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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Steve Coleman on Rhythm - Part 1

I’ve known Steve Coleman for a long time – I first met him in 1986 when I was lucky enough to study with him at the Banff Centre. Since then I’ve met him many times and we’ve hung out and discussed music (and other things) on many occasions, and we’ve played at a few informal sessions and I recorded an (unreleased), track with him a while back. All my dealings with him have shown me, time and time again, that he is a unique and very influential figure in contemporary jazz (although he may argue with the description of what he does as being ‘contemporary jazz’), someone with an extraordinary originality in all aspects of what he does. And this originality is driven by intense research and thinking – Steve is constantly on a quest for knowledge, and the results of this quest has provided all kinds of food for thought for the curious musician.

Steve is innovative in all areas of music, but in my opinion his rhythmic concept is particularly noteworthy. I don’t think anyone has really gone into rhythm in the depth that he has, or thought about it in the way that he does. So I took the opportunity of a visit by Steve to our school in Dublin, to interview him on the specific subject of rhythm and the results are here.

Steve is discursive but not digressive  - he has a way of elaborating on every statement he makes that makes the job of the transcriber (me!) a labour-intensive one, but he never loses sight of the point he’s making. The length of our conversation meant that it took me a long time to transcribe it, and for one reason and another, it’s taken a while to get it up here too, but I think the results are fascinating, and it gives a real insight into how Steve thinks about rhythm, and what the influences were that helped to shape the way he thinks about rhythm.

This is Part 1 – Part 2 will follow soon

Early Rhythmic Experiences

RG: I remember in Banff  in 1986 when I first talked to you about rhythm and all of that, it was clear you had a very different way of looking at pretty much everything relating to rhythm in terms of the conventional ways that I’d been exposed to at that point. Your conceptual take on rhythm was very different. I know it’s probably something that’s an amalgam of different things, but were there particular things, or can you identify particular points where there were things that made a very big impact on the way you thought about rhythm, and pulse and the whole rhythmic world?

SC: Yeah, the first thing I can remember is just what I grew up on – this happened before I was a musician or anything. We were listening to these recordings of music on the radio, and it was all R ‘n’ B-type stuff – James Brown and all this kind of stuff. And I remember us beating out the stuff on the top of people’s cars and people would actually come out and chase us away, being kids, because we’d be denting the cars and things like that, but we would actually beat out the drum parts on the cars. And it wasn’t something that somebody was telling us to do, it wasn’t because we were musicians – we just heard this stuff, we heard all this rhythm and we would just try and imitate the rhythms.

So that was the first sense that I remember of specifically listening to rhythms. Not rhythms as in songs but just rhythm by itself and trying to imitate it in some kind of way. So we would be like – {Sings funk kind of rhythm} – and fucking up these people’s cars! (Laughs) Or whatever we could do – we’d be going around the neighbourhood doing this and singing and maybe one guy would be dancing or whatever – it wasn’t me! (laughs). And that was the first concept I remember.

Then when I got into music, I didn’t relate the two things immediately because when I started playing in band in school, they had us reading off the charts – and we were reading you know – {sings the opening to the overture of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro} – and I didn’t immediately relate that to – {Sings funk rhythm} – the two things didn’t click at first.

But then when guys found out you played saxophone and everything, they’d say ‘We have this band, and we play for dances and stuff like that, do you want to play?’, you know, and the logical thing was to say yes. There were no charts in that situation, there was nothing about charts, it was ‘OK, we’re playing this song that’s on this record’, it wasn’t an original, ‘and you’ve got to take off the horn part’. So we’d learn it by ear – I didn’t know at the time that this was transcribing or anything, we would just take off the horn part, literally. So we would learn the parts by ear, and, you know, just figure it out, there was no education thing or whatever. And as you got better this grew and we had these bands and we’d get hired out for fashion shows and dances and different things like that, but it was always the music of what was popular on the radio.

Then, we were aware that some people could improvise, we called it ‘riffin’ at the time – we would say:

‘Did you hear about this cat in the school? Yeah, well he can riff’
‘Yeah, he took a solo, he didn’t play what was written on the paper – he just did his own thing!”

But this was just among students, I wasn’t aware that there was this whole world, right outside of where we were, of professionals that were doing that.

So there was that, and of course if you were going to do that, there’s what you were going to play, rhythmically and that kind of stuff. And what happened was that people were right away critical of the way you played things – rhythmically of the way you played them. I remember that being a big thing, people would say ‘that’s just not hip’, or ‘that’s corny’, you know. I mean the feel of something, they were critical right away about that.

OK, I’m saying all this to say that as we got better and better in these bands, a little later on I started to get into improvisation and I also joined bands where we started to write our own stuff, you know, we started to create our own stuff. Then these two streams – the improvisation stream and figuring out these rhythms and stuff – started to come together just a little bit, because I first of all started to write my own music, I had to write the rhythms and stuff. Even the rhythm section, I had to tell them what to play, and this included the drummer – what kind of beat that you want and all this kind of stuff.

So you start to become more conscious of this and also the criticism – of stuff that was hip and not hip. It started to dawn on you what that meant – what does it mean when something’s hip, what does it mean when it’s not hip? What is this groove thing, this feel thing, some people had a better feel than others – you started to put together what all that meant.

This was all when I was still pretty young. Then when I got among the professionals all that increased. Everything that we’d been trying to figure out, all increased because these guys all had it together. If your sound wasn’t together they would just tell you that you need to get your sound together. If your feel was, you know – if your shit’s not swinging, or it’s not grooving for whatever situation you were in – because there was a lot of different situations you could play in. You could play with professional R ‘n’ B type cats, or there was a lot of blues happening in Chicago, you could play with professional blues musicians, or you could play with cats like Von (Freeman).

(Von Freeman)

There were at least three distinct scenes – Chicago was very segregated then, it was all among black musicians. There were three separate scenes that were all kind of related in some way. At least in terms of the feel thing a lot of them were related. The Blues scene and the R ‘n’ B scene were closer to each other, than with what Von and them were doing. Because you really had to know a lot to do what Von and them did. You had to know harmony and shit like this, so this wasn’t a scene that you could just jump into. I mean if they’re playing 'Days of Wine and Roses', you just can’t come in there and just play pentatonic scales – you had to know something.

So their scene had to be combined with the sophisticated pitch shit they were doing, and the other scenes didn’t. In those scenes you could get away with playing blues licks and pentatonic things and stuff like that. So I did that first, but when I started following Sonny Stitt and these guys around, their shit was way more sophisticated pitch-wise. But the rhythmic thing, they still talked about it in the same way. So I said to myself ‘OK the pitch shit is more sophisticated but they’re still on this rhythm thing’. And the first thing I noticed is that when I played with Von and we’d play ‘Billie’s Bounce’, or anything, how different it felt. I mean I’m playing with him, but I feel like ‘Man, this guy – the weight of what he’s playing, and the feel – just the way it feels and everything, it’s so much different to what I’m doing. I mean I’m playing the same notes, but it’s not even close!’, you know.

And so I started trying to analyze this whole micro-beat thing I was talking about the other day, {in a conversation we’d had the previous day - RG} like why does it feel like that when he’s playing and not when I’m playing? What is it that I’m missing here? What’s happening?

So I started to try to analyze this, not in a way like – I don’t know if you ever saw Vijay Iyer’s essay online where he does this whole computerised kind of thing, in terms of like ‘we measured the beat and it’s 15% behind’ kind of thing – well it wasn’t that you know, it was just trying to figure out what was happening with what these cats were doing. And then I started listening to the drummers and everything.

So that was one kind of shock, was that whole period of figuring that out, and also realizing this stuff had nothing to do with reading music. It had nothing to do with what cats were doing when they read music. This was something completely outside that and it couldn’t even be notated. Even when I started transcribing, I would transcribe something and I would just write ‘lay back’, or ‘pull back’, or whatever, because there was no other way of notating it. But pull back where? How much? None of that was there – there was no information, I just knew what it meant when I saw that sort of like a ‘stickit’ thing {a stickit is a note you write to yourself} once I saw that it reminded me that that had to be done.

And so I realized that their beat was more like this……….it was like this variable amoeba-like thing, but it wasn’t just amoeba anywhere there was a certain concept to how to do it and it just took listening and all that. So that was my first shock with the rhythmic thing and it included the R’n’B thing and stuff like that.

Thad and Mel

My second big shock was when I played with Thad (Jones) and Mel (Lewis). Thad had this thing, I mean he took the laid back thing to another level. He had this thing where when I first joined the band, he would give a downbeat, and I would come in where he gave the downbeat, and I would always be early. Every single time I would be early – because there was this built-in delay that was just part of what they did, and I had never played in a big band like that. I mean everything I’d played before that when the cat gave the downbeat, that was the downbeat! But it was like a built-in delay, he would literally..{demonstrates by physically giving down downbeat and singing the note a second later}.. and I would be like “what the fuck!?” (Laughs) I mean I’d be WAY early, so the cats would tell me ‘you know, that’s the way it is, you got to get with the program!” (Laughs). So after a while you learned it – so I learned it from him, I’d think “Damn, he has the same shit that Elvin has, only with a big band!’ It was like this late fucking beat! I couldn’t believe it, and also at that time Dexter Gordon just started coming back to the States and HE was late as hell too. So I’m like “are these guys just lazy or is it part of their thing?’

So I started noticing there was this almost extreme laid back thing that was happening with some guys, so that was the second kind of shock I got.

The third shock was probably………. Well Sam Rivers’ thing was hip to me rhythmically and everything, but the third shock was Doug Hammond, and that was a big one.

RG: What was unique about him?

SC: Well, this cello player Muneer Abdul Fattah asked me did I want to do this gig with some dancers – he had this small group playing with these dancers, and I said sure – it was up in Harlem – and I asked him ‘who’s the drummer?’ and he said, ‘it’s this cat named Doug, you don’t know him’, and I said ‘OK, fine’. Now Doug’s even older than Muneer, and Muneer had this vision that he was going to bring me and Doug together, neither one of us were aware of this. So we played this gig and we played Muneer’s music, which is fine, and we get to this point in the rehearsal and Doug said ‘Well Steve,  we’re going to play a piece of mine now, and you don’t know this piece so you can go and get a coke or whatever’.

So I said fine, and I was on my way out the door and they started playing this piece called ‘Perspicuity’ and I stopped right at the door as soon as I heard it, I stopped and turned around – I never went outside – I turned around and listened to what they were playing. So he starts off playing the chant:

There’s this kind of inbuilt counterpoint happening within it, and it had this really nice groove, but it was spacious  - it wasn’t, (sings typical fast Balkan groove), it wasn’t that kind of thing, it had this space kind of thing happening. And then the melody came in and it fit with the rhythm in a certain way (sings excerpt of the melody while clapping rhythm), it fit a certain way rhythmically, it was almost like he thought of it being rhythm as well as being pitches. This fucked me up. I mean it’s a simple tune really, but it messed me up, and then in the improvisation there were no chords and all this kind of stuff, and I was like ‘Man, what IS that!?’, after he finished playing, and he said ‘that’s a tune of mine called ‘Perspicuity’,  I didn’t care about the name or anything like that, but I said ‘Um, do you have more music like that?’ and the guy said ‘Yes, I’ve got boxes of it’, and I said ‘You’ve just found an alto player if you want one’ (laughs), ‘because I’ve got to understand what that is’. He was glad that somebody liked his music so he said ‘Sure’.

In my mind, I’d been doing something with forms and stuff like that, and I’d been doing all this stuff with melody, the symmetry thing  - it was already developed, I was doing all this stuff, feeling around and everything. But I felt like ‘something’s missing’ – you know I always felt that, but I couldn’t put it into words. I always felt like ‘You know, all this shit I’ve been doing but something ain’t right’. When I heard his music, I thought to myself, ‘THAT’S what’s missing’ (laughs). It just hit me – it was something about the balance of what he did.

You see the cats I liked, it turned out to be the same cats he liked – I really liked Max Roach - I really liked Max Roach and I really liked all the stuff I talked about in that Charlie Parker Dozens article..........

{an extensive essay on Charlie Parker written by Steve - you can see it here - RG} 

I heard that stuff early on, his relationship to Bird etc. Even though they were improvising I heard that it was composition – it was like a fixed fucking thing to me, but it was just that they were improvising. But it sounded so fixed, it was like Max could anticipate what Bird was doing and Bird could anticipate what Max was doing and they were creating this composition together. Doug’s music had that in it, but it was developed in a way, like it was updated or something like this. I wasn’t aware of this until later, until Doug told me of the connection to Ed Blackwell and all these kind of cats – I wasn’t aware of that, I was taking the shit straight from Max to Doug. And it had a funky kind of thing, I always felt that Max , even though he was playing swing, that the shit was funky – that it had this funk kind of feel to it. Which is what attracted me to that because it reminded me of the stuff I heard in my childhood when we were beating on the cars and everything. Max had that kind of thing, but it was with this – the swing thing – happening.

And so I really dug it (Hammond’s concept), and then he had these other tunes that all had this chant concept – he called them chants, that’s why I call it that. They all had this drum chant thing, that he had gotten from several sources – from Africa, from Max Roach and plus, he had listened to………..the three drummers he listened to a lot, that he always talked about were Big Sid Catlett, Chick Webb and Cozy Cole. All cats whom I hadn’t listened to a lot up to that point. He talked about these pre-Max Roach type drummers, and most cats when they talk about pre-Max Roach drummers, they talk about Jo Jones - Papa Jo Jones. But they don’t go back – but Doug would talk about Baby Dodds and all these cats from the past.  And he would always say, ‘the young cats today, all they do is play cymbals, they don’t play the DRUMS enough – you’re a drummer - a drummer, not a cymbal-er!’ (Laughs). He would go into this thing – ‘Cymbals came from China!’ – he would go into this whole thing about drums versus cymbals, how Tony Williams was fucking all these cats up – he would go into this whole spiel.

And so eventually he would influence me and I would go back and listen to these cats – and I would say ‘Chick Webb? Cozy Cole? Big Sid? What kinds of names are these? Cozy!? Who names a kid Cozy!?’ (Laughs). But I was piqued by the names and all this kind of stuff and just listened to them, and listened to Jo Jones, and I realized these cats did have some stuff, and I heard some of the stuff that Max was getting some of his stuff from. There was this funky thing in what they were doing and he was getting that.

Ed Blackwell

And then Doug said that the modern cat he was listening to was Ed Blackwell.  Because Blackwell took that shit, plus went to Africa and lived in Africa for a while and took that stuff and basically adapted it for the drums. And then brought that into Ornette’s thing, plus this New Orleans thing that he had, that Second Line shit. And he brought that into Ornette’s thing, and it gave Ornette’s thing – to me – it gave it foundation, it gave it form. Because Ed Blackwell was a real form kind of cat, he had natural form in what he was doing - plus that chant stuff, when you do those rhythms and everything it’s sort of an automatic form. To me he brought that to the group, so the group – at least the early group – didn’t have that wavy kind of thing that somebody like Rashied has – it had grooves and stuff, even though there was all this crazy Ornette shit on top. Later on I met Ed Blackwell, and he would sit down with me and Smitty, (the drummer Marvin Smitty Smith), and show us some of this stuff and he would be swinging and all of a sudden he would go into this -  (sings rhythm) - these chants and stuff and then he would break back into swing, and he would go back and forth and stuff like that. And he was real influenced by Max but he added this African thing. And so Doug said that messed him up. And so then Doug kind of did an updated version of that, plus he was a real composer, so he could actually write the stuff and everything.

The First Rehearsal

But the big shock was the first rehearsal, because I came into the first rehearsal, and Doug said ‘OK bring some music if you’ve got some music’ and I brought some music and passed it out – there was only a few people there – I passed it out and I gave everybody a part but Doug. And he said ‘Where’s my part?’ and I said’ Well you know, there’s no drum part, what do you mean where’s your part? There’s no drum part’, so I started to describe what I wanted – ‘well you know it’s kind of like…..’ and he said ‘Stop!’ – he was really like a hard cat. ‘Stop – I want my part’, and I said ‘There IS no part!’, and he said ‘Write one!’ and I said, “Write one!? I’ve never written for drums in my life, I don’t know how to write a drum part!’, and he said, ‘Learn’ – he was looking at me all crazy (laughs), and so I was like ‘I don’t even know where to start’, and he said ‘I’ll teach you’ (Laughs). And so he showed me ‘This is a drum key, this is where .. etc”, he showed me, ‘OK you got this? Now I want my drum part’ (laughs). I thought ‘Man, this guy is crazy!’ (Laughs). And he was saying ‘Learn how to write drum parts, don’t give me some of this I want a little Max, a little DeJohnette  - I don’t care about these cats, write my drum part!’ I said, ‘what do you mean, write your drum part’, and he said, ‘Write an example of how you hear it should go, and give it to me’. So I said OK, so I started doing that. And I really dug the results!

And I realized that that’s what he’s doing - that I hear is the thing that’s missing – the glove that’s missing on the hands of my music. What he’s doing is that he’s treating the rhythm like everything else. It’s like it’s a melody and he’s looking specifically at detailed rhythmic information, which to me – at the end of the 70s, going into the 80s – was a revelation. Everybody was doing this ‘Just give me a little beat like this or like this, some Latin shit – yeah but more simple’ (Laughs) You know, everybody was doing that, but his shit was -  ‘I want the same shit that you give everybody else. Other people are going to improvise too, but they have a starting point – I want a starting point. I want to know what’s in your mind. And I don’t want to know about styles – I don’t give a fuck about styles. Don’t tell me about Elvin or Max or something – I don’t want to know about that. What do you have in your mind in terms of this particular piece of music? And then when we move on to the next piece tell what else you have in your mind.” So first of all it was a novel thing – a drummer begging to read something was like a weird thing, because they’re like…………

RG: Well they have a funny thing, because I write drum music, sometimes very specifically too – my brother’s a drummer and I used to play his drums a lot at home so I’ve got a sense of the instrument. So occasionally – quite often – I actually will write something. And I notice a funny thing about drummers – they have a little ghetto that they both hate and yet don’t want to get out of. In the sense that they really get pissed off – and rightly so – when they’re the only one not getting a part. Or someone says ‘here’s the saxophone part’.

SC: Yeah, right

RG: On the other hand if you hand them all the stuff written out, they go ‘what the fuck is this!?” (Both laugh). So it’s a funny psychology that one, you know, because some drummers don’t like you to be specific yet they get pissed off if you’re vague.

SC: Well he was weird because I mean he was a composer, he was a prolific composer. He really literally had boxes of music – he had more music than I had, he was older than me too, but still. And I suppose, from writing so much, he was into it.  And sometimes I gave him stuff that was hard, and he’d say ‘Man this shit is hard!’, but he still wanted it – he still did it.

I remember I wrote ‘Snake Pit Strut’ – these are the early tunes – ‘Murdxas’ and which is really just sax drum written backwards. And those were the first tunes, there on that first album of his that I did – you have that right, Spaces?

RG: Yes, I have it somewhere

SC: So, both of those tunes – but especially ‘Murdxas’  - turned out so well that I basically never stopped doing that. I just got deeper and deeper and deeper into what it was and all this kind of stuff. And right away I noticed that OK, I can just sing this drum phrase, and I don’t have to pay any attention to how long it is, or you know……….it’s just that if it feels right to me, balance-wise, then I’ll just write it down and that’s it. What I used to do is I used to just sing the stuff into a tape recorder or something like that, or if I didn’t have a tape recorder, repeat it enough till I remembered it. Or play it with my hands and feet or whatever, and then just write it down.

It was sort of like a story that Benny Golson told me about ‘Stablemates’. He said he wrote out this tune and it wasn’t 8/8/8/8, it got to a certain point and he said shit, it didn’t work out. And so he went to try to fix it but then he thought – well why should I fix it? If it feels right, then that’s what I intended and that’s what it is.

I was like that with these drum chants, I would write it out, and whatever it came out to be. I was just worried about the feel and all that kind of stuff, but whatever it came out to be I would just leave it – the first time, I would never fix it, I would leave it. So after a while things got – from other’s people’s perspective – odder and odder. Because I began to feel these things and I began to feel, I guess, odder and odder stuff. But I would let it go, I would never come back and say that needs some extra 8th notes, or that needs an extra beat or whatever. Because I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of 8th notes or anything when I was feeling it – it was just what it was.

I mean still to this day a lot of things come by feel for me. What I mean by that is that even though I’m working now with these esoteric concepts and things like that, when it comes to the actual information – because that stuff doesn’t determine what the actual information is, if you say ‘I’m going to do something with ‘Venus and Mars’ – musically that could be anything. Musically that could be anything, if you’re John Adams it’s going to be that language, if you’re Henry Threadgill it’s going to be that language. It’s going to be whoever you are. People ask (me) about that but they don’t realize that that doesn’t determine the information, your experience as a musician is what’s really determining the information. I mean if you’re T.A.S. Mani then it can’t possibly come out like John Adams, I mean it just can’t! Your experience is different. So that has a bigger influence over what it’s going to sound like – your experience – than any idea you get that’s outside of music or whatever.

If Beethoven had the same ideas as me it couldn’t possibly come out the same. And people don’t realize how much your experience dictates what you do and who you are and everything. Now for you it could add more variety and lead you in different directions that you might not have investigated, but it’s still going to be some Ronan shit, on some level it’s still going to basically be you, it’s not all of a sudden going to turn into Charlie Haden, it’s just not going to happen. If it does it might do it for like a split second – you might write a beat and a half of something that somebody would say reminds them of somebody, but all this other shit still reminds me of him. Because you have a certain personality and the way that you put shit together it comes out like you.

So when I heard all this stuff that everybody was doing – Max Roach and Bird and everything – my personality was interpreting that in a certain way. So when people go to the thing, they say ‘oh yeah, we never thought about that’ – but that’s because you’re not me! That’s what I’M hearing you know – I’m not making any claim that Charlie Parker was hearing like that or that Max Roach was hearing like that. This is what I get from this music when I hear it. It could have nothing to do with what they…….. but what I discovered -  I was lucky enough to know some of these old cats – what I discovered was that they had a way of thinking that, although it was different than mine, in some kind of way it came close to the way I was thinking in their language.

I told Von Freeman one time, I said, ‘you know, me and you we probably think really differently about this music’ and he said ‘Oh I don’t know about that’ – he said that immediately – ‘I don’t know about that. I mean you probably have your way of, your language of interpreting and everything, and I have my language, but I don’t think  - I’ve been listening to you for years – I don’t think it’s all that different’. And I was surprised to hear that from him, because here’s a cat that’s like born in 1922, you know what I mean. I know if Barry Harris or somebody heard the shit he’d be like ‘what the fuck!?’ (laughs). But he was like……’I don’t know…….’ When we did that gig (with Von Freeman), we did Moose the Mooch, but we did it over this tune 'Change the Guard' that we always do. So it was like, you know, bent. So me and Jonathan (Finlayson) were playing it and it was like – {Sings Moose the Mooche in the 7 beat cycle of Change the Guard} – it had that half beat peg-leg shit in it. And so Von was sitting there listening to it, he wasn’t playing he was just listening. This was like the first……. It was during the rehearsal, and I haven’t done many rehearsals with him. So after we finished he said ‘You know, I think I’m finally starting to understand what you’re trying to do’. 

And I know what it was that made it click for him was the fact that he knew part of what we were doing – he knew Moose the Mooche. He knew the way it normally went, and then he heard this corrupted-ass version of it, and he was like, ‘these cats are fucking with the rhythm!’ (Laughs). It became obvious. But when you hear original stuff, you don’t hear that because….

RG: You don’t have the point of reference.

SC: There’s nothing that you know – exactly. So he was sitting there listening, and he was listening really carefully and then we started improvising on it. Rhythm Changes – he knew it was Rhythm Changes, he knew all that, but then he heard what was different stood out more in relief, against what he already  knew. I mean he knew this shit better than we did – I mean he REALLY knew this stuff. So he’s hearing this stuff and he’s like ‘these cats are basically changing the balance of this shit – they’re fucking with the balance’. And so he told me ‘I’m starting to get it’, and I told him, ‘well yeah, what you heard on Moose the Mooche we’re doing that with our original stuff too – it’s essentially the same idea’ 

And he even played on some of the stuff, and that was crazy to hear for me. Because it was a whole different – he had a whole different………… it was like bending the shit. But he could hear it you know. And I never thought I’d have anybody that age playing on my shit. People don’t…… I mean it’s not like Lester Young and them started playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean they played together with Jazz at the Philharmonic, but it was older stuff.  They didn’t start playing {sings fast bebop-type line} – it just didn’t happen. Louis Armstrong and them, when Dizzy played with Louis Armstrong they played ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ or something like that, but he didn’t really play Dizzy’s music – he didn’t play ‘Things to Come’  or something like that. That never happens. And Dizzy had played with Trane – I mean Trane had played with Dizzy, when Trane was younger. But once Trane got going with his real thing in the 60s, it’s not like Dizzy came in and played that. That’s not how it goes – the older cats never play the newer cats stuff, it just doesn’t go that way. If you want to play with the older cats you gotta play their shit. And out of respect that’s what you should do, you shouldn’t give some old cat some new shit you’re working on and say ‘see if you can do this man’ – give that to Sonny Rollins – you would never do that.

We were very careful when Von did that gig – what he played on and everything, but there was one thing he said he wanted to play on. As a matter of fact he didn’t say it, he just started playing, and I was like ‘oh this is going to be interesting……..’, just to hear it and stuff like that. Those were the things that I took  -  all those specific things that those cats were doing

Art Tatum

Another thing that was shocking that I didn’t mention was Art Tatum. I have a special kind of relationship to Art Tatum, I shouldn’t say relationship because I didn’t know him. He died the same year I was born. But, he did this tune called ‘Aunt Hagar’s Blues’, and there’s this one section that he does on it that has this – I call it ‘Peg Leg’ rhythms, because it reminds me of a pirate with one leg shorter than the other, when he’s doing this, you know. Because this tune I did called ‘Snake Pit Strut’  is based off that. 

{Sings Tatum rhythm followed by Snake Pit Strut rhythm to show similarity - you can listen to it here}

And it has this sort of Peg Leg thing. Cause if you just beat the beat like this {clicks fingers on regular pulse}, then of course the beat would turn around on itself – so it had this long beat/short beat thing. So I started experimenting with that stuff then – some of that came from Art Tatum. This is in Bulgarian music and a lot of other stuff too, but the thing is they fill up all the beats. Art Tatum was doing it in a funky, more like an African kind of way where all the beats weren’t filled up. He was picking his spots where he played and everything.

So I said OK, how do you make it funky like that, make it groove like that, where you’re picking your spots, (because they’re not just picking any spots of course, they’re picking the spots that make it sound a certain way), and still do this other thing. That was my thing - not do the {sings ‘Blue Rondo’-type rhythm}, because I would hear this Bulgarian Music {sings typical Bulgarian folk melody} – and every space would be filled with turns –{continues singing Bulgarian style piece} – and that’s cool and I dig that and everything, I mean that’s because of their language and culture and all this kind of stuff. But when Max would be doing this  - {sings very syncopated drum phrases} and the tempo would be like this {really fast}, and it would be really spaced out where the beats are or the Bata stuff – {Sings typically a Babalu Aye Bata bata rhythm while simultaneously clapping the clave} – that’s really hard because there’s a lot of space and the shit’s placed in a certain way, but it‘s funky. And so to me that’s what Bird and Max and Tatum and all those cats were doing and I was like – OK how do you do THAT, but change the balance? But still keep that – exactly what they have, still keep that thing.

Part 2 will follow soon  - in the meantime, here's a clip from a concert in France in 1999, that gives an idea of the flavour of Steve's rhythmic approach, as well as featuring great playing by him and the other band members


  1. Great!
    But the soundclound exemples are in a private mood, we can't hear them

  2. Hi Fred - thanks for your comment. I don't know why you're having that problem - are you clicking on the link in the blog or from Soundcloud? I've just asked three different people to try the links and they've all worked. So...... I don't know why they don't work for you

  3. i solve here!
    thanks, and thanks for the post
    incredible one

  4. Thanks a lot! When did this great interview happen?

  5. Thanks a lot for the interview. When did it happen?

  6. Wow this is really amazing. Thanks Ronan!

  7. Great interview Ronan,Steve reveals a raft of interesting insights here.

  8. Thanks for posting, Ronan. Looking forward to part 2