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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Lieb on Elvin

I took advantage of being at the recent International Association of Schools of Jazz annual meeting in Lucerne with Dave Liebman to interview him about his time with Elvin Jones in the early 70s. Dave was of course in the Jones quartet that recorded the seminal ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ album, a recording that’s still considered to be probably the greatest album under Elvin’s own name and one that captures the live experience of post-Coltrane jazz to perfection.

I was conscious that Dave had been interviewed on his time with Elvin dozens if not hundreds of times, but I wanted to try and get a bit more inside the story from a musician’s point of view and really try to find out what it was like for a young musician to work with someone of the stature of Elvin Jones and how things were organized in relation to the usual things we experience as musicians – touring, recording, playing, rehearsing etc.

Dave of course is not only a great musician but the perfect interviewee - honest, enthusiastic, well-spoken and funny. And I think the interview is fascinating not only because of the info about Elvin, but in how it gives a glimpse into a musical world and way of working that’s all but disappeared.

RG: Can you remember the very first time you played with Elvin?

DL: I was living on 19th street, I got a call from Gene (Perla) who’d been playing with Elvin, (with Joe Farrell), for about 6 months and who had said, when he joined Elvin, ‘I will get you and Steve (Grossman) on the gig’. He was the first in our generation to get this kind of gig and was very heavy in the little community we had. And sure enough, at 11.30 one night he called me and said ‘Slugs, now!’

RG: So at 11.30 one night you got a call saying come down and play!?

DL: ‘Come down and play now, he wants to hear you now’, or whatever he said, and it was from the West Side to the Lower East Side – Slugs, in a terrible neighbourhood, you know all the stories about Slugs. I went, I walked in, there might have been 8 people in the place, Elvin was standing at the bar with Joe Farrell, I didn’t see Gene. I walk in, Elvin is standing there smoking a cigarette, he says, ‘Are you ready?’ – it was a real set-up! I said, ‘Yeah, I guess’, and he said, ‘Get your horn out’, We go up to the stage and Joe stays at the bar, so it’s just me, Elvin and Gene! He says ‘what do you want to play’ and I played what I played the first time I played when I auditioned for Pete LaRoca, with Steve Swallow and Chick Corea two years earlier (A whole other story!).

RG: Which was?

DL: ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’, and I played that, and finished that, and he said ‘Got another one?’ and I played ‘Yesterdays’, he said ‘Another one’, and I played ‘Tunisia’. So, three tunes, Joe stayed at the bar, I think there were three people in the place, it’s 1.30 in the morning, Elvin says ‘I’m recording next week, be at Rudy’s on February 12th, next Thursday, 10 O’ Clock, bring a tune’ – and that was ‘Slumber’ on ‘Genesis’

RG: Wow!

DL: So that’s it, I did the record date and six months later, in September of that year – ’71 – Keiko called me at 4 in the morning, I was living in a big loft, I didn’t want to answer the phone, my girlfriend said ‘you gotta answer the damn phone!’, but I said ‘no, I’m not answering’ so she answered the phone – it was on the other side of the loft – so it’s four in the morning and it’s Keiko, and she says ‘Elvin wants you to play tomorrow in Chicago at noon, you have to take the next plane at La Guardia, there’s a ticket waiting for you’.

So I take a 7am plane and I end up in Chicago, I get to this school in the middle of a suburb, a 12 o’clock concert for high school kids – me Elvin and Gene. Joe’s still on the gig, he just didn’t make that particular afternoon concert. After the gig we go to the hotel – the Croydon Hotel – very well known for jazz musicians, and Elvin…….. I had no idea if I was supposed to play with him for the next few nights or what, I don’t remember, but he said ‘Come and see me in my room’ and I go up and he’s sitting there, smoking a cigarette, looking like a King (laughs), and he says ‘I’d like you to be part of the band for good now, you start right now, tonight. Joe’ll still be here, you’re gonna take his place, we’ll work you in’. Nothing about saxophonist Steve Grossman yet, though he knew Steve, so from then on I started working with him steady – from that one day, right there.

RG: Let me ask you a specific musical question – so, you’re playing with Elvin Jones, whom you saw many times with John Coltrane, but once you were on the stage, playing with him….

DL: Well I was scared – scared like shit! (Laughs) Shaking!

RG: Of course, but to get to the actual music - at any point in the first night was there a point where you got over the fear and got a feeling of how it felt musically to play with him?

DL: I don’t remember a specific time, but that first audition night probably not. But six months later, after I joined the band, going home every night was either a nightmare or a celebration, depending on how I felt about my playing that night.

RG: Depending on how you felt?

DL: Yes, depending on how I felt – though nobody really said anything. Of course Gene was there and then Steve joined and eventually it became our thing. Me, Gene and Steve were like a loft crew anyway, so with Elvin it became like a family vibe, you know?

But of course the main thing, and the story I tell everybody about playing with Elvin, is the time – playing behind the beat. I mean, if there was anything you knew Elvin for, besides the power, it was the back of the beat. And I just knew it, and understood it, and cognized it, and taped it, but just couldn’t fucking do it! (Laughs) I mean, I always say – I was rushing for six months – and I was! I was very conscious of that aspect of it – that cymbal beat.

And of course the other thing was, after seeing Trane so much, I just wanted Elvin to……….I thought, you know, ‘I’m gonna get Elvin to open up’.

RG: You mean open up playing-wise?

DL: Well you know – start to bash, start to burn! And I’m on my knees, literally and figuratively, and he’s just - {imitates the classic Elvin grunting sound that he made when he played} – he ain’t givin’ up NOTHIN’! And he isn’t givin’ it up until he’s good and ready to give it up. You know, my first chorus I’m squeezing my neck, and he’s just tippin’ like this, and once in a while he’ll say ‘take your time’ – he’ll yell ‘take your time’, and he’s just tippin’, and then eventually he does his dance so to speak. But what I realise is number one, obviously, this is not John Coltrane, and number two - Elvin is not the same Elvin – it’s Elvin Jones the bandleader – the architect of the set. He’s gonna do it in the time that HE wants. And of course he’s now the leader, not the sideman. You know, understanding all this came later on – that this is not him with John Coltrane. So these are the first cognizant things I remember about it. And then of course when Steve got in the band, we had our little scene together, from all our playing in the lofts, It felt more normal, more natural. I mean we just started having a good time then.

RG: So when he said ‘take your time’, do you remember if there were more instructions on playing, or was it just occasional things?

DL: Occasional things, we rehearsed a little – we tried ‘Picadilly Lilly’ but it didn’t work, but he liked ‘New Breed’. Picadilly had a funny bridge and he said ‘I don’t know if we want to do this…..’ kind of thing. Once it didn’t work with him, you know, with those guys – it wasn’t like what we do, like ‘OK, let’s try it again’ – if it didn’t work with them, if it wasn’t natural for them, you knew you were never going to play it again! (Laughs)

Now ‘New Breed’, for some reason, worked, though at about half the speed I had contemplated it at. You know that tune?

RG: Yes

DL: And I had thought of it like that Tony Williams ‘Spring’ record, with brushes and Sam and Wayne and Peacock, and I’m thinking of it like (sings fast snatch of the melody), and Elvin says ‘I don’t think so’ (Laughs), ‘let’s go here’ (sings it much slower). So he’s slowing it down to half of what I ever thought it as being and that became ‘New Breed’

But no, he never gave instructions, in fact I think in Miles’ way Miles might even have done a bit more, and even that was very little. Elvin never said a word about the music really – he never really said anything, and the other thing was, once you had a set, you pretty much played the same set every night.

RG: Once he was happy with it….

DL: Yes, for a couple of years we more or less played the same set – you had your ballad feature etc., and then there was my famous story about playing ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ every night and going to him and telling him I had nothing left to say on it. It’s a dramatic story that I’m sure you’ve heard, but the point he made to me was ‘it’s your job to make them believe it every night - nobody ever heard it before tonight – don’t be thinking you can play something new every night - refinement is the name if the game’ that whole lesson – that was a big lesson for me when he gave me that. But otherwise, not much really in the way of instructions.

RG: And you said earlier about during the first six months with him, going home was either a celebration or a nightmare….

DL: Depending on my state of mind

RG: Yes, I guess he didn’t say much after gigs?

DL: Oh no, he never said ‘you played good tonight or you played bad tonight’ nobody ever said anything. I mean I learned that from LaRoca, because with LaRoca, who was my first real test, with Chick, with Jimmy Garrison – it was always a different piano player or bass player – with Swallow….. I mean I was a nut case. This was already two/three years earlier in ’69, and I said to LaRoca, you know,’ I’m so nervous here, I’m ready to commit suicide!’ And he said to me, because he was very smart, he was a real intellectual, ‘You’re doing that to yourself – you wouldn’t be up here if you weren’t doing it

RG: Yeah

DL: in other words he said, ‘Don’t expect to be patted on the head, but if you’re playing, then you’re doing it’, and that was a very good piece of advice and I kept that with Elvin, you know, I’m not waiting for him to cop, this is not my mother, no gold star or anything. In other words if you’re there and they’re not saying you’re fired, then you’re doing good! Don’t expect them to say you’re doing good though – they’re not going to come up to you and say ‘you played good tonight’ – it’s just that you got the gig, if you got the gig then you’re doing good.

The truth is, you know, with those cats, the way they were, if you weren’t doing good they’d just say ‘I got a replacement’. Look, I took Carlos Garnett’s place with Miles – he came to the first rehearsal I had in Miles’ house. I was in Miles’ house playing and he comes expecting to play! And the road manager says to him ‘go upstairs’, and he goes upstairs, and then walks out

RG: Because he sees someone else playing?

DL: Yes, because you know, with these guys, when you’re fired, you’re fired! It’s simple, there’s no ‘you know man you played good, but I can’t use you’ – it's more like the next day you come to the gig and there’s another guy there. Those cats didn’t….. for them it was a job – so I didn’t expect Elvin to say anything, and he didn’t! (Laughs)

RG: So also with Elvin, you rehearsed very little?

DL: We did a few rehearsals, but mostly at record dates – if you had a record date then you rehearsed at the record date and it was a first take. Almost invariably a first take – you would rarely do a second take – he wouldn’t do it! You’d finish your tune and he’d say ‘Next’. I learned very quickly – and this was a good lesson for playing with Miles – don’t expect a second take. You’d better be in tune – which was a struggle for me at that time – and you better play good because you’re not going to be able to say ‘I don’t like my solo’ (laughs). And I can tell you, a few times on record, how it sounds – I’m sorry, I didn’t have a second take!

RG: So, recording in general, recording with Elvin….

DL: Three or four hours – max. Because you know, time was money – three hours was a session, over three was a double session, and Blue Note didn’t want to pay overtime. ‘Merry Go Round’ with Chick and Jan Hammer, there was a couple of tunes with a couple of horns – there was one with Farrell, me and Steve, and Frank Foster – four horns – I think that was a six hour session. But it was really like ‘next’, ‘next’ – the first time you saw the music………

RG: That was it

DL: Yeah – that was the way they worked.

RG: So when you were in his band – what did that mean in terms of the amount of work you did – was it a certain number of weeks, months………?

DL: It varied – he certainly worked more than Miles – you’d do a couple of weeks on a week off, a week or a couple of weeks, then another week off. Or you’d do Canada - Montreal, Toronto etc. Or we’d play the Vanguard and then do Boston immediately afterwards – I remember doing that with him at least twice in the time I was with him. With Miles you might do a few gigs and then be off for a month or more. Of course Miles played concerts while Elvin played clubs – I hardly ever played clubs with Miles, though it was great the few times that we did it. And of course the money was better with Miles – with Elvin it was about $300 a week, while with Miles it was $400 a gig.

RG: And after you finished playing with him, you played again with him several times later on.

DL: Yes, in the 80s

RG: Did it feel any different

DL: Yes

RG: In what way?

DL: I was better! (laughs). Just like with LaRoca, I was finally able to keep up with him, and I can’t say lead him, but there was confidence, I had confidence. So the gigs I did with Elvin, they were all in Italy – Palle Danielsson, JF Jenny Clarke, Albert Mangelsdorff, Swallow and Scofield…….. there were three times when we did it, three years in a row where a promoter would put this together, so I had three or four gigs with Elvin for a couple of years, just these little special situations. And I was kind of the leader, because now I was kind of the heavy.

On the gig with Swallow and Scofield, at the soundcheck, we’re trying out ‘Day and Night’, you know that tune?

RG: Yeah

DL: Well Keiko comes running up to me, she says (pointing to Swallow)
‘What’s he playing?’
‘Electric bass’
‘But where’s the other bass?’
‘He doesn’t play the other one, this is Steve Swallow’
and she says in her Japanese accent,
‘I don’t know who he is, Elvin don’t like that – Elvin don’t like that bass!’ (laughs)
I didn’t say a goddamn word, I didn’t say anything and Sco was asking ‘is it cool, will it be alright?’

(You can see a short clip from that gig here)

RG: So what happened? Elvin didn’t say anything?

DL: No he didn’t - he did the gig. You do the gig – it’s a gig, those guys did thousands of gigs. They don’t care about one night, nobody cares – they’ve done it all before. That’s the other thing, they didn’t give a shit – I mean they cared about it at the moment, but they never thought about it before or afterwards. For them it was just another night of thousands of nights. We don’t have that – we have the big deal thing, which is why I was a maniac those first years. But once you do that for years it’s just like, ‘this is just another night – so what?’ And they were really like that and it took me a minute to get to that - this not a big deal – you might think it is, they don’t! (laughs)

RG: On the later gigs, his feel – did it feel any different in the 80s

DL: It was just so mature, what can I say – mature. Everything was perfect, his touch was perfect, he would turn on the energy in a perfect way, he was soulful…. He was classic by the 80s, he was classic Elvin Jones. It was beyond the records he did with Coltrane in the sixties – he was like a Max if you know what I mean….

RG: He was like an institution?

DL: Yes, he was an institution – you went to see Elvin Jones, which was why when sometimes the bands weren’t that great it didn’t matter, you went to see Elvin and watch him turn it on. And of course he had that wonderful smile, that personality, that charisma – which of course was another part of his attraction to people, because he was open and friendly.

I mean in my opinion, as far as I was concerned, he was the heaviest guy I knew in terms of the combination of the spiritual, warmth and knowledge. You know he was a wise man, who’d been around the block, and who was really open and friendly and nice to everybody. I mean he could get out too – if he saw something wasn’t right he’d call it, he could get tough. But for the most part with normal people he was a real gentleman, and not just a gentleman, but inclusive – like ‘come in here and hug me’

RG: As a person, was he a good hang?

DL: He was a great hang! He could be cool, and with me Steve and Gene we really had a good time – the chemistry was great, I mean he said it was his best band and ‘Lighthouse’ was one of his favourite records etc. We had a really good vibe, he would get high with us a little bit, just a little bit – he definitely enjoyed us. You could tell he liked us and loved playing with us, and we had a real band spirit there for a year, a year and half. Don Alias was on congas in the band for six months, and that added even more to it – they were great together.

It was a completely positive experience for me, there’s not one negative thing that I can think of with Elvin. Sometimes his personality, like everybody, sometimes he would have a bad night, that could happen from a physical standpoint – whatever. But he was pretty good, and he was going through methodone, he was kicking, he was on methodone and so when things were good they were good and when they weren’t it could be a little tough. But he was really trying to be cool, trying to control himself, trying to get himself straight. Because he could see that in order to live long he had to be cool. And Keiko, and you’ve got to give it to her, she kept him together – without her he would have been gone – everybody says that and I definitely agree with that.

RG: Great Dave – thank you!

DL: God bless Jonesy!


  1. thank you for this have made my day
    what a family...thad,hank and ELVIN !
    long live the JONES FAMILY

  2. Thanks Martin - glad you enjoyed it!