Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Special Effects

I've never been much of a lad for using electronic effects on my instrument. I added an octave divider to my setup about 20 years ago, kept it for a little while and then stopped using it. For one reason or another I've always been more attracted to trying to create all the sounds with my fingers rather than having them processed through an electronic intermediary. Having said that, I remember hearing the great Italian bassist Furio DiCastri do fantastic things with electronic effects on his bass back in the 90s and I remember thinking it would be fun to do something like that sometime.

I have a little issue with using electronic effects on my instrument, which stems from the belief that sometimes audiences can be fooled into thinking you're playing great music just by the sounds coming from your amp. And the sounds these pedals and effects units can make are really impressive. With the right patch or preset you can play just one note on your instrument and some massive sound can emanate from the amp, amazing one and all. But the problem I have with that is that the sound wasn't produced by me really, it was programmed by somebody else, and eventually made in a factory somewhere, so I feel a bit of a fake really, taking credit for something I actually had nothing to do with.

However recently I started to think about this again. I am aware that there are people, especially guitarists, who do extraordinary things with effects, very creative things, and one of those is the unique Swiss/Irish guitarist Christy Doran, with whom I've played on many occasions. Most recently I was playing with him and one of the leading drummers in the creative NY scene, Gerry Hemingway, in a concert in which all the music was completely improvised. Christy had his huge pedal collection ready to go, and Gerry brings all kinds of weird and wonderful hardware to add to the conventional drumset. I on the other hand had.... four strings...... The sound palette that Christy and Gerry had was huge, especially compared to mine - for me it was like bringing a penknife to a gunfight!

 So that made me think a little - especially given the very creative way my fellow improvisers used their various effects that night. So I borrowed my son Chris' Strymon Timeline unit and fooled around with that and really had a good time with it. My modus operandi was to just randomly flick between presets and improvise immediately with whatever sound came out, and that was very engaging for me - trying to make some good music with the sound, on the spot, but not just accepting the sound as an end in itself.

I had so much fun with that, I invested in a unit of my own, this time the Eventide H9, and did the same thing with that. This unit has a huge number of presets and I've been exploring them with great interest in the past few days, and I'm confident that I'll be able to use this unit and incorporate it into some of the music I make. Can't see me using it on a bebop gig, but the next time I'm with Christy and Gerry, I'll be ready!

Here are a couple of short videos of me improvising with various sounds - first with the H9

And secondly with the Strymon

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Creative Artistic Tribute or Greatest Hits?

'A Tribute to.......', 'A Celebration of....', 'The Music of.....'

If you're a jazz listener you'll definitely have been at a concert dedicated to the work of a musician or composer, and if you're a jazz player you'll definitely have taken part in one. These kinds of projects are very popular both with performers and audiences, for various reasons. When you do a concert of the music associated with a well known figure, you're dealing with a known quantity - it's music that has usually already been acclaimed in the public arena.  So for an audience, to see a concert labeled as, (for example), 'The Music of Miles Davis', they already have an idea, at least in their own minds, of what to expect. If they are fans of Miles they'll possibly be more interested in going to see that concert than they might be if the concert was one comprised of original compositions by the leader or band members. By evoking the name of Miles, the leader is to some extent using the popularity and name recognition of Miles to encourage people to attend. And therein lies the problem - at least as far as the aesthetics of the music go.

If you are a creative musician, in the true spirit of what that means, in my opinion it's not really good enough to present an evening of the music of someone else, or music associated with someone else, and present it in such a way that a) you don't do anything other than try and copy the original, and b) imply in your publicity that you had something to do with the creation of that music. To use the artistic credentials of someone else to get gigs or present yourself as having some connection to the artist in question, simply by playing their music, is artistically bereft of merit. I don't mean to say that you shouldn't play anyone's music other than your own, but I do think on an artistic level, that if you're going to play someone's music, and evoke their name, the very least you can do is to create some personalisation of that music, in such a way that the audience coming to the concert will hear this music in a very different way to that of the original.

Jazz is a music in which the work done by musicians of previous generations laid the foundations for future musicians to create their music. By taking the music of somebody and slavishly trying to reproduce what's on the recordings, you are flying in the face of that tradition. Not that there's anything wrong with playing music that people love, for people, in a way they will recognise. But it must be seen for what it is - if you've put together a 'project' that tries to reproduce known music in the style in which it was recorded, then you are essentially leading a covers band, no different in its own way to 'Abba-esque', or 'Iron Maidens' or any one of a multitude of similar covers bands. You are, in a way, creating a live jukebox. Very often I've seen musicians refer to their 'Miles Tribute', or 'Miles Project' in a way that implies that they have some ownership of the music. Yet when they perform, it becomes clear that they're simply trying to reproduce what Miles did (impossible in itself), and there is not one iota of originality in the project at all.

I'm also wary of using a photograph of the musician who is the subject of the tribute as part of the publicity. Again, by using his or her photo, there is the suspicion of the leader of the project using this imagery to draw the crowds, almost as if the famous artist themselves were going to have some part in the performance. Of course if you play the music of someone else, it's impossible not to mention that fact in the publicity, but if your publicity comprises a large image of the composer/performer whose music you are playing, and contains no photo of you, then from my point of view this very problematic - at least as far as presenting the show as being something in which you have had a creative input. Using a photo of yourself alongside the dedicatee of the evening can also be problematic, as it can imply a certain collegiality between you and the artist that doesn't exist. There was a particularly shameless and notorious incident of this nature here in Ireland some years ago when a saxophonist who was touring a John Coltrane project, Photoshopped an image of himself and Trane so that it looked like they were on stage side by side. Toe-curlingly awful and an extreme example of the exploitation of an iconic image for personal gain and under a cloak of a 'tribute'

Of course learning repertoire is part of the process of learning to play this music, and all jazz musicians do it and need to do it. But there's a difference between learning a canon of work in order to develop as an artist, and presenting it by-rote as if you have some part in the creation of it. If you're serious about creating a body of work that both reflects the music of a great musician and contains some creative input from yourself you need to do something other than simply try and copy the music from the recordings.

(Dave Douglas)

The trumpeter Dave Douglas has always been very imaginative in this regard, producing homages to Wayne Shorter, Booker Little and Mary Lou Williams, while at the same time creating a body of work that is clearly his own. As an example of this approach, have a listen to the original recording of 'Mary's Idea'

And now listen to Douglas' interpretation of that - it both clearly shows the source material yet makes the a piece, that was written by somebody else in 1930, sound both personal and contemporary

When I was starting out as a player I began putting on concerts of the music of particular composers - Monk, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, at the wonderful Focus Theatre, and I admit that they were not the most original things I've ever done, and would be guilty of many of the sins outlined above. I was in my early 20s then, and hadn't really thought this stuff through. As I matured and became more experienced both in music and in life, I changed my approach to these kinds of projects completely. One of the first projects I did as a mature musician was a recording (and tour) of a project called 'Bird', dedicated to the music of Charlie Parker. My criteria for choosing the music was that it would be comprised of music either written by, dedicated to (by other composers), or made famous by Parker. Once I'd chosen the music I set about personalising the pieces in my own way. I looked at each piece and examined them structurally, rhythmically and harmonically to see if I could find new approaches to what was extremely familiar material. Here's an example - the Dizzy Gillespie classic 'Blue N' Boogie', played here by Miles Davis.

The re-arrangement I did of this classic blues pieces was very simple, I changed the groove from swing to a quasi-reggae feel, thereby preserving the triplet vibe of the piece while having a different groove. I wrote a bass line, slowed the tempo, added an intro, and changed the rhythm of the melody, stretching some of the phrases. The blues form, and key were preserved, but the atmosphere is very different to the original.


After one of the performances of this project an audience member approached me and said he was very disappointed by the concert because he was hoping to hear the music played the way it was on the records. While sympathising with him, I did make the point that nothing could better the way the music was played on the original recordings, and to try and reproduce it live would just produce something vastly inferior to the original. Nobody can play like Charlie Parker better than Charlie Parker....

Here's a live recording of another of the 'Bird' project tunes, (with Julian Arguelles, Rick Peckham and Tom Rainey), this time Parker's 'Ah-Leu-Cha', where I've used canonic devices in the melody, added a bass line and used a New Orleans groove. Again I was trying to be respectful to the source material while being personal.

I think ultimately the point is this - from an artistic point of view, are you using whatever great music you've chosen as a springboard to creativity of your own, or are you being a 'greatest hits' artist? We definitely need more of the former than the latter.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Gene Perla - a Life in Jazz

Gene Perla has been playing bass at the highest level for almost fifty years now. A respected denizen of the New York scene for all of that time, he has appeared on many classic recordings, and played with some of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz. Alongside his playing activities he's always been a model of the musician/entrepreneur, running his own record label and generally taking care of business in a way that's become more common now with the advent of the internet, but was way ahead of its time when Gene started it.  He's still going strong, playing, touring, recording, taking care of business and sounding great. At the recent IASJ Meeting in Lisbon I took the opportunity to talk to Gene about his amazing musical history (and special thanks to Colin O Sullivan for transcribing this for me!), and in particular about the many great drummers he'd played with. 

RG: So Gene, let me first ask you about this: you're one of the most experienced bass players working today, with a huge career.  What I want to talk to you about today, one of the primary relationships in jazz – and one that's not spoken about enough – is the relationship between bass players and drummers.  People talk about bass players.  They talk about drummers.  But this other, third being that appears in the rhythm section is so much about the energy and the connection between the bass and the drums.  I know you've played with some of the greatest drummers in the history of the music, but before I ask you about anybody specifically, what is your general overall commentary about the nature of the relationship between the bass and the drums in a band, in a genre, in anything.  The particular uniqueness of the relationship, and how you feel as a bass player, how you think about that?

GP: Steadiness.  Being even.  And that doesn't mean the music can't breathe.  It can have a feeling of, perhaps, going ahead a little bit in time.  It can pull back in time, but it's not almost all cases of the drummers that I've had an opportunity to play with – or the ones that I've had the most fun with, let's put it that way - there was a feeling of being very confident that I wasn't going to be let down.  My job was to work with them so I wouldn't let them down, so we could travel on the same path together.  Depending on where the beat was...some players play on top, other ones in the middle, other ones behind the beat.  But to me the most important thing is to stay even and steady.  And then for me, then I feel like I can go to work.

RG: Just to come back to one little point there.  If you're playing with a drummer for the first time, is that the first thing you check out: where the beat is?  Is it in front, on top, or behind.

GP: I don't check it out I just...well I guess I do check it out because I react to it, you know.  But I just start playing my thing and I see how the tap of the cymbal is winding up with the pluck of my string.  And often it's like “Wow, this is fun!”.  And sometimes it's like “Oh, this is a bit difficult”.

RG: Of those three things, is there any one that you find more difficult?  Obviously, in the middle of the beat is probably not that difficult...but behind or in front?  Where would you feel your time feel is? Because I feel mine is kind of in the middle, slightly to the front.  I know with certain types of drummers its a bit easier for me than with others. 

GP: I've not actually thought about that too much but in just reflecting on what it feels like for me to play, I don't really have an issue one way or the other.  If they want to go on top, that's fine.  I'll go there with them.  If they're behind, or in the middle...  There was an interesting thing when I first joined Elvin who...and maybe you even heard Liebman say this...Elvin's beat was so wide it didn’t matter where you put it, it would fit, you know?

But at the same time, I guess he recommended me to his brother because Richard Davis was leaving the big band – the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra, and so I got the gig.  Until Elvin started to get busy and then I had to cut it loose, you know.  But I remember the first night I went on the gig because I had played with drummers on top, I had played with drummers behind and so forth.  And so I guess I went in with a little bit of an attitude - to say, “Well, I'm gonna push this band” - because I had been listening to the record and Richard Davis he plays on top of the beat - for me, sometimes it's too far out in front.  So I said, “Well, I'm going to go in and push”.  And I found it extremely interesting because Mel did not react one iota. He was going right down the centre.  And, you know, by the second tune we were playing I said, “Ok, that's where I'm going”.  And then it was fine, you know.  I mean it was fine before but there was no more experimentation.

RG: I guess you learn -  someone as experienced as you, that's one of the reasons you're so experienced - is that you learn how to adjust or to know what the scene is pretty quickly.

GP: Yeah, yeah.

RG: So the obvious one to start with is Elvin because you're on ‘The Lighthouse’ and, of course, others.  In fact, I remember seeing you with Elvin in The Vanguard, in 1982, with Pat LaBarbera and Jean-Paul Bourelly – a guy with a French name but I think he was an American guitar player.  

GP: Wow!

RG: I still remember that as an iconic gig for me of course, seeing Elvin in The Vanguard.  And I still remember the first tune you guys played.  I think it was called “Little Lady” or something, by Pat LaBarbera that starts with the bass.  So you opened up the gig with your [sings intro].  So there you go, we've a longer history than you know!

GP: [laughs]

RG: So,'re on those iconic albums, especially The Lighthouse album.  So how did you start playing with him?  Maybe let's start with that.  How did you get to know him?  How did he get to know you?

GP: Well, going to the beginning when I became interested in music and then went to Berklee school and was studying and now I'm - as all of us were at that time – voracious, you know.  Anybody who came to the clubs we'd go.  A new record came out we'd share it, and talk, learning, we're all experiencing.  So I finally came to the point when I decided I knew that I had to go New York if I wanted to get to the top of the scene, or try to in any case.  I knew I had to go.  And I went with the express desire to play with two people - Elvin and Miles – and I was successful in both.  But, when I first went to New York I saw that Elvin was playing somewhere – at the old Five Spot – and at that time I wasn't even a bass player.  I was trying to be a piano player, I was trying to be Bill Evans.  And so, went to The Five Spot, and the last set I asked to sit in and he said “Yeah, come on, sit in”.  It was funny, he said “What do you want to play?” and I said “Nothing too fast”. He said, “Me neither!”. [laughs]  He was a bit drunk, you know.  I don't know, maybe more than a bit drunk.  Anyway, I'm sure he didn't remember.  And then I made the switch.  When I was 24 I started to play the bass.  Then when I got a little more confident, and he was playing at a club called Pookie's Pub, I sat in with him twice there.  Funny story, Wilbur Little was playing the bass and the way the band was run, even when I joined, when it came to a bass solo everybody left the stand, you know.

RG: [laughs] The loneliness of the long distance bass player!

GP: You know you're there for like twelve, fifteen minutes, you know.  You gotta solo, right?!  You better not make it short because they're at the bar having a drink. [laughs]  So anyway, I'm sure he didn't remember me.  I have to believe he didn't remember me.  So I played with him three times.  Then I was in Boston, visiting, and playing some gigs, and I was standing in the lobby of the Berklee school and a phone call came in WGBH TV.  Elvin was there to do a half hour live show.  Jimmy Garrison went to New York to cop, missed the plane.  The TV station called the school -  because where are you going to find a jazz musician? – and the girl says, “Elvin Jones is looking for a bass player”.  All I had was my electric bass and I flew to that TV station.  I walked in.  It was about twelve minutes before we had to play.  I'm trying to adjust this amplifier that was set up for rock and roll.  Trying to get, you know, a round sound.  And Joe Farrell, and Elvin, and me.  That was it, trio.  Joe is, like, singing these things, there was no music, he was singing these tunes which I didn't know, you know. [laughs] Anyway, we hit.  Did the half hour show and I have a copy of that tape.

RG: Really?! Wow, I'd love to hear that.  Do you have the video?

GP:  No, I didn't ask for the video back then.  I just wanted to listen to it.  And you can hear me...I'm fucking up here and there but pretty much the beat, I got in there with him.  And later, I heard, when he went back to New York he was saying to people, “I played with this white guy who played electric bass that made it sound like an upright”.  That was the impression.  And when Wilbur left he called me.

RG: That's a great story.  I can't think of a more incredible lobby call than “Elvin Jones is looking for a bass player”... [laughs]

GP: I put my foot on the floor of that car, man!  I didn't care how many state troopers were behind me!  [laughs]

(Joe Farrell)

RG: So when you joined Joe Farrell was the saxophone player...

GP: When I joined it was Joe and Frank Foster.  Two saxophones, and Elvin and myself.  No chords.

RG: So when you started to play with him, how was that?  In terms of the feeling for a bass player of playing with Elvin Jones.  I mean, there are thousands of us – me one of them – who would definitely drive over their own grandmother to get a chance to play with Elvin Jones!  And, of course we'd love to know, as bass players, what's it like?  How did you feel in terms of just, the beat, the feel?  As a bass player, what was he like to play with?

GP: Well it mightn't be interesting for you but, when he called me the first gig we did was a recording.  Didn't even play live with him.  He said, “If you got any tunes, bring 'em.  Maybe we'll play them.”  And I brought them and we recorded two of my songs.  It was called Genesis, the first record.  I have to say this to you – and I've said this numerous times – that, not exact dates, but ball took me about six months and finally I came and I said, “Now I know I can play with this guy.”  But it took me a long time.

RG: What was it that you found challenging to figure out?

GP: Because he was different than everybody else!  You know, drummers had been playing on two and four and the hi-hat.  You know, ding, ding-a-ding-a-ding...and he's like, constantly shifting, you know.  He'll play a phrase...and then the triplet shit which he brought to the forefront...  But it wasn't quite patterns it was like sometimes it would be the high tom to the snare drum and then the next time it would be the floor tom to the high tom.  It was constantly shifting.  All the time.  And another thing, the very first ballad we played on the gig – we didn't do a ballad on that record, I don't think – but when I started working the first ballad we played on the gig it was like he left the room.  It was so quiet!  And if I went off a little bit or anything he'd go BAM! on the snare drum.  “It's here, motherfucker!” [laughs]  So it took me a while to finally say, “Ahh, I can do this”.

RG: And then, of course, you ended up doing the band that appeared on The Lighthouse which was such a great band.  And that TV thing has appeared from Paris in the last year which is fantastic to see.

GP: Yes, yeah!  Unbelievable, Liebman sent it.  Because I didn't think anything existed.

RG: No, me neither.  I won't say I grew up with it...but certainly when I got into jazz, as a player, I was listening to The Lighthouse all the time.  So to actually see the band was amazing, and the energy and that.  So when Liebman and Grossman came in the band, you were like a gang, like friends.

GP: Well I got them in there.  The both of them!

RG: So they were your guys, right?

GP: When I joined Elvin I said, “Lieb, I'm gonna get you in there”, you know.  And then the opportunity came and we had three saxophones.  Then Joe left, and then...I don't remember exactly...I think maybe Frank left, then Grossman came in.  I don't know if there was a layover.  I don't think we had three horns with Steve and Frank.  I think when Frank left Grossman came in.  And I was on Elvin, I said “You know, you gotta get this cat, man.”  Because at that point I felt confident that I could talk to him on a musical level, you know.

RG: And it's great, because this is definitely one of Elvin's greatest bands.  An iconic band in the history of his bands.  He led bands for a long time and probably hundreds of musicians came and went through his bands.  I think only a few of Elvin's “bands” are remembered as bands.  This is absolutely one of them.  Apart from getting your guys in there you obviously had a ear for a band as well! So obviously this is an iconic drummer that you played with, in an iconic band, for people of my generation.   

(Elvin's 'Lighthouse Band' playing live in Paris in '73)

RG: But I know you played with so many great drummers, and some of them very different to Elvin.  Now, tell me about Papa Jo Jones.  How that happened?  What it was like?  Socially, musically, aesthetically...

GP: I'm sure you've seen him on YouTube.  This guy was an amazing guy, man! [laughs]  The way he'd be smiling and doing this whole show business...but that music was there, boy!  It was solid.  So, there was a bar/restaurant in mid-town.  North of Times Square, south of the Park, over on the west side.  It was called Jim and Andy's and the musicians used to hang out there.

RG: Oh yeah, like the famous book: “Meet me at Jim and Andy's”.

GP: Yeah, that's it.  So we used to hang out.  And when I got into the city, and I became aware, I used to go there a lot and hang out because you'd meet people and blah, blah, blah.  So, he was always there.  Papa was always there.  Sitting in a booth, holding court.  I mean this guy was like, you know...

RG: The Emperor.

GP: Right!  Emperor Jones!  [laughs]  And somehow...and he had that scowl on his face and he'd just tell you right off, compunction about that at all.  But somehow, I don't know how it morphed into it, but the next thing I know I was sitting at his table.  He never laid any shit on me.  I guess maybe he felt that I was a straight ahead guy or something.  He'd be beating up other people and stuff and I'd just be there listening and stuff.  And then he started to hire me and we done a bunch of gigs together.  And one night – I'll never forget this – we were playing in Connecticut on a boat.  You know, like a high society kind of thing.  A yacht or wherever the hell we were.  Now he's going to take a drum solo and he turned to me and he said, “Watch this.”  And he started calling off names.  I don't remember them all.  Baby Dodds...I don't know who, right.  And he's going sequentially in time, up the ladder, right.  And he's talking about Buddy Rich.  And he's talking about Art Blakey.  He would play 8 bars or maybe longer, and the feel would change. It would be a total different feel.  And when it came to Elvin he got into triplets with that loose thing, man.  It was amazing, an amazing drum solo.

RG: And how was his time feel in terms of, like, did he play four on the floor bass drum?

GP: Gee, I don't remember.  All I know it was solid as a rock, man! [laughs]  I didn't have to worry about where the beat was with him, boy.

RG: And how was he socially?  Because the only time we ever see him is smiling and looking like the grandfather you never had.

GP: Well, as I said he was tough.  He was rough on people.  Especially the young ones.  He'd just beat them up.

RG: And guys in the band?  Would he give them a hard time?

GP: That I don't recall.  I think when we played gigs it was straight business, you know.  It was just in Jim and Andy's.  So I was...I remember I was treading lightly.  But, somehow he took me in.

RG: Fantastic.  Art Blakey?

GP: Art... I played with Art twice.  One time was at the Olympia Theatre in Paris where the quartet with Steve and Elvin, and Dave and myself, we played a concert.  And at the end of the concert there were three drum sets.  And here comes Art Blakey and Roy Haynes.  So we play a tune.  We just play a head and then they go into the drum thing.  That was one time I played with Art.  But what was interesting was they were all playing and finally, almost on queue, both Roy and Art, they stood up from the drum and both of them went like this to Elvin - {makes bowing gesture….} “You got it.”  They gave it to him, you know.  It was really great.

Then the other time...that was an interesting experience.  George Wein put together a band to help Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign, which he didn't win.  But anyway, it was at the Village Gate downstairs.  There were two bass players, Ron Carter and myself, and a bunch of people were sitting in.  Art was playing drums and so I played with Art.  Ron played the first part of the thing and then I played the second part.  We had...what was the the piano sounded like insects were jumping out of the piano...Don Pullen!  And it was a saxophone player from Long Island, and somebody else, and somebody else.  Three horns, I think, and Art.  And Art was going downhill at that time and he was wearing a hearing aid.  And I swear to you, man, I don't know where the fuck he was, man.  It felt to me like the beat was like an ocean, it was going up and down.  For me, I couldn't find a centre.  Now, I don't know if he couldn't hear.  I don't know if he was fucking with me.  I can't believe that – why? All of a sudden - because I play with my eyes closed - all of a sudden this trumpet comes in and it's like Gabriel, man.  The point is there, and the rhythm is there, and the whole band went whoom...including Art, and bang!, away we went on the time.  Wynton Marsalis had just came to town.

And the other thing with Art was we were on tour in Europe and he was around.  It might have been that time that we were in the Olympia and we went to some party, or somebody's house, afterwards and we sat down.  And Art was spouting off, man...  He was just going off, and off, and off, and off.  Talking, talking...  That's pretty much my experience with him.

RG: Pretty amazing experience.  As a bass player, like all bass guitar players of my generation, and all since then, we're all aware of Don Alias because he was on Jaco Pastorius' recording...

GP: Woo hoo! I was there!

RG: Were you?  You were there in the studio? Wow.

GP: In the studio, yeah.  One of the sessions.

RG: I remember hearing that album for the first time in a record shop and I had headphones on, and getting poked in the arm and told to stop cursing!  I didn't even realise I was swearing!  Because I'd never heard anything like that.  The Donna Lee...  [both laugh] Holy shit...

GP: Yeah, yeah! [laughs]  That's funny!

 (Jaco Pastorius)

RG: So, Don Alias...  I remember him because, again, he was quite ubiquitous, at that time, on a lot of recordings that I would have bought earlier on.  But he's maybe not so well known now.  I know he was a very good friend of yours so maybe tell me about Don Alias himself and your relationship with him, your musical stuff with him.

GP: I met him once very briefly when I was living in Boston.  He visited my apartment because one of my room mates was a bass player, John Voigt.  He never really did much with music.  He became the first librarian of Berklee library. Anyway, so Don and somebody else came to visit him, and I said “Hello” and “Goodbye”.  It didn't really register much.  And Voigt, at that time, was playing with Don in the only authentic Latin dance band in New England.  I had just started playing bass.  I hadn't been playing maybe four, five months or something.  And so Voigt said, “I'm going to quit this band.  You want the gig?”  I said, “Yeah, OK, but I don't know anything about Latin Music.”  He said, “You'll pick it up.”  So I went to a rehearsal.  I got hired.  So that's when my relationship with Don started.  We were working six nights a week.

RG: And he was playing congas in this band?

GP: He was playing congas.  Once in a while he'd play drums but mostly it was congas.  Congas, timbales, bongos.  And so we just became so close.  We used to go out and smoke joints in the break and talk about philosophy, and music, and all kinds of stuff, you know.  And then I decided to go to New York so I quit them and went to the city.  I was living in New Jersey just across the George Washington bridge.  He came down a few times and we'd have some jam sessions.  And then I moved into the city.  I got a loft for four months over the Summer.  It was my first time in.  And I called him and I said, “Man, I'm moving to the city.  Come on down, man.”  It was a weekend.  I think I moved in on the Saturday.  So he came down.  And unbeknownst to me – because he spent all that time in Boston – he used to play bass in a trio with Tony Williams and Chick Corea.

RG: Don Alias?  Played bass with Tony Williams and Chick Corea?

GP: Yeah, simple bass -  they just rehearsed.  They never played a gig.  And I asked Chick about it and he said, “Yeah! We had that then.”  Anyway, he called Chick and Joe Farrell.  I didn't know either one of them.  And at midnight they showed up at this loft and we had a jam session.  That was my beginning of working with Chick.  He liked the way I played, obviously, because he said, “Come on up to my house in Queens.”  And I was going up there two, three days a week rehearsing.  Serious rehearsing.  And I learned at lot about music through Chick, tremendous amount. 

(Don Alias)
But I have to say, you know...and I talked to the bass players during one of the things here {at the IASJ Meeting}, and I always mention that actually...learn the clave.  Because one and three will give you a tremendous amount of power.  Did you hear the show last night?  The bass player who was in my group...we were talking yesterday afternoon and he was saying, “What do you do with drummers that rush?”  I said, “Drop into two.”  Play on one and three and you can hold him back.  Anyhow, because of that quarter note syncopation...because one comes on four the way the chord changes are.  It shows you a whole other way to approach rhythm.  

I wound up playing with Machito, and Willie Bobo, and Patato.  Some of the heavy cats, Latin cats.  So I was so thankful that I had that opportunity in Boston.  So now Don is coming down once in a while.  I got the loft and every other weekend he'd take a bus and come down, and we'd jam and play.  Then I got the gig with Nina Simone and the drummer's fucking up.  So after the second gig I went to Nina and said, “Hey, look",  I have to speak because I want to play music, you know.  So I said to Nina, “This shit's not working, Nina.”  She said, “You know somebody?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I got Don in.  He had a long relationship with her.  At the same time, he met – along with Jan Hammer – Jeremy Steig and we put a quartet together.  So we started playing this early, early jazz rock thing, you know.

RG: What year would this be?  Maybe 68/69?

GP: Yeah, something like that.  So Don and I have had a long relationship.  I got him in to play with Elvin.  Now, I gotta tell you something.  For a conga drummer who's going dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah... Even rhythm, right?  To fit with Elvin!?  Alias could do it.  I don't know if there's anybody else.  He could just fit right in there perfect.  A very special man.

RG: And Elvin liked it?

GP: Elvin loved it.  I got a photo of the two of them together.  It's beautiful.

RG: You worked with him for a long time after that, right?

GP: Yeah, a long time.  What happened was I went to another loft which was a fabulous situation.  Could play music there day and night.  I had a set of drums, a grand piano.  So it was a built-in jam session.  So many guys came by to play.  Mike and Randy and, you know, a ton of people.  And Don was the mainstay.  Jan Hammer was the keyboard player.  And Liebman came by quite a few times.  But Grossman was there all the time.  So we played a lot together as a quartet with Jan.  And Grossman's first record are those four people.  Then time went on, time went on, and we decided to form a band.  Me on electric bass.  Don on drums and congas.  Congas would be a specialty thing that we'd play in the show.  And Grossman on soprano and tenor.  Just trio.  We made several records together.  I got a tour of South America for fifteen days in Chile which expanded out to six months.  We recorded with Hermeto Pascoal in Brazil.  We made another record in Argentina with Argentine guys.  Six months, yeah.  It was fabulous.

RG: Those were the days.  You absolutely could not do that now.  You could not go down to Chile and expect to be there for six months.

GP: Sure you could!  No problem.  You know how?  You gotta bring your own money.  You've got your own money you can do anything, right?  That's why I keep hoping, you know.  [laughs]
And then we did a tour of Europe.  The three of us.  And Grossman fucked up.  We got two weeks at Ronnie Scotts.  The first week was Stan Getz, opposite Stan Getz.  And the second week was opposite Joe Henderson.  And Grossman was on fire.  He got stuck at a pharmacy over in Belgium,  missed the gig.  I cancelled the gig and that was the end of that band.  We were on the edge.  I think we would have got a record deal.  You could get record deals back then……  But that's what happened.

RG: That's a shame.

GP: Well, we made a lot of good music.

RG: Yes, absolutely.  Well, for the sake of all the bass geeks, tell me about the session with Jaco.  How you happened to be there?

GP: Don.  Don and I were always together.  He says, “I'm going up to Bobby Colomby's house”.  He had a studio in his house.  “You want to come along?”  I said, “Sure.”  That's how I got to play with Miles.  He said, “I'm doing a session with Miles, you want to come along?”  “Fine, yeah.”  Michael Henderson doesn't show up…… doesn't show up……doesn't show up.  Finally, I hear Alias – I'm sitting in the control room – and he says “There's a bass player sitting in the control room.”  And I could hear Miles say, “Tell him to get his ass in here.” [laughs] So that's how that happened.

RG: The right place at the right time, that's for sure.

GP: You know what we call it in America, right?  Stepping in shit!

RG: I'm sorry to ask you the Jaco stories...because I know so many people are interested in this...  When you sent to the studio had you heard Jaco before? Or was that the first time you'd heard of him?

GP: The first time I heard about Jaco was: Don was playing with Blood Sweat and Tears, they were working in Miami and Jaco shows up.  And he plays, everybody gets nuts, right.  Alias calls me on the phone because I have a record label, right.  Thinking maybe I can do something.  When I found out about his music I just felt like I couldn't do it justice, you know.  I'm just a one man show.  I have no distribution, I can’t tie up a guy doing this….. Although it would have been great, I guess.  But in any case, he said, “There's this bass player down here, Gates”  My nickname, Gates.  He said, “Will I tell him to call you?”  I said, “Sure.”  So a couple of weeks went by.  I'm sitting in my office.  The phone rings.  “Hello?”  He says, “I'm Jaco Pastorius.  I'm the greatest bass player in the world.” [both laugh]

You know what?  He was right, man.  That was the first time.  I met him before with Don but I know that when I went to the studio that day...I never spent too much time with Jaco because he was whooo...flying...  But whenever I'd see him he was always cordial, friendly and respectful.

RG: Philly Joe Jones.  You told me you played with him once.

GP: Once, yeah.  Whoo!  Oh, man.  What a sweetheart.  I was playing with Elvin at The Vanguard and he came down, sat in.  That was it.  One tune, you know, but boy...  I didn't have to worry about the beat with that guy, man.  And he was always know...hey, it comes from the music, right?  I'm working with the greatest drummer in the world - at least that's my opinion – and everybody, after a while, they get to know who's playing with who and so forth and so on.  And I know that Wilbur Ware, for instance, Philly Joe, Joe Chambers...who's a kind of a salty guy but a sweetheart.  I played a bunch with him, too.  He is a great drummer.  Wonderful drummer.  I wouldn't know these people.  Then they'd come up to me and always it was so respectful.  It was almost like a shock.

RG: Because you were in the club.

GP: Yeah, I'm in the club.  But, interesting.  When I was trying to get to Elvin, because that's why I came to New York: to play with him.  I'm playing these gigs around.  You know, I'm doing good.  I'm working eight nights a week.  I mean it was tremendous back then.  And some of the other bass players, especially the black ones, they wouldn't give me the time of day.  Wouldn't be friendly or anything.   The instant [snaps fingers] I got that gig with Elvin, I was their best friend.  “Hey Gene! man...”  It was amazing.  It was a flip.

RG: Because you'd been validated by the guys you were playing with so therefore you were in.  So, two final things.  First of all, is there anybody that I didn't mention that you had a great experience with?  Anything I didn't mention that you'd like to...

GP: Well, it's kind of an interesting story, is that one day I got a call from John McLaughlin and I had just joined Elvin.  I was with him a couple of months or something and McLaughlin called me up.  I had never met him.  Oh, by the way, I heard the very first gig at Count Basie's club up in Harlem.  Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin.  Whew, man! That was interesting.

RG: You've been around a lot of iconic stuff!

GP: Anyway, John calls and he says, “I'm putting a band together.  You want to make a rehearsal?”  I said, “Sure.”  So there was a rehearsal downtown in Soho.  I went there and it was just Billy Cobham, John and myself.  That was it.  And at the end of the rehearsal John says, “It's your gig if you want it.”  And I said, “No, I'd like to make one more rehearsal.”  I knew already I wasn't going to do it.  But I knew that he was looking for a piano player, and my room mate was Jan Hammer.  So I said, “Hey John, I'd like to do another one.  By the way, I hear you're looking for a piano player.  I got my room mate.  I think he's going to fit with this.”  And obviously he did, you know.  So second rehearsal Billy had something to do so Don, who was there, who spent a lot of time with me in the loft, he filled in for Billy at the rehearsal.  So it was Don and Jan and myself and John.  So Jan got the gig and John said, “So? Yes or no?”.  And I said, “No, I'm going to stay with Elvin.”  I think I made the right decision.  Although I wish I could have done both!!  That was a hell of a thing, man.

RG: I know.  It's still so iconic.

GP: I would imagine that maybe my career would have, you know, but...  Whatever strength I have it's because I was able to beat up against that guy.  Because it was like I could throw a refrigerator at him, you know.  Amazing.  Sometimes...I remember at Slug's, several times, I'd be running out of steam and the only way I could get energy was if I start screaming. I'd go [screams]  George Mraz came in one night.  We got finished with the set and I walked back and he's kind of drunk, you know, and he's looking at me – we knew each other – and he says, “Perla, you gotta be crazy!” [laughs]

RG: And then the final question I wanted to ask concerns Elvin again.  Not everybody knows this album.  It always surprises me how many people do know it.  Anybody who knows it is absolutely in love with it.  It's the one that you did for your label which is “Elvin Jones On The Mountain”.  This is an incredible album.  It's him kind of playing fusion on some things.  And it's killing!  It really is.

GP: It's a very special record.

RG: Absolutely.  So was it recorded in one day, in one session?

GP: Oh, one day!  That's it.  Came up, went through the tune.  Few minutes.  Boom!  Record.  Next tune.

RG: I don't think he was a big reader, right?  So that coda to that tune which is really hard.  The one that he kills, you know [sings tune]

GP: Oh, my tune.  “Destiny”.

RG: How did he figure that out?  Because even by today's standards that's a hard coda.

GP: It's five bars.

RG: Yeah, it's a weird form and it's got all those weird hits.  Not weird but they're not obvious, and he kills it.  Absolutely kills it.   

So did he just hear that?  Did you just play it a few times and then he heard it?

GP: Unusual, yeah.  Do you know the record I made with him?  It's called “Bill's Waltz”. A big band record? 

RG: No!

I have one up in my room, I'm going to give it to you.  I woke up one morning in 1986 and I called him on the phone and I said, “Elvin, I've got this idea.  I'd like to go to the studio.  Just you and me.”  So he says, “Ok!”.  So we go to the studio two days in a row and we record ten songs.  Nine of my originals and “I'm Popeye, the Sailor Man” because I knew he liked to play marches.  I was playing piano on this to put the tunes together.  And drums completely isolated.  I was just telling somebody if you listen to a couple of ballads on there with the brushes, and you're just listening to the drums, it's like, What is this?  You know, it's just incredible to listen to.  So the intention was that I was going to start analysing those crazy hits.  Come up with a melody to go along with those hits and then orchestrate it.  And I was going to do MIDI and whatever the hell...  And so I started working on them a little bit and I had a partial work done on a few tunes.  And now I wind up on a gig in Switzerland with George Gruntz and Danny Gottlieb is the drummer, who's an Elvin freak.  I'm telling him about the project and had a few things on my computer.  He says, “Oh, I want to hear it!”.  So I played it for him.  He says, “You know, I do a lot of work with the NDR Big Band in Hamburg.  I bet they'd love to do this project.”  Boom!  Signed a contract. 

I go to Paris for one month.  I had to get away from everybody and everything.  I wrote the arrangements.  Came back.  Wrote out all the parts, everything.  Sent everything to Germany.  Flew over to Germany.  Conducted the band on top.  So the only thing you hear on this record from the original is Elvin.  Everything else is overdubbed.  There's two tunes that are Latin.  Don came in and overdubbed some Latin stuff.  The bass parts I put on.  All the horns, solos, everything.

RG: I don't know about this record!  Now, of course, I really want to hear it!  Listen Gene, thank you so much for sharing that with us.  What an incredible life you've had...

GP: It ain't over yet, baby!

RG: I know!  Absolutely, absolutely. ........... Thanks Gene.

GP: Yeah, man.  Thank you.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Singer and the Song

There’s a very brilliantly observed and funny moment in the American series ‘Modern Family’ when one of the characters goes to see the ‘Four Seasons’, thinking it’s the vocal group, and is horrified to discover that he’s bought tickets for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. ‘Just instruments!?’, he wails despairingly. I found this line particularly funny because it nails a truism about the general public and music – people love singers and are less drawn as a general rule to purely instrumental music. This is not to say that there isn’t an audience for instrumental music, but it’s dwarfed by the popularity of vocal music.

Again, people love singers – but can the same be said about contemporary jazz musicians - do they love singers?

In nearly every genre of music around the world, the voice is the primary ‘instrument’, and the singers are the biggest stars. Classical music, pop and rock music, Indian classical music, Arabic classical music, Brazilian music – the biggest stars in those different firmaments are singers, and are arguably the most respected artists – Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, Om Kalthoum, Caetano Veloso etc. etc.

(Om Kalthoum)

While a similar argument could be made in jazz for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, it’s worth noticing that both of those artists, and the other giants in that field, were at the height of their powers as contemporary artists over sixty years ago. But where, in the contemporary jazz world, are the vocal artists who are both the biggest stars in that world, and universally respected by all jazz musicians?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say at this point that this not a criticism of jazz singers; on the contrary, I believe that contemporary jazz has what might be called a dysfunctional relationship with singers, and it is to the music’s artistic and commercial detriment that this is the case. While there are great vocal artists in contemporary jazz, there is a jaundiced view of singers among many jazz instrumentalists, one that places singers in the role of second-class jazz citizens.

If you’re a jazz musician, you’ll have heard the ‘singer jokes’, there are many of them, and all of them represent singers as lesser musicians than everyone else - and Prima Donnas into the bargain. OK, they’re jokes, and every instrument has a set of jokes assigned to the foibles of the players of those instruments. But underneath these singer jokes lurks a definite prejudice coming from instrumentalists against singers.  Where does this come from? Why in jazz does the instrument most lauded in every other music get landed with a bad rep?

I think there are a combination of factors here. Up to the late 1950s, most jazz harmony followed fairly conventional cyclical movements – II-V-I/IV-V-I/III-VI-II-V, cycle of fifths etc. This kind of harmony is relatively easy to hear your way through – these kinds of harmonic movements have been around for hundreds of years and are very familiar to the listener. In jazz, singers as improvisers have been around since its inception – Louis Armstrong being one of the earliest recorded artists to do this, and one of the greatest singing improvisers in all of jazz. As jazz developed, singers were part and parcel of that development, and right into the bebop era, there were singers who could improvise in a very convincing way in this new language. The singers were an integral part of the contemporary scene, and it’s good to remember that singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter – giant icons of the past as they appear now - were contemporary singers of their time. And they were respected as such by the instrumentalists.

(Betty Carter)

Coming to the end of the 50s, the music began to change, especially in the harmonic sphere. Melodic Minor harmony became more common, chromatic harmony techniques and practices began to be used extensively, root movements of chords became more oblique. Add to this the great complexity of the rhythmic language that was popularized by Miles and Coltrane, and the ‘free’ experiments of Ornette and Cecil Taylor, and the result is a jazz landscape that is much harder to navigate through for the improvising singer. The kind of harmony that developed, and started to become mainstream in the jazz world at this time is generally not intuitive to the ear. You have to learn it in an intellectual and tactile way - study it and practice it on your instrument for a long time before it becomes in any way familiar as a sound. Instrumentalists definitely have an advantage here - they can play it on their instruments and help themselves to negotiate very difficult harmony by a combination of intellectual process and consequent tactile connection. This can lead, after a long time, to being able to hear this kind of harmony. 

For a singer however, unless they are really good pianists or players of some other instrument, (good enough to able to take solos), it's terribly difficult to get a handle on this kind of harmony by ear alone. Often the root movements are unpredictable, and the harmony on top is complex. Melodies often contain wide-interval leaps and a lot of non-sequential note patterns. With jazz composers trying to outdo each other in 'originality', and less and less songs based on standard formulas with familiar melodies, the jazz landscape, post-1960, became ever more impenetrable for singers. 

This had the effect of gradually marginalizing the singers from the contemporary jazz mainstream. Instead of being an integral part of the contemporary scene as Ella etc had been in an earlier time, they became outsiders - unable for the most part to jump into any musical situation, and often derided and seen as being a brake on creativity by instrumentalists. In previous eras singers and instrumentalists were performing pretty much the same material, the singers would sing the lyrics to the same songs the instrumentalists were playing. As the 60s and 70s passed, the instrumentalists and singers began to inhabit worlds that were further and further apart. Heightened instrumental virtuosity, more complex harmony and rhythms, and less naturally singable melodies drove a wedge between former comrades, creating two different musical worlds. Jazz became primarily an instrumental medium, with singers on the periphery, only grudgingly included, (if at all), by many musicians.

The singer was often seen by instrumentalists as virtually a cabaret artist rather than a creative improviser. Singers for their part often gravitated towards standards with both singable melodies and good lyrics, rather than the gnarly world of contemporary instrumental jazz - and who can blame them? So a divide opened up that, despite the work of some great contemporary singers, is still there and still felt by both singers and instrumentalists.

And I don't think any discussion of singers in jazz can ignore gender issues either. Most singers in jazz are women - I don't know what the percentage would be typically, but in my school we have nineteen singers and only one of those is male. Without getting into the whole 'women in jazz' thing which is way too big a subject for this post, I think it's fair to say that women in jazz have to negotiate social issues that their male colleagues don't have to, and in my opinion when it comes to developing as an artist in the jazz world, women have more difficulties placed in their path than men do.

If you add these difficulties to the prejudicial singer stereotypes mentioned above, you have a combination that can make jazz singing a very difficult and sometimes forbidding environment for an aspirant jazz singer. For example, if a male bandleader is very specific about what he wants from his band, he is seen as decisive. If the bandleader is a female singer and makes the same kinds of demands she can often be seen by the band as fulfilling the stereotype of the pampered Prima Donna singer who doesn't know as much about music as the male colleagues she's ordering around. When you add the fact that most of the public focuses on the singer first, and the instrumentalists second in live performances, the resentment of the instrumentalists is often even more keenly felt.

Of course there are exceptions to this scenario and no two situations are the same, but I think it's safe to say that in general the singer in contemporary jazz operates on a less level playing field than an instrumentalist does.

And I think the music is the poorer for this. I am an instrumentalist, not a singer, but I have to admit that the human voice is the ultimate instrument, coming as it does without the intervention of the instrumental middle-man, emanating from the person themselves. At its best there is nothing more profound than listening to a great singer. And in jazz, the instrumentalists who are most revered - Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Trane etc. - all have a celebrated vocal quality to their playing. I've been very lucky to play with several great singers - Norma Winstone, Kristina Fuchs, Maria Pia De Vito, Sarah Buechi, R. A. Ramamani, Marie Seférian - and with all of them it was a very different experience than playing in an instrumental group. Working with a great singer is unique - the human voice, especially when used by a top of the line artist, is so powerful and fundamental. Of course with a singer you get the option of lyrics as well, which can be fantastic, (as long as the lyrics are good!). 

Some contemporary singers have developed the kind of phenomenal technique that allows them to negotiate the shark infested waters of contemporary jazz performance, and it is amazing when you hear that. These are singers who seem to relish every technical challenge, every non-idiomatic impediment placed in front of them, and really are pioneers in the 'voice as improvising instrument' approach to singing. The brilliant Lauren Newton is a pioneer in this area, and has done some extraordinary work which really stretches the boundaries of the what the voice can do in an improvising context. Theo Bleckmann is another one who springs to mind in this area.

Here's a great example of a singer taking on something that one would think would be off-limits because of the technical challenges - this is Sarah Buechi, with Izumi Kimura on the piano, singing a piece of mine that was originally written for the soprano saxophone, and negotiating the ferocious vocal technical difficulties with ease

Artists in Residence (I) by jazzer4

There are several of these kinds of singers on the contemporary jazz scene today and what they are doing for voice is really admirable and takes tremendous work. But is this the only answer for contemporary jazz singers in order to be included in the same world as instrumentalists? For all the singers to develop the kind of hyper-techniques that would enable them to be as agile as a saxophone or a guitar? For me the answer has to be no, this is not the only way. First of all not everyone is born with the kind of innate physical facility to develop this kind of technique, and secondly the jazz world needs to embrace the idea that singing a song well, and deeply, is in itself worthy of inclusion at the top table of the music.

And this is not about the welcoming of a clichéd standard jazz approach into the ranks, just for its own sake. We really don't need any more faux-jazz cabaret versions of ' Summertime' and 'My Funny Valentine', (though let's face it, the contemporary improv, voice-as-instrument, has its own clichés; that stuttering repetition of a word, as if the singer gets stuck, like an old-school damaged LP, is as clichéd and as exasperating to listen to as any doobie-doobie-do scat singing), but we need to find a way to include song as being an organic part of contemporary jazz.

And there is valuable work being done in this area - Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Susanne Abbuehl, Christine Tobin, Cassandra Wilson, and in a more traditional format, Diane Reeves and Kurt Elling. All of these place the song front and centre of the music, but have arrangements and use improvisation - either themselves or other band members - that are an indispensable part of the whole and stamp their music as clearly being part of contemporary jazz. Here's Gretchen Parlato in what I think is a particularly good example of this approach

I believe that if jazz could find a more consistently positive engagement with the voice and with singers it would be good for the music both aesthetically and commercially. Jazz education has a role to play in this. There's no doubt that through institutionalised jazz education jazz singers are better all-round musicians than they ever were before, and it's right in my opinion that singers should be expected to have the same high level craft and knowledge that instrumentalists do. But does insisting that they should be able to improvise over 'ESP', in the same way that a saxophonist would, really make sense? Of course if a singer wants to do that they should be encouraged, but shouldn't we find a way to encourage high level improvising that is maybe more idiomatic for voice, rather than making them do exactly the same as the instrumentalists? There's definitely a discussion to be had here for jazz schools.

And isn't it about time many instrumentalists gave up their long-held prejudices against singers and, (for example), stopped seeing the appearance of a singer at a jam session as being automatically a drag, (all that whining from the instrumentalists about weird keys and having to play a ballad....)? It's definitely time for jazz to wake up to the possibilities of making the music a more welcoming and inclusive environment for singers, and to really explore the possibilities of what can be done when the beauty and power of the human voice meets the sophistication and creativity of contemporary jazz. There's a brave new world of vocal jazz out there, we just need to have the imagination to explore and enjoy it to the full.