I've recently written a new piece for solo piano called 'Bystanders' that was premiered in the National Concert Hall in Dublin, performed by the great young classical pianist Michael McHale. The genesis of the piece came when I was was doing research about my Grandfather Joe Guilfoyle, and his part in the 1916 Rising, for the 'Shy-Going Boy' project. In reading more about that extraordinary event in Irish history, I was struck by the fact that so many civilians were killed in the rising, and that this fact is mentioned so little in the retelling of that week. More civilians were killed than Volunteers, or Policemen or British army members. And this lead me to think about how civilians always suffer the greatest casualties in war. Caught up in catastrophic situations not of their own making, they suffer horribly and if they survive they are traumatised and their lives are never the same again. The current disaster in Syria is a contemporary example of the tragedy for these innocent civilians. And so the piece became more than just being about 1916 specifically, and more encompassing of this situation wherever it occurs.
I rarely write programmatic music, and when I do I don't tend to be very specific in my thoughts, as in, 'this represents this, and this passage represents that'. I tend to to try and find an overall vibe or feeling that I want to represent and then write with that in mind. In this piece I'd say turbulence is the predominant characteristic. It has both quiet and loud passages, some slow moving parts and some frenetic activity. But even the slower, quieter passages have an uneasy feel to them. I felt this was apposite for such a subject which really has no bright side to it.....
The piece itself is very technically demanding and I was lucky to have such a brilliant pianist as Michael to play it. I first heard Michael play my music in a trio setting (classical trio, not jazz!) and was struck by how idiomatically he dealt with the rhythmic aspects of the music. Specifically by how good his time was - in a jazz musician sense. A lot of the music I write really loses power and meaning unless it's played absolutely in time, and the rubato approach taken by many classical musicians to any given piece of music doesn't really work with a lot of what I write. This piece is no exception, it demands a strong sense of pulse in most of the piece and all the technical fireworks only make sense if the rhythm is really secure. Michael demonstrates here again what great time he has, and I was delighted to have him agree to learn and premiere the piece.
As usual with my composed music, I'm accepting of any and all influences and I don't differentiate between jazz approaches and classical ones depending on what I'm writing. A classical influence can just as readily appear in a piece I'm writing for jazz musicians as a jazz influence can in a piece I'm writing for classical people. I just write what I hear at any given moment. In this piece there are lots of contemporary jazz piano traits used in the writing, as well as colours and textures from more typically contemporary classical language.
So this is the background to the piece, but as always, music is better listened to than spoken about. So here it is.
I've been fortunate enough to play with with the great pianist Kenny Werner several times, and have spent quite a bit of time with him over the years, hanging, talking, discussing life the universe and everything. The last time we played together on a short duo tour, I took advantage of that to talk to him about many aspects of his music, his musical history and his attitudes towards many facets of music making. The one thing we didn't talk about was his seminal book 'Effortless Mastery', because great though it is, I think Kenny's been interviewed on the subject innumerable times, and I also feel that sometimes Kenny's importance as a contemporary jazz pianist is overlooked due to the focus on his book. So here we talk about music, and during the interview Kenny is fascinating and forthright about a wide range of subjects including how he got into the music, his own trios, his approach to composition and his views on the current generation of jazz musicians.
RG: As well as being
a great pianist and musician with a huge history in the music, you’re obviously
very well known for the ‘Effortless Mastery’ book, and I’m sure you’ve talked a
lot about that, so what I’d like to do is to talk to you about music.
KW: Yeah, I appreciate it!
RG: So, I know from
speaking to you many times and hearing you speak, that you tell the story of
being in Long Island and discovering music from TV and things like that. But
when I hear you playing, and indeed when anyone hears you playing, I can hear
this very big and obvious understanding of jazz vocabulary, because there are
so many allusions to that language etc. in your playing.
RG: So obviously at
some point – and I know you’ve talked about this in relation to going to Berklee
– at some stage, was there a point where this information came in to you in the
way that other people talk about it. Like for example somebody says ‘this is
II-V-I’ or this is this, and that’s that etc.
KW: Yeah, I didn’t ever think about II-V-I, though I may
have played tunes that had II-V-I in them. It’s not that I didn’t play any
jazz, it was just that I played my own by-ear jazz. The first jazz record I had
was Peter Nero doing the soundtrack from ‘My Fair Lady’ (laughs). And I
listened to that a lot, but as I said at the concert tonight, the guy I
listened to the most, only because my father loved him, was Roger Williams. I’m
not sure if you know who that is, he was like a Liberace with taste.
RG: ‘On The Street
Where You Live’
RG: My father had a Roger Williams album
KW: Well my father had several, and I listened to him a lot.
He used to be a fighter.
KW: Yes, so he actually had a two-handed technique – when
you heard those lines he actually played them with two hands, but he played
them very accurately, almost like a vibes player. But my father also loved Fats
Waller, so we had several Fats Waller records, and that’s where I first heard
‘bluesy’ playing and of course that’s where got my first experiences of stride
piano and that’s why I have some bastardised
form of it now.
You know you just pick it up – I can’t really say where it
comes from. I know there are things that come out in my playing of all kinds,
not just jazz, because it’s just in the ether so to speak, and somehow I heard
them through some kind of osmosis rather than focusing on them. And so I
noticed that stuff coming out all the time.
Don’t forget there was bluesy stuff in movies too, and there
was jazzy stuff in movies, so I can’t pinpoint any time when I intentionally
absorbed the language. I didn’t hear the term II-V-I until I went to Berklee.
RG: And when you went
to Berklee - because Berklee are
credited with almost inventing a lot of that kind of language - so was that the
case when you went there – were there classes in traditional jazz harmony etc.?
KW: Well before that I was at Manhattan School of Music as a
concert piano major, but I was mostly interested in theory. But studying theory
classically, it took three semesters just to get to the Neopolitan 7th,
which is something I was playing when I was 7 years old! I mean who gives a
fuck what it’s called!? So I said I need something that’s more attuned to what
I’m hearing. I think I must have been wanting to play that stuff,. So as soon
as I got to Berklee, I placed, which is something we were talking about the
other day, I placed in the 4th semester. Which was a level of II-V-I and really good voicings - 5-note voicings. Believe it or not, I knew 4-note voicings, but
I didn’t know all the time what to do with the 5th note – like in
saxophone section voicings – that was always the pungent note, you know?
And that was the first thing I learned, so as soon as I got
there I was learning the exact things that I was curious about. And it was
through the Berklee system, and the Berklee system is perfectly fine.
RG: You talk about
Roger Williams and guys like that, but can you remember who were your guys -
who were the guys who first made an impact on you, that other people would
identify as jazz guys?
KW: Well when people say, ‘who were the people who
influenced you when you were growing up?’, I always say, and I mean it – Chico
Marx, Jimmy Durante, Liberace, Roger Williams, a little bit of Victor Borge,
and Fats Waller. So most of the piano players I liked were actually, you know,
actors in a way. Jimmy Durante – I’m not sure if you remember him – he used to
get pissed off, his act was that he would get pissed off while he was playing
and he would start literally – before The Who – he’d start breaking the piano
up until it was all over the ground!
So that’s really what it was. Then when I was going to the
Manhattan School of Music I was living with a guy who was going to Columbia,
who was a real bebop alto player, so he had tons of Charlie Parker. The first
time I really heard consistent stuff, oddly enough, was when I was at Manhattan
School of Music studying concert piano, because he had all these records. And
the first record that really took me was Miles Davis, ‘In A Silent Way’.
Because you see I was never into – as you can tell by all the things I say – I
was never into art for art’s sake. Because
I wasn’t bred with that so I couldn’t co-opt it. It’s really not who I am. Now
when I was younger, I was embarrassed about that, but now I embrace it, because
that’s who I am. The older you get, you might as well embrace it and then you
get something new in your playing.
So, I was more interested in that period, the early 70s and
late 60s – which was a very mystical period of jazz – it wasn’t about the
classicism of jazz like it became in the 80s. I suddenly realized that
everything is new, when it gets to a certain point - and this is what happened
with religion all the way down the line - it would get to a very mystical point
and it would get too ethereal for the masses and someone would reinstall the
rules, and that would be a severe period. And you see that in almost everything
– in society, in religion – and the same thing happened in jazz - the 80s had
But at that time it was a very mystical period and they were
talking about concepts – mind-blowing shit you know, the music was about that,
and the music had a different mystical bent to it. You could tell that those
guys – whether it was artificial or real – were delving into other levels of
consciousness. Whether they were taking things, it wasn’t the 40s or 50s, they
weren’t taking heroin and playing as deep into the beat as possible – I think
they were taking Acid or mushrooms, I mean people were interested in that stuff
in the 70s. And so was I, so actually, ‘In A Silent Way’ put me, without drugs,
into a different zone and I loved it, so I listened to it over and over again. And
I realized that it was that zone I was more interested in and the only music
that even came close to doing that, at that time, was jazz.
So that, (In A Silent Way), was the first important record,
and then I started to listen to everything else. I’d heard a number of things
because I was living with that guy, but I really started to put records on when
I got to Berklee, and I got excited because of the people around me. I’m
actually very influenced by a crowd I’m in, you know? And that’s what everyone
was doing and so I started to do it. It’s very different to most people’s jazz
background – the kids say ‘yeah, when I was 15 I was listening to that and then
I went to the Vanguard’, but I just had a very bastardized upbringing from an
RG: So in that period
– the early 70s - were you influenced by, for example - I’ll give the classic examples – the big
three in 60s were Herbie, McCoy, and then Chick, and I guess Keith Jarrett a
little bit later
KW: Late 60s early 70s
RG: Yeah – was there
a point where, for example, those three guys………
KW: Yes – when I went to Berklee. Before I got to Berklee, I
don’t know if I heard much of any of them. I’m telling you, I really was not
aware or tuned into it. The guy I was living was playing bebop, so it actually
wasn’t those guys either. I’m sure I heard them, but I don’t remember having
Then in Boston I heard McCoy and Bill Evans more than
anybody. Every time they came to Boston I heard them, and whenever Bill was
playing I’d go every night. Because it was just my kind of music, my kind of
chords…. I think I’m still influenced by that. And then when I came on to Keith
Jarrett I think the first thing I heard was him playing with Art Blakey. They
play ‘Secret Love’ at a really up
tempo and each guy begins his solo with a 4-bar break. And then Keith takes a
4-bar break – and it is absolutely
some new shit! No one ever played anything
like that – the rhythmic turnaround and everything. And then, as he canvassed
the beat at that tempo, it was just locked in – so relaxed, but with different
kind of lines. It wasn’t a modal kind of thing that Herbie to some extent,
McCoy to a complete extent, and Chick – more diminished, but still a pentatonic
approach, a modal approach.
He was the first guy who wasn’t doing that. It had a real
flowery, almost Lizst or Chopin-istic thing, and that was more my thing, so I
really latched onto him from that point on.
So that’s how it was – it was Herbie, and Chick once he got
to….. I went to see A.R.C. , and that had a big influence on me. If you listen
to some of my early music that was a little more free like ‘Heads’ , it was
mimicking, consciously or unconsciously, A.R.C. They would play a head and
continue improvising on the same rhythm as the head, and that just blew me
away. I didn’t know what I’d heard, but I just thought it was fascinating.
And believe it or not, I heard Cecil Taylor a lot. So it was
all this mish-mash some kind of way
RG: So I guess you
were in Berklee and then you moved back to New York I suppose. What was your
first kind of name gig with a name player, an older guy?
KW: Oh it was Archie Shepp. In fact I was almost getting
ready to quit……… well I had made that record with Charles Mingus (“Something Like A Bird”), and probably before Archie, I’m sure before Archie I played with
someone……… you know it was the 70s. and they had a saying about the 70s – if
you remember them you weren’t there. That is SO true for me! I’m sure I played
with some heavy guys, but I can’t remember them. But the first gig, the first
steady gig, was Archie Shepp at the
beginning of the 80s.
RG: And what was that
KW: It was very informative in a lot of ways, for one thing
it helped me get to a level of rhythm that I had not had previously. Because
I’d never toured for six weeks before – they still had tours like that then.
I’d never toured for six weeks playing almost every night – exhausted, but with
a great rhythm section – with John Betsch and Santi DiBriano. And when I came
home I was on a new level.
And Archie still had a flavor of ‘the life’, when it was
still a more dangerous life, and I witnessed some of that too you know…. I was
already into this Zen-ish – and I hate to use the term because people say ‘are
you into Zen’ – no, but you know what Effortless Mastery is about. So I was
into this approach, but I was amazed that he could come in, either at the fastest
tempo or whatever, and in a firestorm of people who were pissed off or
whatever, and be completely unaffected and just do his thing. And that was very
instructive to me, because that was the first guy I saw, since I started
practicing that did that, who could – I never saw him leave that totally naturally state of ‘this
is what I’m gonna play, and here it comes’.
Like he played Giant Steps with a looseness that no one has
ever played. He’d actually play it, the whole thing was like one statement, and
he could play anything inside it. And sometimes it was a little off, and
sometimes it was amazingly loose and right at the same time. So I learned all
those kinds of things from him
RG: That thing is
amazing – a thing I wish I could do – where musicians can remain unaffected by
the outside environment. I remember seeing George Coleman at Ronnie Scott’s one
time – with Hilton Ruiz, Herbie Lewis and Billy Higgins – and the police raided
the place, grabbed these five people from the front row, pulled them out, and
the band didn’t even seem to notice, they just kept playing! I was sitting
there, completely stunned that a band could not seem to even notice something
like that. Now maybe they did notice, but they didn’t give any indication that
they did – Billy Higgins was still smiling and George Coleman was still
KW: You know, I think that’s one of the most fascinating
things about, I guess you could say
jazz, but I would just say playing music – is that a person can get inside the
experience, and everything else they become a witness to, but they don’t have
to be affected. There are parallels in spiritual disciplines to that, but
there’s a jazz version of it too.
RG: So, you were
playing with name players , Archie Shepp and maybe other people – what about
your own groups, was the trio with Tom Rainey and Ratzo Harris your first one?
KW: No, the first band I started was in the 70s, with Billy
Drewes, Scott Lee, Pete Dennis the drummer, Jamey Haddad on percussion. It was
called ‘Abladu’ – I made up the name. It happened because Billy was on the road
with Woody Herman and he fell down some steps that weren’t marked properly and
cracked his head open – he’s got a plate in his head now. He was in the
hospital and we were all very worried about him, we were very tight when we
were at Berklee . I came to the hospital and said ‘ you know when you get out
of here we’re going to form a group’ - you know, I just cared about him so
much. And then that became a group and we were together for a number of years.
We never made a record but we made recordings, and they were really good. I
remember Ornette Coleman hearing us once and really liked it, Brookmeyer would
come and liked it. That meant a lot to us, when someone of that iconic level heard
us and would say ‘wow you guys are really doing something’. And that band
remained together for X amount of years, but it didn’t get out of the 70s.
And then in the early 80s I started playing with Tom Rainey
and Ratzo Harris. That band lasted fourteen years, not continuously working,
but definitely fourteen years.
RG: I remember seeing
the trio, I guess you guys would have been well underway by the time I saw you,
probably in ’90 or ‘91
KW: In America or in Europe?
RG: In America. And I
remember being completely blown away by the combination of complexity and
openness. At least that’s what I felt in terms of the way you guys played.
Because a lot of it, particularly the original compositions, were very complex
in terms of the heads and especially the rhythmic stuff – catching hits and
things like that.
KW: Well the whole idea was to play them really easily. So
that’s what messes with your mind, you say ‘wow, this sounds so natural,
but………..what’s happening!?’ I always admire that in painting or music –
surreal, but not in the way they classically mean. You know, again –
consciousness distortion. I guess I was just a freak for that stuff. And it was
one thing to play those tunes, but we wouldn’t play them in public unless we
could play them like you’d play a blues. And that’s what messes your mind –
it’s like, ‘what’s going on? It’s an alternate universe!’
RG: Did you guys
discuss it like that?
RG: Was it a thing or……..?
KW: That was my thing! They could play anything - they were
way ahead of me on everything, and whenever I wrote a tune they could play it
way before I could. They could play it, you know, on sight, and then I had to
play it a long time before I could make music on it. First I would just try to
hang – the only guy who would get lost in that band was me! That’s why, as I
told you the other day, that’s why I hired those guys. I wanted to get paid to
learn (laughs). It was great, you would hire the cats you could learn from.
And the same thing was true with Ari (Hoenig), and Johannes
(Weidenmuller), I’d bring a tune in, they’d nail it – like we’d play ‘26-2-5’ – at first I was
always trying to catch up to it, and they were tolerating it.
RG: Sounds like my
struggles with that piece over the last few days!
KW: (Laughs) In a way, but I mean you just read it first
time, I didn’t do any better than you did. Actually I didn’t do as well as you
did, when I first played it – the thing that I wrote. And that happened with a
lot of pieces I wrote. And so they had to endure it while I gradually got on
top of it. And the more I got on top of
it the more it became a standard to play. You know, the bigger the gig was, the
less of that I did. I did that when the gig didn’t pay anything, or was a
toilet, or if it was a college. I’d say, let’s practice that tune again – or in
RG: And in the music
– because I have I think nearly all the recordings by that trio – ‘Introducing
the Trio’ is the first one and then ‘Press Enter’ which is the next - there’s a very clear identity with the
trio, particularly in the compositional approach and also with the approach to
the standards, that I think is particularly yours. And I still hear it in your
music now, and in all the trios that you’ve had – in your compositional
approach. Was this something – and I’m thinking particularly here of the
rhythmic complexity combined with this opulent harmonic and melodic approach…….
KW: Harmonically yeah……….
RG: Yeah, which you
often don’t get
RG: Because a lot of
the time when people bring in the complex rhythm, everything gets gnarly
immediately. And what really impressed me about
your trio was that both of these things were combined
KW: Well that was territory that I staked out for myself
consciously. One thing I like to do is that I see what’s been done – I’m very
contrarian – I see what’s done, and I start by doing the opposite. Like if I
were to make an organ record, it would not be anything to do with typical
organ, it would be a free record. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother. Once I know it’s
all been done, it doesn’t turn me on.
So I knew – and it was actually a source of misunderstanding
among critics, if you pay any regard to that stuff – because we played with a softness,
they didn’t see the newness of it at all. But the guys who were
traditionalists, they didn’t consider us traditional, so we were kind of
between a rock and a hard place.
But I staked out that territory – I’m gonna play with a
rhythmic edge where it doesn’t forsake harmony, AND it’s also played with a
relaxed naturalness that makes it feel like an alternate reality. I don’t have
to hear rhythmic complexity and immediately think of anger - or protest. And I
consciously grabbed that area.
RG: So that kind of
answers the question I was going to ask you – if there was any precursor to
KW: Well there were tunes that I wrote 10 years before that,
very few of which I played with the trio, but which I played with Abladu. One
of which was called ‘Katy’ - (sings melody) – I used to write tunes with
multiple time signatures, not because I wanted to be complex - actually I
thought this was because I was left-handed – I never was comfortable just
playing 8-bar phrases, and the phrases I would write were never just 8-bar
phrases. So I would write the melody and then superimpose the time signatures,
and I had a number of tunes like that. And ten years later, when I kept working
on that kind of thing, I had a refined way of playing that way, and a whole
different set of tunes.
RG: And I’ll ask you
a very specific question, is that piece called ‘In Tune’ from that period?
KW: Yes! That’s exactly it – it has different time
signatures so that the melody can flow the way it flows. It still feels natural
but it fits in places that were better expressed if you have a 2/4 bar here and
a 3/4 bar there.
RG: Because I should
tell you something about that tune – I teach rhythm in different schools as a
guest teacher, and at the end of a typical clinic I’ll play pieces for the
students that use complex rhythm as a compositional device. And in the middle
of a sea of gnarliness – I play them all kinds of things - I’ll play them ‘In Tune’, but I don’t give
them the score, and when the melody has played down, I’ll say ‘OK, let’s look
at the score’, and they’re always amazed at the music’s complexity, because …
KW: It sounds very normal
RG: It sounds like a
beautiful melodic piano trio tune with lovely harmonies
RG: And then I always
tell them to look at the date of composition – because it’s written in 1978!
KW: Oh my God, I guess so………
RG: I know the date,
because you gave me the lead sheet years ago when we first played together.
KW: Was it a hand-written sheet?
KW: It was also very nicely written, wasn’t it?
KW: That was my girlfriend Katy that I wrote the other tune
for, because she did calligraphy. I had her copy all my tunes!
RG: Wow, that was a
good move, because this was very beautifully written – I was very impressed
with your hand writing!
KW: Yeah, I know it sure as hell wasn’t me! (Laughs)
RG: But I always
thought this tune was an interesting example of this thing where you have
KW: Yes, and not only that, but that particular tune – and
also the tune ‘Katy’ – would remind you of an early Keith Jarrett tune in the
70s, I know that I was very influenced by that. And this tune ‘In Tune’, if you
really look at the harmonic side of it, I think you hear strains of Bill Evans,
and you hear strains of Keith Jarrett. Like – (sings first phrase of ‘In Tune’
melody), that could be Bill Evans, but – (sings second phrase) – I feel that
was a little more Keith Jarrett. I wasn’t doing that consciously, but these
were the sounds I liked. I didn’t know how to turn tunes around unless I had multiple time signatures.
The thing is, later on, a tune like……….. like….oh come on, don’t be like that
on your own own tune…….. this one – (sings staccato melody)
RG: Jackson Five?
KW: Jackson Five – thank you! And actually later on we
recorded it on “Live at the Blue Note’ with Ari and Johannes and it’s called ‘All Things Are You’, because
it actually was made, in my mind, off All The Things You Are’. And it’s tremendously
modulated, but there’s only one 5/4 bar in it, the whole thing is in 4/4. And
that’s what I learned to do later on – not needing the time signatures –
because this way when you blew on it, it was straight ahead.
RG: OK, we’ve talked
about the trio with Tom and Ratzo, and also the one with Ari and Johannes – so,
an obvious question; bass and drums – what do you look for?
KW: I look for, first, that they have to have some kind of
virtuosic control over the instrument. I don’t meant that they have to be able
to impress everybody, I mean they have to be able to play the instrument that well. So that’s there’s no barrier
to getting to the music, technically. Secondly they have to have a good groove,
underneath, whether we hear that groove or not, it has to be there somewhere.
I’ll add a third thing, they have to be able to play
complexity in time signatures or modulations or things like that because a lot
of my music has that in it. If I play with somebody, and even if they played it
right but they really struggled, that wouldn’t be the guy - that would be the
sub. You know? I mean when Ari played some of this music, it kind of freaked me
out - sometimes I didn’t think he was looking at the music! They sussed it out
so fast, I said ‘good!’ – I wanted guys for whom my thing, which some people
would call complex, would find unchallenging, you know? Because that gives it
an air of an alternate reality.
And lastly they have to have – at least one of the two,
maybe not both of the two because then it gets to be a crowded trio – but
either the bass player or the drummer is a volcano of ideas. They don’t
just play time, they’re always creating ideas, because I like to react to the
ideas – in the first trio, Ratzo’s ideas, because Tom was very giving. That
trio worked because of Tom, he would bridge between the two of us, and didn’t
feel the need to like you know….. Ratzo was just very original, everything he
played was original and brilliant and so I wanted to learn to react to that,
and Tom made it happen as a connector. In the next band it was Ari, and
Johannes was that kind of personality – very giving.
So the last thing is that one of the two guys really has a
lot of brilliant ideas, while playing the tune, and I react to those. And that
is the sound of that group, that’s how you get a group sound – or that’s how I get a group sound. I don’t want to
lead, I want to react.
Composing for Large Ensembles
RG: Then another side
of you that’s really come out in recent times, is the composition for large
groups and all that. The origins of that I guess would have been working with
KW: The Mel Lewis Orchestra. I had written a couple of big
band pieces at Berklee, and one of them was a re-arrangement of ‘A Child Is
Born’, and it was quite successful, but I never really thought about it. When -
and this is kind of a funny story - when I joined Mel, one time at an IAJE
conference, I’m sitting with Mel and Bob Brookmeyer, and Brookmeyer was no
longer part of the band, and of course Thad was no longer part of the band. And
Brookmeyer turns to me and says, ‘Yeah, in this next phase, Jim (McNeely) will
be the next Bob Brookmeyer, and you’ll be the next Thad jones’. Or something
like that – you’ll be Thad Jones in terms of temperament of the pieces. And I
thought to myself, well first of all nobody’s going to be the next Thad Jones!
But I guess he thought I had that kind of approach, and Jim had that approach
like Bob Brookmeyer’s. But it was a hell of a challenge, you know? (Laughs)
But I wrote ‘Compensation’, that was the first chart I wrote
for that band – I think I wrote three or four charts for them – because in
those days I used to handwrite them, and I was very slow – really, it seemed
like two years it took to write that chart. But it comes off, definitely, as
being influenced by Thad, as occasionally my charts will. If you listen to the
things on the albums with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra, the one called ‘Naked InThe Cosmos’, we do ‘Portrait of Jenny’ and there you can hear Thad Jones all
over the place.
So that got me writing, because the thing that really got me
writing was being offered gigs, because if you were in the Mel Lewis Orchestra,
and other orchestras wanted you to play, they……… I got a call from the WDR Band
to do a couple of things, and I got a call from the Danish Radio Jazz
Orchestra. Then I did a project where I wrote a whole bunch of stuff for Joe
(Lovano), some of which I subsequently did with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra,
and I’m sorry I didn’t think to call Joe to play on it! A number of those
pieces were specifically from that, and we did a whole bunch of Scandinavian
things – we did the UMO Orchestra, we did the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, we did
the Danish. And that was the first time I took a whole programme out there, you
know, and from that point on, I never just sat around and wrote, I kept getting
And the genesis of that was that I was in the Mel Lewis
Orchestra. I even got one project from the WDR Orchestra, writing something for
Simon Nabatov. And you know I didn’t really know how to write for that, and in
some ways it was a disaster, although people thought it was great. But in a
number of important ways it was a disaster, I didn’t know what I was doing – I
was supposed to write a 10 minute piece but the thing was like 50 minutes! I
couldn’t gauge that. I’d started using a computer, and when I started using
Finale, those pieces got longer! They really did…..
There’s a chart I wrote, I think it’s on the record, called
‘Bob Brookmeyer’ – it’s a Brookmeyer-ish kind of tune I arranged. It was a hand written chart, so I guess I
must have gotten into it at some point, and the first one was over a thousand
bars, with all these different events in it. And Earl Gardner, the lead trumpet
player said, ‘That’s the first time I ever played a chart with over a thousand
bars in it!’ And what he was telling me was that it was way too fucking long! So
I went back and did some editing of it, and it went down to five hundred and
sixty bars or something like that. And it was a nice chart, I mean I could see
that I could do this, but I had a lot more to learn.
Every time I wrote any more it was because I got a
commission. The latest record which is called ‘Institute of Higher Learning’,
that very tune was commissioned by MIT, there’s a suite called ‘Cantabile’ that
was commissioned by the University of North Carolina. Almost everything….
There’s a piece on the first record called ‘All That’, that was commissioned by
a Japanese band. I never just sat around writing music, and I’ll tell you, Mel
told me something once, he said ‘Thad never wrote a piece of music that he was
never paid for”, and I thought, ‘oh that’s cool’, and I have say, when it comes
to the big works, I haven’t either….
Stravinsky was allegedly asked……..
KW: Yes, didn’t I tell you that? Yeah, he was asked
‘Maestro, what is your motivation for a piece? ’, he said, ‘You pay me a
commission, I write you a piece’ (laughs)
RG: The one I heard
was that someone asked him, ‘what questions do you ask when someone wants you
to write a piece for them?’, and Stravinsky said. ‘how much, and how long?’
KW: Oh yeah , you told me that one, and the one I heard from
Oscar Castaneda was, ‘what is your inspiration for a piece? ’ - ‘You pay me a
commission, I write you a piece!’
RG: It shows a very
KW: I LOVE that man, well, we were talking about that
before, how some things that have become institutions start in the most meager
of ways, or offhanded ways.
RG: And when you’re
writing for an orchestra, or a jazz orchestra, let me ask you this….
KW: Well before you do, let me just say – the bridge to
orchestral writing, which is where I’m presently trying to go more, and where I
am not as expert as I would be with other things, came from working several times
with the Metropole Orchestra. They had me multiple times, and that was almost a
bridge, because it was a big band in the middle of it, and an orchestra. And it
got better every time – it sounded more orchestral-like. The first thing you’ve
got to do is learn to write more orchestral-like, and then you’ve written
something completely unimportant, but at least it sounds like an orchestral
piece! Now I’m trying to get to the point where I can assert my personality,
with some degree of professionalism in the orchestration. But that was the
Then I’ve had something this summer, something featuring my
trio – I did a four movement thing and an encore, featuring a trio with the
orchestra, and I tried something really different and I think it was a complete
failure. Partially because of the way they played it, but I can’t tell how much
was one or the other. I’m presently re-writing it now, I want to play it
somewhere else, just to feature my trio.
So I get opportunities here and there and that’s what I’m
most interested in trying. I’d like to get to the point where I’m as
comfortable with that as I am playing. As I told you, the real natural thing
for me would be to take my improvisations, which are orchestral – they’re not pianistic, not in my mind. If I’m
thinking I’m playing the piano, I don’t play well – I start playing forced
stuff. But if I’m feeling orchestral, or
even Soundtrack-y, I can do anything, whether I worked on it or not, you know?
But where I don’t have the chops, is to, as professionally as I played it,
orchestrate it. But someday that’s what I simply have to do. I have so many
solo piano things, I could write five hundred pieces right now, just
transcribing intros! (Laughs)
And that’s what I’ve got to do, I now write in a way where I
start with some notes, I play with them, so I get to the orchestration by
writing the piece. And that’s OK, but it doesn’t sound as much like my
personality as when I play, and I think that’s what I’d like to do next - really
know how to orchestrate my own improvisations.
RG: OK, that’s
interesting because that is kind of the question I was going to ask you. The question I was going to ask you was -
when you’re writing the piece, and you’ve kind of answered it in a way, do you
write the composition for the orchestra, or do you write the piece first and
then orchestrate it.
KW: Well I didn’t quite answer that question, actually. At
first I made the mistake that probably most people do, of trying to write for
orchestra. What happens is that you write a thematically weak piece of music,
because you’re writing sort of ………….
KW: Vertically, you
know? And then I slowly realized, and it’s something I heard Brookmeyer say
too, that just having one or two lines can take you through the whole piece.
Now I still haven’t totally done that, but I absolutely believe in it. And when
I’m sitting around thinking about it, I think ‘of course!’ – because you can
write to accompany this theme all the way, but you don’t have to have the theme
in there all the way. So some of the
other movements relate in some way.
Actually I do have some stuff like that, if you hear some of
my extended big band stuff, it’s like that. Like ‘Naked in The Cosmos’, the
actual piece, and ‘Sasumi’ – that actual piece. There are a lot of recurring
themes all the time and it just happened naturally, because I just keep
orchestrating the thing and it takes me into a different zone, and then I
remove the melody.
So, you know, the orchestra, I still have to do it
more. I have to really, from beginning
to end, just do that. I’m hearing it in other people’s music, but somehow when
I have the whole score in front of me I get distracted.
RG: Do you ever write
away from the piano?
KW: I always write away from the piano, but I never write
away from the computer, and I use a keyboard. My method of entry is a keyboard,
so I guess no, never – but it’s not in order to hear it, that’s how I enter the
notes. Which is a lot better for me then writing them. I’m left handed – I know
you’re left handed too….
RG: I sympathise
KW: But it just aches me to try to get the notes down on
paper, it really liberated me when I could use a computer
RG: Yeah, for me too,
I had exactly the same experience. Mind you, I’m a really terrible piano player,
so it was even better for me to discover the computer!
KW: Right, you could really hear it back at whatever tempo
you wanted it at.
RG: Exactly! And I
remember reading – I’m a complete Bartok freak – when I read that he wrote the
complete Concerto for Orchestra in six weeks in a barn, up at Lake Saranac….
KW: Without an instrument.
RG: Without an
KW: I gotta say one thing – I’m not surprised. And I should
try it, but I can’t because I enter the notes with a keyboard. This is why,
sometimes when I enter the notes with a keyboard and I don’t perpetually play
it back the way a lot of people do, that’s the best writing I do. And I’m not
sure why, but I know part of it is visual, I can see where things are
interacting. And I’m not so carefully not trying to calibrate the harmonies.
And I when I finally play it back I say, ‘wow, that’s really good’, and the
parts I think are inferior is when I play it back over and over again, and I
tweak it over and over again. So I’m not surprised – I think I could do that.
It wouldn’t be a piece…. The question is what quality of a piece would it be!?
(laughs) But I kind of understand it, let me put it that way.
RG: I once took some
composition lessons from the famous teacher in Boston, Charlie Banacos
KW: Oh yeah
RG: And I remember he
sent me, and showed me some systems which he said were really interesting. And
I wrote some stuff according to these systems, which I’d never done before, and
I did them on paper, without the instrument – I just wrote them, and I was
stunned at what came out. I applied the way I think about music to a series of
systems that he had, and then I listened to them. And it was extraordinary
because in a way I would have never written that music if I’d done it in my
normal way, because I’d removed myself from the way I normally work, so
therefore there was a certain editing process that would normally go on, but that
was now removed.
KW: But that’s also another thing for me – I got to hang out
with Donald Erb, I don’t know if you know his writing, a great American
composer, he was the composer in residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Because we were both teaching at Gunther Schuller’s Idaho Sandpoint Camp, which
was three weeks every summer. And I got to hang with him, which was great. My
thing is all editing, I just ‘save as, save as, save as’, and the thing just
morphs into something else. And then I might take something from towards the
beginning - sometimes the last thing I wrote becomes the first part of the
piece, you know? It’s very liberating, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking
about it. I might say ‘alright I’ll transpose that bar by a minor third – I’ll
make that a bar of 7/4, it changes the pace of it’ – you know?
And each one relates, but they’re not exactly sonata allegro
form….. But you do hear themes, like dolphins, re-emerging in a very natural
way with this way of writing. It was Brookmeyer who gave me this idea when he
talked about writing in cells. But then I went crazy with that idea, you know?
But I realized that what I was doing was not just because I had a computer –
composers have done this for years, except for the naturals like Thad Jones and
Mozart. I mean Thad Jones, without the score, would write the saxes and then
the trumpets, you know? Which to me is mind boggling.
did the same thing
KW: Well there were a few, but on the other hand Beethoven,
from what I understand, was a big editor. So Donald said, he played this
concerto he wrote which was 40 to 45 ferocious minutes, and he said, ‘to write
that piece I had to throw out a whole room full of paper’. So he was doing the
very same thing as me, but it makes more sense than ever to do it on computer,
because on paper, if you want to write a different version of it, you have to
write out the rest of it and then add that one change!! I said, ‘Oh my god, I
would never write another piece of music again if I had to do that!’ (Laughs)
But that’s how I get to good stuff. Eventually stuff gets
really rich and layered, just by constantly editing – save as/edit, save
as/edit…… And then you piece them together, which I also heard Stravinsky did –
you would probably be able to confirm this – I think it was in ‘Firebird’ –
Stravinsky just didn’t know how to fit it together, and he just put pieces on
RG: I hadn’t heard
KW: And the order he put on the floor became how he did it.
That’s exactly what I do, except it’s a lot neater on the screen
RG: I’m sure that’s
quite true, because there’s actually a lot of stuff that’s very mundane in terms
of the way people operate. I remember being told by someone who’d seen Coltrane’s
band several times in the 60s, and he said that one thing that always struck
him was how mundane everything seemed, until they actually got on the stage. In
other words they were just hanging, just hanging out and talking. One always
gets the impression that they were meditating before playing or something, but
they were just hanging out and then they would walk on the stage and just play.
KW: I mean to me that’s the Zen of jazz. I mean it’s like
what you were saying about George Coleman, there’s a Zen to it, because when
you get to play on a certain level, it just happens, you know? So yeah, you
could be doing ridiculous things or destructive things, a minute before you go
on stage, but then, on stage, you’re into the same zone. It’s a muscle memory.
The Current Scene
RG: OK, a final
question – the current scene. First of all, how much do you check it out, and
secondly, if you do check it out, what are your general thoughts about it?
KW: I don’t get to check it out much, but I get to hear it,
and I would say on a technical and rhythmic level, and even in terms of
classical exposition, the music has reached a place it’s never been before. And
there are undoubtedly some players that have taken the level of even just
playing the piano that I don’t recall hearing before. Of course Chick Corea and
Keith etc. are the greatest piano players, but I mean what they, (the current
generation), are doing just seems, on those levels, beyond anything that was
done. So I think the music has hit a new level.
I don’t really have any criticisms of it, because sometimes
it’s amazingly mature too. Like how long they wait before they let that solo
go, and stay within these motifs and stuff. I know with the Cuban guys there’s
that school, it’s almost like Russia, they’re required to be great classical
players and also jazz players, and of course Afro-Cuban music, which gives them
a fantastic sense of rhythm.
And there are so many of them! On every instrument! I feel like a master race has been
reincarnated. I’ve been feeling like that for about ten years now. I just think
the music, whether it’s because of education, or genes, or second or third
generation players, the music has generally hit a level like nothing we’ve ever
seen. Because, in the past, even if there were a few players that played on
that level, most didn’t. Now that doesn’t denigrate what they did, in fact what
they did might still be more meaningful than what these guys are doing. But it
is just a fact, whether you want to talk about touch, motivic development,
rhythm, chops - for piano players – left hand – that used to be a rarity. There
was Phineas Newborn and that was it! (laughs)
It’s a new level. And what I like about that when I hear it,
which is usually live, is that it immediately gets me practicing with a greater
sense of purpose. When I’m finally relegated to the place of ‘old school guy’,
which I might be already. But the nice thing is that the young guys seek me
out, they want to play with me, so somehow I’m in that milieu. But, I like new,
so I’m hanging in there as long as possible – I get the sense of a race, like
I’ve tripped and fallen but they keep going (Laughs). I’m never going to do all
the things some of these guys are doing, but it forces to me get back to
working on things.
That’s what I enjoy, like being able to do some complexity
stuff simply, that I couldn’t do before – that makes me feel young. I could be
twenty or I could be sixty, because when you hit that place where you’re finally
playing nine freely, or whatever it is you’re doing, or a two-handed thing or
whatever - you’ve got that sensation of
feeling like you’re not wasting your life, you know? (Laughs) And a lot of my
favourite musicians, they don’t talk about their performances, at all. It’s never about their concerts
or about what they’re doing, it’s always about what they’re working on, you
know? And I think that’s what’s going to keep me interested – especially my
life, I have to find things to keep myself interested.
There are two things keeping me interested – to see if I can
continue to grow as a pianist, and to see if I can become a really bona-fide
and, as I am with everything else, my own voice type of orchestral writer. And
I have to add a third – if the fates ever allow it, and the right guy reads
this blog – to score movies, which I am ready to do!
And so, those are the things I can still hope for.
RG: Thanks very much
KW: Yeah Ronan, thank you.
Here's Kenny's current trio in action, playing a typically playful and lyrical version of 'If I should Lose You'
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 Bona, Matt 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.
In recent years there's been an extraordinary explosion in bass guitar technique. Players such as Hadrien Feraud, Federico 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!
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, a 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!