Friday, December 19, 2008


I was reading over my last post during the first snow of the season in my beautiful house in Glen Ridge, sitting in the warmth of the colors of the rugs and furniture that my ex-wife left me with, surrounded by the paintings of my first wife that have lived with me for almost 50 years, in the room where I spend my life, practicing with the computer on in front of me. Combining the various facets of my soul through the efficiency of the computer and the allure of many forbidden things. It was a few hours before Shabbis (the Jewish Sabbath), when I shut down for 25 hours of no practicing or computer (although I do take gigs) and I saw what I had written, that my career sucked. That is blasphemy and an affront to the gifts that I have received and the opportunity to live my dream. I am truly blessed. One of the reasons I am writing this blog is to exhibit the blessing that has been given me. The ability to play the best music I can, with the best musicians I could ever hope for, with the financial and emotional freedom to piss away every penny I have available to me so that my music will exist in this realm for a while and Baruch Hashem, that it should enter into the realm beyond, where all things of human value exist eternally.

Well the Sabbath is over and I'm ready to settle down and confront over 50 research proposals from my methods of research course and 10 papers from my doctoral students. I want to get my grading done before I leave to visit my daughter Rebecca in Portland ME. Rebecca loves Christmas and spending it with her is one of my all time treats. After a rocky childhood and adolescence, Rebecca has turned out to be my best friend. My son Jack and her turn out to be the best thing I ever did. Proud parenthood aside, my music is the core of my essence. For better or for worse it is what I have to offer the world that speaks directly from my innerness. I'm a decent teacher, a reasonably successful academic, and despite lack of longevity due to always picking beautiful women much younger than myself, I've had a decent romantic life. But it is music that I pin my hopes on. If I make good music my life is a success. Trying to make good music has given my life meaning. But the frustration of it all!

Con Alma's success gave me a few more gigs. There are a number of local jazz clubs that I play in with some regularity, Trumpet's in Montclair and Cecil's in West Orange. The picture at the top is from a photo shoot at Cecil's that I did for the album I recorded after Con Alma, Straight No Chaser. Cecil's has a regular jam session run by alto saxophonist Bruce Williams who, although close to 40 years younger than I am, has been a real influence on my playing. Bruce is one of the young saxophone giants who has mastered bebop and yet plays with complete freedom and abandon. He bridges between carefully constructed harmonic elaborations and totally free constructions, moves effortlessly from blues to complex harmonic extensions and has total mastery of the instrument. I heard him play years ago and he struck me immediately as model of where I wanted to take the flute. But it has not been easy. The jam session at Cecil's is an organ jam and the volume is horrific and the sound system is marginal (at least during the jam session). Plus because Bruce is so well respected every young sax player in the area goes there to show what they have learned. And with William Patterson, Rutgers as well as the NY jazz programs training countless young musicians they have learned plenty. I get respect from the young sax players since many of them are struggling to double on flute and so can appreciate what I have accomplished, but the raw acoustical challenge of playing without really hearing myself makes jam sessions a 'pressure,' rather than a 'pleasure.' Still, playing at Cecil's (and the more supportive environment at the Trumpet's monthly jam session) is something I force myself to do, since my ideal of a jazz musician is not limited to playing Latin jazz flute. The standard against which I measure myself is the jazz saxophone and the music that I aspire to play is based on straight-ahead jazz, rather than charanga or choro or other Latin forms.

Con Alma was a success, but the question was where to go from there. I walked into Cecil's late one night and atypically, the stage was being dominated by a guitar player rather than one of the many young saxophonists sitting at the bar. And the guitar player was playing his ass off. I asked a young drummer I knew who the guitarist was and he said, 'Dave Stryker.' I had run into Dave a few times at Trumpets years before but we had not really connected. I had been playing with Vic Juris and Ed Cherry and recording with Romero Lubambo and Jean Paul Bourelly, so another guitarist was not on my radar screen, but Dave was something really special. He had a lovely sound, great swing and a relaxed mastery that shown through everything he did. After the set was over I did my thing. I went up to him, gave him a copy of Con Alma and exchanged contact information. He vaguely remembered me, but was non-committal. A few days later he contacted me by email. He loved the record and was definitely interested in doing a project. I made him my now standard offer of c0-producing and asked him to pick musicians and work with me on repertoire. I was going to make a statement about my playing. After a Latin jazz hit record and winning Best Latin Jazz Flautist of 2007 on the Latin Jazz Corner I was going to make a straight-ahead album.

Dave picked the perfect rhythm section for the date, Victor Lewis on drums and Ed Howard on bass. Both of these guys are modern main-stream players with great swing and taste. Since it was a straight jazz album I decided it would feature original compositions, a long standing tradition among jazz soloists. I wrote three new tunes for the date. A blistering up-tempo 'Loverin'' based on the changes for the 'Lover' but with an altered bridge using 'Giant Steps' substitutions, a medium tempo tune 'Sleeping Beauty' with a waltz section in the style of 'My Favorite Things' and a minor blues I called 'Blues for Janice,' dedicated to a wonderful singer whose album I had produced the year before. I was inviting comparison with jazz saxophonists, 'Blues for Janice' was as close to a Coltrane blues in the style of his 'Blues for Bessie' as I could make it, although I did manage to find a fundamental blues phrase that Coltrane had overlooked. In case anybody missed what I was doing I added Sonny Rollins' signature tune 'Airegin' and Wayne Shorter's classic ballad 'Miyako.' I wanted to be judged by saxophone standards and I was signaling to anyone who could see the semiotics of the tunes that I wanted to be compared with the very best. Dave contributed two wonderful original compositions that he played on acoustic guitar, bringing me back to the modal playing of my days playing with guitar players in Central Park. We added two standards 'Invitation,' and 'Violets for Your Furs,' both associated with Coltrane and rounded everything out with Monk's classic blues line 'Straight, No Chaser,' which I played on bass flute. That was the album. Bass flute is not my favorite instrument and I only played 4 solo choruses, Dave took 6, ending with two choruses of pure funk. Not to be undone on my own album, I over-dubbed his last 2 choruses with a New Orleans ensemble of bass and alto flutes. It was a blast!

I had my straight-ahead album. Jazzheads was so pleased with the result that they released it next. I had also recorded Lua e Sol during the same period, which is the subject of a later blog, but Jazzheads realized that I had a statement to make that another Latin jazz album could not express. I was a jazz flutist and after achieving considerable support as a Latin jazz flutist I had to set the record straight. I love Cuban and Brazilian music, and the music is a natural vehicle for the flute. But I am a jazzer first and foremost and Straight No Chaser makes that perfectly clear.

Naturally there was a penalty to pay. Much of the momentum that I had achieved with Con Alma was lost, at least temporarily. Straight No Chaser was not suited for the world music radio stations that had made Con Alma a hit. And although Con Alma had crossed over to the jazz charts, without the foundation in Latin jazz radio Straight No Chaser moved me back to where I was with O Nosso Amor, a few weeks on the charts, but no real impact. Except for the reviews. Many of the jazz writers got the message and the reviews for Straight No Chaser started to present me as a jazz musician that needs to be taken seriously. Now if I can only get some festival gigs! 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

a hit record

If you click on the picture on top to make it full-size you will see my record, Con Alma, #1, on the charts for 22 weeks. I stayed on the charts for another month, crossing over to the jazz chart where it hit #2. I had a little help from National Public Radio. After my asking him for years, Felix Contreras, gave me a shot on the Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. You can hear the interview online click here. NPR is syndicated nationwide so that week I got an enormous number of plays and went right to the top of the ranking.

My 'hit,' Con Alma, was recorded about year after O Nosso Amor, so the blog is back in chronological order (the Berlin date with Omar Sosa that I discussed in my second blog entry was recorded in between O Nosso Amor and Algo Más and should be released in 2009). O Nosso Amor got much better radio play than Algo Más, which was my old formula of Cuban folkloric music and innovative jazz. The innovations, Jean Paul Bourelly's guitar and that multi-tracked flutes really impressed some musicians and a number of reviewers, but few DJ's played it with any regularity. It got about as much airplay as Cuban Roots Revisited. The 'heavy' DJ's played it, but it never got the continuing play that is needed to make the charts. A Nosso Amor made it to the charts and hung on for number of weeks in the 30's (Jazzweeks charts the 50 jazz and world albums that get the most airplay for any given week). As important WBGO, the major New York area jazz station, picked it up and played it about 50 times, a major coup in terms of local exposure. Jazzheads was very happy with both records, Randy Klein, the president of the company has been amazingly supportive, based on his appreciation of the music. He had real confidence in me. I needed to do something to capitalize on having a record company behind me. I had to think of something that would build my growing presence on the scene. I had tried Afro-Cuban music, Jewish music, Brazilian music and straight-ahead. What I had never recorded was what had become the most frequent approach to Latin jazz, what I often referred to, snob that I am, as 'bebop with a cha cha beat.' Mongo and Cal Tjader, had started it off (although Bird and Machito got there first) and Tito Puente, Andy and Jerry Gonzalez and Paquito de Rivera had turned it into the new standard for the genre. 

Mark Levine, the legendary pianist and jazz educator who is the piano player on Con Alma, goes all the way back in my history. He came to New York in the mid-60's playing valve trombone. Since I was a trombone player on the scene and about the same age we got together a few times. Most memorable was that he gave me the correct changes to Stella by Starlight, a tune that was just coming to the attention of young jazz musicians and that had a few key harmonic moments that characterized the harmonic direction towards which the boundary of jazz was pushing. I remember sitting at the piano in amazement. The chords sounded so good, but they made no sense in terms of my understanding of 2-5 progressions. Instead of Cmin7, F7 to prepare Bbmaj, the tune  uses Eb7, Ab7. It made no sense to me, although it now makes common sense to any jazz musicians (since the chords are an extension up the higher partial of the underlying diminished chord). He also had the hots for my wife at the time, something else I couldn't get me head around. 

I hadn't been in touch with Mark for years, but I had been playing with him without his knowing it. Mark is a frequent pianist on Jamey Aebersold play along records, and he plays on many of my favorite ones to practice with. I had made a connect with Mark when I was in San Francisco at an American Philosophical Association meeting. My son (who is also a philosopher) and I had a pleasant dinner with him, talking about old times and etc. Mark has had a wonderful career, playing with all of the giants of Latin jazz including Cal Tjader, Poncho Sanchez, Moacir Santos and Mongo Santamaria. He was a brilliant harmonist, writing influential books on jazz harmony and, probably because he started piano as a second instrument, plays with great delicacy and taste. Plus, he had won a Grammy nomination for his own recording, Isla, with his quartet the Latin Tinge. I listened to his record, and sure enough, it was classic bebop with a cha cha beat. Mark Levine was just the person to call if I wanted to move into the mainstream of Latin jazz. I put in a call to Mark in Oakland where he was living and asked him to come to New York and co-produce a record with me.

But the very centrality of Mark's conception created a problem, for I was known as an 'edgy' player. Algo Más was as radical in its innovation as had been Cuban Roots Revisited and Cuban Roots before it. I had always relied on drummers to give my records their characteristic edge, and so I turned to Pedrito Martinez to give this new project an innovative spin. He was the key to the mix of musicians that made Con Alma a hit.  Pedrito had lead the drummers on Algo Más and did the singing and his reputation as a conga drummer is as good as it gets (he had, after all, won the Thelonious Monk award on hand drums). He was playing a gig at the Blue Note with trombonist Conrad Herwig. I went down and caught a set. I had met Conrad who knew of my trombone playing and he graciously announced my presence as one of the most important sources of his own conception. It was especially gratifying since another old friend, Ronnie Cuber, who I hadn't seen in decades was playing baritone sax in the band. Pedrito sounded amazing. I had never heard a conga drummer playing with a trap drummer that swung more or took more risks with the time and he had amazing technique. During the break I asked Pedrito to do a record with me and to get a trap drummer of his choice. Mark Levine meanwhile, was taking the co-producing role very seriously, sending me great recordings with tunes that he thought would be perfect for a flute quintet. But I needed a bridge between the extreme drumming I knew I would get from Pedrito and Mark's centrist concept. Santi Debriano had played magnificently on Algo Más and had recorded two extended tunes out of the 6 that constituted Jazz World Trios along with drummer Cindy Blackman, and Santi could swing. So there it was-- a centrist jazz piano player, a jazz bass player of exceptional breadth and ability and drummers at the cutting edge of Cuban music. It was a recipe for disaster unless it jelled perfectly. But there was reason for it to jell. All of the musicians had enormous respect for the music and the highest integrity as individual musicians. And they all played their asses off.

It was a complicated date to organize. Mark was in Oakland, Santi had a full-time college teaching gig in Massachusetts and Pedrito was working all of the time. I had no idea who Pedrito would bring to play drums, but, as always, I relied on the musicians I respected to make the decision that would enable them to play their best. I had worked through Mark's suggestions for material and had made some of my own. Santi asked if he could include an original. I decided that each of us, Mark, Santi and myself would contribute one original and then I would pick jazz classics as well as some less familiar tunes. Mark had suggested a great funk tune by Mulgrew Miller, 'Sol-Leo' and a Bobby Hutcherson tune, 'Gotcha,' that was perfect for bass flute. He also suggested a tune, 'Monte Adentro,' by the great Cuban flutist Maraca, that I played on alto flute giving it a very different treatment than Maraca had. Santi's tune had basic harmonies but an interesting overlay of two ways of playing 6/8 (the vamp with a 1,2,3; 4,5,6  and the melody in 3/4 time over the 6/8, 1,2; 3,4; 5,6) a concept often found in Peruvian music. The tune, 'Afrokaleidescope,' lived up to its name, time-shifting as the listener could move from one perspective on the 6/8 to another. As a contrast, I included my original 'Broadway Local,' which I had recorded years before on Three Deuces with Vic Juris. It was as harmonically complex as Santi's tune was rhythmically. It is based on the chords to Coltrane's signature composition 'Giant Steps,' but rather than return back to B major at the top of the chorus, I transpose the changes into G major and then Eb major, replicating the internal structure in a 3 chorus sequence. Despite the apparent complexity, it is quite natural to play and the guys played it down without a hitch. Years ago, Jerry Gonzalez had recorded Monk's 'Evidence' as a Latin jazz tune. I decided to do it against a fast double-time drum rhythm and then double-time my solo as Coltrane did in the recently rediscovered Town Hall recording with Thelonous Monk. I added three classic jazz composition, Dizzy's 'Con Alma,' Coltrane's 'Crescent' and Wayne Shorter's funky Fee 'Fi Fo Dum.' I had the material, now to organize the date.

Mark could come in for 3 days, one to rehearse and two to record. I set it up with Pedrito and Santi and booked the studio for Friday and Saturday since I was teaching Monday and Wednesday. The Tuesday before the date Pedrito called my all flustered and told me he had a problem with the date. He could record Friday but not Saturday, but he was available on Sunday. Mark was flying back to Oakland Sunday morning. Then Santi called. He had a teaching conflict on Thursday and could not get down until late Thursday night. I had no options, there was no point in calling a late rehearsal and then recording the next day; it would be better to do the date cold. Mark, Santi and myself would look through the material on Thursday, we would record the quintet on Friday, record without Pedrito on Saturday and Pedrito would overdub the congas on Sunday. This was not a promising scenario for a record date. When Santi showed up he was exhausted. The three of us went out to dinner and forgot about looking at the material and crashed in my house. We had to be in the studio at noon.

When Mark, Santi and myself arrived at the studio Friday Pedrito was already there and introduced me to the drummer, a boyhood friend of his in Cuba, who had recently come to the states, Mauricio Herrerra. Pedrito and Mauricio played together all of the time, but this was their first commercial recording together. They were very excited. While the mikes were being set up we talked about the music. Santi played the vamp for his tune, with the melody laid contrary to the pattern. Pedrito immediately laid down the drums in a further contrast playing the 6/8 double time under the two patterns. It was amazing! And it swung! The tune went like clock-work, solos by all. The date continued with the same pattern. Mark or Santi would establish a pattern; the drummers would come up with some amazing contrasting rhythm. After Santi had sight-read 'Broadway Local' perfectly, Mark came over to me and said, "That is the best bass player I ever played with.' After we played 'Evidence' and the drummers came up with some amazing shit, Santi came over to me and said, 'Man, those are great drummers.' It was jelling all right. It was killing!

We had booked the studio for 8 hours. We were into the 6th hour of the session and had recorded 5 tunes, each one unique and played superbly. I was getting tired and the nagging migraine that had accompanied my last recording was back (it turned out to be serious glaucoma). I was in my booth and Pedro came to my door. He was on fire! 'Please' he asked me, 'can't we finish the date tonight? We can never get the same swing with me overdubbing the drums on Sunday.' I asked Phil, my engineer, if he would stay with us. He agreed. I took two Advils. We ordered dinner. We continue to work while we waited for the food to be delivered. We had been in the studio for almost twelve hours and had completed 10 tunes. No one wanted to leave, but we were out of material. Mark said 'let's play Stella,' the tune whose changes he had taught me 4o years before. Mark showed Santi some interesting chromatic additions to the end of the chorus and some figures that gave the performance a tightly arranged feel. We played it top to bottom, solos all around, with the drummers sounding as fresh as they did on the first tune. The recording was done. Mark and I took Sunday off and visited with Lois Gilbert, the web-mistress of Jazz Corner and a old friend of both of ours and had a great Indian dinner.

Con Alma exceeded all of my expectations. Randy Klein of Jazzheads loved it, it got great reviews and took off on on radio, staying on the charts and hitting the top. I got my NPR interview and I had achieved a milestone in my career. Instead of playing radical alternative Afro-Cuban jazz I had a record of Latin jazz that was right in the pocket. People could relate to it and understand what I was doing. Instead of playing music on the margins, I was addressing the center of Latin jazz and doing it with respect for the genre, referencing the great contributors to the music, while adding a mix of elements that was characteristically my own. If this was the 60's I would be on my way. But it was 2008 and no one was making room at the top for Mark Weinstein. The record was a hit, but very little changed in my ability to get work, particularly at festivals, where my reputation would have to be made. I was succeeding musically but my career still sucked.  

Friday, December 5, 2008

vote for me

My latest album on Jazzheads, Lua e Sol has been nominated for the Best Brazilian Jazz album of 2008. I have been nominated as Best Latin Jazz Flutist . I would appreciate your vote. Check out the music at myspace and vote here.

You can also vote for my record lable, Jazzheads and the guitarist on the record, Romero Lubambo.

Thanks for your support,


Friday, November 21, 2008

the flute and I

It was the summer of 1961, I had been married for a year and was on full-scholarship playing bass trombone at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA when I fell in love with the sound of the flute. My reputation as a young trombonist was good enough so that Davis Shuman-- the classical trombone virtuoso and inventor of the slide at an angle, so that the right arm movement was more natural (one of those brilliant ideas that have everything going for it except success)-- asked me to audition for the resident summer orchestra. When he heard me play he offered my a free-ride for the summer on the condition I learn to play bass trombone. I accepted and my wife Joyce and I were off by bus for all parts West. Taking a bus cross-country is quite an experience, sweaty, dirty, very smelly and we had a fight every day for the four days it took at precisely 3PM, as the boredom and fatigue stressed our, even then, rocky marriage.

Santa Barbara was lovely, we rented a one-room studio off campus (since there were no 'couples accommodations' at the music academy. And I began a summer of practicing, playing and lusting after every good looking female musician in the orchestra. One of major objects of my lust was a bassoon player, who as the saying went, 'would never drown.' I had a thing for bassoon players. My sister June, who I adored, was one. And I sat right behind a gorgeous bassoon player in the All City High School Orchestra. Bassoon players keep their bassoons upright by sitting on a long strap that goes from a clip on the bottom of the bassoon. I spent my time in the All City High School Orchestra envying the strap.

Anyway the bassoon player was married to a flute player, Stanley Weinstein, who was a hairier version of me, big and beefy. The first time I heard Stanley play up close I fell in love. Stanley had a classic Julius Baker flute sound, the sound that came to dominate orchestral flute playing, as Julius Baker, principle flutist with the New York Philharmonic for decades, and his students defined the hard-centered, glistening flute sound that is still the standard for orchestral flutists world-wide. When I heard Stanley I understood why people played flute. Oh, to be able to make such a beautiful sound, not to mention double the violins on the greatest melodies ever written by the world's greatest composers.

The trouble was that when I began to play the flute about 12 years later I had made a promise. I promised myself that instead of being critical I would search for the beauty in my flute playing. At that point I interpreted that as being accepting of whatever sound came out of the flute. Recall, I was self-taught, didn't even know the right fingerings, and was only interested in improvising. My ritual was to take the flute out. Make a sound, and no matter what came out, follow a musical thread, playing completely freely and spinning streams of sound, melodies that grow organically under my hands. No long tones, no scales, no exercises, just musical freedom. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. Plus the only embouchure that I knew was a trombone embouchure, so I played with loose lips and a slight frown. Ask any flute teacher, it was a recipe for tone-disaster. But I wasn't worried about tone, I was worried about spinning out melodies, about exploiting my natural fluency and the flute's endless technical potential. Ask any flute teacher, a recipe for tone disaster.

I was teaching at Mannes College of Music (western civilization) at 8AM. A student of mine told me that if I turned the head all of the way out, I could play faster. I could always play fast. After pushing a trombone slide around, fast was where I was going. I saw the great jazz reed player, Eddie Daniels, walking down the subway stairs. Eddie and I had come up together in Brooklyn and we hadn't seen each other in years. After 'hello's' etc. told him that I was playing flute and asked him to give me a lesson. I had an old Armstrong student model, all black from playing it outdoors. As soon as I put the flute together, Eddie reached out and took it from me and centered the head joint. He said, 'that's were most people put it.' He played a chord on the piano and I played as fast as I could. He stopped. I said, 'don't I have a lot of technique?' He said, 'that's not technique, that's nervousness. He suggested I study with Harvey Estrin, a taskmaster, and a master of all of the woodwinds. The 'go to' guy for sax players who wanted to develop flute chops. Harvey gave me the basics, a warm-up, long tone octaves and three octave scales. I studied with him for about a year until the fateful day when he questioned the 'aesthetics' of my first recorded efforts (the story is in 'back to the beginning').

I didn't study again for years, just tried to play Harvey's routine every day and, by that time, playing hours of Jamey Aebersold records every day, playing free in the park and working trio gigs with young jazz musicians. I was playing an open-hole b-foot Armstrong by this time and another old friend Bobby Porcelli told me about a Miyazawa flute for about $1,500. I ended up taking lessons with the guy who sold it to me and I used to tell folks that 'he sold me a lousy flute and ruined my chops.' And so of course he remains nameless. He was used to flute players with tight smiles and told his students to relax their embouchures. Since I was his student he told me the same. It was a disaster. I couldn't play low notes for years. I was just blowing with no control from my upper-lip and a flabby platform from my lower lip. But the high register worked and I still could play fast. My tone was going nowhere. David Valentin, the great salsa flutist heard my first record and said 'I can help you out.' He showed me that I had muscles in my mouth and how to use them. The sound got better, but without even a glimmer of the characteristic classical sound that David, like Hubert Laws, had made 'the gold standard' of jazz flute playing.

When I received tenure my wife and I moved out to Glen Ridge, 4 miles from the University. Peggy Schecter was the flute teacher. I asked her for lessons. I played a single note for months. She called it 'brain exercises.' I was learning to feel how a sound is produced and concentrate and making it better. She showed me how to use my upper lip to control the air. I never did get the sound she was looking for. She claimed I was the only student she ever had who couldn't get the Julius Baker shine in their sound. You know, the sound that I talked about at the beginning of blog, the sound that made me want to play flute! She had me get rid of my Miyazawa and buy the first decent flute I over owned a Sankyo Silversonic for about $3,000. I was no Stanley Weinstein, but my sound was centered and fat, and it had expressive qualities, or so reviewers began to notice.

Around the time Peggy and I gave up on each other, I was at the New York Flute Club annual flute fair and I was looking at a pile of flute books. I saw De La Sonoritie (the picture at the top of the blog). I looked inside at the price; it was a fortune. And there was nothing in it. I had seen books like that, generally printed in three languages, with repetitious exercises, laboriously reprinted in 12 keys, something that a jazz musician would explain to another musician in 25 words or less. But I knew these were magic books, books that although seemingly sparse in quantity, were miraculous in quality. I bought it. I spend hours every day playing about 8 pages of that book. Long tones, low crescendos and increasing intervals. Every flute player plays the Moyse, it is the secret to getting a flute sound; that's what the title means, 'About Sound.' A routine like that, once discovered, is a priceless gift, sort of like the lotus-position. It is a doing that supports all other doings.

I had gone to Robert Dick, the master of extended flute techniques, in hopes that he could help me understand my idiosyncratic sound. He gave me some tips, but the person who helped my sound the most was Laura George. She told me to play the Moyse with a tuner in front of me. Laura lives in Montclair and she had been calling me to volunteer at the New York Flute Club fair. I was stationed outside the door of the exhibit room. I always liked the alto flute and had gone through an old Armstrong with problems and was playing another, an Altus, that was a better flute, but still hard to play in tune. And there I was with my credit cards in a room full of flutes. The first year I bought a Sankyo alto flute, which I love and the third year I bought a great Yamaha bass flute. But it was the second year that I bought my sweetheart, a Powell, Arumite (a tube of gold, wrapped around a tube of silver) one hell of a jazz flute. $25,000 worth flutes in 3 years. My poor second wife Lesley would be having kittens. And I was on my way to being able to play the flute at last

A charanga flute player hipped me to harmonics, and a young girl once gave me a tonguing exercise in the first octave. That was always the hardest thing for me to do and every beginning flute player starts by learning how to do it. But since I was never a beginning flute player, I have to practice tonguing in the first octave every day, since I didn't grow my muscles. Flute players often start at 8 years old, so the muscles grow in response to practicing. Not when you start at 34 they don't. And, of course, as a jazz musician I always play scales, one and two octaves with various articulations, as well as arpeggios, in all keys. For a finale, Harvey Estrin's three octave scales in all keys (you can play any scale beginning on one of two notes, so I play from top to bottom). That's my life, three hours a day, every day. I guess I'll never get married again.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am taking my life into my hands and submitting CD's to the National Flute Association competitions for this year. They do the jazz just like classical compositions. They ask for a specific repertoire, in the case of jazz, rhythm changes a ballad and a bossa nova. I'm going to confront the flute establishment.

If you only know me through recordings, you might be surprised by how rarely I get to perform. As saxophonist, Dave Leibman (also an old friend) just said to me in a recent email when I complained about how hard it is to perform, 'it is harder than ever.' And without performances there are no performance videos, and without performance videos there is no presence on youtube, increasingly a must for musicians. The only performance videos I had were a poorly recorded 3 minute of a local gig in New Jersey and a video of a concert I played with guitarist Paul Meyers in 1999. I put them up on youtube but they don't represent my playing. Making the competition CD gave me a unique opportunity. I didn't want to spend a fortune on the CD for the competition, or submit a poorly recorded one. So I split the difference and recorded just a duo in my engineer Phil's recording studio. Paul has been working gigs with me (Trio Jazz Brasil is the name we use) and he is a very responsive accompanist. I found a student through the universities media department and had him video the recording session. So far he has finished video editing two of them (he used 2 cameras). They are now up on youtube. Click on the names of the tunes and check out the videos. Body and Soul and No More Blues (Chega de Saudade) . Let's see if the flute players will accept me and then the real test. If I succeed in the CD round of the competition, I get to perform live in front of classical flutists at the annual convention of the National Flute Association in New York in 2009. Wish me luck!

Monday, November 17, 2008

free stuff

There is a website, Tribe of Noise that lets musicians upload material they control as free downloads. The requirements are that the musician own both the rights to the songs and the rights to the recording, and they will only take songs less then 10mb. I have uploaded four songs, two from my first album Seasoning (1997) and my third album Three Deuces (2001). I discuss both albums in earlier blogs, 'now or never' and 'losing control.' Included in the down loads are two different original blues compositions, 'Last Minute Blues' with guitarist Ed Cherry and 'Walk On Out'  with Vic Juris on guitar, Chris White on bass and Cecil Brooks III playing drums and two original tunes, 'Fall Guy,' with Bryan Carrot on marimba, Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil on drums and 'Dawn's Early Light' my anti-war song (don't ask me why I think it is an anti-war song, it just is) with Ed Cherry on guitar. 'Fall Guy' is a 48 bar extended version of the 32 bar tune 'Autumn Leaves.' I take the harmonic principle of each of the sections of the tune and develop them one harmonic extension further. I recorded 'Fall Guy' again as a duet with Vic Juris on Three Dueces and rerecorded 'Dawns Early Light' on the album I recorded for Jazzheads Spring of 2008 with Kenny Barron. That album will probably not be released for another year, since Jazzheads will probably first put out the Cuban album that I recorded during the same period and discuss in the last blog.

 I think my old stuff holds up pretty well, and I am pleased with my playing the blues. I wish I could upload another of my blues compositions 'LKC Blues' on Jazz World Trio, but is it 13 minutes long and is 16mb so they won't let me upload it. The first 81/2 minutes were used on a soundtrack for a memorial to my friend Arnie Lawrence, the alto player on the original Cuban Roots. You can get the 4 tune download from tribe of noise can get to the video from youtube here. I also recorded an original minor blues on Straight No Chaser, called 'Blues for Janice,' but I don't own the right to the Jazzheads CD's so I can't give it away as a free download.

Playing the blues is more than a basic requirement for a jazz musician, it is the ultimate test. As I listen to my various recordings of blues across ten years I am struck with the consistency of my approach to the material. I play very freely on blues and yet play with an unashamed classicism, playing deep blues phrases and searching for the primordial. Or as my kids used to say, 'whatever.' Anyway feel free to download the free stuff, and if you would like to hear 'Blues for Janice,' it and all of the other tunes from my albums for Jazzheads are all over the web for about 99 cents. All of my early albums, including Jazz World Trios (with the exception of the original Cuban Roots and Cuban Roots Revisited, which I do not own)  are on (search for 'mark weinstein') with short samples and downloads and albums to buy. I have uploads you can listen to from my Jazzheads albums on (search 'mark weinstein') and of course on myspace.

Listen to the music, download it for free if you can and pass it around if you want to. Also, don't be afraid to make comments about the music or about anything in the blog that strikes your fancy 


Saturday, November 8, 2008

breaking the pattern

With the exception of the second blog, which jumped ahead to 2004 with the date in Berlin, which by the way is coming out this winter, I have been going chronologically and am up to my 'hit' album Con Alma, 26 weeks on the charts and thanks to an NPR interview with Scott Simon number one on the Jazzweek world chart and number two on the jazz chart for a few weeks after the interview aired on NPR stations nationwide. But I've been listening to one of two and a half albums I recorded last Spring and it is so phenomenal that I have to break the pattern and talk about it.

The picture is of Pedrito Martinez, winner of the Thelonious Monk prize on hand drums, the singer and leader of the drums on Algo Más and the congero on Con Alma, for which he won best Latin Jazz Percussionist on 2007 on the Latin Jazz Corner poll (I won best Latin Jazz Flutist in the same poll). Pedrito is on the ascendent, he plays with everybody and the depth of his knowledge of the tradition is as profound as any drummers, he is lightening fast and has the must advanced rhythmic conception of any drummer I have ever heard. Pedrito surrounds himself with the very best musicians playing on the edge of Latin jazz and his choice of his compadre Mauricio Hererra as the drummer for Con Alma gave me a demonstration of what the young Cuban cats were up to. But that is the Con Alma story, which has another hook that I will get to in another blog.

Marty Cohen is the founder of Latin Percussion (LP), and the greatest friend to the community of hand drummers in NY. He respects them, is respected by them and has given them countless opportunities to perform and document their music. Of course, he made a nice living doing it, and an LP conga drum is in the musical instrument exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, along with the most beautiful and rare instruments in all of human history. No small accomplishment for a Jewish engineer in New Jersey who made a cow bell on a small lathe in his garage for Johnny Pacheco in 1961. Cowbells were as scarce as hen's teeth in NY in the 50's and Pacheco, who had gone to Automotive Trades High School in the Bronx (with Barry Rogers), the magic combination that along with Eddie and Charlie Palmieri invented the musical scene that turned into the Salsa revolution, asked Marty Cohen it he could make a cowbell for him. That became the famed Pacheco bell of the early 60's, the gold standard for timbale players from then on. Fiber glass congos followed and LP is to Latin drums what Coca Cola is to soft drinks.

Anyway, Marty Cohen had a birthday party at his house. I knew Marty since 1961 (two Jewish guys in the middle of the South Bronx as Puerto Ricans took ownership of their musical heritage and transformed it into into one of the major musics of the world (Salsa). When I started to play again, we got back in touch and so he invited me to his party. Marty has a gorgeous house in Northern New Jersey and he laid on more great Cuban food than I have ever seen in one place. The house was so jammed with musicians and friends that you could barely find a place to sit and as Barry Rogers used to say 'grease,' that is eat with total abandon. I managed, stuffing myself like crazy. Their was a big room set up for musicians to play, three sets of congas, piano, drums, amps, timbales. I knew the sax player, Ivan Rentas, and I had my flute with me. But there was nothing happening, everybody was eating, talking and looking at the great recording and photography equipment that Marty had in his studio. Pedrito saw me and came over, and thanked me for using him on Con Alma, which he seemed to think was a big deal. I was soon in the middle of a bunch of musicians I didn't know, lots of people giving me lots of good energy about the recording. I was stuffed beyond belief and really needed to sit down. As I walked away from the musicians, Pedrito said, 'when are we going to do another record?'. I smiled and headed for a empty seat on couch. The musicians started to play in the next room. There were at least 5 drummers playing, with a loud electric piano and electric bass. Ivan had the microphone stuck all the way into the bell of his tenor sax and I could barely hear him. There was no was I could play the flute with the band that loud. I had seriously over-eaten, it was late, the noise level was murderous. I saw Marty, thanked him and left.

The next week I got an email from Juan Wust, the engineer who had recorded Algo Más. His 17 year old son had died in a tragic accident a few years ago, and he was producing a concert to raise money for a scholarship fund for students in his son's high school. Pacquito Rivera was head-lining the band and I knew Juan's son. Of course I would buy a ticket. When I got to St Peters College in Jersey City for the event, the auditorium, was surprisingly empty, instruments on the band stand, but the guys hanging around with friends in the audience. I said hello to Pacquito who was sitting talking to some people a few rows in front of me and I laid my two latest albums on him (one can always hope). Pedrito came over and sat down next to me. He said it again, 'when are we going to do another album?' I said, 'If you can find me a piano player and a bass player who play as good as you do, get two more drummers and we can record.' Pacquito got up to go on the bandstand as did Pedrito. I didn't think anything of his remark, and so was very surprised when a few days later, in mid-March, I got a phone call from Pedrito saying he could get the guys for March 30 and 31st. I was in a bind. I had committed myself to record a Brazilian record with Nilson Matta and Kenny Barron, a very expensive project. And I had given a $1,000 deposit to Argentinian bass player Pablo Aslan so he could bring up an Argentinian piano player from Buenos Aires to record a tango album the first week in April. But to turn Pedrito down was to risk being seen as 'jive.' After all, I had set him a challenge. So I said to myself, 'what the hell.' my house in Glen Ridge was an ATM (the housing market hadn't totally tanked yet) and if I did another album I would just be pulling money out of my home equity line as I had planed to do for the other albums. I said, hire the guys, I'll make sure we can get the studio that I like to record in (I have been working with the same engineer, Phil Ludwig, since Tudo de Bom, and he was an equal partner in editing down the hours of music I recorded in Berlin. With Phil and his partner Larry Gates in my corner, I could relax about the technical aspects of recording). The next day Pedrito called me, the piano player could only record one day since he was leaving for a European tour. 'Can we do the record in one day?' I asked. Pedrito said 'sure.' We were set for March 30th.

I told Pedrito that if the guys brought in originals they would get co-publishing and I pulled out a few of the most standard tunes I could think off just in case. Milestones, Footprints, Caravan and as a sort of joke, Watermelon Man, plus my 60's tune recorded on Cuban Roots and Cuban Roots revisited, Just Another Guajira, for luck.

When I arrived at the studio, the guys where already there (check out the photos on myspace). I was setting up my flutes when the piano player came into my booth. Axel Tosca Laugart, 23 years old, a wildman in appearance and bursting with energy. I told him to be careful not to knock over my flutes, he responded, 'I'm young, but I'm a professional.' Little did I know. Axel went into his booth to try out the piano. I almost fell over, he was playing serious Chopin to warm up. I knew I was in for something special. We started with a piano feature, a Chucho Valdez composition called Ernesto. I was totally knocked out. The piano playing was richer than anything I had ever played with and I have played with great pianists (Chick Corea, Omar Sosa and Mark Levine). He had the rhythmic control of Sosa, moving from gaujeo to gaujeo (the piano vamp that Latin piano players play) in an endless stream of creative improvisation. He had the harmonic complexity and structural stability of Chick Corea, and the easy swing and warmth of Mark Levine, and he had all of the incredible technique that is the hallmark of the great Cuban pianists. Axel has it all! Playing solos with him was literally holding the tiger by the tail, he responded to every move I made, extended the rhythmic concept at every opportunity and he forced me to listen and respond in a manner that stretched me like no other recording I have ever done. And then, no matter how good I played, his solos stole the show. No matter how far I moved, he 'saw me and raised.' It wasn't what we used to call a 'cutting contest,' he wasn't trying to show me up. It was just his natural exuberance and phenomenal musical ability. What ever I did, he integrated it into his playing and transformed it. And the rhythm section was in heaven. At the end of the date Pedrito said to me, 'Thank you for letting me play my music.' I had little choice since his music was what I have been dreaming of ever since I started playing jazz to Cuban music.

And that rhythm section. Almost every tune has drum solos. With Ogduarte Diaz playing bongos and bell, Pedrito and Mauricio Hererra had a totally reliable time keeper. Mauricio played dramatically, using the kit to add colors and suspense and Pedrito pushed the envelope of time like no other conga drummer I have ever played with. The drum solos that Mauricio and Pedrito contributed to Con Alma were exceptional. Their playing on this recording is transcendent. Complex unison drum figures characterizes the tunes that Pedrito contributed, amazingly complex, and so tight you have to listen hard to hear that it is more than one drummer. And everything with great swing. And then we did the standards. We played Milestones way up-tempo, Footprints in 7/4 rather than the usual 6/8, Watermelon Man as a down home blues (and one of the all time greatest conga drum solos in homage to Mongo Santamaria), Just Another Guajira in yet another rendition, Axel after Omar Sosa, after Chick Corea, another piano setting and one that lives up to the versions of the other two piano masters.

And then there is the bass player. Panagiotis Andreou. I have never recorded with an electric bass player before and Panagiotis is no ordinary electric bass player, a classical guitarist originally, he plays with the tips of his fingers. No matter how fast he plays you can barely see his right hand moving, it is all delicacy, all control, with total freedom in the time and a melodic gift. Barry Rogers was the only 'gringo' that was totally respected by the Latin musicians. When Barry said something it mattered. The same goes for Panagiotis, these masters of Cuban drumming accepted his opinions without question. Axel and him were like musical twins, they moved together in some of the most subtle playing behind the drum solos, playing flexible, but superbly tight figures that held the time against the drummers pushing the boundaries. And then came kicker. When I called Caravan as the next tune I thought we would start with a bass solo for contrast. Panagiotis asked for a vocal mike. He played one of the greatest bass solos I have ever heard as an introduction and sang along with every note. I was floored. At the end of the date he asked if we could record a Turkish folk song with bata drums. By this time I was up for anything. He wrote it out for us and I played bass flute in unison with that haunting melody.

That finished the recording. We had been in the studio for 16 hours and we had one hell of a record. If this one doesn't put me over the top, nothing will.

So, you might ask, why do I wrote about this album now? Two reasons, musicians don't go for spit, no matter how good a record is, to get a phone call with a compliment from the 'first call' players that I record with is virtually impossible. I have heard on the grapevine the Romero and Cyro really love our latest album, Lua e Sol, but neither of them would ever call me up to say so. I guess it is not cool to let the leader know how much you enjoyed the record you made for him. Or maybe the top pros that I record with don't give that much energy to their recordings after they come out. After I finished the mix of the date, I sent a copy to Pedrito. Two days later I got an excited phone call, 'the flute sounds great,' Pedrito started off, 'I'm playing the record for the guys now and everyone loves it,' he continued (and then made a few suggestions for refining the drum mix). I was over the moon! If one of the heavy players that record with me, took the time to tell me how great the record sounds, it must be special. Then I sent it to Randy Klein, the owner of Jazzheads, the record label I record for. He sent me an email, 'this is a major album, it should get you a Grammy nomination, let's talk about how we can push it.' And so I'm putting myself out there for those of you who are interested in my music. This album is a ground-breaking contribution to Latin jazz, it breaks the pattern while staying within the genre, simply by being more innovative and more challenging than anything out there, with virtuoso playing by all and tremendous swing. That's right, to all of the Latin jazz fans out there, I'm putting it on the line. This album is killing! Randy hopes to put it out for Summer of 2009. Meanwhile check out myspace for the tracks from my latest Brazilian record, Lua e Sol.

Friday, October 24, 2008

pluses and minuses

My career as a trombonist was unexceptional. I started playing in high school in Brooklyn playing with local musicians, started to meet other musicians and branched out into the city. I caught some lucky breaks (a class-A show gig at 18, a funny story I will tell one day) a sub with Eddie Palmieri's band that led to lots of gigs on the exploding Latin dance band scene, got to play some decent jazz gigs, record dates, and quite a bit of arranging to augment my income. I was able to make a living and support my wife and kids, the essential musicians' definition of success. I lived off of the telephone, no self-promotion, just the steady climb through the ranks of musicians relying on word of mouth and personal contacts. My career as a jazz flute player couldn't be more different.

First of all I was playing flute. With all due respect to the few flute players who manage to survive playing jazz, flute is no way to make a living as a jazz musician. In fact after I quit the music business to become an academic I choose flute because I knew I wouldn't be tempted into being a professional musician again. Flute isn't a jazz instrument, it is a jazz double, a side-car attached to a saxophone. If you need a flute player, there are dozens of great sax players you can call. Hubert Laws played tenor with Mongo, Herbie Mann started on tenor, Joe Farrell who made all of those great flute records with Chick Corea was basically a tenor player and on and on.  So playing flute didn't give me the community of working musicians that I could draw upon for advancement. Second flute is a classical instrument and is gendered female. Most flute players are female, start playing in middle school and study with classical flutists who teach them the flute repertoire. Even jazz sax players who double on flute study with classical flutists. And I never played classical music, never developed the strengths and weaknesses of classical flutists who move into jazz. Instead I was a self-taught free improviser who played in parks and on beaches, on roof tops and under bridges. I had tremendous dexterity, a lousy sound and a totally personal approach to the instrument. Not a very good prognosis for a career as a professional musician.

Third, by the time I was ready to play jazz seriously, in the mid 1990's, the music business was sliding downhill faster and faster. My Uncle Irving predicted it in 1955. I was 15 and working a few gigs. Irving, a klezmer trumpet player from Poland and a Marxist said to me, 'So you want to be a musician, do you know the music was the first profession to be destroyed by technology?' I said, "What do you mean, records? He said, 'You're stupid.' I said, 'What do you mean, radio?' He said, 'You're stupid?' I said, 'OK, so teach me.' He said, 'When I came America (in 1919) if you could read and fake (play by ear) you could walk down any main street in any city or town and find a movie theatre that needed musicians to play in the pit along with the movie. Talking movies ruined the music business.' He was right, every technological advance from sound tracks to synthesizers has put ordinary musicians out of work. From radio to recordings, to DJ's at weddings every technological advance resulted in the replacement of average musician with canned perfection. Why hire a wedding band to play crappy covers of your favorite songs when a DJ will give you the real thing. In fact why listen to live music at all when you can construct your musical world to order and carry it around in an i-pod. The only musician who has a hope in Hell is a great musician and there are countless numbers of them, and more and more being trained by the only growth industry in jazz today, jazz education. Great jazz musicians are being turned out at an incredible rate as more and more jazz musicians become educators, helping aspiring musicians to master America's classical music. 

Fourth I was financially secure, a tenured full professor with a comfortable and reliable middle-class income. And so I wasn't hungry! I was desperate to succeed, but I wasn't driven by the most reliable motivator that musicians have, the need to eat. So, among other things, I didn't force myself to play charanga flute. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against charanga flute. I love the classic recordings of Arcaño and Sus Maravillas (if you don't know them check them out). It is the essence of Cuban glamor and up-scale romance and the flute melodies, played in the highest octave of the flute register are touching. But to me playing charanga on flute is like playing dixieland on trombone. It is harmonically uninteresting, has very stringent stylistic requirements and it is murder on your chops. I played dixieland on trombone when I had to, I even played the Red Onion, a chain of beer joints that used trombone, tuba and banjo trios cranking out old favorites for hours on end, when I had no other work. But with a check coming in twice a month I wasn't going to hustle the few charanga gigs there are for flute players. And that pretty much meant I couldn't work as a flute player in latin bands, and since I couldn't play with classical ensembles, I couldn't work very much at all. 

If I was 20 and playing flute and had to make a living. I'd get my classical chops up enough to be within striking distance of Broadway shows and record dates. I'd force myself to play latin gigs and most important I'd find a way to work. There is no doubt in my mind that with the harsh task master of necessity I would have figured out a way to make a living playing flute, hustling weddings, playing in restaurants, playing on the subway, giving lessons, anything to make a buck. And I'm sure that would have put me in touch with young musicians who would add a flute to their bands every now and then. I'm willing to bet there are young flute players out there making it somehow (or do they all end up playing saxophone?). But I had those checks coming in, I was in my mid-fifties and I had the money to subsidize records with some really great musicians. Every one of my flute records is with fine musicians, and hiring them to play small-time jazz gigs always ends up costing me a few hundred dollars. The alternative, playing little gigs with young cats so I wouldn't have to spend a fortune to work the gig was attractive to me from time to time, I did my fair share, but I didn't have the motivation to keep it going. And so I never really built a presence on the NY jazz scene as a live performer.

I have played the small Village jazz clubs for the 'door.' It is what jazz musicians are forced to do in NY. But even that is highly competitive in a way that I can't really compete. There are a half dozen jazz programs in the area. Every one of those young music students can play in a club and bring down a couple of dozen classmates hoping to sit in and willing to hang out. And besides for local clubs in my area where I can guilt-trip my friends and colleagues to come out and hear me (usually no more than a few times at most) I can't really guarantee a club owner nearly as many bodies in the room as any tenor player enrolled in the New School, or NYU or Manhattan or Juilliard. And since I don't teach music I can't get my students to come to my gigs without it bordering on harassment. Club owners know the deal and so are hesitant to hire me. I work now and then but basically my life as a flute player exists in the recording studio. And that creates problems.

I can afford to record with the best musicians. The rhythm sections on my records are world class and the guys on my records are working all of the time. They are top professionals and in the real sense of the word I am an amateur, I play for the love of music. I practice all the time, I play maybe a dozen gigs a year and twice a year I have to go into a studio and play as if I have no limits, play as if I just got off the plane from playing some major jazz festival and am one my way to do another. I have to play at the highest standard of those few master musicians who have managed to succeed as jazz musicians in the hardest competitive market imaginable. That is to say, I have to play my ass off, each and every time.

Nilson Matta (that's me and him mugging for the camera) is a great bass player, nobody plays in 2/4 like he does and he is one of the most  melodic bass soloists I have ever heard. Nilson needs to generate income as a musician and he knows how to hustle. I hadn't seen him since we recorded Tudo de Bom and he was playing with the Trio de Paz in town. I went down to hear the band and say hello. He said something to the effect that it was a shame we didn't get to stretch out when we recorded the album with Boukas and suggested that we make another record, a Brazilian jazz record which would really let me express myself as a soloist. I agreed on the condition that he could get guitarist Romero Lubambo to do the date. He set it up, calling Paulo Braga to play drums and Guilherme Franco to play percussion. Nilson and I got together in his house and picked tunes for the date include the Ary Barroso classic Bahia. We went over the tunes and Romero came by for about an hour and looked at the material including some originals by Nilson and myself. So much for rehearsals. The date was on! I was under a lot of pressure and suffering from tension headaches that I later found out were the result of serious glaucoma. I was determined that the date would go well, but I had agreed to play two choros, a style I barely knew, and I wasn't familiar with most of the material we had selected. 

We first tune of the date was Bahia. We recorded a first take. It went well, but the rhythm section was not really tight enough. We did another take and it sounded great. I played the melody and a decent enough solo, but I really wasn't comfortable with the tune. The harmonic rhythm of the tune builds from a beginning with very few chords until a climax with chords changing every beat. I got through the changes fine, but I hadn't really built a solo that was worthy of the harmonic structure, with growing intensity as the harmonies got denser. I needed another take, and Romero knew it. But the rest of the guys had played superbly and to do it again was to risk the very freedom that Nilson and I were trying to accomplish. I didn't know what to do. Romero walked up to my booth and opened the door, "Don't make me play that fucking song again," he said and walked back to his booth. I called the next tune. The die was cast. I had no choice, if I was to play up to the rhythm section I would have to overdub my solo. That had a strange effect on me. Pluses and minuses! I had done my share of overdubbing on earlier records, but always felt guilty about it. My model for a jazz musician came out of the 60's. You played at least 4 nights a week and a record date was just a high-stakes gig. You brought all of your experience from the bandstand into the studio and you played the date as it went down. Whenever I had overdubbed I felt like a failure, but I had to face facts. Since I hardly ever played except in the studio, if I was to play my best I had to bite the bullet and use the artistic freedom the modern technology provides. I had to be realistic about how to get the best performance, rather than live up to the standard of live recording that made sense in another era, but that made less and less sense as musicians performed less and less, with me at the furthest extreme of hardly ever performing. 

I played the rest of the date as well as I could, but I made up my mind. If I had to play Bahia again as an overdub I would utilize the technology to make up for my lack of a professional lifestyle. I would swallow my pride and overdub where needed and get the best performance possible, rather than rely on the magic of the moment. Instead of being a victim of technology I would use it to my advantage. Commercial records had been doing that for years, pop records are recorded in layers with dozens if not hundreds of takes and retakes until each part is as perfect as possible. I would give myself the same option. I would do what ever it took to make the best music possible. I took home a CD of the record date and played along with the tracks until I knew the tunes inside and out. I went into the studio and in a few takes had the performances that I needed. The rhythm section had been responding to the solos I played live, I would then go back and do them one better, responding to every one of there responses to my original solo with a perfect musical fit. The result, O Nosso Amor, was a much better record  than anything I had produced so far. The music was free and full of life and I was playing at my very best. But I was full of guilt, a nagging sense that I had sold my musical integrity in the name of making the very best music I could. Once I crossed that Rubicon I was in another place. I would work to record the very best rhythm tracks I could, never worrying about doing anything in the studio except driving the band with my solos, and then I would do what I had to do so that the results would be as perfect an example of what I was trying to accomplish as I was capable of. No regrets, each performance would be as good as it could be. With that change in perspective I decided to perfect my solos to my heart's content. It is a compromise, but it is a compromise that goes back to the choice I made when I first started to play flute and committed myself to finding the beauty in my music. I have to love what I play. I have to find the most beauty that my music can provide. And so I have to make records that are as perfect an expression of my playing as they can be, performances that honestly present my strivings to make beautiful music, no matter what it takes. I have to do what is necessary for the music and my ego be damned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

my afro-cuban soul

I love Shifra Tanzt. I got to play the music live a few times and it is wonderful to present, but there were few takers. The Jewish music business is focused on tradition or novelty, shul gigs, weddings or world music festivals. Jazz is no longer a novelty and the the tradition the record  fits into is the tradition I'm inventing as a jazz musician. Where do I get such chutzpah from? I was blessed! We had just moved into Fort Green projects I was not quite six and I walked down the six flights of concrete and steel steps to go outside for the first time with my sister June. I remember it as a cold day. June started talking to some of the girls her age (she's six years older than me) and a beautiful African-American girl put her hand on my head and said, 'you are blessed!' She did it for me. I believe it with all my heart and soul.

Jean Paul Bourelly had heard Cuban Roots Revisited. He called to congratulate me on the music and asked whether I could get him in the studio with drummers like that. My records were out but  my career was in the doldrums. So I figured I'd do it again, rerecord Cuban Roots and Jean Paul had given me the ticket to ride. I called up Bobby Sanabria and asked him to recommend a drummer who knew the tradition but had an open-mind. Bobby is a great musician and an historian of Latin music. He knew just what I meant and gave me Pedrito Martinez's phone number. He told me that Pedrito played a rumbón (a gathering of drummers, singers and dancers playing traditional rumba) in Union City on Sundays. For those of us who would love to go to Cuba, La Esquina Habanera in Union City on Sundays offered a rare glimpse of the real deal. A doctoral student, Pablo, from Ecuador who was staying with me wanted to go so I had some moral support. The club was crowded when we arrived, about a half hour before the scheduled start. Even at the door, the heat from the club could be felt carried by the sound of the the great Cuban records they were playing. The women at the door sized me up and spoke Spanish anyway. Working with recent Cuban emigre musicians from Cuban in the 60's have given me a small but effective Spanish working vocabulary. Her attitude seemed to me that along with the $5 door charge, Spanish was required. I asked, in Nuyorican Spanish whether Pedrito would be playing that night. I must have done OK since she led us to a small table bordering the stage (gringo of merit, perhaps). We ordered some Cuban style fried chicken and a few beers. Pablo was psyched. The room just kept on getting more and more crowded, we had a great table and the food was on the money. I was getting really nervous. I had found out about Pedrito. He had come to the states with the Canadian flutist Jane Bunnett and had made a rapid move through the ranks of drummers once he settled in the New York area. He had won the most prestigious award in jazz the Thelonious Monk prize playing bata and conga a few years back and was generally considered among the very best drummers around. He didn't know me from Adam. My history was well known to New York Latin musicians but it was highly unlikely that Pedrito had ever heard of me. After about an hour wait five drummers starting setting up Conga drums on the stage. Microphones were set up for the singers and dancers dressed in traditional Cuban fashion came out onto the small dance floor and begun to make themselves noticed by joking with customers they knew. I was trying to figure out which drummer was Pedrito. Nobody seemed to stand out. The performance began. It was incredible. Hearing rumba live is to hearing it on record as sex is to pornography. There is no comparison. The show had a really authentic flavor,  great drummers and singers, and dancers dominating the small dance floor area, trying to outdo each other for audience approval including pulling people out of their chairs and onto the dance floor, getting an extra round of applause when a member of the audience was made to look good. One of the male dancers had been teasing Pablo, who looks all the world like a young Latino intellectual and tried to pull him onto the floor.  Pablo panicked. I had other worries. There was no chance I would be asked to dance, white, middle-aged and overweight, but I was of two minds, anxiety over how to approach Pedrito and a bit bummed out. I was pretty sure by the vibe on the stage the Pedrito was not there. 

After the show was well on its way there was a buzz by the door, someone special had come in. An exceptionally good looking young man in a well-tailored white suit came through the crowd that had formed between the door and the dance floor. He stepped up the two feet onto the stage in the middle of the singers and started singing lead, improvising with poetry and music on the theme that the other singers were singing (the call and response pattern found in all African based music from gospel to salsa). There was no doubt in my mind that was Pedrito. He just sang, the star of the show, and never touched a drum. 

At the first break I walked up to Pedrito who was sitting at a table in the back of the room with a group of friends and musicians. I introduced myself, saying that Bobby Sanabria had suggested that I talk to him about a recording project. The music was loud and we walked outside. I told him what I had in mind, an experimental recording of rumba and toques de santo and asked him if he would get me three other drummers to do the date. It's hard to know why he said yes, he had a young daughter and it is tough making a living as a musician no matter how good you are and a record date pays money (and it is in town). But I wasn't just asking him to play conga, I was asking him to organize the drums for the most important music that he plays (his religion and the basis for all conga drumming, la rumba). Maybe it was my willingness to talk really rotten Spanish, rather than make him speak English, maybe it is my sweet Jewish face, or alternatively, my almost scary intense Jewish face (at least my students think it is scary). Or maybe my sincerity shown through in those few minutes of preliminary conversation. Or maybe he just liked the idea of getting drummers together and making an experimental folkloric record. I called him the next day and worked out the arrangements for the date with his wife who speaks perfect English. I would pay him for all of the drummers (a big selling point since it would give him the discretion to decide on who gets what). He told me I should record in a studio on Jersey City where the engineer know how to record drums (the world famous Cuban drum ensemble Los Muñoquitos recorded there when they recorded in the states). I got dates when Jean Paul would be in town, called Santi Debriano (who understands the drums) and set up two days. First day bata and second day congas. I decided I wouldn't do any planing for the date. 

The studio was a rabbit's warren of small booths with no sight lines in the basement of a three story brownstone. The three bata drummers and Pedrito went into the largest booth to the left with a window looking into the control booth with the recording equipment. Directly across from the control booth were two small booths each just large enough for one musician, both had windows that faced the engineer and the booth with the drummers, but you couldn't see from one of the booths to the other. Santi went into the one closest to the drummers, Jean Paul went into the other. There was no place for me to play except in a front room with no sight lines except for a small TV monitor. The first day was to be for toques de Santo and Pedrito was going to sing. The singer leads the drummers through the progression of rhythms based on what is sung. Cuban religious music is highly stylized and the drummers have fixed interactive patterns that they move through as the song requires and as the spirit moves them. The patterns are like chord changes in bebop, except you can vary them, it is a lot like improvising in ragas in North Indian music, selection from pre-determined set of elements that are selected from with a open-ended set of sequencing choices. This is not music to fool around with. I decided I wouldn't play, and hoped that Jean Paul and Pedrito would come to a meeting of the minds. I had confidence the Santi could respond to whatever the two of the came up with. Everything hung on Pedrito and Jean Paul and they couldn't even see each other.

Pedrito walked into Jean Paul's booth and sang a version of the toque for Ellegua that I had never heard before, beautiful with just a hint of rhythm and blues. Jean Paul called Santi in and went through the simple sequence of chords. Pedro was singing in E major.  I told Jean Paul to 'put something up front' to set the mood of the date. He played some totally macho Jimi Hendrix sounding stuff, powerful and full of technical display. I could see Pedrito looking down at the floor slowly shaking his head, 'No!' Jean Paul had no idea how Pedrito was responding, he was just doing his thing. Jean Paul played for a while waiting for something to happen, when nothing did, he stopped. I walked into his booth. We were old friends but this was very tricky. I looked at him and said, "Why are you show-boating?" That is, why are you playing unmusically and showing off. He looked at me. Jean Paul was quite famous by then, the Jimi Hendrix foundation had featured him in a memorial concert to Jimi in Town Hall in New York, he was well known throughout Europe, and had succeeded beyond my wildest dreams for the few years he was playing jazz in New York, playing with Elvin Jones and recording with McCoy Tyner. Jean Paul had three choices, he could punch me out for the level of my disrespect, he could pack up his guitar and leave or he could take it. He took it!.

I left the booth and he improvised that beautiful limpid minute and and half of unaccompanied guitar that Algo Más begins with. He played in a Spanish mode Emajor against F major, the one note he didn't play was C#, that's the first note Pedrito sings. When the voice comes in it is in harmonic contrast gently nudging the key into the mode of the song. They played toque Ellegua top to bottom without a hitch. When things got going. I stood up in the control booth in full sight of the drummers and did a shuffling dance while they played. I danced through every number that day, as is required. Drum, dance and voice is how one reaches the Orishas. Pedrito still was not convinced by Jean Paul's playing, but he is a professional, he sang the toques and got fine performances out of the drummers. I had told Pedrito to leave spaces for me to solo and Jean Paul and Santi had played some decent solos, but the music was very much unfinished when the day ended. Tomorrow was rumba. I decided that would be all instrumental to give me, Jean Paul and Santi a chance to stretch out. Pedrito and the drummers still had not heard me play a note. As we packed up Pedrito came up to me and said that we needed a 'better guitar player.'

That night  I taught Jean Paul a few classic rumba melodies that I loved including one that I had never recorded, Consuelete Como Yo, one of the best loved of all of the rumbas. Pedrito had had problems with the first day's music. Although the toques got recorded, Jean Paul's approach didn't sit easily with Pedrito's expectations. Jean Paul used a wide vocabulary in supporting the toques, he played in styles that range from rock and soul to afro-pop. The one thing he never did was play anything remotely Cuban. I had complete trust in Jean Paul's musical instincts. Pedrito did what was required. The stylized drum parts were flawless and he sang the appropriate melodies  and left room for me to play responses. Part of the deal with Pedrito was that he would come back and record additional voices and percussion. Jean Paul was isolated so it would have been no problem to replace him. But that didn't help me with the next day when we were going to record rumba without voices. Both Jean Paul and Pedrito were still not really in sync and rumba is highly interactive, drummers freely improvise and pass figures back and forth in a free-wheeling and swinging conversations. Unless the drums and Jean Paul found a meeting of the minds the session would be a failure. I decided to begin with Consuelete Como Yo a medium rumba with a beautiful melody. But music was not the only problem. I had to deal with the studio There was no place for me to play except the control booth or the front room. I choose the front room since I needed to concentrate. I stood in the living room and looked at the small video screen. I could see the drummers and no one else. Somehow I had to communicate with music alone. My reality was the shared head phone mix. I had to do it all with sound. I closed my eyes and said, 'empiece el ritmo.' The drums began and I entered with a vocalistic phrase in the style of rumba singers when they begin a poetical solo introduction, an extended section that prepares for the statement of the melody. I laid a spare diatonic phrase in half time across the rhythm of the drums. Jean Paul played an equally understated chord, just slightly dissonant against the diatonic phrase. It was the perfect response. Lot's of space for the drums, completely relaxed and in perfect command of the time. 8 minutes later I stopped playing, Jean Paul hadn't played a solo but he and I had had one of the best conversations I have ever had with another musician. Mis Consuelos, as it is called on the album, is my favorite track of Algo Más and one of my all time favorite recordings from among the albums I have recorded, before or since. The rest of the date went off without a hitch. Pedrito taught me a beautiful and engaging tune, that, as Mamita Baila became one of the more popular tunes on the album, getting a lion's share of the radio play. Jean Paul and Santi got to play some amazing solos and Jean Paul played a free 4 minute guitar improvisation on top of killing drums that is worth the price of the album by itself. But I still had to deal with the toques and redeem the music and the faith that Pedrito had in me.

I walked around listening to the tracks of the toques and tried to figure out what to do.  The only model I had was what I had done with Edy Martinez on the toques for the Orisha Suites (that was the name I gave to my truncated recording of 1977 discussed in an earlier blog). There I had used layered keyboards. I decided to build a flute ensemble with layered flutes. I went back to the studio and put in responses on alto flute to the toque for Ellegua. The harmonic context that Jean Paul had laid down felt good, and his spare rhythmic style left plenty of rooms for the drums to be heard, rather then competing for the same rhythmic space that a Cuban approach would have done. After my solos were finished I played the track and experimented with background figures. After an endless series of false tries and increasing frustration I hit on a pattern that worked for part of the tune. Juan Wust, the engineer, was an angel from heaven. I kept me calm and never tired of replaying the same section as I floundered around looking for something that worked. Once I found a line, I improvised a second line until I had a mini Eddie Palmieri trombone section, one voice laying down a pattern and the other harmonizing and extending it with counter-melodies. I did this for days, always improvising, looking for a key musical idea and then building on it. I constructed flute ensembles of as many as 6 flutes in places, playing the roles I had learned so well playing straight-man to Barry Rogers' amazing extensions of the basic trombone line that was the high point of the live performances of Eddie's first band, La Perfecta. I also drew on my years of experience as an arranger with Larry Harlow and the many bands I recorded with and heard in the years I played trombone. Chris Washburne gets it just right in the liner notes, 'He is an orchestra of flutes.'

After I finished recording the flutes I called Pedrito and set up a time for him to do additional voices and percussion. He came into the studio and I played what I had done with Ellegua. He sat quietly listening to the complex texture of the overdubbed flutes against the spare lines that Jean Paul had played. He looked at me and said, 'I'm sorry I said that bullshit about the guitar player.' The gate was open. He went on to record all of the additional voices and crucial drum parts to strengthen the basic rhythm and even added another layer of drum solos in a few crucial places. Algo Más was finished. Now I had to figure out how to sell it to a record company. I had basically self-produced all of my previous records and that was pointless. I needed a record company behind me.

Bobby Sanabria was playing a gig with Chris Washburne's band. I went down and thanked him for putting me in touch with Pedrito I told Bobby the project was finished and he, in turn, introduced me to a record company owner who was in the club. I had a brief conversation with the owner and he agreed to listen to the CD. He called me back and said he would put it out. Two days later he called me again and asked me if I could remove the vocals since he didn't think the people who bought his records would appreciate the folkloric singing. Of course I refused. Even had it been technically possible, to remove the voices from the toques would have been a sacrilege, both metaphorically and literally. I knew the Chris Washburne recorded for Jazzheads and asked him about the label. 'You get what you see,' was his response, high phrase from a jazz musician about a recording label. I called Randy Klein the owner of Jazzheads and he agreed to listen to the record. He loved it and we signed a contract, beginning the most productive relationship with a record company any artist could hope for. It had worked again, recording Cuban Roots, now for the fourth time (including the Orisha Suites), was the way forward.