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. 

Monday, September 22, 2008

my yiddish heart

I had made some decent records, gotten good reviews and some airplay, but my career was still going nowhere (for all I know it may still be going nowhere). But a lot of musicians knew me and I felt respected, which was always of enormous importance to me. I got called by a singer to do a recording and the bassist was Mike Richmond, head of the bass department at NYU. Mike had played with Stan Getz, Miles and countless others and was doing the date with the singer as a favor, since she wanted a bass player who bowed well and Mike is among the best. While we were waiting for the rehearsal to begin we started some old Jewish man talk, comparing ailments etc. It turned out that Mike had a problem with cholesterol medicine and was forced to exercise on a treadmill at the gym (I pop pills with impunity). I asked him how he deals with the music they play and he said that he listens to klezmer music through earphones while he on the treadmill and pretends to be dancing at a wedding. I had never played Jewish music except as a trombone player at weddings and in the Catskill Mountains. But I had picked up a number of hard to get books of Jewish tunes, including some rare Dave Tarras originals over the years. I asked Mike how he would like to record a Jewish album. He liked the idea very much. I brought my books over to Mike's house. We set up a stand and stood next to each other reading through tune after tune. We picked some great klezmer tunes including an obscure tune by Dave Tarras, Shifra Tanzt, that would be the title tune of the album (Mike's favorite aunt was called Shifra). I showed him some sephardic tunes that I had learned from a good friend and fine singer, Robert Esformes, and I taught him two of my favorite nigunim (prayer melodies). We were good to go.

Mike had been playing with a great Moroccan musician Simon Shaheen, and he recommended that I use two New York musicians who were in the band with him, guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Jamey Hadad. He told me to contact Brad and go over the material, then we would go into the studio with minimal rehearsal, the way my most successful records have been made. I called Brad and set up a meeting in his house in Brooklyn. I had no idea what I wanted the music to sound like. I wanted neither a traditional klezmer album, common in the recent klezmer revival movement (e.g. Andy Statman) nor the kind of fusion record that combines the klezmer neshuma (soul) with contemporary adulterations (think, Klezmatics). I sat down across from Brad in his basement studio and we started to play a klezmer tune, he played in a very simple traditional style and I stopped and said I want something freer. He climbed up on his high horse and said he wasn't used to being told how to play. I packed up my flute, and Brad saw the money for the record date about to walk out the door. I spotted it in his face and I said 'let's just play free.' I took out my flute and we played for about 15 minutes, it was a natural. On the way out he said, 'why don't you write out some changes for the tunes you want to do.' I had been there before with Romero, who said the same thing after we ran through the baioã for Jazz World Trios.  Jazz musicians are a funny breed. Guitar players, like piano players, live through chord changes, so if I was to win his confidence I had to be good at what he was good at, finding interesting harmonies. Go figure! 

I had been in heavy writing mode when I recorded Three Deuces and I had just played Hermeto Pascoal's delightful and innovative harmonic explorations on Tudo do Bom. I sat down with the material and asked myself the following question, 'if there had been no Holocaust, and if klezmer musicians had been free to develop their music for the last 50 years, hearing and being influenced by jazz, what might it sound like? I was inspired and wrote interesting chords, finding clues as to the direction in the traditional music, linking different songs together with interesting harmonic interludes that would be the basis for improvisation.  We did the recording. Brad had flown in that morning from a concert in Israel and he had picked up an airplane respiratory problem, and had a hacking cough, but he played magnificently. Mike bowed some melodies that are among the most beautiful examples of bowed bass I have ever heard on a jazz record. Jamey was perfect, simultaneously playing traps and frame drums, without ever missing a beat. I played my heart out and dedicated the album to the memory of my mother Mollie Weinstein. The picture is Momma  and her four children, June, me, Cy and Marcia.

My son Jack the philosophy professor complained that my blog doesn't explain the philosophy behind my music. I rarely mix philosophy and music, but it's about time. The experience recording Shifra Tanzt concretized what I started doing in the original Cuban Roots and would become the self-conscious basis for what I have recorded since. I am a white musician who has made his mark playing Afro-Cuban music. I was raised as a white kid in public housing and had internalized the prerogatives of Black musicians to play jazz with a sense of entitlement. When I play Cuban or Brazilian music I don't mimic the traditional flute style. Both Brazilian and Cuban music use flute extensively and have distinctive flute styles. In Cuban music it is charanga in Brazil choro. I don't like to play charanga flute since it is very harmonically limited and relies on the top octave of the flute in order to be heard clearly. Although I record choros on my Brazilian albums I am not a choro player, they have classical technique and don't improvise very much. Instead I play like I own the music and so am free to be as innovative as I want to be. But I always play with great respect for the tradition. I don't play jazz to Cuban tunes, I play jazz with Cuban tunes, transforming the original through a jazz consciousness, but never losing the essence of the music I am transforming. This is something I learned from how Charlie Mingus would transform traditional jazz and blues into his magic music. Mingus more than anyone fits his music to the underlying composition. He doesn't just play bebop on changes, he rethinks what the music has at its heart and invents a new way of expressing the musical core. And so his music is never stereotypical, always changing and with perfect integrity. When I found harmonies for the traditional tunes in Shifra Tanzt I was not a musicologist trying to recreate what had been done. I was a modern musician in conversation with a musical tradition, a modern musician with a jazz sensibility. My music is rooted in the New York jazz scene. And I accept its standards: you have to be able to really play your instrument, you have to have a complete mastery of bebop harmony and beyond, you have to swing, and most important, you have to have something to say. The roots of my music is the music of the world that I love. I always look for musicians who play traditional music with profound knowledge and respect. But they know that when they play it with me it will be something different.

losing control

I had been feeling sick in LA. I put it off to tension. And I kept on getting sick, fevers and pains on my left side. I felt Cuban Roots Revisited didn't reflect my playing and I wanted to play jazz. I got my three favorite guitar players, Ed Cherry, Vic Juris and Paul Meyers to each record  four tunes in a duet format, the album was called Three Deuces. Ed played electric, Vic steel string and Paul classical guitar. I wrote a number of originals, some of which I like so much that I have recorded them again. My next album out on Jazzheads is Lua e Sol, with Romero Lubambo, Cyro Baptista and Nilson Matta. Lua e Sol, the title tune was originally recorded with Paul Meyers on Three Deuces. I recently rerecorded another tune from the album, Dawn's Early Light with Kenny Barron. It was easy to record Three Deuces, we just sat down and played, very relaxed and very conversational. Each guitar player approached the problem of being the entire rhythm section differently. And they all did it superbly. The album has 13 tunes. On the run through of my tune Last Minute Blues, Ed Cherry and I got so into exploring the substitutions I wrote that we recorded for over 13 minutes. Jazz World Trios got very little radio play, Seasoning got a fair amount of play, given it was my first album as a flutist. Jazz World Trios got far less. The tracks were too long. I wasn't going to do that again so I recorded a 4 minute version of the tune that did get airplay. But I liked the free exploration with Ed so much I added it as a 13th track. Bad luck! Within a few months I was in the hospital having a foot and a half of colon removed, diverticulitis, at least it wasn't cancer.

My father Jack came to this country when he was 5, in 1903 from the Kiev region in Ukraine. He was the youngest of 10 children. The entire family came, landed in Philadelphia and opened a grocery store. My mother, Mollie, on the other hand, left her village, Hrubshief in Poland, alone with some 'landsleit' (that's what diaspora Jews call people from the same area) traveled overland and left on a boat from Rotterdam in 1913. She was 13 years old. Her father had come to New York a few years earlier, earned enough to bring his oldest daughter to 'keep house' for him. And of course to earn money to bring over the family. My Grandma Rose and the other 5 kids couldn't get out because of WW I. My grandfather and mother had plenty of time to save the money to bring them over. My mother made straw hats. I am named after my mother's grandfather, Meyir in Hebrew.  He was a house painter and ultimately either saved or destroyed my father by helping him to become one as well.

I always wondered how my father's family pulled it off. A dozen steamship tickets and enough money left over to set up a house and buy a store. They were working people (in America most of my father's brothers became contractors) and workers in Russia didn't get rich. I didn't know my father's side of the family since my father had a 'bruygis' with his older brothers, that is, one of those dark Russian angers that keeps one brother from talking to another for 20 years. Funerals are where you reconcile a bruygis, if at all. But my oldest sister Marcia, who lived on Long Island had been a member of the cousins club. So one day I asked her how Daddy's family could afford the trip to America. Marcia said, 'Daddy's father was a horse trader and he sold a whole bunch of horses twice.' So there it is. Jews like to brag that they come from a long line of Rabbis. But I get to say that I am the proud descendant of horse thieves.

My father's family left Ukraine to escape from the anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) of the 1890's . So Ukraine was up there with Germany as places I could do without. But my university had a relationship with a pedagogical academy in Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian professors were at the college involved in a program to connect models of critical thinking with their need to develop a basis for democratic education. I was the associate director of an institute for critical thinking and I was expected to participate. Somehow I managed to avoid the whole thing until the end of the academic year, close to the time the visiting professors were due to return. I got roped into giving a talk. Afterwards, Alex, one of the professors told me that he had heard I played jazz and that he was the DJ for the only jazz radio program in Ukraine. I became much more open to things Ukrainian. Plus he was a great guy, as was the other Ukrainian professor, but they were on their way back home. I gave Alex copies of all of my albums. 

About six months later I got an email. Alexey Kharchenko a Ukrainian composer and friend of Alex's had heard Jazz World Trios and he had been inspired to write a series of compositions for flute, guitar and piano. He sent me an mp3 of the music, with the flute part played on the keyboard. It was lovely, but strange, a sort of smooth jazz song, a tango, and a modernistic circus-like composition. Everything had a very dark edge (horror movies about children's dolls gone bad) but the melodies were beautiful. It was all composed, not a note of improvisation. He wanted me to help him become known in America.

There was going to be a big conference on democracy in education in Kiev the following Spring (2003) and if I participated I would get a plane ticket on the college. I emailed Alex, the DJ professor, and asked him how much it would be to record in Kiev. He said $20 an hour and I told him the dates and to have Alexey set up the other musician and the studio to record his music. I told the folks at my college they could count on me to present at the conference. Staying in Kiev to record after the conference posed a problem. I can't speak or read Russian and they use another alphabet so you can't even guess whether it's the Gents or the Ladies bathroom, During the conference the folks from the college were going to be put up in a conference hotel where everyone spoke English. I made a deal with the people from my college. I would give an extra day of workshops on implementing critical thinking in the classroom if they would arrange for me to stay in the conference hotel for an extra week.

I told Alex to tell Kharchenko to write out lead sheets (melody and chords) for some of his tunes and that we would improvise on them, just like Jazz World Trios and that I would not play the complex written flute parts that he had played on the mp3 (wouldn't because I thought I couldn't, to be perfectly honest). I was told by Alex that Kharchenko understood completely. We were going to play jazz with his compositions, rather then play the compositions per se.

The conference went well. I loved the food (my mother learned to cook from my father's mother, so Ukrainian food is my 'hamische tahm,' the taste of my mother's home). I gave my workshop. The day before the end of the conference, Alex and Alexey came to my hotel room. Alexey Kharchenko spoke no English. He gave me a stack of music paper in plastic covers. I glanced at them quickly. They were written in pencil on small sheets of manuscript paper, full piano scores with the flute part written into the treble clef over the piano part and with chord symbols that I barely understood (it was a German notation that I finally figured out how to read). The flute parts looked really difficult (they were what he had played on the mp3). I put the music away and gave my final workshop. 

The next morning everyone was packing to leave the conference hotel, except for me. I was starting to panic about the recording. After breakfast, as the college folks were walking to the buses that would take them to the airport the woman that I had arranged everything with came over to me and told me she was very sorry, but I couldn't stay in the conference hotel since I was no longer participating in a conference. I freaked! She told me that Alex would make arrangements for me in one of the two hotels in Kiev open to foreigners. I laid down on a bench with a cigar and put my hat over my face (the picture above). Kharchenko showed up about a half hour later and said, 'the sun is shining bright. That was all the English he remembered from school. I got my stuff, we got in a cab and went to a hotel. They let me register, Alex was there with the necessary papers. I could barely understand the desk clerk who supposedly spoke English. I was on my own in Ukraine and had the stack of unintelligible music to deal with. We were to start recording the next day.

We went to the studio by subway. It became an elevated train as it crossed the Dneiper River. There was a beach and an amusement park. The train was full of families with blankets and lunch baskets. It was like my childhood on the BMT Culver line going to Coney Island. I felt at home. I was wearing a skull cap, and more than once someone walking by would whisper 'Shalom.' It turns out Ukrainians are part-Jewish like white southerners are part-black, it's a family secret that is almost bragged about, sort of like being descended from horse thieves. 

The recording was very difficult, I had lost control of the process. After the first tune I realized it would take every day I had available to record and mix. I had 10 hundred dollar bills (the preferred currency in Ukraine) and I knew it would all be gone before I left, even at $20 an hour. We negotiated how I could play solos by extending sections of the compositions, but I had to play the written flute parts. Somehow I managed to and the music has a sweet charm that has resulted in a number of visual artists using the album as the sound track for electronic portfolios with Eastern European themes. The recording, Milling Time, the name of one of Kharchenko's tunes. is my third album on flute. It was a great experience, returning to my father's birthplace and I had gained a great deal of confidence as a flutist. I had dealt with complex written music, something I dreaded. I am probably the only flute player on the planet that doesn't practice from etude books. I always hated to play classical pieces, because I could never tolerate how lousy the music sounded while I was learning to play the piece. I practice the basics like a classical flutist, hours of long tones and hours of scales and arpeggios, but I never play the classical repertoire and have never really learned to be comfortable playing complex music as written.

My next project would be another one that got out of hand. Milling Time was a sweet record and I'm glad I did it (I dedicated it to the memory of my father). But is was useless as a career move. It was too idiosyncratic and not really a jazz record. I decided to take another look at Brazilian music. Romero was much too busy to rely on and I wanted a guitarist that I could build an ongoing relationship with. I found out about Richard Boukas, an excellent guitarist and fine musician, a student of Brazilian music. Richard organized the Brazilian section at the New School University jazz program. I sent him Jazz World Trios and asked him if he would put an album together for me. The great and innovative Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal had, upon reaching 60 years of age, set himself the task of writing a song every day for 365 days. The result was published in manuscript form  as the Calendário do Som. Richard suggested that we do an entire album of compositions from the Calendário and set himself the task of translating Hermeto's obscure chord notations into arrangements for the quartet. Hermeto combines standard chord symbols in layers that don't have names, but once you understand how to read them it shows the voicing  (arrangement of notes) he wants and they always sound wonderful. Richard hired Nilson Matta to play bass and Paulo Braga to play drums. He picked the very best musicians! Nilson and I have recorded three more albums and Paulo recorded another album with me before he moved back to Brazil.

Boukas had very clear ideas about how he wanted to bass and drums to play. Everything was carefully arranged and notated. Nilson and Paulo were annoyed by the constraints and there were moments in the 2 days of recording where I thought things would blow up in my face. We finished the recording and I was reasonably happy with the results. Richard is a great guitar player and although it was no Jazz World Trios in terms of spontaneity and musical interaction, it sounded fine. I would have to fix parts here and there, the music was very difficult, but the tracks were clear and I had played through the material as I felt it should be played. After the session was completed Richard asked me if he could double some of melodies on guitar (something typical of Brazilian music that frequently has a number of different guitars in a single ensemble). He also wanted to add his voice as another instrument. Richard has amazing ears and he can sing anything written with perfect intonation. Plus there is a tradition in Brazilian jazz to have guitar players sing while they play and especially sing along with their solos, without using words, but choosing syllables that give it that special Brazilian drive. I booked the studio for another day. 

When Boukas tried add the guitar to double the melody I had played, he decided he didn't like the way I phrased it. I had my flute so after he recorded the melody I tried to match his phrasing exactly. It took the better part of an hour. When Boukas says exactly, he means exactly, and I'm a free player who likes to take liberties with phrasing. We took a break and the engineer called me over. He said, 'you have a really nice record, if you get involved with Boukas it will take forever and cost you a fortune.' I had to make a choice. I got involved with Boukas. We rerecorded just about everything I had played to meet Boukas' ever more specific ideas of how the music should be played. Boukas was on a roll. He added layer after layer of guitars, big guitars, little guitars, an electric guitar (he had played on a classical guitar for the basic session) a steel-string guitar, banjo and an electronic effect that made the guitar sound like a Brazilian button accordian (a semphona). This took days and days. I had to leave for a week-long argumentation conference in Amsterdam. Boukas asked me if he could record voice over-dubs and percussion while I was gone. In for a penny, in for a pound! I said yes. When I got back he had recorded voice melodies over my flute melodies (frequently already doubled by guitar), he had recorded multiple voices as a chorus, he had song along with his guitar solos and had hired a percussionist to put in percussion colors and effects. The flute ended up being buried. He had spent about as much time (and therefore money) recording while I was away as everything we had done since the basic session. And all of those layers were recorded separately so mixing would be a nightmare, and would take forever and so would cost an additional arm and a leg. 

By the time we finished mixing, including micro-tuning instruments where the intonation didn't live up to a standard of accuracy that Boukas alone may hear, I was broke and Boukas was wiped out emotionally. He had a very rough patch for a pretty long time beginning the last day of mixing. He told me that I shouldn't feel responsible, I didn't. He had spent my money like it was going out of style and the result was an album in which, although any single track sounded great, the total album was not what it should have been, given the wonderful music and the great musicians. Boukas' layered arrangements were structurally repetitious and ultimately not very interesting as one tune followed another along the very same sequence of musical ideas. Although there were lots of instrumental colors, most beautifully selected, almost every tune started small with a flute melody (sometimes doubled by guitar) and then got more and more acoustically complex, layers of guitars, percussion and voice and then, the big finish, with Boukas' multi-tracked singing. The album, Tudo de Bom, cost me more to make than any album I ever made before or since. And I learned my lesson. After Dan Weinstein, Alexey Kharchenco and Richard Boukas I would never lose control of a recording again. My ex-wife Lesley had left the marriage before the Boukas recording. When we would discuss finances she would always say to me, 'you just don't understand money.' As unhappy as I was when she left, I was relieved that I didn't have to confront her with what Boukas' project cost me. 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

family matters

My nephew Dan Weinstein is a great musician working out of LA and more important he is a successful musician, using the musician's tried and true standard for success, he supports his family playing music. Dan plays trombone and violin and any other instrument he can put his hands on. My older brother Cy, a trombone player himself, tried desperately to keep Dan from playing the trombone. He had seen what happened to me after he gave me my first lesson, taking the trombone out of the case, putting it together, taking it apart and putting it back in the case (it was his trombone after all). When he let me take his trombone out for the second lesson I played the damn thing and didn't stop for the next 15 or so years. He wasn't going to let that happen to his first-born son, hence a violin as soon as Dan could hold one up. But Danny got a baritone horn as soon as he was old enough to play in a school band that had brass instruments, changed to trombone as fast as he could and saw himself as a trombone player ever since. Although he is one hell of a fiddle player and a great arranger.

That's Cy, 2nd from the left in the picture next to his youngest son David, a math professor. I'm to Cy's right and Dan is holding Julie his daughter, who now, at 9 years old, is already a great flute player. Cy's eldest, my niece Nancy, plays flute as well, as did my sister June.

After Jazz World Trios I thought success was inevitable. Plus a track from Cuban Roots had been included in a prestigious compilation record of the most important Latin jazz recordings of the 60's. Dan was recording with a number of Latin bands for a company called Cubop out of San Francisco. Cubop wanted to rerelease Cuban Roots but couldn't get anywhere with the company that had the master. So through Dan, Cubop asked me if I could recreate the album. I told them it was impossible since I no longer played trombone, but I would record the same material for them with another ensemble. I sent the company Jazz World Trios and they gave me a $10,000 budget to come to LA and record. Dan was to co-produce it with me, get the guys and write half of the arrangements. I had made some arrangement sketches a few years back for a singer who wanted a band with 3 trombones and flute. That was the ticket. The trombones would give it a connection to the original Cuban Roots, and give a lush background for the flute. LA is a center for Cuban folkloric drumming, so the pieces could easily fall into place. I let Danny know what I had come up with and he liked the idea. The plan was that I would write 5 charts and Dan write 5 ; it would by Weinstein x 2, a joint venture and a glorification of family and music.

I wrote my five charts. I extended the role of the trombones in a novel way, as compared to the standard use of trombones in salsa bands. I used the bass trombone extensively and wrote rich harmonies forming a chorus against which the flute played melodies, for call and response in the tradition of Cuban folk music, as well as the more standard riffs behind the flute solos. I left room for Dan to play solos and sent the 5 charts out to Danny sometime in November. He was a professional copyist (it was a bit early to expect people to use music writing programs) so he had quite a but of work to do: write 5 arrangements, copy out the parts from my 5 scores,  find musicians, book a recording studio and get me a motel room. But remember, Dan is a successful musician and that takes some doing, so Dan doesn't have a lot of time to spare. If he is not performing, he is rehearsing, or writing arrangements or copying out parts, or spending a minute or two with his kids or helping his father get around. 

It was after New Years in 1999 and I had a few weeks off after winter holidays and before the Spring semester began. So I booked a flight to LA. We had 8 days to do the session. I couldn't ask Danny for more time, he had a living to make. I got to the motel he booked for me, conveniently next to the musician's union, Local 47, which is surprisingly alive and well as compared to the once legendary Local 802 in NYC, which gained noteriety for striking right after WWII putting the record companies and Broadway shows out of business until they won a better deal for working musicians (those were the days). Local 47 had free rehearsal facilities that were heavily used by big bands to rehearse, but we could find smaller rooms to rehearse the trombones in and I would have a place to practice if the motel complained about my playing in the room. 

I landed in LA in the morning on Saturday and went to the motel. Dan showed up with an armful of music paper and his two daughters (Julie is his younger daughter. Her older sister Gabriela plays trumpet). We took the girls to lunch and I asked him how things were going. He said things were on track, but I had to meet Francisco Aguabella who was going to organize the drummers. Francisco is a legend among Cuban drummers, famous for his carnival performances in pre-Castro Cuba. Francisco had also played with Eddie Palmieri when I was back with the band right after I had recorded Cuban Roots. Eddie's solo trombone player Barry Rogers had left the band during one of his many attempts to disconnect. So I got to play all of the solos and Francisco was added as a second conga drummer, so the band was moving in the direction of 'heavy drumming,' the calling card of Cuban Roots. I thought Francisco would remember me. Dan, however, was supposed to have booked the musicians before I got there; but we had 8 days, no sweat. He had talked up the date among the guys and had the right musicians on tap. I spent some time with my brother and the family and went back to the hotel and crashed.

The next morning Dan showed up with his music paper and he told me he was busy all day and he would meet me later. He wanted to take me around to meet the guys, a musician imperative when a visiting musician comes to town, especially one who had some special status. And after I left the business, I was given all of the respect owed to the dead for conceiving of and recording Cuban Roots. Dan was very anxious to show off Uncle Mark.  So that night we hung out. It was Sunday, the studio was booked for Wednesday and Thursday. Since I would be pre-occupied during the recording, I would play my parts during the basic recording session, but I scheduled Friday morning to fix my parts and especially my solos. That gave most of Friday to mix and all day Saturday. I have to catch a plane on Sunday to be back to teach on Monday. I met Francisco at a doughnut shop on Sunday morning. He remembered me and we talked about some summer concerts we played in Harlem  the greatest moments of my trombone playing days with Eddie's band. And with Francisco in place, Dan knew who else to call. We would record secular music on the first day, rumba and comparsa, where the drummers would play conga drums and the second day for toques do Santo on which they would play bata. 

Michael McFadin, the owner of Cubop, asked if we would use Cuban pianist Omar Sosa on the date as well as percussionist John Santos. They were the leading Latin musicians in San Francisco and were both going to be in LA for a jazz convention. I couldn't be happier with the additions. And their presence eventually was the key the the records musical success. Omar contributed the finest music played at the session and John who is perfect gentleman, was willing to play the basic rhythm on the claves, palitos (sticks that keep time for rumba) and cow bell, instead of vying for the limelight. Most important, he could calm tempers whenever the egos of the drummers clashed, something that is all too common when you have 5 drummers in a room playing together

Sunday night Danny had a gig that he wanted me to sit in on, so the rest of Sunday was spent with my brother, Dan's family and doing the gig. On the way to the gig I discovered that Dan hadn't done any of his arrangements or any of copying. That was all of the music paper he had been carrying around.  He had planned to write every spare minute, but there were very few minutes to spare and so little or nothing was done. Dan assured me that this was no problem since he wrote without a piano and so could write or copy parts anywhere.

It also turned out the trombone players couldn't rehearse until Tuesday and the parts I wrote were both atypical and difficult, requiring nuance and blend, which is not a strong suit of Latin trombone playing. There was no question about rehearsing drummers, that just couldn't happen and Omar and John wouldn't be there until Tuesday night anyway. I started to get very nervous.

I spent Monday practicing and having a repair man look at my alto flute, more to kill time then for anything. Tuesday Dan showed up only to tell me he had a big band rehearsal at the union rehearsal hall during the afternoon and that some old friends were in the band that wanted to see me. We would rehearse the bones that evening. He had copied out the trombone parts for my 5 charts, but still had only sketched out one part of one of the 5 arrangements he was supposed to write. It was my trombone solo on a tune I wrote for Cuban Roots called Just Another Guajira harmonized for the three trombones, sort of an homage to his uncle. I was touched, it was a labor of love, but I was getting pissed. We had 5 half copied charts, a chorus of another and we had to record the next day. After hanging out with some old friends that had relocated to LA, Dan and I went into a small rehearsal room with the two other trombone players. They were great players and Dan is a clear copyist, they played through the parts, fixed notes, discussed phrasing, but basically didn't get anywhere near the familiarity that would let them play music in the high pressure situation of recording. Plus I was the only one who had a sense of how complex 5 Cuban drummers get when they are playing rumba and trying to impress each other with the depth of their bag, (that is, able to play things that are surprising and difficult to execute, yet correct in the highly stylized context of Cuban folkloric drumming). Drummers with deep bags make horn players lose the beat. And we had five drummers in the studio, playing their kind of music. I was really worried! Plus after the rehearsal Dan asked me about the chords I had used on one of the two tunes he was to have arranged. I was worried and I was pissed, he hadn't started the other 4 arrangements that I was counting on.

We got to the studio Wednesday at noon, Danny had been copying all night and had finished most of my arrangements and his arrangement for Just Another Guajira. The three charts of mine were for the first day, as was Just Another Guajira, so we were ready to record. I had met John Santos and Omar the night before and we made a solid connection. John had tremendous respect for Cuban Roots and Omar trusted John. Danny felt he could only finish two more arrangements and the remaining copying Wednesday night. So even it he got everything done we were a tune short of the 10 tunes we had promised Cubop. So we decided that the drummers would do an additional solo piece, setting the proper tone for the project by playing in the rhythm for Ellegua, which is the official way to open a serious musical offering. Ellegua opens the door and many of the people in the room, including me, took that very seriously. Dan had asked to write the chart for Ellegua, but he hadn't even started it. So letting the drummers play was a perfect solution, we could eventually use the drum version of Elegua at the end of the recording (to close the door and mark the recording over), use Dan's orchestrated version to start the record once it was written, and still begin the recording session with the proper respect for the religious music that was the heart of the project. The drummers sounded great, Omar was inspired and we dealt with the first arrangement, a classic rumba called Malanga. After the usual discussion about how to address the clave, we recorded. The drummers sounded great, the bass player Carlitos Del Puerto, son of the Cuban bassist with Irakere, Carlos Del Puerto, connected the drummers to the horn section and Omar played magnificently. He invented a way to play piano with the rich arrangements and sophisticated drumming that was a mixture of Count Basie, Chick Corea and the best of the Cuban piano tradition. He found beautiful harmonic extensions in support of what I had written, played with exquisite taste and tremendous swing, playing a delicate passage behind the horns and then levitating the drummers with a killer vamp (or 'guajeo,' the term for the repetitious figures that Cuban dance band pianists player). Omar played sequences of guajeos matching the shifting drum patterns and addressing the melodies and modern harmonies of my arrangements for the trombones.

The trombones sounded pretty awful, having a hard time playing in tempo with the complex drumming. We kept the bones low in the drummers' headphone mix so as not to throw them off time. All I could focus on was how the horns players were messing up my beautiful arrangements. And we couldn't really do more than one or two takes since we would lose the spontaneity of the drummers who were playing each take as if their lives depended on it. 'Don't worry we will fix the bones in over-dubs,' was the refrain. I played adequately showed Omar and the drummers the kinds of things I was going to play in my solos and was very grateful that I had built time in the recording schedule for me to fix my parts. I knew that I might have to do almost everything I played over again, but I had a whole morning set aside to do it. 

The drummers needed a bit of a break from the intensity of the first two tunes and I wanted the trombone players to get their confidence back.  Dan had taken a decent trombone solo on Malanga, but when he brought the trombones in with vamp  (called a muña) to push the flute solo, he misunderstood the drum pattern and brought it in across the clave (the ultimate sin for a horn section in a Latin band). I wasn't sure how we could fix that since it was loud and probably picked up by the mikes on the drum tracks. The trombones where in a booth facing the drummers who were spread out across the studio floor. Omar and I were in separate booths at the other end the studio and Carlitos was between Omar and the drummers with his electric base going directly into the board. The drums had about ten mikes and a few of them were pretty close to the trombones, and booths are not sound-proof. This wouldn't be a problem if we had to fix wrong notes in the trombones by overdubbing after the session was over. When you fix wrong notes the new note goes in the same place as the wrong one so the echo of the wrong one is covered up. But if you replace something in another place the slight sound of the original recording is likely to be heard, but life goes on. The time in Malanga gets spacey when the trombones come in, 'crossed' against the clave, behind my flute solo, but the tune sounds great anyway. But for now the trombone players were feeling pretty uncomfortable.

Dan had finished the chart for Just Another Guajira the night before, basically rewriting the original melodies and back-up figure. But he did have the ensemble harmonization of my trombone solo that the trombone players had rehearsed, and that is just the sort of playing that these great trombone players could do with panache. They could read and had great technique, and the complex and coordinated playing required to recreate a solo by a brass section is what horn players take the greatest pride in. This was the way to get the trombones back on track and enable them to regain the confidence of the other musicians. They did a great job and Dan's writing and their playing is quite impressive. Just Another Gaujira had another advantage as the next tune of the date. The drum part was fun and easy, a guajira is the simplest kind of cha cha beat and it swings. And the piano and bass parts were equally familiar and even routine, except for some interesting harmonies that make the tune something special to play. This was a tune to make everyone relaxed. But there was a problem.

Chick Corea had played the original recorded version of the tune on Cuban Roots and Danny wanted Omar to play what Chick had played behind the horn parts. Dan hadn't written out the piano part, just sketched the chords and Omar had just constructed an amazing role for the piano to play on Malanga. Plus, he was a little pissed at the trombones since he had had to listen to them to hear where he could add figures and contrasting harmonies, and he knew that they had screwed up. So he was in no mood to listen when Danny came into his recording booth, sat next to him on the piano and starting banging out his version of Chick's part. Omar started to get annoyed and told Danny to back off. Dan got on his high horse and said he was the arranger and that he wanted Omar to play what Chick Corea had played. Omar said, 'So call Chick Corea,' and for a minute I thought the record date was over. Fortunately lunch came, Pollo Loco for all, and everyone went to eat. Dan went to copy arrangements and Omar sat in his booth with his ear phones on. I was across the studio in my booth with my ear phones on (I had been listening in horror to their conversation which was picked up by the open mikes). I had my flute in my hands and Omar started to play. He played a phrase and I played something in response. We played like that without looking at each other for about 10 minutes. We stopped and came out of our booths. I said to him in Spanish, 'that's how you play on my record, whatever you feel.' We went to eat chicken.

The rest of the recording went pretty much the same. The high point of the second day was Danny playing a lovely violin solo on the toque for Ochun, Danny's patron saint. Danny had wanted to write the arrangement but only had enough time to writes out a simple harmonization of the melody based on the Cuban Roots original (He did write a brilliant arrangement for Ellegua that starts the album with beauty and love). He compensated for the lack of written horn parts by making it a piano and violin feature. Dan is a great violin player and him and Omar rose to the occasion, put bad blood behind them and played their asses off. But mainly, Danny was copying parts (he had piano and bass parts for two more of my charts to do and his entire arrangement for Ellegua). He wasn't taking breaks and generally raising the tension level, writing at the table, while the guys were having lunch. Inevitably there were copying errors and Danny was rewriting parts while as we were recording.  The trombones were getting through the charts but with some real problems. The drummers were having a ball, Omar was having a good time and I was just waiting until I could get into the studio on Friday and play without tension and with full concentration. Carlitos, the bass player, had a very high paying record date the second day and sent in a sub, Eddie Resto, who did a wonderful job playing the toques do Santo. The $10,ooo was just enough to pay studio costs and minimal money for the musician; Carlitos just couldn't afford to turn down the date. Danny did all of his arranging and copying for free, making the same money as the guys and I paid for all of my living expenses and flight. All in all, Cubop got their money's worth. A reasonable budget for the date would have been at least $15,000 and we should have had at least another day of mixing time.  'Whatever,' as they say. 

The music was all recorded that Thursday and Friday was to be my day to relax and concentrate on my playing. But there were trombone parts to fix. Danny decided that rather than bring back the trombone players he would over-dub all of the parts himself. He also decided to play bass trumpet on a tune that was supposed to be his trombone feature, a comparsa called El Barracón, for which he had memorized a trumpet solo by the legendary Cuban trunpet player, La Florecita, recorded on probably the best folkloric record to ever come out of pre-Castro Cuba, Festival in Havana. Barry Rogers had made me buy that record when I first joined Eddie Palmieri's band so that I would know the 'real deal.' That record has been my touchstone ever since. Danny nailed the trumpet solo on bass trumpet, but spent quite a bit of time playing his own solo, trying to bring it up to the sublime level of the classic solo he had played as an introduction before the band brings in the melody.

By the time Danny had recorded what needed to be done to fix the trombone parts, including at least a half hour on his bass trumpet solo, I was fuming. It was in the afternoon, he had been working for hours and I had to rerecord flute parts and do the basic mix. I went off! I have had three physical encounters in my life. In the second grade someone knocked my pencils off my desk and we got into a little kid fight in which the kid stabbed me on the wrist with a pencil (a blue dot which I will proudly show to anyone, my only mark of valor).  The other two were involved with my first wife when I was in my twenties. Some guys had made an unflattering remark about my soon to be wife and I, enraged, pushed one of them in the gutter. The real fight was when I jumped off the bandstand and attacking a guy who had made her laugh during a period when I was breaking her heart (I had confessed to an affair and told her I wanted to leave, we had a kid instead. Ah youth!). As Danny was packing up something he said made me lose it. I started to scream at Danny that he had fucked up my recording, that he was irresponsible, that he was an unreliable low-life mother fucker and push came to shove. The engineer broke us up before a blow was struck (we are musicians after all and who would risk a broken finger or a busted lip just to prove a point) and Danny left. I was sweating like a pig, white as a sheet and with my blood sugar down to nothing. I was trembling and dizzy and I had to record the flute parts and solos on more than a few tunes. I tried to play but couldn't get any breath support for the sound. Someone in the studio gave me a banana and some orange juice and I played through my parts an redid some solos in an hour or so. It is not my best playing, but as they say, it has moments. We started mixing and called it quits about 10 at night and left the rest for the next day. The engineer was marvelous. It was before pro-tools, but he had a computer automated board and so he could save his EQ's and section balances from tune to tune. This saved a lot of time, but it meant that once he had a balance for the three trombones that balance was used for all of the tunes and the same for the two drum ensembles, congas the first day, bata drums the second. Unfortunately that robbed the trombone parts of a lot of nuance, but miraculously the drums sounded great. The album, Cuban Roots Revisited, is among the best recording of folkloric drums to come out of the US. The horns are another story.

Saturday night, when I got back to my motel I listened to the tape dub of the finished record and I cried. It was very close, but no cigar. On the plane I listened to it over and over and knew exactly what I needed to do to fix the mix. The studio had sent a tape dub up to Cubop and after a few days I called Michael McFadin and told him we didn't have enough time to do the mix justice and I would pay to fly out and remix. He said he liked the mix. Cuban Roots Revisited was done. I swore I would never do a record without enough time to mix and remix if necessary, that I would never record on too small a budget, that I would never rely on another musician and that I would never mix family and music, that is, record with Danny. Lot's of luck! I'd would even love to do another project with Dan if he had the time and inclination.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

now or never

The 1980's was no time to live in Washington Heights if you had proclivities towards self-destruction. I was going through hard times. Faith, my toothsome sweetie was gone, living out her fantasy, going to India and ending up married in Bali. Sioux, my teenage dream girl, had gone off to the Rainbow Family after an all too brief year of great fun and romance. And the most beautiful one of all, a Punjabi women who must remain nameless, one of the great loves of my life, had finished her year and a half dalliance with sex and the seamier side of life and moved on to her proper station in life. I had gone bankrupt in 1980, pulled a job out of a hat thanks to Philosophy for Children, and was running around the city, first by subway and bus, then with my ex-father in law's trusty 1976 Dodge Dart, putting together a living as an educational consultant. The only 'club date' philosopher I knew, waiting until August to see if I had enough contracts to survive another school year. In the mid 80's my best friend Jerry had succumbed to the white beast in California and I let him live with me, when his choice was leave Santa Cruz or go to jail. Suffice it to say between Jerry and Washington Heights I was sunk. I met Lesley, my second wife, at the World Congress of Philosophy in Brighton, England in 1988 and grabbed onto her like the proverbial drowning man and the life-saver (she was to melt away after 11 years, but saved my life in the meantime).

My trouble behind me, ensconced in a beautiful house, built in 1902, in Glen Ridge NJ with a tenured position and two incomes, mine and Lesley's, I decided it was now or never. It was 1995, I was 55 years old, had been playing non-stop for 20 years, and Montclair NJ (next door to Glen Ridge) is a place to be if you want to be a jazz musician. The Dean I worked under was an ex-drummer and when he found out about my playing jazz he told me that Chris White was teaching jazz at the College. Chris had been the bass player at the first jam session I ever went to in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn when I was still in high school. And musicians never forget musicians. I called up Chris and he gave me a lesson. Chris is an all-time great teacher, who finds just what a student needs. I had plenty of chops and could play changes fine. He knew I played with Jamey Aebersold records. His advice to me was that when I practice with the records, I should play cliches. His example of a cliche was 'Happy Birthday.' He also told me to listen to women singers. It was perfect advise. I had to play melodies and I had to project a sound worth listening to.

Chris and I rehearsed a few time with a quartet with the great guitarist Jimmy Ponder and a drummer friend of his and I got a sense of how it felt to play with the 'big boys.' The college offered a performance opportunity. I got to play in the art gallery for openings, usually with bass and drums. Montclair was a cornucopia of musicians. One of my gallery gigs used Cecil Brooks III and Reggie Workman. Cecil was a great drummer and producer and he put together a rhythm section for me to record the four tune demo that became my first album, Seasoning. The quartet had Bryan Carrot on vibes and marimba and bassist Dwayne Dolphin. After the recording, Cecil pointed out that the days of 4 tune demos were gone forever. I liked the quartet tunes, but I felt I needed to do something out of the ordinary. There was a great little club in Montclair (now gone) that had guitar night on Wednesdays. New Jersey has always had a guitar players' scene and the two guitarists who alternated Wednesdays were among the best in New Jersey, Vic Cenicola and Vic Juris. Both of them played duos with another guitar player. Cenicola let horn players sit in. I became a regular at the session, but it was Juris who I was after. Vic Juris didn't let people sit in except for a few musicians he knew and I hadn't met him. He played with a fine young guitarist, a student of his Rob Reich. One Wednesday I called the club to see if Juris was playing and heard a flute player sitting on. I grabbed my flute and went down. Bob Ackerman, a local well-regarded sax player was playing flute with the duo. He had finished a solo and sat down at the bar, while the guitarists were still playing. I took out my flute and did the compare flutes thing that flute players do instead sniffing crotches (trombone players do mouthpieces). When the tune was over I walked up to the guitarists holding my flute, Vic glared at me, and I said 'let's play Stella.' We played Stella by Starlight, a tune that easily shows bebop skills, and Vic said, 'you know Cenicola is the jam session, not me.' I told him I was making a record and just wanted him to hear me play. Rob and Vic became the second rhythm section concept of Seasoning, flute and two guitars. And Vic Juris, Chris White and Cecil became the third concept. I had a finished album.

Vic was playing at the Blue Note and I was sitting at the bar talking to a nice old guy (whose name is lost to me). When I mentioned I had just recorded an album with Vic he told me that he had been associated with Concord Jazz and I laid a copy of Seasoning on him. After he heard it he offered to send it out to radio stations for me and gave me the bad news. Jazz CD's are expensive business cards. The main thing you do with them is give them away. He also told me about a Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo. I wish I could find out his name. He did me two really big favors and I'd love to thank him. He set my expectations low enough to survive the realities of being a jazz musician, as musicians used to say, 'he pulled my coat' and Romero was to become one of my favorite musicians to record with.

With Seasoning as a business card I was able to start working some gigs. The picture is Vic Juris, Chris White, Steve Berrios and me playing at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair in 1997. The three heads in front are my second wife Lesley and her parents, including my all time favorite father in law, Edmund who, 5 years older than me, Lesley was 18 years my junior, referred to me as 'the boy' during my first awkward visit to her family in England.

Jean Paul Bourelly had moved to Berlin and he had come to the states to pick up his van from his families home in Chicago and bring it to their new home in DC. He had a recording to do in New York and he asked me if he could leave his van in my driveway. I said 'sure' and asked him if he had time to record with me while he was in town. We had played some gigs and recorded two demo records in the past, but nothing had ever worked. Jean Paul knew about my interest in Cuban music and was very interested in African based music. When he got my place I played some folkloric records of Santeria music which he related to immediately. He recognized some of the melodies as songs he remembered his grandmother singing to him when he was a child (Santeria and Voudon share much of the same West-African heritage). I called Steve Berrios to play percussion. It was very short notice, Jean Paul only had a few days in town, and Steve was busy, so I called the master percussionist Milton Cardona who knew my history (I had done some arrangements for Milton of toques de Santo, the music played for the deities in Santeria). The three of us went into the studio and played two extended improvisations on the toques de Santo for Elegua and Babalu Aye. We recorded in a typical New Jersey basement studio run by a guitarist, Tony Vizcardo. Jean Paul only had an electric guitar with him, but I knew Tony had a number of acoustic guitars in the studio. Jean Paul decided to do the date on 12-string, which ended up being perfect for the music.

I got Romero Lubambo's phone number and asked him if he would consider recording a trio with me and a percussionist. I told him it would be part of an album that I had already begun with Jean Paul and Milton. That was good enough for him and we got together, picked tunes and discussed the concept. He called Cyro Baptista, a world class percussionist, who showed up with a van-full of amazing sounding percussion instruments that were the perfect complement to Romero's exquisite sounding hand-made classical guitar. I played the Jean Paul recording while we were setting up to show the guys what I wanted. We played two tunes, the first a 17 minute improvisation on a well-loved baioã, a classic example of music from the northeast of Brazil and a beautiful, but obscure bossa nova. I had 2/3rds of one of the most amazing recordings I have ever made, Jazz World Trios. I asked Jean Paul to recommend a bass player. He told me about Santi Debriano, who was to play with me on a number of other records. I played the music I had already recorded for Santi and he got Cindy Blackman to play drums. We played a 13 minute blues and an original composition of mine. Jazz World Trios was finished. I had touched the three kinds of music that I would focus on from then on, Brazilian, Cuban and post-bebop.

Jazz World Trios is a record I will always be proud of. It is wonderful music, but it was the experience of recording it that changed my life. I shouldn't have been able to pull it off. Jean Paul had never played with Cuban drummers. Milton seemed under the weather (he only had one conga drum, but fortunately the studio had a djembe). It turned out that he was suffering from a heart condition that would put him in the hospital soon after the recording. But Milton and Jean Paul hit if off musically and the music speaks for itself. Playing Brazilian music was even more of a stretch. I had never played authentic Brazilian music in my life. When I told Romero I wanted a folkloric tune he picked a baioã so fundamental to the genre that guys argue about what it is called and who wrote it. I had no idea of what a baoiã was! Romero and Cyro are masters of the genre and I had to play up to standard. I am quite content with the music we played.

But what stands out in my memory of the session, the experience that showed me what was up, was the first take of the recording session with Santi and Cindy. I was presenting a paper at a conference on argumentation theory at Alta, Utah and had a dream that I was a musician in the 30's and had written a hit song. I wrote down the melody of the song when I woke up, drawing the ledger lines on the manila envelope my paper was in. I wrote down the primeval blues melody that I named LKC Blues, my wife's initials and the name of our record company. I decided to record that with Santi as well as an art sung that I had written in Puerto Rico, on the road with a salsa band, when I was flirting with going to Juilliard to study composition. Playing a fundamental sounding blues is a tall order for anyone. Modern jazz musicians rarely mess with basic blues; that is Coltrane territory. I was dealing with musicians who had never played with me and playing the blues was coming on very strong. That was more pressure than the two earlier recording dates. Jean Paul and I went way back and we had the melodies we recorded in common. Romero had come by my house before the recording date with him and Cyro and we had played through the material. I had written some suggestions for harmonic development, so he knew the direction I wanted to go in. But I had never played note one with Santi or even met Cindy before. It was all or nothing! I told Santi to begin a medium blues with a classic bass line, 'like Sonny's Blue 7,' I said. I told Cindy to come in after the first chorus with press roll (the signature jazz technique first used by the New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds in the 1920's). She looked at me oddly. I said, 'let's run through it.' I played the deep blues melody from my dream, and as they say, 'took the music out.' They followed me like we had been playing every day for years and we never looked back. 13 minutes later the three of us walked into the booth to hear the take. Cindy looked at me and said 'we could never do that again.' I got religion! There was no way that I could have done that without some real help from G-d.

I am very much an ethnic Jew, but I was raised with no connection to the religion. My father was the kind of Russian-Jewish immigrant you rarely hear about, in and out of the army, a small time hood during prohibition and a manual laborer. That's why I was raised in the projects. My mother kept kosher until my brother came back from the Navy after WWII and wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast. We had Passover dinner and ate matzoh, but didn't even go to the synagogue on High Holidays. I had no Jewish education and since my father died when I was 12 1/2 never even had the sort of pseudo Bar Mitzvah that even secular Jews make their sons go through. But out of nowhere, when my son Jack hit 12 in 1981 I wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah. I called up an old student, Emile Pincus, who had recently become a Bal Teshuvah (one who was returned to serious observance). Emile and his wife Helen were among the stalwarts who would support me by coming to my gigs and Emile had asked in return that I come to the West Side Minyan the first time he chanted Torah at the Sabbath service. I called Emile and asked him how Jack could become a Bar Mitzvah and he told me to come with him to services at the Minyan. We did for almost a year and the community was kind enough to let Jack (and me) be called up for an Aliya (Torah honors, the essential thing to become a Bar Mitzvah) and so both of us became a Bar Mitvah the same day. Jack, in typical 13 year old fashion stopped coming to shul (synagogue). I felt too obligated to stop, plus there was something about the shul that I needed. I was going through a rough period after breaking up with my Punjabi sweetheart. There were lots of cultural reasons why the relationship couldn't work, but at the heart of it was that I was a failure, a recent bankrupt, and a musician. She just couldn't present me to her family. And that really hurt! I could sit in the shul and cry, an old Jewish tradition. It wasn't only the crying that led me to sit in the back by myself. I was an illiterate in a community of knowledgeable Jews and very ambivalent about religion in a community of committed Jews. But I came most Saturdays, sat alone and didn't relate to the people. They accepted me anyhow. The West Side Minyan was an amazing place, egalitarian and participatory, full of brilliant women who were permitted to read Torah (many of whom went on to become women Rabbis, when that was finally possible) and equally wonderful men. When I left New York with my life back in shape I committed myself to strive to connect to Judaism. I joined a synagogue in Montclair, learned Hebrew and began to pray regularly. But it was recording Jazz World Trios that gave me my first real sense of religious connection. There is just no reason for me to have been able to record that album. The other musicians are so great, the improvisations are exceptionally long and rely on the musical performance for structure (the tunes don't have the complex changes that carry a soloist) and with very little experience other than with Jamey Aebersold play-alongs, I played up to the level of those guys and we made music from start to finish. I put a line from the Psalms on the cover of Jazz World Trios, as I do on all my recordings. And on the desk top of my computer is the statement of my deepest commitment to spirituality: there are no atheists in recording studios.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

once more, from the top

I had about 25 minutes of music completed when Bob Blank pulled the plug on the free studio time. He figured that with the two prayers and three instrumental tunes I had more than enough to get a recording contract. Bob's plan all along was that I submit it to the record company that wanted the disco single. He was convinced the disco would be a hit and the company would jump at the chance of putting out such a richly innovative recording. Little did we know. The disco flopped and the company had no interest in innovation. I tried unsuccessfully to get other record companies interested in giving me a record date with no luck at all. But I did get airplay on Roger Dawson's Sunday Salsa Show on NPR (something very rare in broadcasting) and eventually did a live show on WBAI with Lenny Lopate. Roger was very supportive, even making a pitch to record companies for me during the broadcast. He eventually used a minute of one of the tunes as his opening theme. But it was no use, nobody was interested in the record. Except musicians. Everyone that I played the music for thought it was worth pursuing, but that didn't give me the money to record the rest of the material, another prayer and another tunes worth of drumming, enough for the 45 minutes required to record an LP. And I had a problem with Bob Blank and money.

I had promised Bob I would pay the cost for the raw tape; 2-inch tape that was used for multi-track recording was quite expensive and he had made me a number of good sounding 1/4 inch tape copies to play on reel-to reel recorders as well as a number of cassette copies. The whole thing was probably no more than a few hundred dollar. But I was totally broke. I had gotten as much money from friends as I could and was heading for bankruptcy. I had aced my comprehensive exams in the CUNY PhD program and had been given a full time teaching job at Hunter College that payed just enough for me to meet my obligations to my family and that gave me enough financial stability so that with the help of friends I could invest in the recording. But I lost the job when NY went bankrupt in 1976 right after I successful defended my dissertation and received the PhD. I had started the recording project the year before and had every expectation of pulling enough money from my paycheck to complete the recording and even, eventually, to pay back my friends if the album didn't sell. But I had been put up for promotion to Assistant Professor by the Philosophy Department contingent upon my receiving the degree. So when I received my PhD, and since promotions were frozen city-wide, I was fired instead of promoted and had to go back to teaching part-time as an adjunct at about 1/3 the salary. So I just couldn't spare the few hundred dollars that I owed Bob and humiliated at my failure to keep my end of the bargain left the 2-inch master with the additional recorded material at Bob's studio. I never saw the 2-inch master again. Given how much a reel of 2-inch cost, I was pretty sure Bob had cut his losses and reused the tape and so a priceless recording of Olympia Alfara (who has since passed away) was lost forever.  But I still had the 25 minutes of music I had recorded on a few decent tape copies and I started playing the music for any musicians that would listen.

Trumpeter Randy Brecker, who by now was quite famous , was running a jazz club called Seventh Avenue South. I had met Randy the summer before he came to New York when I was playing trombone with Herbie Mann at the Newport Jazz Festival. I had helped him connect with a number of bands that I was playing with and he was always grateful to me. He heard the music and offered me a weekend at the club. I put together a band with a great electric bass player, Eddie Guagua, three Cuban drummers, led by Tommy Lopez Sr. who had been the drummer that first refused to play the religious music, but then played on Cuban Roots once Julito said it was permitted to play jazz to the prayers. And Warren Smith playing vibes, marimba and assorted percussion. Warren ended up putting the horn section together for Janis Joplin, after I turned down her offer and quit the business, so he knew me and my music. He and I wheeled set a of vibes with a marimba upside down on it and a big  canvas trolley on wheels filled with gongs and bells down 7th Avenue from his studio in the West 20's to Seventh Avenue South, below Bleeker St (it is nights like that that a musician's dreams are made of). It was a unique concept, folkloric drumming, Warren playing percussive melodies and accenting with all of his percussion effects, a groove bass player and me playing free on top of it all. 

The club was packed with musicians who were curious as to what I was up to and after the second set on Friday a musician I didn't know, Mike Morganstern, came up to me and made me an offer. He was running a prestigious jam session under the aegis if the Jazzmania Society every Tuesday and he asked me if I would be willing to come down and play as a featured soloist. I jumped at the opportunity. I might not have been able to get a recording contract, but I was getting support from my fellow musicians. That had always been how I succeeded as a trombone player and it seemed to be happening again. The next Tuesday I went down to the session. The room was packed and there were about a half dozen sax players waiting to sit in. Mike gave me a big build up, describing the gig he had heard and talked about what a great innovative player I was. The band started to play a tune I didn't recognize and I, as the featured soloist, had to play the first solo. I had never played bebop on flute in my life, I only played free or with guitar players playing folk or rock patterns. And I started to flounder, trying to find the chords under my fingers. After my first chorus the sax player next in line to play nudged me away from the microphone and that was the end of my debut as the next great jazz flutist. I was devastated! But one thing was clear, playing free was not going to cut it; I had to learn to play bebop.

Although I played in the park as much as I could, I had stayed away from Washington Square Park where there always were two or three jazz bands jamming on the weekend. Their were always great sax and trumpet players, amplified guitar and bass and a drummer. It was street music and it was a loud as it could be, each band trying get the attention of the audience and each musician trying to outdo every other musician. Flute players (who played free or folk music, as I did) were not welcome, barely tolerated and almost totally inaudible. I started hanging around sitting on a bench playing along with the band far enough from the noise so that I could hear myself. I started to feel comfortable playing on bebop tunes, and pretty soon a few people would stand around and listen to my version of what the band was playing. I started meeting musicians and got enough respect so that they would let me play with the bands, but the volume was so loud that I never could really play comfortably, since I could barely hear what I was playing except when I would bang out high notes. 

All of the jazz guitarists who played with the bands had electric guitars except for one older guy who, like me, sat on the periphery and played along with the band on an acoustic guitar. I started sitting next to him when I played and soon he and I were sitting by ourselves away from the band playing acoustically on our own. It was a classic encounter, a cliche in musician movies. His name was Slim, African-American, no front teeth and in his 50's. He was recently out of jail after a long stretch and had learned how to play bebop guitar in jail. He had been a blues guitar player and a sax player in jail had taught him to play the chords to bebop tunes. Slim played bebop like a folk musician, simple clear patterns with strong time. Plus he didn't like to play solos. It was perfect for me. Pressed for cash and habituated to pot, I would hook up my friends with musicians who had the best weed, so I always had a taste for Slim and me. I generally had enough money to spring for beers when the guys who sold beer out of shopping bags came around so Slim was always happy to see me. We would play for hours. And I was getting my bebop chops together. One day a young, tall kid sat down in front of us watching Slim intensely. He listened for almost an hour, got up and left without saying a word. One of the other musicians came up to us and said, "Do you who that guy is? He is playing on 6th Avenue and he is a monster." Later I checked him out and he was one of the best guitar players I had ever heard. It was Jean Paul Bourelly who at 19 had just arrived in New York. He was later to play with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and with many other great musicians. We became life-long friends and he has recorded 2 albums with me and was responsible for getting together the Berlin date that I discussed in my second blog. Jean Paul started playing a few gigs with me, and playing with him was a revelation. He was such a great player that I came to realize that I had a very long way to go if I wanted to be taken seriously as a jazz musician.

That is when I discovered Jamey Aebersold. Every musician knows what I'm talking about. In the 1970's, Jamey Aebersold, a jazz saxophonist and educator had the brilliant idea of recording serious play-along records for aspiring jazz musicians. Before than there were only 'music minus one' records that let you play the melody and perhaps one chorus with dance-band rhythm sections. Jamey's idea was to record great rhythm sections (piano, bass and drums) playing the jazz repertoire with lots of room for solos, chorus after chorus, so the soloist could really stretch out and learn the changes to the tunes. Jamey Aebersold's recordings have revolutionized jazz playing. They are mandated for students in jazz programs in high schools and colleges (jazz programs are becoming the new economic foundation of the jazz industry. Teaching in a jazz program is how more and more jazz musicians manage to survive and young jazz musicians still buy jazz records). In my opinion Aebersold is directly responsible for the uniform level of competence young university trained jazz musicians invariably display. Playing with those great rhythm sections, learning the repertoire and, most important, soloing as much as you want without worrying about grand-standing for the audience or other musicians lets a developing jazz musician experiment and remediate, try anything or work for perfection. I own dozens of Jamey Aebersold recordings and played with them for hours and hours every day for 20 years.

I was broke but playing better and better. There where few gigs available and I needed to play with other musicians and for people. I was still wandering the parks looking for opportunities to play. I had bought a travel amplifier and a microphone to play with some conga drummers I had met in the park and started carrying it around with me.  One day in Central Park I saw an odd combination of musicians, mandolin, guitar, bass and drums. I caught the eye of the guitar player, hooked up my mike to the amp and started to play with them. The guitarist, Steve Groves and I hit it off. We became a regular street band and I started playing on the street regularly, earning small amounts of badly needed cash and applying what I was learning playing with Jamey Aebersold recordings on the 'bandstand.' The Almardewisegroove Quintet (right to left in the photo, Steve Groves, Bob Demaio, Alex Gressel, Martin Aubert and me) became a fixture during the golden age of street music in New York in the late the late 70's before it was all shut down in the early 80's. By that time I was working as a school consultant so I couldn't do it regularly anyway, but it did lead to some interesting moments. I had just applied for a part-time teaching job at the Ethical Culture (on 64th St.and Central Park West) and was out on the street playing. It was the horn players job to walk around with the drum case when the other players where soloing and get people to give the band some money. I was doing the thing and there in front of me was the Chair of the Ethics Department who had interviewed me a few days before. He put a few coins in the case. I did get the job eventually and ended up writing a curriculum that was published as the Fieldston Ethics Reader, something that I am very proud of.

The few dollars from playing on the street and, once again, teaching as an adjunct was not enough to meet my family obligations. I went through all of the available credit that I had, based on teaching full-time at Hunter College, and went bankrupt. I had to do something with my life. Through a lucky encounter with a former doctoral student from the CUNY program I learned about a program called Philosophy for Children that gave PhD's in philosophy the chance to work with schools helping students to develop thinking skills. Broke and with no job prospects that could support me and my family I went for a two week training session and was given the opportunity to work, at a minimal salary, in schools in New Jersey. That went well and within in a few years I had moved the program into New York and had expanded it to a grant-funded program through CUNY and the New York Board of Education called the Reasoning Skills Project. It was a full time job, traveling throughout the city running programs in 12 out of the 36 school districts in New York. I started to become known as a thinking skills expert and after a number of years got a position as Associate Director of the Institute for Critical Thinking at Montclair State University. That required a refocusing of my energies and flute playing became a hobby rather than a career option. My end-run around the music business had crashed and burned. All I had to show for it was 25 minutes of great music and an unfilled desire to do something with my growing competence as a jazz flutist. 

My life had turned around. I had a job, was publishing and was making presentations at critical thinking conferences all over the world. I had met my second wife, Lesley, at the World Congress of Philosophy in 1988. And I had defeated a 1980's substance-abuse issue with her help and my own determination, fueled by growing terror at what the headlines would look like if my stupid risk-taking behavior had led to exposure. My focus was on succeeding as an academic and I had to leave childish things behind me. I was still playing with Jamey Aebersold records every day, working gigs once and a while and I even made a few demo recordings with Jean-Paul. But I never felt satisfied enough with the results to do anything with them. I settled down into the routine of being a married academic, bought a house in New Jersey and built a successful career: tenure, full professor and head of the department. And of course, I was going nuts. I needed to play.