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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Current Face of the Bass

The bass guitar has a relatively short history as a virtuoso instrument. It is of course a comparatively young instrument anyway, and hasn't got the venerable history of the double bass for example. In jazz, the bass guitar's first practitioners tended to be converted acoustic bass players, who needed to take up the electric instrument for commercial reasons, or because it fit better with the electric, funk influenced music of that time. Steve Swallow would be an exception to this - he converted to electric bass because he preferred the sound of it, and in this regard he is quite unique in the acoustic bass world. In general jazz acoustic bassists never sounded as comfortable on the electric instrument as did practitioners of electric bass from the funk world. In funk and soul music, there were many great players on the instrument such as Carol Kaye, Bootsy Collins and James Jamerson, but in jazz the instrument was often seen as an interloper that had no business playing in the mostly acoustic settings found there.

This all changed in the 1970s. The first widely acknowledged virtuoso on the electric instrument was in fact a converted double bass player with a strong jazz pedigree - Stanley Clarke. He was also a virtuoso on the bigger instrument and applied chordal, and a sometimes almost flamenco approach to the bass guitar. Albums such as 'School Days' cemented his status among the emerging coterie of bass guitar geeks, of which I would have been one at that time. But while Clarke showed a very individualistic way to play electric bass, (as did Anthony Jackson who had an equally unique, though less widely known, way of playing the instrument), the seismic change came with the emergence of Jaco Pastorius.

I think it's fair to say that Jaco changed the world of the electric bass in the same way that other virtuosos such as Parker and Tatum changed the way to play their respective instruments. Jaco introduced so many new concepts to the playing of the instrument – such as a wide use of harmonics, playing a predominantly fretless instrument, a very expanded chordal palette,  and a speed and rhythmic definition that had never been heard before on the electric bass. Ally this with a powerful groove and an extraordinary creativity in both accompaniment and soloing and you have the musician who can definitely lay claim to being the man who changed bass guitar playing forever.

In addition to his phenomenal playing, (a shopping list of his unique techniques and playing style can be heard on his first album), he played a vital part in creating some seminal albums and music, such as the recordings he did with Joni Mitchell, with Weather Report, his Word of Mouth Band recording, and with Pat Metheney on his 'Bright Size Life' (my particular favourite of Jaco's recordings).  In all of these recordings he put his astonishing technique and time feel at the service of the music and never grandstanded for the sake of showing off. In later years his declining health brought about a deterioration in his playing, but in his prime he was not just a great bassist but a truly deep and heavy musician.

Here he is with his 'Word of Mouth Big Band' in Japan combining his great groove with his trademark sound and demonstrating that he was also a very talented composer and arranger.

After Jaco, as always happens when a musician makes a huge breakthrough on any instrument, a bunch of virtuoso players emerged, some sounding like Jaco, (or trying to), and others such as Mark Egan and Jeff Berlin, taking advantage of this new bass virtuoso landscape to expand the possibilities for the instrument. The 90s provided another generation of technically gifted players such as Richard BonaMatt Garrison, and Victor Wooten, all of whom had their own take on how the instrument could be played and all of whom placed that virtuosity at the centre of various bands, Bona with his own projects and with Joe Zawinul, Garrison with Steve Coleman, Zawinul and John Mclaughlin, and Wooten with Bela Fleck.

(Matt Garrison)

In recent years there's been an extraordinary explosion in bass guitar technique. Players such as Hadrien FeraudFederico Malaman and Janek Gwizdala have extended what's possible technically on the instrument to an almost freakish level. Feraud in particular, on a technical level, has taken the electric bass to places where it's never been before. For me watching him, (and others of this ilk),  makes me feel like they are playing a different instrument to me, their techniques are so advanced and they seem to be capable of playing almost anything. The speed and clarity of their articulation, and their ability to negotiate even the most complex fingering and cross-stringing is of a level to make a technical mere mortal such as myself shake his head in disbelief. And, as seems to be the way these days, this freakish level of technique, (which will probably become the norm over time), has even extended to very young players such as the brilliantly talented Mohini Dey . At age 19 she can already play stuff that would be outside the technical grasp of most bassists.

This level of bass guitar performance is developing at a phenomenal speed in recent years, and I think we can look to the access to information that the online world provides for possible pointers as to why there suddenly seems to be a plethora of technical wizards on an instrument where virtuosity used to be the exception rather than the rule. Youtube in particular can inspire aspirant bass players and also give them visual and technical information to help them achieve their technical goals.

But although there is inspiration to be had from these players, (and even watching them for a little while can make me realise I need to practice!), at the same time I've noticed a disparity between the extraordinary level of technique on display and the actual music being played.  There seems to be lots of interest in the playing of the instrument but little interest in creating music that makes an artistic statement. Jaco Pastorius' technique was enormous, yet he always placed it at the service of the music, playing with other musicians in a band setting, and creating new and personal music. The current crop of virtuosos seem much more interested in playing with each other and indulging in an endless series of solos bass pieces played over backing tracks, videos in which all the players are in different studios and the parts are recorded at different times, or jokey videos in which they try and outdo each other in speed and outrageous technical feats.

Here's a classic example, with Hadrien  Feraud and Federico Malaman, both playing very technically difficult passages, with a very solid groove, but with no obvious artistic intent behind it all.

There are literally dozens of these kinds of videos online - it almost seems that many of these bassists are only interested in showing off their technique in order to get students rather than being concerned with making music that has artistic depth and quality. When you look at the number of views they get on Youtube for these videos, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, and the general tenor of the comments below the videos, you can see that as a strategy to get attention it's very effective. And who can blame them for doing this? It's hard to make a living as a musician these days and whatever keeps you going is OK by me. But - apart from showing off one's technique in order to get the attention of bassists, where does the music come in? Is this the sum total of all that work and talent, to make dozens of videos playing alone or with other bassists? To make lots of videos trading licks with other virtuoso bassists at music equipment Expos such as NAMM and the Frankfurt Musikmesse?

Don't get me wrong, I'm full of admiration for the technical ability displayed here - I wish I had half that dexterity! And I really like the fact that the instrument is developing a technical playing culture of its own thanks to great online resources such as Scott Devine's wonderful teaching website. But at a time when the technique of the instrument has been expanded as never before, and all of these great bassists also have wonderful time and ability to groove, there seems to be little interest on the part of some them in creating a body of work where the music comes first and their technique is placed at the service of that music. There's something narcissistic about the abundance of these 'watch this!' videos which goes against the tradition of the bass as primarily an ensemble instrument. Where is the "Word of Mouth' album of today? I hope one of these extraordinary technicians becomes interested enough to create a lasting piece of work in which their control of the instrument is put at the service of great music.

But to finish this piece I'd like to mention another extraordinary young bassist from Brazil - Michael Pipoquinha - who does place his dazzling technique at the service of music all the time. While he also has solo videos online in a similar way to the other bassists I mentioned, the bulk of his online presence is based around playing with other instrumentalists in a traditional way, he places his unique facility on the bass at the service of the music, and plays very deep Brazilian grooves. Watch him here, playing a Baiao with the accordionist Mestrinho. Amazing!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


T.A.S. Mani and R.A. Ramamani

Recently I went to to India, to Bangalore, or Bengaluru as it's now officially known, to visit two great friends and mentors - T.A.S. Mani and R.A. Ramamani, the directors of the renowned Karnataka College of Percussion (KCP), an institute that in 2015 celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. KCP had a festival in October to celebrate this event, but unfortunately I couldn't be there for that, so decided to make a visit later in the year in order to say hello to the Manis, see India again and get some more rhythmic inspiration from these two geniuses of the art.

Bangalore is the IT capital of India and in recent years its population has exploded, and on the way into the city from the airport you can see from the advertising hoardings that line the roads that money has flooded into the city, and that one of the big ticket items for all of these newly arrived and relatively wealthy workers is buying a luxury apartment. There are literally dozens of different advertisements for new developments in different parts of the city. Unlike the west where it might be considered bad taste to publicly boast about buying a luxury apartment, here the more luxurious and exclusive it is the more the advertisers shout about it.

'Step into the Big League!', read one, and 'Limitless indulgence for a limited few....' read another, alongside images of swimming pools, golf courses and palm trees - the utopian imagery and wording flaunted on all sides as you drive in from the airport. Of course you can see advertisements for these kinds of developments in nearly every country, but the sheer amount of them in Bangalore speaks of its nouveau riche status and the revolution in the demographics of the population that IT has brought to this city.

(View from an Auto Rickshaw)


One of the inevitable by-products of this new-found wealth is an explosion in traffic levels. Indian cities are famous for the extraordinary and anarchic traffic that chokes all towns of any size. I've been to Bangalore many times before but this time was shocked at just how the traffic levels have risen. The traffic seethes through every street, huge traffic jams build up at junctions and red lights, and are released in a fanfare of blaring horns, roaring engines and vast billowing clouds of pollution. I took this video to give some idea of the traffic levels in the newly-rich city.

Bangalore Moment 1

A motorcyclist gets hit by a 4 x 4 turning left, falls off his bike, wing mirror gets smashed off and knocked a few yards away, a passerby retrieves it and gives it back to him. An interested crowd gather around to watch the free entertainment. 4 x 4 driver looks exasperated by the stupidity of the motorcyclist for being in the way of his car....

(Motorbike and Auto Rickshaw graveyard)

If you read the local newspapers you realise the carnage that is wrought everyday on the roads - particularly on motorcyclists and pedestrians. Hardly surprising since the roads have just too many vehicles on them and most drivers perform the most hair-raising manouevres with no regard for safety or human life - their own or others. Add to that the bizarrely illogical regulation where all motorcycle drivers must wear a helmet, but pilion passengers do not, and you have a recipe for the huge loss of life that occurs literally every day. One story in the paper described how a motocyclist was killed when he struck an earthmover which was being driven at speed the wrong way down the road in the dark, without lights. Another told of how a student was crushed under the wheels of a bus when two buses raced each other to try and take the same parking slot. Every day in the papers there were reports of at least three separate fatal road accidents - you take your life in your hands every time you go out into traffic in anything other than a car.

Having said that, taking an Auto Rickshaw ride is a truly authentic Indian experience. You really get a close up of the way Indian traffic works when you're twisting and turning in between all kinds of vehicles, squeezing through impossibly small spaces, narrowly avoiding all kinds of obstacles, breathing in great lung-fulls of motor fumes, being deafened by car horns and unashamedly stared at by all-comers whenever you stop at traffic lights. It's definitely not for the fainthearted and I tend to be quite fatalistic whenever I take one of these rides - in the right frame of mind they can be quite exhilarating as you zip through the traffic maze, but they can also be experiences where your heart is in your mouth, and you breathe a sigh of relief, (and exhale quite a lot of polluted air while doing so), when you eventually, and gratefully, reach journey's end.

(Hand-painted police warning sign)

One of the things I always do when in India is read the local newspapers. Apart from bringing you up to date on the local political intrigues, they are full of stories that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes baffling, sometimes shocking, and always absorbing. Here are a few of the headlines I saw on this trip:

"Man saves son's life, also takes snake to hospital"

"Ride horses and cut pollution, says Govt Minister"

"Airport bus driver dozes off, rams aircraft" 

"Rookie gang kidnaps realtor's son" 

'Man sets wife on fire for not cooking mutton curry properly

This last headline was a particularly shocking story, and unfortunately does represent one troubling aspect of Indian life - the difficulty for many women in contemporary India. There have been some very high profile cases recently where women were attacked by gangs of men, and which attracted international attention. But reading the papers here one gets a sense that India is a very challenging environment for women, and I saw many heartbreaking stories in the newspapers. But of course one should never generalise about these things and there are many powerful, successful, and resourceful women living and working in India also.

India is always known as a land of contrasts and this can also be seen in the stories in the newspapers. For a country full of friendly, kind, and humorous people, there can sometimes be a level of heartlessness on display, as represented in news stories, in everyday life that is hard to understand. The Times of India reported on an incident in which a flight mechanic was killed when somebody pressed the wrong button on the plane he was working on and he was sucked into the engine. What followed displayed a level of callousness that was extraordinary. Air India, the company for whom the man worked, phoned one of the neighbours of the man's family, and told them, since it would be better if the news came from the neighbours,  to tell the man's wife that her husband had had a 'minor accident'. The logic and heartlessness of that action beggars belief....

On the other hand there are stories of ordinary people going out of their way, and sometimes risking their lives, to help other people. As  a stranger if you ask for help on the street, everyone will do their best to help you, and you are treated in the most generous way. So the contrast of these two facets of Indian life, the kindness and helpfulness of ordinary people, and the callousness of large organisations and of people in power, is very striking.

Bangalore Moment 2

Eating Tandoori chicken outdoors - in a blur of black feathers,  a crow swoops down, snatches a portion and flies off .....

How I spent Christmas Eve.....

On one of my first visits to the Manis on this trip they asked me would I be willing to give a talk on jazz and Carnatic music, the differences, the similarities, how to make them work together etc. I was delighted to do it since it's the sort of thing I'm really interested in and the evangelist streak in me loves to both talk to jazz musicians about Carnatic music, and in this instance, to Indian musicians about jazz!

The event was co-hosted with the KCP by another school, The World Music Conservatory, a wonderful place run by Sangeetha Srikishen, great lady who is very passionate about music and education, and who has created a fantastic school, (with a mango tree at its centre!), where kids can study music, and painting, and the creative arts in general.

A very nice audience of both young people and more mature students assembled and I talked for about two hours on various subjects. I particularly focussed on the African-American rhythmic tradition, not just in jazz but in other related musics, and tried to give a sense of how that differed to South Indian rhythmic practices, and also what the similarities are. It's a fascinating area, for me too, and having to give the talk made me think a lot about these two great rhythmic traditions and the relationship, if any, between them. 

(Corridor of  World Music Conservatory)

To take a broad view, the biggest rhythmic difference between these two traditions is that Carnatic music takes a linear approach to rhythm, with very complex compositional structures, requiring very accurate subdivisions in order to make everything work. Metric modulation plays a very big part in their music, (though they don't call it that, but rather 'first speed, second speed, third speed' etc.). African-American tradition on the other hand is more multi-layered, with the widespread use of the 3:2 polyrhythm as a basis for collective improvisation and groove making. Carnatic music, as complex as it is, doesn't use polyrhythm as an improvisational device, and jazz in general does not use pre-ordained complex rhythmic compositional structures as part of the improvisational fabric. Another big difference is that a lot of jazz (and other western music) structures are grouped in multiples of two, four, eight-bar form etc. This is not the case in Indian music where the requirements of the time cycle and compositions overlaid on them are the generators of form.

The audience were wonderful and stuck with me as I went through the various historical and structural aspects of African-American rhythmic traditions, and I also told of my own history with Indian music, how I came to it, how I learned to understand it better, and how I used it in several compositions and projects. It was a really great way to spend Christmas Eve, one of the best Christmas Eve experiences I've ever had! 

Bangalore Moment 3

We are stuck in traffic in an Auto Rickshaw, a Hijra is working the traffic, not so much begging as demanding money. Our driver pretends not to notice the Hijra, but  for that he receives a rough slap across the shoulder, and a look of utter disdain - he reaches into his pocket takes out some money, hands it over and we drive off......


Another fascinating read for the interested visitor are the ads in the matrimonial section of the newspaper. It seems that parents place the ads and they're quite consistent in what they describe, both in their offspring and the desirable attributes of a mate for said offspring. Generally the boy will be described as handsome, and an IT or engineering graduate with a good job. The parents will often describe themselves in glowing terms ('doctors', 'high status'). The desired girl will be described as having to be beautiful, (or 'B'ful'  - to save money on the letter count...), from a business family, and, sometimes, 'non-working'. Often the advertisers are so broadminded that they don't worry too much what caste the girl is! 

Another apparently desirable attribute in a bride, that one often sees described in these ads, is being 'fair'.  India is very conscious of skin colour, and the darker you are the less chance you will have of being seen in advertisements, magazines, movies etc. Looking at the models - male and female - in the ads in India, they are so fair skinned that one could be forgiven for assuming they are from Spain or Italy.  People of darker skin are pretty much ostracised from visual advertising of all kinds. To be 'fair' is also a desirable trait in a prospective bride it would seem.

The Manis and The KCP

(With the Manis in their home in Bangalore)

The main purpose of my visit was to visit my very good friends, masters of Carnatic music,  and rhythmic mentors, T.A.S. MANI and R.A. Ramamani, and their legendary school the Karnataka College of Percussion. This year they celebrated fifty years since the foundation of the school by Mr. Mani. It's worth noting what an amazing thing it was to create a school in those days. Mr Mani is trained at the highest level of the traditional way of learning in Indian classical music - the guru system. Traditionally, to learn this music you had to study relentlessly over many years with your guru, and he or she would themselves be a respected performer at the highest level, who may or may not take you on as a student or, more tellingly, a 'disciple'. Even though he was a brilliant product of this system himself, Mr Mani had the vision to decide that there could be a different way to impart the knowledge of this great music, and one that could be more inclusive and allow the knowledge to be spread to a wider number of people - by opening a school.

The result of this foresight and innovation, was the creation of a school that has become an institution around the world, that has attracted many great internationally renowned musicians such as Charlie Mariano and Steve Coleman. I've written previously about the KCP, Mr. Mani and Ramamani, and their work with jazz musicians - you can see it here.  Ramamani has herself created a wonderful body of work that simplifies the complex Carnatic structures to make them more accessible to jazz musicians and allow cross-genre collaboration more easily. 

But on this visit to Bangalore, I was once again bowled over by the work they do in spreading the knowledge of Carnatic music among people of all ages and backgrounds. It is a truly egalitarian artistic project that they have been developing for fifty years, an extraordinary achievement. I took the opportunity to learn some new Mukhtais (complex rhythmic compositions), from Mr. Mani and here he is showing me one of them.

But not only do they teach visiting international musicians and amateurs and professionals from their own country, they also teach children these fantastic techniques, both in percussion and in singing. To give an example of the incredible work they do and the extraordinary talent and accomplishment of some of their young students, here's an edited clip of some of the lessons I witnessed -  Ramamani teaching an 11 year old singer, and Mr. Mani teaching Konnekol to an aspirant percussionist, also aged 11.

Everything that can be said about India has already been said, usually by people far more eloquent than I. This was my seventh time in the Subcontinent and for me it remains as unique, wonderful, challenging, and creative as the first time I came here. Bangalore had changed somewhat with the big influx of people and money and the strains on the infrastructure that this has brought. But one thing that hasn't changed is the generosity and brilliance of the Manis and the wonderful way they help to preserve Carnatic music's deep tradition by sharing it with anyone who is interested, and by giving access to information that was hitherto only for the chosen few. Here's to India and the next fifty years of the Karnataka College of Percussion!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Contemporary Music II

As I mentioned in my previous post 'Contemporary Music', as you get older, (and I'm only speaking for myself here), you're not as obsessive about checking out every new album that comes out. Of course, these days, much more music is being released than at any time in human history, so it's not really possible to keep up with everything, even if you wanted to. In addition there is a lot of classic music from the past that is such a pleasure and inspiration to revisit, the task of listening to all of that, as well as the latest work from younger musicians, becomes one of Herculean proportions.

Having said that I do try and keep an ear open to new things in the jazz world, especially if they're from people whose previous work I have admired. In recent times I've come across three outstanding recordings, which I return to again and again. This is always the ultimate barometer of course - do you re-listen? With so much music pouring into your computer or iPhone, or FB feed, or Youtube/Soundcloud channel, it's very easy to listen to something just once and move on with a shrug of the shoulders. If you find yourself listening again and again to something, there must be something special going on (at least for you), to make you extract these from among the stampeding herd of recorded music galloping across your aural landscape.

And this is certainly the case for the three recordings I'd like to mention here.

First up, Walter Smith III's latest album 'Still Casual'.

Recorded with some of the finest players on the contemporary NY scene (Matt Stevens, Taylor Eigsti, Harish Raghavan, Kendrick Scott, with Ambrose Akinmusire guesting on a couple of tracks) , this a recording full of incident and wonderful playing. Listening to this you realise that the technical level of the playing in jazz, (especially in NY, but also elsewhere), has never been higher. The compositions on this album are so demanding on the players in all departments - rhythmically, conceptually, harmonically, and melodically. Yet the even the gnarliest chord progressions and spikiest rhythms are negotiated with ease, the technical prowess of the players allowing them to reach the music quickly and directly. This music is very difficult, but only a musician would know that. To the casual listener this is a lyrical and flowing album - which is how it should be, the playing here is the art that conceals art.

I'm particularly impressed by the compositions, the variety of grooves and tempos and the clarity of the ensemble sound. In general it's what I think of these days as being modern mainstream - very lyrical, lots of straight 8s rhythms, and an overriding melodic sensibility. My only minor cavil is that I would like to have perhaps heard the players stretch a bit more - they're all such great soloists and sometimes the solos finish just as they're about to get going. As a musician myself I understand there's a trade-off you have to negotiate all the time while deciding what and how to record - do you have less tracks and more blowing, or more tracks and constrain the solos? Smith has gone towards the latter decision with eleven pieces and shorter solos. And I'm grateful to hear all these great tunes, it's just that occasionally I'd love to have heard the players stretch more. I guess I need to hear the live shows.

There isn't one redundant tune here, but particular favourites for me are 'Processional' in which a long stream of 8th notes creates a wonderful unfolding line over a slower chord progression, (reminding me strongly of the 2nd Movement of Claus Ogerman's 'Symbiosis'), and the spectacular 'Foretold You' If there's a more attention-getting first track to a recent album I've yet to hear it. You can see Walter Smith III talking about this on the clip below.

The next recording I'd like to mention is cut from a very different cloth, John O Gallagher's 'The Anton Webern Project'

Again a stellar cast of players has been assembled for this recording - Matt Moran, Pete McCann, Russ Lossing, Johannes Weidenmueller, Tyshawn Sorey and Margret Grebowicz. This is a hugely skilled group, and they need to be to negotiate the music, which operates out of an entirely different aural landscape to that of the Smith recording. These are adaptions of the music of the great serialist composer Anton Webern, whose pared down compositions are here given a more filled out environment by the way O'Gallagher has arranged the music, and the instrumentation he has used to realise his project.

And this is a very ambitious project, in which John asked himself, “what would Webern’s music sound like if he were a jazz musician living in New York City today?” Whether the answer to that is given here or not is beside the point. Maybe others would be interested in how faithfully the source materials are translated into the jazz idiom, but for me what really matters is the resultant music, and this is really strong, characterful and individualistic. There's a certain atmosphere to this music that pervades each piece, which can no doubt be attributed to the use of serialist techniques in arranging the music and as an underpinning to the improvisations. Transplanting Webern's sometimes spare and astringent compositions into the narrative world of jazz is an interesting project to undertake, and in this case has resulted in fascinating music that uses the collective sound of the band to great effect. In fact, on the first track 'Schnell (after Opus 27)', and occasionally elsewhere on this CD, I'm reminded of the kind of collective energy created on the Miles 'Bitches Brew' period  - the churning rhythms and use of the electric organ really evoke that atmosphere for me. And I think it's the combining of the grooves of contemporary NY jazz with these angular melodies that gives the recording its unique character.  

From a playing point of view too, there's so much to admire - all of the players are great soloists, Margret Grebowicz does a brilliant job on the technically very difficult songs, and the extraordinarily effortless drumming of Tyshawn Sorey underpins everything and drives it forward. Particular standouts for me are the phenomenal keyboard solo by Russ Lossing on 'Schnell', and John O'Gallagher's playing throughout. John is someone who is very well known and hugely admired by musicians, but really deserves to be much better known to the listening public. The fluidity and clarity of his playing in even the most demanding of contexts is a wonder to behold.

Here's an example of the group playing two pieces from the recording - check out Tyshawn Sorey, playing without written music, nailing everything and looking as relaxed as if he were taking a warm bath......... 

And finally, Craig Taborn's album 'Chants'

I think in years to come this recording, with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, will be recognised as a masterpiece in the canon of jazz piano trio recordings. Since I first got this recording I've listened to it obsessively and I never tire of it. Every listening reveals more. So what's so special about it?

Firstly the atmosphere created by the trio that runs through every track makes the whole CD one self-contained work, that though it's not designed as a suite per se, is obviously the work of a unifying collective intelligence (the trio), guided by the compositions of an individual (Taborn).

Secondly the organic way the trio play together and play effortlessly through the various challenges of the compositions. Each member of the trio contributes equally to the music and there is never a moment where one player is subservient to another.

Thirdly, Taborn's playing - as always he brings a crystalline brilliance to everything he does and it's hard to think of any player, on any instrument, whose playing is as cliche-free as his. He's completely unique, yet not 'quirky' nor iconoclastic in the way that some innovators are. He achieves his individuality by the freshness of everything he plays, the ceaseless invention of his improvising, and the fluidity with which he executes his ideas. He is clearly a jazz pianist, but I'd find it hard to point to his influences. There's a concern with sonority that seems to come from the classical world, and his rhythmic approach clearly comes from contemporary jazz, yet it's very difficult to see a specific piano lineage from which he has sprung. In that way he is unique.

And finally there are the compositions. Such variety of approach - from the rolling counterpoint of 'Chants', to the patience of the beautiful 'In Chant'. From the the clave-inflected power of 'Hot Blood', to the obsessive repetition of 'Beat The Ground'. In this latter piece Taborn shows off one of his trademarks - the ability to keep a complex left-hand ostinato going while the right hand improvises freely and brilliantly.

The recorded sound on this is gorgeous too - lots of reverb (as one so often gets on ECM), which may not appeal to everybody, but there's so much warmth and depth to the sound too, that the effect of the whole is just one of great resonance and presence.

I've written before about Craig Taborn, and for me he's just the most interesting contemporary pianist on the scene today. He plays in all kinds of ensembles as a sideman and is always outstanding, he can play in a 'changes' context, (such as with Dave Binney or Dave Holland), in more open contexts (such as with Tim Berne), or in electric situations (with Chris Potter), and in all of these environments he brings complete individuality while always serving the music. Although widely recorded as a sideman, his own output is quite small, and when you hear this album, you realise that the paucity of recordings under his own name is a real shame.

He mentions in the clip below that he feels no urgency about documenting his music, and likes things to gestate before he considers recording them. For myself, I think it's a pity - he has so much unique music to give, I would love to hear much more from him in his role as leader. If you have any curiosity at all about the contemporary piano trio in jazz you definitely should listen to this. It is a recording that just keeps giving, no matter how many times you listen.

Three different recordings, all using different approaches, and all valuing composition and improvisation equally. Pay no attention to the naysayers - jazz is in rude creative health.

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.