any better than that. Phil Woods—we miss him. I got to play with him a couple of times in his last years, and obviously what he had to deal with physically with the emphysema and all that, but still it was all there. He’s just the quintessential alto player. Bill Charlap does the 92nd St Y series in New York and a few years ago he did a saxophone night and we did something for Benny Carter. So we were playing the charts from Further Definition and I was playing the second alto next to Phil and toward the end of the concert Phil’s sound was huge. I mean, he was struggling with emphysema and he’s in his 70s but he was playing so loud I couldn’t hear myself. I mean, think about that. At the end of the concert I had this pain in my back and it just locked up and I could barely get into a taxi. When I got home I realized I had overexerted myself trying to keep up with Phil Woods. The last time I saw Phil I told him that story about throwing my back out and told him I will consider it my rite of passage. The honor of playing beside him after being a life-long admirer was priceless. He was no-nonsense. He just got right to the heart of the matter. And you know his personality; he didn’t suffer fools being from that golden era, taking care of business on the bandstand. Unfortunately, that era is gone now for young musicians. They don’t have those opportunities to do those apprenticeships and learn from the masters. As great as Phil was, he always spoke with such humility about Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and those guys. He never let you forget where he came from. I just loved the way he played. There was no wasted motion. He had this exuberance–could do any song, any key, and he loved making music on the bandstand. From a professional standpoint, he was what we all want to be.


Can you teach that?


You can’t teach it. You can relay the information. You can point them in the right direction. But Phil often joked about jazz education. He’d say here’s what we should do: Put all these guys on a bus, have them play a gig from 7:00pm till midnight, put them back on the bus and ride them around for 10 hours and then see if they still want to do it night after night. He also knew that this is an oral tradition and you learn it on the bandstand. You have to learn the tunes, who the great players are and go to the source. You can give them all the tools; learn these changes, learn these tunes. And quite frankly, the young players coming along are light years ahead of where I was at their age, in terms of technique and history of recordings, because that’s all readily available. But there’s nothing that replaces being on the bandstand with Frank Wess and Jimmy Heath and Phil Woods. You learn the etiquette, the culture, the history. And you learn about not taking yourself so seriously, that this music was and still is a folk music. With all the complexities we have now it’s still a folk music at its root. And you always heard that in Phil’s sound. Sometimes he would play the corniest quote, but it was so hip how he did it. We need those reminders. The business dismantled the apprenticeship system in the ‘90s. They wanted more publicity so they put the young guys at the front of the bus. And I don’t blame the young guys. But you do a disservice to those musicians because you don’t let them go through the process of growing up in the music and the culture. There’s a long list of those guys who were put in that position but they didn’t last. I feel really lucky because I was one of the few who got in at the end of that era.


Do young musicians look to you the way you looked to the generation of masters before you? Is it really a continuum?


It’s a different culture now and the competition for attention span is really tough. YouTube is a great thing, and young musicians have to work with what they have. That includes the internet and digital tools and networking and creating a lot of their own stuff. So they’re just a product of their time. They’re doing what they have to do to survive and keep going in the music. I just wish more of them had the opportunity to play music that comes out of that, to realize that none of this comes out of a vacuum. So, sometimes I hear young guys playing all these complex meters but they can’t play in 3/4 or 4/4. Or a ballad, god forbid. Do they know what romance is? Someone asked Wayne Shorter what he’s trying to do with his music and he said he’s trying to play wisdom. And I think that’s what it’s all about.


A few recordings that changed your life?


Swiss Movement by Eddie Harris and Les McCann; Walking in Space by Quincy Jones and Giant Steps by John Coltrane


Before & After: Lisa Fischer

DSCN8779Lisa Fischer

By Larry Appelbaum

Lisa Fischer has long been considered a singer’s singer. She won her first Grammy in 1991 for her hit “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but in years since, she’s become a go-to, first-call backing vocalist, sharing the stage with many of the biggest names in business, including The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Sting and more than two decades with the late Luther Vandross. The 2013 Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom reminded audiences of her prodigious vocal skills and helped revitalize her career as a solo artist. We caught up with Ms. Fischer on the last day of her sold-out weekend at Blues Alley. Her perceptive comments were offered with insider’s insights punctuated by joyous laughter.

Gregory Porter & Common

“Running” (from Refugee Song, LLC). Curated and Produced by Keyon Harrold and Andrea Pizzicone; Lyrics by Andrea Pizzicone, Keyon Harrold, Common; Music by Keyon Harrold and Jasson Harrold. Recorded in 2016.

Before: I feel transported, like I’m traveling through space. I might get the feeling of being lost but there’s something about this voice makes me feel safe. He sounds like an anointed preacher. Makes me smile. Inspirational. I like the positivity of the rap. Whenever I hear a trumpet I think of jazz clubs and classiness and old Harlem. Makes me want to sing along. It’s beautiful, hopeful. It feels familiar, like a part of me. Is it Gregory Porter?

After: I love his voice. I’ve never heard this song before. It’s gorgeous. He has such a warmth about him, a caring about him. I just get the feeling he wants to heal the world. We sang a duet together for Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road. He was just so lovely and he was exhausted, but he was there 110% and singing so beautifully.

Catherine Russell

“Talk to Me, Talk to Me” (from Harlem On My Mind, Jazz Village). Russell, vocal; Matt Munisteri: guitar; Mark Shane: piano; Tal Ronen: bass; Mark McLean: drums; Andy Farber, Mark Lopeman, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2016.

Before: I love this woman’s voice. It’s so direct and to the point. No frills, rich, like black coffee and sugar. And I love the swing of the horns. It’s kind of lazy and almost late, but right on time. Love the backgrounds; I have a thing for backgrounds. The way the horns sing with each other is how background singers sing, the way they blend and breathe and swell together. It’s interesting; It sounds like it was recorded not long ago, but the style and feel of it sounds like long ago. I love that ending.

After: Get out of here! I know her. She’s such an amazing chameleon. She’s so many things. I love her. Oh my god. I love this record. She really captured that vibe. So beautiful. She looks so pretty on the cover, too. I’m so glad she covered this song. It’s a beautiful way to honor what was, because in order to capture that vibe, you need to really listen and be free and be present not in this moment, but in that moment. It’s just so pure. Her voice is so rich. She also knows how to blend with other people. She knows what colors in her voice to use with other people. And it seems like that serves her well when she sings lead vocal. She gets to have this palette; [as in] “Ok, so what’s the best way to send this message home? I think I’ll wear purple on this.” (laughs) It’s just so beautiful.

Freda Payne

“A Song for You” (from Payne and Pleasure, ABC). Payne, vocal; Joe Sample, electric piano; Scott Edwards, bass; Ed Greene, drums; Dennis Budimir, Ray Parker Jr., guitar; Emil Richards, vibraphone; Jesse Ehrlich, cello; Ernie Watts, saxophone. Recorded in 1974.

Before: I feel like it’s late at night and I’m inside a music box. I love her emotion. And you can understand every word. She sings in English. And I know that might be a weird thing to say. Other than the word baby–she says “bay-bay”–every other word is in English. You know? And with that, you still feel the emotion. Sometimes when you sing properly, it sounds too clean, stilted. And this doesn’t sound stiff at all. She’s got some jazz choices, which is beautiful. Something about this track reminds me of how Luther Vandross used to approach his tracks in the slow parts. The faster part reminds me of Fifth Dimension era. Usually this song makes me feel sad, but with the change of tempo it feels more hopeful. I don’t know why Isaac Hayes jumps into my mind, but it has his sensitivity. She’s singing the piss out of this (laughs). Who is this?

After: I didn’t know her voice like this. The only song I really know of hers is “Band of Gold.” She seems comfortable in her skin, no excuses. She lays down the law in the beginning, but she really soars at the end.

Chick Corea & Bobby McFerrin

“I’ve Got the World On a String” (from The Musician, Concord) Corea, piano; McFerrin, vocal. Recorded in 2016.

Before: Live recording, for sure. I can’t tell if it’s one person playing and singing or two people in duet. The piano is singing as well as the singer. This section reminds me of Bobby McFerrin. Yeah, it’s two people. What is so magical to me is how people listen to each other. This is so playful. And I think having two people leaves room for more play. I thought there was a bass player all of a sudden, but it’s the voice. And they’re swinging. I love how they answer each other. It sounds like a woman now, but a drinking female singer (laughter). She’s hilarious. This is so joyous. It’s Bobby, but I don’t know the pianist.

After: Oh god, of course. I didn’t recognize his voice in the beginning because he too is a chameleon for me. He’s got so much voice to work with and so many colors. But when he started to scat, I thought: Oh, it’s Daddy. He’s the Daddy of that vibe to me. I never get the feeling he’s showing off. He just wants people to smile and walk away with joy.

Laura Nyro

“Stoned Soul Picnic” (demo bonus track from reissue of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Columbia). Nyro, piano, vocals. Recorded in 1967.

Before: Sounds like someone overdubbing their own vocals. Beautiful voice. I just love the way she says “down.” Kind of country relaxed. Not a lot of vibrato, but pure singing in a relaxed way. She sounds like she’s playing piano for herself. I love the unisons. Interesting they went minor instead of major on the word picnic. I know this song from The Fifth Dimension.

After: I should have known that. So she wrote the song?

Yes, this is her demo.

I love it. When you make a demo, sometimes all the magic is left on the demo. It’s really difficult to reproduce the vibe.

Thoughts about Laura?

It’s her freedom. I think songwriting is one of the most important aspects of music to connect to other hearts and souls. And to me, she had that. It’s not about how many notes you can fit in one second. I can feel her heart in this. I feel her honesty. She’s not afraid to be naked musically. I still don’t know what “surry down” means but I feel I can understand it from how she sang it. I did her song “Map to The Treasure” with Billy Childs. I listened to it for the first time, and wow; I was led into this beautiful chamber of her heart and soul. I told Billy I’ll try to sing it but I’ll never come close to Laura, and he was ok with that. And he did a beautiful arrangement on it.

Marcus Strickland & Christie Dashiell

“Let’s Wait a While” (from Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1, Blue Note). Strickland, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Dashiell, vocal; Christian Sands, keyboards; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Kyle Miles, bass; and Charles Haynes, drums. Recorded in 2015.

Before: It sounds like one person did the music. It doesn’t have a live feel. It has a demo energy, to me. I love the voice. Sounds like a younger singer than the original recording. It’s a Janet Jackson song, a jazzier version. I can’t tell if it’s real instruments or all computerized. The trumpet sounds real. She has a voice like a waterfall. I like how it trickles. It feels like a live vocal from beginning to end, not like it’s punched in. Now the drums sound live. I love the section at the end. Feels like it’s in a studio, like a workup of an arrangement. For me it felt very busy, but interestingly busy. The voice is strong and it’s a beautiful thread against all the conversation with the instruments. I don’t want to be insulting, but it sounds like an experiment, like trying on things and seeing how it fits for the vocal. And sometimes you have to go all the way out there to figure out what that is.

After: Yeah, she sounds like a young singer. Beautiful voice. I didn’t feel a settled-ness. Some moments were most interesting towards the end. That’s when it started to breathe and jell.

Brook Benton and Dinah Washington

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” (from The Two of Us Mercury). Benton, Washington, vocals; Belford Hendricks Orchestra. Recorded in 1959.

Before: The strings remind me of a leaf blowing around in the wind and then flies away. This makes you want to just bob your head. I love how they’re sing-talking. And those aren’t long phrases. Even the male vocal is smooth, but not too much. It’s like chocolate syrup on ice cream. If you put too much on, it’s like, oh man, I need more ice cream. He’s like the perfect syrup. I like her voice. She reminds me of Joan Crawford’s speaking voice in that particular range and vibration. The minute she opens her mouth, you know it’s her, whoever she is. The voices are so different but they’re lovely together. I love the way that swings.

After: Ah, that’s yummy. How long ago was that? I love the sound of the snare, the way it cuts through in a sophisticated and funky way. My parents listened to Dinah. I remember that voice but I was too young for it at the time. I love it now.

Jimmy Scott & Joe Pesci

“The Nearness of You” (from I Go Back Home, Eden River Records). Scott, Pesci, vocals; Kenny Barron, piano; Michael Valerio, bass; Peter Erskine, drums; HBR Studio Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in 2009.

Before: I don’t know why I think of The Honeymooners when I hear the beginning of this song. Something about how the strings set up the scene. Luther would use that as well, almost like an oratorio. I can’t tell if this is male or female. I love that slow vibrato. That is so amazing. It sounds like male energy with female sensitivity. And somebody who’s lived a lot of life. Whoever this is, they’re not afraid to allow space. The bass is killin’, piano is gorgeous. I love the flutes and woodwinds. Each instrument has its own place in the frame of the music. You would think someone with this kind of wisdom in their voice wouldn’t be able to sing as well as they’re singing. They’re singing their ass off. This is now a different voice. What’s happening? Sounds like two different singers but they fit and complement each other. Are they related? If they’re not related, they are on some other level. So relaxed with each other. It seems like they really love each other.

After: No freaking way. I didn’t know Joe Pesci can sing. He’s amazing. We tend to want to fill every space with sound, be it conversation or the fear that we won’t have enough time to get out everything we’re thinking. So we’re all fighting to be heard. What I love about this are these sacred pools of silence. And it takes a certain kind of calm and knowing that everything’s going to be ok.

At what point in your career did you realize this?

I think I’m still learning that lesson. I think I’ve always been scared. If there’s a loud noise, I jump. If there’s a possible threat, I think it’s going to happen.

But musically, you sound so confident.

It’s the one place where I feel safe. These two sound fearless to me. And if they’re not fearless, they’re brave. There’s something very comforting about listening to a wiser soul. I’ve got to get this.

Nat “King” Cole & Nellie Lutcher

“Can I Come in for a Minute?” (from Jazz Encounters, Capitol). Cole, piano, vocal; Lutcher, vocal; Ernie Royal, trumpet; Charlie Barnet, tenor saxophone; Irving Ashby, guitar; Joe Comfort, bass; Earl Hyde, drums. Recorded in 1950.

Before: I love it. I love the storytelling; I can see the whole scene. I can see them at the door. It’s so funny. She’s saying no but her heart’s saying yes. I love her feistiness. And I love his smoothness; He’s just trying to get in. Haha, touchdown! I’m not sure who the singers are, but the whole vibe of the singers is conversational. It’s such a mirror into the times, when things were a lot subtler, when men used to have to have conversations with women and a woman’s virtue was her currency. As much as you needed to guard it, you had to fight this other side of yourself that wants to be conquered on some level. It’s just so much fun to listen to. Again, I’m showing my age, but I like the subtleness, and it allows my mind to paint the picture. If you weren’t interested, you only needed to push back a little bit. Now, when people say “Yo baby, can I have your phone number?”, it’s a harder push and it becomes uncomfortable to say no. But back then things were slower and with a bit more intrigue.

After: Smooth, like cognac. I love the clips from his television show. Back then you didn’t see a lot of black men on tv.

As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”

Playing For Change

“Gimme Shelter” (from Songs Around The World, Vol. 2, Concord). Taj Mahal, vocal, harmonica; Roselyn Williams, Sherieta Lewis, Tamika McClellan, vocals; A.S. Ram, harmonium; Andrae Carter, Char, Enzo Buono, guitar; Washboard Chaz, washboard; Courtney “Bam” Diedrick, drums; D. Chandrajit, Venkat, tablas; Greg Ellis, nagara; Ronhaldino, conga; Mamady Ba Camara, kora; Massamba Diop, talking drum; Roberto Luti, National guitar; Pow Diedrick, keyboards; Seenu M, santoor; Sidney Santos, bass; Augustine Kobina Valcarcel electric guitar; Mohammed “Makengo” Kamara, kele. Released in 2011.

Before: Wow, this is very Africa meets the South. Haha. It’s rocking, very gospel. Ooh, I’m digging this. Love the choir energy. Love the harmonica. Nice to also hear a male voice on this. Something about the instrumentation and the way it flows reminds me of being on a rowboat with oars. I love the low bass and the feeling of being on a river. It feels swampy and African, like old bones clicking against each other. And it feels like church and a choir of women singing with a male guest. I love the whole vibe. Who in the world is this?

After: They sound beautiful together, and those talking drums. [examines liner notes] I like that it’s from all over: India, Jamaica, Argentina, Senegal, Brazil. USA. This is great. What’s amazing for me is that Keith [Richards] and Mick [Jagger] are the parents of the song. As rich as they’ve become as people, the song becomes richer as they perform it, because they’re just present in the music. That’s how they roll.

What do you think this song is about?

For me, it’s about wanting to be safe when everything around you is jacked up. It’s an ugly scene, a photograph that you’re trying to find your place in. And you’re praying and begging for some relief.

The original recording was done with Merry Clayton. Did Mick and Keith encourage you to find your own way with it?

I think Mick loves the audience so much that he wants it to be the best experience for them. I’m hired to come in and do my best to sing the part of Merry. And of course nobody can sound like Merry, so you do your best to find your way. And Mick was really helpful in trying to guide me through that process.

Did he do it verbally?

He tried to, though he’s more of a feel guy. The way he absorbs music and listens and delivers it such a personal thing. He’d say what to listen to. You know, like try to stick to the melody as much as you can, which was really good advice in the beginning because I had no clue what I was doing. I wanted to feel connected in a way that was personal for me. So beautifully, he allowed me that space.

How did you get the gig singing with the Rolling Stones?

I was working for Luther Vandross at the time and Tony King, who was the publicist for the Stones, came to see Luther’s show and it was pretty much because of him. And Keith was just so chill. So between the two of them, they allowed me the space to find my voice in it. Imagine a really beautiful quilt that you get to sew yourself into. But I don’t want to be the new piece looking like I don’t fit in. So they gave me the time to slowly weave myself within.

Luther Vandross

“A House Is Not a Home” (from Never Too Much, Epic). Vandross, lead vocal; Tawatha Agee, Phillip Ballou, Michelle Cobbs, Cissy Houston, Yvonne Lewis, Sybil Thomas, Fonzi Thornton, Brenda King White, Norma Jean Wright, vocals; Nat Adderley, Jr, keyboards; Ed Walsh, synthesizers; Steve Love, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, bass; Buddy Williams, drums. Recorded 1981.

It’s hard for me to listen to this song without wanting to cry. What I love about this is the way the bass anchors you. It’s not where the bass lays, it’s in-between where the bass lays. The amount of space is not something you can get off a piece of paper. It’s not something you can conduct. So in a silent way our musical director, Nat Adderley Jr, would conduct the feeling of it through his playing and his physical motions. And we would always laugh; We would call him Turtle because he was so slow. He would really take his time about every answer, every word he chose, and it showed in his playing and on this song, especially for me. It’s what happens in- between the notes that I find really interesting. Everyone was just so sensitive to what Luther wanted.

Is that something you can teach?

I don’t know if it can be taught, but I do believe it can be witnessed and absorbed. Once you see it, you go “What is this?” We sort of absorb each other emotionally and react to whatever that is; It’s interesting how people fit their hearts into the space that’s created. For me, the way that Luther sang this song on the record, he could bring the live experience into the studio. And not a lot of people can do that. It was his time and his heart that he was sharing. He wasn’t fitting into something. He was the thing. He just had this old soul way of being.

You would hear him sing this at every show. How would it change from night to night?

For me, it didn’t change much. What was more interesting is that it sounded brand new every night. I would never tire of hearing it. The arrangement was always the same, and his melodic choices were pretty much the same. But he could make it sound like the audience was hearing it for the first time every night. That, to me, was magic. What I found so amazing is that no matter what shape his voice was in, I found it exciting to watch how he would maneuver through it. It was painful some nights, scary. He was say he was singing for his life. It’s vocal survival. Still, he would always connect with the audience no matter what vocal shape he was in. And then on the nights when he was in excellent voice, it was pure joy.

Can you say what you miss most about him?

Everything. I miss his laugh, his sense of humor. I miss the way that he loved each of us, the way he loved his audience. I miss being in the studio with him. I miss the way he would teach us our parts; the way he’d force us to listen. I miss his smile.

Name two or three recordings that changed your life?

“Black Gold of the Sun” by Minnie Riperton with Rotary Connection; “Pillow Talk” by Sylvia [Robinson]; and “You Know How to Love Me” by Phyllis Hyman.

This Before & After was originally published in JazzTimes on Sept 9, 2017


Before & After: Dianne Reeves

By Larry Appelbaum

 2015 was a banner year for Dianne Reeves, winning a Grammy for Beautiful Life and receiving her honorary doctorate from the Juilliard School. She spent a good part of the past 12 months working on her follow-up Concord disc and touring both stateside and abroad. We met for this session during her summer stop at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv. Eager to hear her thoughts on a handful of recent releases, we also served up collaborations between Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, her cousin George Duke with Kamasi Washington, Portland-based singer Nancy King with bassist Glen Moore, and an oddly awkward Carmen McRae curiosity with Ben Webster from 1958.

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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.

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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. Continue reading


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.

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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