Interview with Muhal Richard Abrams


This telephone interview with pianist, composer and bandleader Muhal Richard Abrams was recorded a few days before his 1996 orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center. That performance also marked the world premiere of an Abrams’ commission, Duet for Violin and Piano. Eighteen years later to the day, Muhal returned to the Kennedy Center, where I shot this pic at close of his concert.

Why don’t you tell us about the music you’re playing here this coming week?

Well, each piece is completely different. It’s original music; some older pieces and some newer pieces recently composed, of course.

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An attempt to answer some questions about Jazz

I’m so used to interviewing others, I found it stimulating to be on the other side of the questions for a change. This interview was conducted by journalist Margo Ormotsadze via Skype on June 20, 2015 and published in both Russian and Ukrainan in Forbes Ukraine.

Here is the English version:


— Please, explain the role of jazz for American and international culture?

— These things change over time. When jazz was first introduced to the world, it was a revelation, a gift created by African-American musicians. It was a symbol of the new age, a new sensibility, a new approach not just to music and dance and syncopation, but also to thought and the idea of collective improvisation with a modern insight. Again, it has changed in some profound ways. Just as in the world of art, the pendulum in jazz has moved back and forth between abstraction and representation, assimilating traditions and styles from other genres and other cultures. Now, you can hear this language of jazz played all over the world with various accents.

— Also, jazz was a symbol of the freedom? Is it possible to connect revolutions in society with revolutions of sound?

— Yes, but that has become a cliché. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. In most cases it’s a bit more subtle today, and most jazz musicians tend to avoid overt sociopolitical statements. Jazz used to be the sound of the outsider. It was a subversive music, especially in the context of repressive or totalitarian regimes. I’m sure you know something about this. In Nazi Germany, jazz was considered a “degenerate” music – “Entartete Musik”.

During Soviet times, jazz, for the most part, was an underground music. It was there, embraced by some, but you couldn’t walk into a record shop and ask for jazz records. There was virtually no jazz on the Melodya label, and no jazz clubs, concerts or festivals to hear the music in a live setting. It was a very big deal when Benny Goodman went in the early 60s, and when Charles Lloyd went a few years later.

I hope your readers know that Willis Conover was host of The Jazz Hour on Voice of America’s short-wave radio service. There’s a reason why Willis Conover was so popular behind the so-called Iron Curtain. He was virtually unknown here in the U.S., but very well-known for post-war Eastern European jazz fans. For them, the jazz-is-freedom trope was and still is very important.

It doesn’t seem to have quite the same resonance for younger generations these days. It’s no longer a dangerous music. As I mentioned, times have changed and what jazz represents in various cultures has changed in the course of just a few generations.

You can also say it is the African-American’s own art music. But all of that depends on your perspective and where you’re coming from.


— How you explain – why jazz became a symbol of freedom?

— This goes back to the 1920s, and even earlier. Popular music, commercial dance music had been very “white” and derived from European styles. But, with the rise of ragtime, blues and jazz, a “black” approach to rhythm and harmony starts to seep in. And that sound, that approach to rhythm was fresh and exciting, not like the stale music the kid’s parents listened to.

In the 1920s in the U.S, it was prohibition times. Alcohol was illegal, many people were inhibited socially. But the younger generation broke through it and embraced the concept of swing. Their parents hated it, of course, and conservatives rejected it, but the kids loved it and wanted to dance. In the U.S., we call that time “the roaring 20s”, marked by a modernist sensibility in the arts, especially after the world war when things were changing at a very fast rate.

It meant something different in the 30s-50s, and especially in the late 50s-70s, when some musicians expressed political statements with their music. I’m speaking of Max Roach (We Insist Freedom Now), Sonny Rollins (The Freedom Suite), Charles Mingus (Fables of Faubus) and so-on. This was not abstract. These were explicit musical statements about segregation and civil rights.

— Please, what do you recommend to start for those who want to understand jazz? How to understand jazz?

— Learn to listen. That’s the big thing. Just learn something about the language.

You can do that by listening to recordings or watching videos, but the best way I think – is by hearing it in a live setting. Go to concerts and clubs, listen, absorb it. And ask musicians questions. There are many books you can read about jazz, but in many ways it is still an oral tradition. So, talk to the creators, and they can tell you what’s really happening in their music.

And, if you’re truly curious, read some good books. But I sometimes wonder if people’s attention span allows for reading beyond a tweet.

— Please, tell us about your experience – from what you have started to listen jazz music?

— I used to be a singer and studied music in school. I’ve always loved music, but in those days it was all about classical music and certain kinds of popular music. One of my favorite musical experiences was singing Bach chorales, because I was a baritone and I loved his bass lines. Bach was so hip and his baselines swing in their own contrapuntal way. So, when I first heard jazz, I equated the “walking bass lines” played by people like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers with Bach’s baselines. I’ve always loved those walking bass lines, and I still love Bach chorales.

It really started for me while I was in high school. One day my choral teacher told me to listen to Count Basie if i wanted to hear how musicians can feel the beat together. So, I went to a Count Basie concert. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the floor right in front of the band. That experience changed my life.

— What trends of the modern jazz world would you notice?

— The overt embrace of other genres, for one. Young jazz musicians don’t just listen only to jazz anymore. Popular music, such as hip-hop, soul, rock and classical, are found on many musician’s playlists today.

Second is the rise of women in jazz. This has been happening for at least the last 20 years. There have always been good female jazz musicians going back at least into the 20s, but now it’s become much more obvious. And they don’t just play good for woman. They play good, period. I’m thinking of:

Terri Lyne Carrington, Ingrid Jensen, Kris Davis, Allison Miller, Maria Schneider, Hiromi, Melissa Aldana, Trish Kelly Clowes, Joelle Leandre, Myra Melford, and so on. And those are composers and instrumentalists. Lots of great singers, too.

Third, jazz is everywhere now; pretty much any major city around the world has some sort of active jazz scene. And the technical abilities of young musicians are increasingly impressive. Technique isn’t everything, but it’s a tool to get your musical ideas across. So the assimilation of all these different, distinct accents and dialects into the language of jazz has helped to revitalize the scene in an important way.

And lastly, I’d say that in many ways it’s harder and harder for musicians to make a living playing. There’s a lot of competition now, and young people in general don’t think they should have to pay for music or physical media. You can’t make any money from Spotify or other streaming services. So, it’s hard. At the same time, the music schools that teach jazz are doing well. Despite the economic realities, young people still want to learn how to play this music. Jazz education is booming.

— What youngsters from jazz have impressed you?

— There’s an 11-year old boy from Bali named Joey Alexander who just got signed to a label. I haven’t heard him live yet, but I’ve seen the videos and he’s got some chops. I think Cécile McLorin Salvant is someone creative who takes some chances. Other up and coming artists to watch out for are Jamison Ross, Tivon Pennicott, Alexander Hawkins, David Virelles and Julian Lage. There’s always someone young and new who will scare the pants off you. Just read the jazz magazines for updates on emerging artists.

— Which international festivals today are the most influential?

—   The biggest festivals, the ones that are most well-known are Montreal, Northsea, Copenhagen, Cape Town, New Orleans, Montreux, London, Vancouver. There are some festivals that are smaller, but they focus on one specific genre. For example, if you like avant-garde jazz, the Vision Festival, Jazz em Agosto and the festival in Guelph are very important, even if they’re not that well known to the general jazz audience. Umbria is also quite important, I think, and Rochester. There are now great jazz festivals all over the world.

larry kiev-1

— Who are the Ukrainian musicians sounds good on the world stage? Who is famous?

—   If you’re talking about living musicians who were born or raised in Ukraine, there simply aren’t that many who are known outside of Ukraine. It’s only when they leave Ukraine that they become more internationally known.  But of those, I’d say that Vadim Neselovskyi is possibly the best known. Of course he teaches at Berklee now and he traveled the world with both Gary Burton and Arkady Shilkloper.

I think that Enver Izmaylov is known in the international guitar community. In the world of avant-jazz, Mark Tokar and Yuri Yaremchuk have their reputations. There’s a bassist now in New York named Ark Ovrutski. And while they’re salsa and not jazz, I’d say Los Dislocados has the potential to go international.

It’s also worth noting that both Misha Mengelberg and Misha Alperin were both born in Ukraine.

There are lots of good musicians in Ukraine, but it’s hard for them to break through as long as they remain there and only release recordings with Russian liner notes.

They would need good agents, publicists and promoters. That’s how the business works. And if someone wants to make it, it helps to know how to hustle and not wait for the world to come to them.

Blue Note at 75 Panel Discussion

Had the pleasure of interviewing Lou Donaldson, Michael Cuscuna and Jason Moran at the Blue Note at 75 panel discussion, May 10, 2014 at the Library of Congress. I was a bit under the weather that day, but the conversation lifted my spirit. Special note of thanks to Bruce Lundvall for his contributions to jazz and American music.


Interview with Archie Shepp (1982)

I recently found a handwritten transcript of my unpublished interview with saxophonist, composer and educator Archie Shepp. The first part of the conversation was taped on Feb. 8, 1982 in a College Park motel room the morning after Shepp’s concert at the University of Maryland. The conclusion was recorded immediately after in my car on the way to National Airport. Shepp, at the time an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, began by discussing the flaws in our educational system.


…I don’t think much of degrees anyway. I think the educational system is pretty shoddy. There’s a great deal of hypocrisy. It’s inefficient, irrelevant. It’s outmoded.

So what do you advise your students when they come talk to you?


To completely rehaul and overhaul the educational system when they get out of school. Sure, because I’m part of the system doesn’t mean that I subscribe to every aspect of it. Just like being an American or being a Russian or anything else; you can love your country without having to accept everything that people do as absolutely correct. I feel that way about the educational system. It has a lot of flaws. It’s racist and it’s a system that unfortunately perpetuates racism at the school where I teach. I think they’ve done very little to encourage certainly the participation of other, shall we say, musical cultures in their program. In fact, they seem to feel that the only “classical” music per se is Western classical music, which is a total lie and an oversight. After all, there are many, many people who have musical cultures that are much older that those we find in Europe and the U.S. The Chinese and the Africans and the Indians, for example. Go ahead, man; what did you want to ask me? Continue reading

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