Thursday, October 8, 2009

confronting demons

Sometime ago I mentioned that I had entered two competitions for jazz flute sponsored by the National Flute Association (NFA) to perform at the annual convention in New York City, August 2009. The NFA has an enormous membership, in the thousands. Every serious flute player and a host of amateurs are among its members. And overwhelmingly they are all classical flutists. I had a lot of confidence that I would prevail in a competition limited to jazz flutists, but I had enormous anxieties about playing in front of classical flutists. I have a unique sound, in a world where flute sound is of paramount importance in evaluating flutists and an  idiosyncratic technique. I never really studied the flute, in the sense of preparing classical music under the tutelage of a teacher and so never mastered many of the flute tropes that come from the literature. Rather, I play like a cross between a sax and a trumpet.

Happily I can report that I won in both competitions. The video below is part of the recording session I submitted for the competition. I am quite pleased with it. It is Body and Soul played in Gb, which is what the original key of Db turns into when you play alto flute. Paul Meyers is the guitarist.

The conventions had ups and downs. I performed with a Jazz Flute Big Band, with 30 other flutists. I played alto flute, was selected to play a solo and had a wonderful time interacting with some of the best jazz flute players in the country. Ali Ryerson led the band and it was a true pleasure to spend 4 afternoons rehearsing and a gala concert that ended the convention on many, many high notes, especially from a 12 year old monster flutist who played piccolo.  The other competition category was to perform at a master class with Lew Tabakin (that is me, him and the other two winners in the photo). Lew and I go way back. He introduced me as the 'world's loudest trombonist.' Lew had sat in front of me in a number of big bands in the 60's and has often remarked, including at the master class, that sitting in front of Mark Weinstein playing trombone is an 'experience no one forgets.' He is a great saxophonist and a formidable jazz flutist. When I found out that Lew was doing the master class, rather that Holly Hoffman who ran the competition, I was made rather anxious. Lew was always aggressive in his attitudes towards musicians and had the high standards that comes from playing saxophone in the 1960's when the prevailing high standard was set. He met the standard then and now and has had a brilliant career. I only hoped that 40+ years of success had mellowed him out somewhat. Not a chance!

The deal was for the winners to play a song of our choice with a pianist. Holly asked me to play first. Because of chronic sciatica I set up a stool by the piano and sat on the stage before Lew came up. When he did, he went into a long spiel about how much he wanted to play with the pianist and played a long a complex version of standard. I just sat there getting more and more nervous.  He played everything imaginable, starting out rubato, going into time, double timing etc. He played through dozens of technical set pieces from the classical repertoire and swung his ass off. It was quite a performance.

There was nothing for me to do but try to play up to him. I had selected Stella by Starlight, a harmonically rich and beautiful melody made famous by Miles Davis whose performance of the song in a live concert in Europe has always been the bell-weather for my playing. I started out unaccompanied, playing rubato (as had Lew) expecting the pianist to come in. He didn't so I was stuck playing a whole chorus by myself. I started softly with total concentration, as I realized that without the piano player I really had to nail the changes and yet play free enough to warrant playing without an accompanist. After a full chorus of solo flute the piano player came in and I played about 4 or 5 more choruses. I was playing totally on auto-pilot, deep into the music and paying no attention to my sound. I had to show my mastery of the form, the hell with the flute. That was a mistake. The first thing Lew said after I played was that the most important thing about the flute is its sound. And then went on to play the tune for a few choruses (between you and me and a number of people who spoke to me afterwards his performance focused more on playing bebop than on flute sound) but still he was the teacher. I played another few choruses playing more simply and concentrating on sound and then he made me play fours with him. We ended up playing simultaneously, improvising and trying to be musically coherent despite the fact that it had turned into a 'cutting contest.' He didn't give me a break. I did everything I could to play up to him. The session lasted the better part of a half hour. 

After the other two winners played, without much interruption from Lew and certainly without the battle that he had forced me into, the four of us played a blues and it was over. Holly came over to me and shared her feelings about the master class. The result was that we sat in the hallway later that day and she gave me some of the best tips on sound production that anyone ever gave me. Her support and her willingness to be helpful was a stark contrast with Lew's approach to running a master class. But what he did was quite typical of many musicians'  attitude towards teaching and I take it as a compliment that he put me through the wringer.

Given this is October and the conference is in the past, the question is why do I bring it up now. The reason is because I just confronted a real demon, compared to which playing at the NFA was small beer. Last year I did a number of recordings including a half an album of tangos. The story behind that is as follows. I was at a jazz convention two years ago sponsored by JazzImprov magazine. I had a number of albums ready to go and I was networking like crazy. I ran into Jochan Becker the President of Zoho records. He had passed on my album Algo Más a number of years ago, after first showing some interest (he was not crazy about the vocals, which were an integral part of the concept). He always felt badly that he had not put the album out since it led to my long-standing relationship recording for Jazzheads. Jochan suggested that if I wanted a good chance at a Grammy nomination I should record a tango album (by far the category with the fewest entries) and that he had just the right guy to do it with me, Pablo Aslan, a bassist who recorded for Zoho and who was interested in innovative tango projects. I contacted Pablo and we decided to do a half album. He selected the material and wrote arrangements for flute, piano, bandoleon, bass and guitar, classic tangos in the heart of the tradition. My job was to do something new with them.

Pablo is a meticulous musician. He hired the best guys around (bringing in a pianist from Buenos Aires) and wrote classic settings. We rehearsed and recorded the material in my usual fashion, one long day. I handled the material, read the charts and played solos. The date was finished. I made a copy of the recorded material and took it home to listen. My initial response was: Why? The music was good enough but there was no reason for me to be playing it. I knew very little about tango music so I played my usual Latin inflected bebop and it was totally meaningless. There was nothing in what I did that added anything beyond the novelty of the flute. I sat on that music for more than a year, terrified to even think about dealing with it. I would listen to the  session from time to time, enough so that I eventually had those melodies in my head, but I didn't have a clue as to how to handle the improvisation. I had no idea as to how to make a musical contribution to the form. In the meantime I had connected with Aruan Ortiz and recorded the second half of the album, Cuban danzones as I discussed a few blogs back. Playing the danzones moved me closer to the spirit of the tango, but still I had no sense of how to play the music. The beauty of the tango, as I listened closely to the recordings, is the tension between the strict 2-beat rhythm (carried mainly by a bowed bass) and a free almost rubato approach to the lines. You had to always end up on strong beats, but in between you sped up and slowed down, playing freer in time that either Cuban or Brazilian music permits, which is much freer than bebop. The lines swooped rather than swung. Pablo had notated some runs for me as 11-tuples, that is, 11 notes across a half note. Now that is hard to do and not even accurate since the way you get the odd meters in time is by playing the line with an accelerando and then slowing down to compensate. It is a style of playing that takes a life-time to master and I had dealt myself the task of doing it right the first time. Or at least the 2nd time. I gave myself another shot.

Last week I went into the studio and played the five short solos over and over for a few hours. Each one took lots of takes and lots of listening until I was finally able to find a way to add my music to a form that was completely alien to me. I tried everything from bebop to Cuban to completely free jazz, letting my fingers and ears lead me. By the end of the session I had the music recorded. It is different from anything that I have done and shows a whole new side of my playing, yet it sounds like me. It will be a while before anyone else hears it. I have Timbasa coming out in February and I still have the album with Kenny Barron that I recorded around the same time finished and in the pipeline. But I can wait. I confronted the demon and I got through it. The tangos are finished!

Friday, September 11, 2009

a great story

I told the story below August of 2008 as the second blog entry. It is a great story. And with Ota records starting the promotion for Tales From the Earth starting I thought many of the blog readers might have missed it. 

The photo is of the musicians on the date (minus the balafone player Aly Keita). The musicians are, front row, left to right Omar Sosa, Jean Paul Bourelly (my co-producers), Ahu Luc Nicaise (lead singer and percussionist), back row, percussionist Mathais Agbonou, me, bassist Stan Michalak and drummer Marque Gilmore

The session was put together by guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, a master musician and one of my all-time friends. We met in the 70's when I was playing in Washington Square Park, learning how to play bebop from a guitarist, just out of jail, whose name was Slim. Anyway, Jean-Paul recorded an album with me in 2003 called Algo Mas, my first recording on Jazzheads and my first recording with master percussionist Pedrito Martinez who was one of the drummers on Con Alma (2006) and who co-produced Timbasa the album that will be coming out on Jazzheads early in 2010. Jean Paul (in 2004) was producing a concert in Berlin called the Black Atlantic, a week long festival of African based music from Europe, the US and other places. He asked me if I would play on it, but then took back the offer since somehow a white Jew from Brooklyn was not the image the concert was promoting. While we were discussing the possibilities I asked him who would be there, and he mentioned that Omar Sosa would be there and a number of African musicians including balafone virtuoso Ali Keita. Omar had recorded an album with me in 2001, Cuban Roots Revisited, and I knew Omar was originally a classically trained mallet player (vibes, marimba, tympani, the works) and so I had a brain-storm. Go to Berlin and make an album with vibes, marimba, balafone (an African marimba and the reason they play marimbas in Central and South America) African percussion and myself.

So here is the background. Picture this! A brick complex in Berlin, a number of buildings around a small park, behind the main street and isolated from the traffic. Me (a New York Jew) a Polish bass-player, tall and thin, with glasses and a beret, dressed in black (a classic image of a Polish intellectual). Three African musicians, two dressed in vividly colored African style clothes, Omar Sosa, a black Cuban, who is dedicated to Santeria and so who was wearing all white clothes and with beads and as always when he plays, incense on the piano (we played music that was based on the African religion that is the basis for Santeria),  An African-American drummer, Marque Gilmore with dread-locks past his waist and Jean-Paul, 6 feet 4, of Haitian-American descent. We went into the studio with absolutely nothing, nothing planned, no music, not even a concept and recorded two days of free-jazz based on African themes. It was amazing! Now, at last, the story:

Towards the end of the first day as evening was approaching I went outside to look at the beautiful little park and  to smoke a Dutch cigarillo, very addictive, don't even try them. Outside was one of the engineers. I asked him, 'This is a very interesting complex, is it pre-war?' He looked at me and said, 'The complex was Goebbels' information ministry.' It was pure acid! Here I was playing free-jazz to African music, a Jew, a Pole, 3 Africans and 3 new-world people of African descent in the heart of the Nazi culture machine, its idea factory.

The next day we piled into two cabs outside the hotel we were all staying in and headed back to the studio. The entrance to the complex was a very narrow street and the lead cab driver missed it. So we stopped in the avenue and walked the few hundred feet to the complex. And there in the middle of the narrow street leading to the complex was a dead rat, big as a cat, squashed by a car. And I had an epiphany-- clear as a bell. The rat was Goebbels, the music drove him crazy and he ran out to be smushed by a car.

If you want the more details about how the music was recorded, scroll down 2 blog entries. 

Today is September 11th, cold and rainy, a dreary early Fall day and a perfect contrast to the bright warm September in 2001 when the Twin Towers were hit. I lived on the lower East Side when the Towers were being built and was very much into biking in the city. I was the cause of amusement to some construction workers one day when I biked down to the construction site and so taken by the structure fell sideways off my bike as I side-swiped the curb. My ex-wife was stuck on the NJ Turnpike on her way to work and saw the towers fall. I was getting a pepper and egg hero at the local Italian bakery when I heard that a plane had hit the towers. I rushed home just in time to see the second tower hit. I didn't believe my eyes. I live in Glen Ridge, an upper middle class community 12 miles west of Manhattan and many of my neighbors suffered losses of family and friends as did a number of my students. The resulting horror of loss of life, pain and finally foreign misadventures that caused even more loss and pain remind me of the sacrifice of the many ordinary people who have suffered as a result of war. Playing in the studio in Berlin gave me hope that even the worst human tragedies can be over-come by the human spirit. Today, remembering 9-11-2001 I can only hope and pray that the current nightmare of Iraq and Afghanistan might some day be no more than a memory and that peace might reign again someday between the various children of Abraham-- Muslim, Christian and Jew.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

romance in summer

That is Mauricio Herrera with a guiro at a percussion overdub for my latest project, Todo Corazon, an album of tangos and danzones. "Why a picture with a guiro?" you may ask. Well oddly enough the guiro is the soul of the swing in charanga music, the flute and violin based music that began with danzones in Cuba in the 1950's and morphed into a truncated NY version that was extremely popular with dancers in the 60's and 70's. This is a project that I have wanted to do for 30 years. In the late 70's, after I recorded the Orisha Suites I contacted both Eddie and Charlie Palmieri in hopes that they would be impressed with the music and help me back into the business. Eddie met with me and we had a drink. I gave him a tape of the music and never heard from him again. Charlie, on the other hand, invited me to his house and listened to the tape (his son had recorded the first session of drums and voices). He was very complimentary and I proposed a project, that we record a modern charanga based on the classic compositions that Cachao wrote for Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, an amazing charanga of the 50's in Cuba. He said to send him a tape of the material. It had recently been rereleased on an LP but he hadn't heard it. I got it to him and never heard anything further. The project went into the deep freeze.

Last year I went through an amazing period of recording, two and a half albums. Timbasa, out after the first of the year, Jazz Brasil with Kenny Barron, hopefully out next spring or Fall 2010 and half a tango album. The tango album was prompted by a remark to me by Jochan Becker of Zoho records, that the way to get a Latin Grammy was to make a tango album. He suggested that I contact Pablo Aslan, a jazz bass player from Argentina, who records for Zoho to do a joint project. I called Pablo who was quite interested and we met in his house. Amazingly he lived only a few blocks from where I lived my teenage years at 640 East 2nd Street in Brooklyn. A 'fetid tomb' as I described it in one of my early and rare attempts at poetry, where my earliest angst over sex and women set the stage for my later life. I remember practicing the trombone near an open window in my mother's bedroom looking out at the house next door, where my neighbor Carol once stood naked to the waist near the window while I was practicing (only once). I played by the window for weeks hoping for a repeat (no luck). And where I waited my turn to neck with Irene next door. She went further with her favorites (not me), but she was an equal opportunity kisser at age 14. Such fond memories of the 50's! No wonder I got married as soon as I could. But nostalgia aside, going back to 64o and eating in a Russian restaurant on Ditmas Avenue was a blast. As was working with Pablo who wrote some beautiful settings and got top tango musicians including importing a pianist from Buenos Aires. 

As lovely as the tangos were, I felt the format, flute, piano, bandeleon (button accordion), guitar and bass was too restrictive for a whole album. I thought to contrast the tangos with half an album of baiaõ, music from the Northeast of Brasil that uses a button accordion as well. But between my unhappiness with the Brazilian musicians who were completely unforthcoming as far as any kind of payback for the many recordings we did together, and the fact that I had three completed records coming out (Tales From the Earth, Timbasa and Jazz Brasil) over the next couple of years, the half album of tangos remained unfinished.  

About four months ago I received (along with a number of other musicians) an email from Aruan Ortiz introducing himself as a composer and arranger available for projects. Aruan included his resume, conservatory trained in Cuba and Spain as well as Berklee, where he studied and later taught. He had been a violist but moved to piano. He currently plays with Wallace Roney and when I asked him, during our recent recording session, whether Wallace was playing Latin jazz he looked me with a twinkle in his eye and said "Don't stereotype me." He is one hell of a jazz piano player. 

After I recorded Tales From the Earth with Omar Sosa, I proposed to him and his manager that Omar write me a modern charanga album. I held on to the idea of using the Arcaño recordings as a basis, but I knew that Omar's harmonic sense and approach to music would permit a transformation of the classic compositions while retaining their musical integrity. They were both  excited enough about the project that we even came up with a budget. But Omar's busy performance schedule made it impossible for him to do a serious writing project and it never came to pass. Aruan's resume opened the door. Tangos are deeply romantic music and so are danzones. They both exemplify a total lack of musical embarrassment, an unabashed romanticism. Danzones would be the perfect compliment to the tangos, the richness of the strings setting off the sparse instrumentation of the tangos, and with Cuban percussion to spice things up against the suave swing of the tango, driven by bowed acoustic bass and piano. I contacted Aruan by return email and we arranged for me to send him the material (now on CD). We set the parameters for the project in terms of money and personnel and after some weeks (he had been in Europe with Wallace) he called me to play some sketches of material. I grew up in Fort Green Projects in Brooklyn and when I map quested his address I was amazed to discover that getting to his house would take me through the projects (on Navy Street) and up past Fort Green Park and the stores that I remembered from my boyhood. On the corner of North Oxford and Myrtle Avenue was Sarjay's where I had my first ice cream sundae, a pineapple temptation with chocolate ice cream, courtesy of my big sister June. It was still a candy store. The line of stores built when the project was built looked just the same, as did the people on the street. Driving home, I passed Cumberland Hospital where I got my flu shot at 7 or 8, standing in line in an over-heated corridor with kids screaming and my mother terrified that I might get the flu right then and there. And I ended up in Junior's where I had corn beef and pastrami on twin onion rolls and a piece of cheese cake. Ah the musicians life!

When I got to Aruan's place he played some of the music on the piano. It sounded just right, modern harmonies, but with beauty and transparency. We confirmed the project and he was off, back to Europe. About another month past and he contacted me, we set two dates. The first day to record piano, bass, percussion and flute. A second day to record a string quartet. The idea was that I would play through the tunes including solos with the rhythm section and then after the strings were recorded reconsider what I should redo in light of the rich string environment. Aruan called Yunior Terry on bass and Mauricio to play timbales during the date and then add guiro and conga afterwards. The date went perfectly. The music was difficult. I had told Aruan that I didn't want to solo on simple repetitive montuno changes. I didn't know what I was asking for. He wrote amazing chords, and amazing harmonies in general. It was a real treat and a challenge to read his music and the solos were very strong all around, including Mauricio who played his usual mind blowing solos, and without any other drummers to hold the time. The four of us were very happy with the results. There was no time for Mauricio to put in guiro and conga and the strings were scheduled for the following Friday. I was off to Miami in search of an old love that beckoned. A disaster as it turned out. Never commit to spend a romantic weekend with someone you haven't seen in 30 years. The trip worked out musically though, since I really wanted to stay our of Aruan's hair and let him record the strings without my interference. I was sure the parts were difficult and although Aruan hand-picked the string players I figured it would be rough enough without me looking over their shoulders. As it turned out it took 3 hours to do the first tune and over 9 hours for the five tunes. Two reworking of Arcaño recordings, two originals by Aruan and a gorgeous bolero which sums up my love life completely, Contigo En La Distancia (with you far away). I heard the strings for the first time a week after I got back from Miami, when Mauricio did his overdubs. I was totally knocked out!

The picture is Aruan with the strings checking out a chart. Aruan is another of the Cuban musicians that reflect what might be among the greatest successes of Castro's Cuba. Whatever else the revolution did it turned Cuba into a music powerhouse. The young Cuban musicians I have been given the privilege of recording with are certainly among the best musicians I have ever encountered. Omar Sosa, Axel Laugart, Aruan Ortiz, Pedrito Martinez, Yunior Terry and Maurico Herrera are consummate musicians (check out Mauricio in the picture, when did you ever see a guiro player reading a chart?). They are classically trained, deeply rooted in Cuban folkloric forms and consummate jazz musicians. Music education is supported by the government but resources are limited and the competition is fierce. The result is that the best musicians are fantastic, and luckily for me they often come to live in New York. So I have at my disposal a level of musicianship that transcends anything I experienced in the 60's and, in my opinion, moves Latin jazz to a level beyond which American born or raised  Latin jazz musicians of whatever ethnic background have to offer.  But only time will tell. When the records are released I'll get some sense of the realities, and hopefully get some reprieve from the anxieties that my constant quest for recognition loads me down with. Meanwhile playing with the Cubans is a completely different experience from my recent experience recording with the Brazilians. I feel totally accepted, am completely relaxed in the studio and feel that there is a mutuality of musical aspiration that gives me the support I need for my vision of where to take the music. I'm already thinking of my next project based on the availability of a great tresero (one who plays the six string Cuban guitar that is tuned in double strings and with a characteristic tuning) in New York. Mauricio who is from Oriente, grew up playing bongos on Son and Changui, and so another folkloric avenue has been opened up to me. Maybe I'll do half an album of Cuban music and for the other half return to Brazilian forms and record Baioã as I originally intended. I'm a sucker for punishment, but I do love Brazilian music.

Monday, June 15, 2009

five years later

Five years ago, in the Spring of 2004, after recording O Nosso Amor, I went to Berlin to record an album with African musicians. The date was organized for me by my dear old friend Jean Paul Bourelly (I tell a great story about the date in my second blog, August of 2008). The recording was prompted by a number of things, but the key element was the presence of Omar Sosa, the great Cuban pianist, in Berlin at that time. Omar had recorded "Cuban Roots Revisited" with me in 1999 and I knew that his first instrument was 'mallets,' that is tympani, marimba, xylophone and any other orchestral instrument that you play with a mallet (a thin supple stick with a ball of various hardness at the end). I knew Omar would jump at the chance to record an album on marimba and vibes since he recorded on piano almost exclusively. When he left Cuba he first went to Ecuador where there is a long tradition of marimba playing influenced by the heritage of the African slaves who brought the tradition of the balafon from Benin. And among the African musicians available in Berlin at the time was Aly Keita, a balafon virtuoso. Jean Paul hooked up two drummers from Benin, a bass player and Marque Gilmore on traps. This is the result.

It took 5 years to get the record out because the music was so deep and so deeply buried in what we recorded that I was terrified of dealing with it. I had taken musical risks before but never of such magnitude. The date cost a small fortune. I had to fly to Berlin, pay the musicians, pay hotel expenses for everyone, as well as the rental fee (exorbitant) for a set of vibes, and a concert marimba, plus transportation for Marque and Mathais Aobokuo from London and Paris respectively. But money aside, the project was based on blind faith. I had no music written, the musicians did not know each other. They came from very different musical traditions, the bass player, Stanislou Michalak, was a classical trained jazz bass player from Poland. But what we all had in common was the Africanization of jazz and popular music that prompted the presence of the musicians in Berlin that Spring. Jean Paul, a Haitian-American, was living in Berlin and working mainly in Europe. He had been given the opportunity to organize a week-long festival to reflect the world-wide impact of African music: Black Atlantic/Congo Square. We went into the studio cold!

I had three flutes with me, concert, alto and bass. When we got to the studio I laid them out on the stand for a keyboard in front of me in the booth that I was assigned. Next to me in an adjoining booth was Stan the bass player. In front of me in a large booth was Omar with a set of vibes in front and marimba behind, tuned boxes set up on a table. Aly Keita shared the booth with his balafon.

  The drummers where in the center room, with Marque on a pedestal at the back and the Aho Luc Nicaise and Mathais surrounded by a drums and microphones. Microphones at three levels, since they would be singing and playing a variety of drums and nobody know what they were going to do when. This created an enormous problem later on. 

Jean Paul was in the middle of the room right in front of me, with his guitar around his neck. He looked exhausted. He had organized the festival, ran it and on the final day played with every band that participated in a final day celebration. We had scheduled the date 2 days after the festival so that he would have a chance to wind-down. That was probably a mistake, since the crash after the adrenaline rush of the last day seemed to have wiped him out. Had we recorded right after the festival he might have been able to continue as his usual level of energy; as it was he played very little on the date. Nevertheless his presence was essential. All of the musicians know him and trusted him. Jean Paul is a world class musician and everyone who plays with him has profound respect for his musicianship and his integrity. Without Jean Paul the date would never have happened and with him I was afforded all of the respect that his participation signaled to the musicians and especially to the engineers. The studio, UFO in Berlin, went all out. They brought in their best engineers, a team that set up the room not knowing what to expect but determined to capture whatever happened with complete audio fidelity.

On the way to the studio Luc and Mathais starting singing the prayer for Elegba, the Orisha you petition for permission to engage in any serious endeavor. Omar joined in. 300 years of seperation, and three sons of Africa, one Cuban, still held to the same religion, and could join together in prayer. The prayer for Elegba is track 2 on the disc, Invocation. It starts with the drummers and Omar singing the prayer, Omar plays a chord on the vibes, I play a subdued rhythmic figure on the bass flute, bowed bass, Jean Paul enters with a vamp, the balafone comes in, vibes and drums bring in the swing and I switch to concert flute and play my first solo, then Omar plays a brief solo, we engage in conversations among the instruments, than more singers and on and on. About an hour later we stopped playing. It was insane. No one was leading anything, Jean Paul was grooving, just playing minimal vamps and occasionally shifting patterns. The rest of us were just listening and reacting. Aly Keita was the rhythmic foundation, the drums and percussion adding colors, accents and tremendous swing. We would wind down a section, but never stop. Someone would always continue, usually the percussionists who would shift instruments or tempo and the rest of us would just follow (the result: tracks 2, 7). 

I was both worried and elated. The playing felt very natural. I wasn't over-playing, really responding to the musical environment and rather than playing jazz solos, all of the players were playing short contrasting sections. It was a real musical conversation. Everyone was listening very hard, the interactions are as good as anyone could hope for. We were being carried by the music as it was created in the room, no thought, no planning, no constraints, just free expression as the context of our mutual creation led us to new places. But it was hard to tell what was happening, since things would alternatively come together and fall apart. As I said, we played for about an hour without stopping. When we finally came to a halt, Jean Paul said to me, "Let them do their thing." I freaked, he was telling me not to play. The musicians, without me and Jean Paul, played for another half hour or so. They sounded fine (tracks 6 and 14) but I was getting very agitated. I felt that Jean Paul had disrespected me in front of the musicians. What was particularly disturbing was that I had played with a great deal of forbearance, and so I was paranoid that the musicians hadn't really heard me play. After they finished, I said to Jean Paul, 'I'm going to play with the bass player.' The drummers asked if they could play as well and I went into the booth and played 7 minutes of free improvisation, technical and harmonically complex (track 13). With my musicianship clearly established we continued recording (tracks 3, 8 and 9). Jean Paul didn't play for the rest of the day. We ended up with about 3 hours of music  including some lovely duets between Omar and Aly Keita (tracks 1 and 4). We had been in the studio for about 6 hours and all of the musicians were wiped from the intensity of the music not to mention the tense interactions between Jean Paul and myself.  We all went home for dinner and some sleep. I went to  Bavarian restaurant within walking distance of the hotel and ate too much and drank too much. I didn't eat with the guys. I was too ambivalent about what had happened and too drained by the emotional experience of the music.

The next day was more relaxed. It turned out that Aly Keita could only record that first day.Without the balafon, which can only play a C major scale, we could play with a bit more harmonic freedom. Playing with a diatonic instrument in one key was a challenge, although Omar had an uncanny ability to add extensions that reflected whatever poly-tonal moves I would make during my solos. As the saying goes, 'we played all 12 notes.' Omar was amazing, playing harmonic extensions to C major that permitted any note I chose to play to sound good. But still, with C major as the background there were restrictions and playing just with vibes and marimba permitted a wider palate of harmonic structures and more jazz soloing (tracks 5 and 11). In addition we recorded a tune by Omar (track 12) and a tune by Jean Paul (track 10). The date finished I took a hard-drive with everything on it and got on a plane for Newark and home.

When I got home I called Phil my engineer and he downloaded the files onto his hard-drive. When he looked at the files they were very difficult to make sense of, about 30 microphones, plus some rhythm section overdubs and over-dubbed piano on two tracks. Plus the tracks were enormous in length, there was over 4 hours of music with some tracks of uninterrupted playing ranging from 20 minutes to over an hour. Phil set rough levels and burned me four cassettes. I drive a 2000 VW and only have a cassette player in my car. I started listening to what I had. I listened for about a year in fits and starts. I had Phil make me cassettes with the flute taken off so I could hear the recordings as rhythm section tapes, giving me the possibility of rethinking the whole project. But the more I listened the more I liked what I had played. I couldn't figure out what Jean Paul's problem was but with all of my insecurities I shelved the project. 

I had recorded Algo Más for Jazzheads and Randy Klein liked the album. It had received good reviews and modest sales. I played the tracks that would become O Nossa Amor for Randy and he picked up the album. This led to Con Alma (my 'hit' album) and consolidated my relationship with the label. I mentioned the 'Berlin date' to Randy but I had a problem. When I asked Scott Price, Omar's manager about using Omar on the record date we agreed that his company Otá Records would get first refusal on the project. But my relationship with Randy was paramount to me and we were putting out a lot of records. So the Berlin date stayed in a hard-drive for a few more years. I stopped listening to it, but I never gave up on the project. Finally in Fall of 2006, before I began the hectic recording schedule of 2007 that resulted in Straight No Chaser and Lua e Sol I asked Phil to take a look at the Berlin tracks with me. This resulted in one of the most productive collaborations of my musical life.

The first problem for Phil was to make sense of the tracks. As you can see from the photo, there are three levels of microphones on the drummers. Phil had to find the best track to use for every instrument and every segment, since the drummers sometimes played standing as well as sitting. Everything was bleeding into all of the tracks, so to find the best track required careful listening, especially for the background vocals. Luc had a vocal microphone, Mathais singing was picked up by whichever drum microphone he was next to. Plus there were tracks of over-dubbed percussion, including the clapping on track 4 that had little relation to the other tracks in terms of ambient volume. To make things worse, the drum set was not well-isolated and so setting EQ became a real problem. And the same for vibes, marimba and balafon. Although each instrument had its own microphones, there was significant leakage since all three instruments were in the same booth. But the technical aspect of mixing was only part of the problem. The real problem was finding the boundaries within the music that would enable us to extract a hour of music, divided into pieces of reasonable length from the extended improvisations.

As you can see from my indications of the tracks a few paragraphs back, individual songs were edited out from the lengthy takes that we recorded. So the first day with three extended improvisations (one without me and two with me) resulted in 7 different tracks. The second day was better organized, the improvisations shorter and more focused. But still a great deal of editing was required. A lot of great playing ended up being left behind. For example, my 7 minute improvisation with Stan was cut down to 4 minutes. The short duets between Omar and Aly Keita were fractions of what they recorded. The short 'rap' by Luc against some changes of Jean Paul's was a one minute segment of an entire composition. Finding the best music, with the most coherent structure from the wealth of material recorded required great ears. First of all, just keeping track of what was heard so that choices could be made was hard enough, and then using musical judgment to select the places where the music made a definitive statement required a exquisite sensitivity to the music. Phil Ludwig, my engineer, a guitarist and bass player, with decades of experience as a working musician and long years as a recording engineer, has the best ears in the business. As I said in the liner notes: 'We became one head with two sets of ears.'

"Tales From The Earth" has an official release date on October 2009. Otá records has given me permission to put up some track on myspace. Check it out. It is magic music!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

half empty, half full

I wonder how much this blog should be a true reflection of my feelings, or like so much of what I have written, self-aggrandizing recollections and pleas for acceptance. For what lies behind this blog, especially at this time, is the question that drives me. Am I a good musician? I hide that behind, do I play good music? Which stands behind, when will I get the recognition I need to answer the other two questions? Which hides behind, how much is the recognition I have received really worth? Which hides behind my whining complaint, when will I get the recognition I crave? So I guess even if I expressed all of my doubts and fears about my worth as a musician that would not be any truer than anything else. But, to be perfectly honest, it feels like shit. I need to know whether I play good music and I don't have a clue. 

In part that is because I am unwilling to compare myself to anything other than the internalized standards I derived from listening to the great musicians of my era (the 50's and 6o's). And I mean the greats! Miles, Trane, Sonny Rollins and Bird. Not to mention, Mingus, Monk, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Jellie Roll Morton, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Albert King. Believe it or not, that is a fairly comprehensive list of the musicians whose records I revered and listened to over and over again. I never listened to normal great musicians, just the super giants. That way I never have to confront whether I play as good as the thousands of guys who are competing with me to be noticed. I know they are out there every time I hear the young guys at jam sessions, or when someone makes me listen to a record of some normal decent jazz musician. I was having dinner with an old musician friend, Victoria, and she played a record with a fine tenor player, Eric Alexander, on it. He sounded great. If I knew how to compete I would be competing with him for gigs. But as intimated in earlier blogs, I'm not very effective in competing for the gigs that Eric gets, the New York jazz clubs that might be the first step in getting me to my goal. The holy grail that might convince me that I am playing music worth listening: success at jazz festivals.

My not paying attention to the level of contemporary successful musicians is connected to my only listening to Trane et. al. If my standard is the super-giants of jazz, I immediately fail, no matter how hard I try, since genius like that is beyond the reach of mere mortals like myself. And so I can try to focus on what I alone can contribute. Holding the standard of genius inside of myself and doing everything I can to create the very best music I am capable of producing. But am I a good enough musician? Is the dedication to my own creation, very narrowly construed, as how I improvise on the albums I create as vehicles for my flute playing, totally wrong-headed because I am not even in the running to be a contributor to the developing language of jazz. That's why I can't compare myself to other ordinary marvelous musicians, for if I don't measure up to the sax players around me, there is no point in my even attempting to make a contribution. And I am unwilling to stop trying, no matter what. 

I want to make a contribution to jazz. And because I play flute I get enough of a pass to make a contribution possible. I want to be to the flute what the greatest jazz musicians were to their instruments, someone who showed others unexplored possibilities for excellence in jazz improvisation, that is, defined a concept for their instrument that included a sound, a style, a harmonic vocabulary and an approach to time and improvisational structures. That's why I wouldn't play sax if you paid me. To make a contribution on sax is to rise to an impossible standard. And that means that contributions to the sax are going to be a long time coming. But flute! There is a shot for flute as the least developed wind instrument capable of playing jazz (God bless the few bassoonists, and french horn players and forget about the oboe and tuba). Even the flute barely makes that cut as a jazz instrument given its lack of power in the bottom register. But flute does have something to offer to jazz, even with all of its limitations compared to the saxophone. It has degrees of freedom, technical and expressive that marks a niche of its own in jazz. I believe Herbie Mann pointed the way, but he had such essential weaknesses as a jazz musician and flutist, that despite the influence of his music on flutists (or perhaps because of it) flute remains relatively unexplored if your model is the harmonic and expressive range of the saxophone.

This creates the deep insecurity that drives my crazy. Am I a good enough musician to grasp the opportunity of the last undeveloped jazz instrument, and thus make an end run to the holy of hollies of jazz: to make a contribution. Naturally, all of this is due to the aftermath of my latest album, Lua e Sol. That's the team from the recording in the picture. Phil, my engineer, Cyro Baptista, me, Romero Lubambo and Nilson Matta, who co-produced the album with me. My relationship with Nilson goes back to 2003 when I recorded Tudo de Bum. Nilson knew about Jazz World Trios with Cyro and Romero and we were both so disappointed with the controlled vibe of the album's producer, Richard Boukas, that when he suggested that we co-produce a blowing  Brazilian jazz record I jumped at the opportunity. Cyro was unavailable, but Romero was willing to do the date, along with Paulo Braga . The result was O Nosso Amor. Nilson and I became close during the project and whenever we worked together I would proudly introduce him as my co-producer. Co-producer was both a favor to me and a paycheck to him. So it was no surprise that we recorded two more albums, Lua e Sol that hit the street October 2008 and an album with Kenny Barron that will probably not be released for another few years. I am over-recorded. This coming October the Berlin album, called Tales From the Earth, with Omar Sosa (my second blog entry) is coming out on Ota records. But even though it is coming out on another label, Jazzheads is holding back my next album with Pedrito Martinez (discussed a few blogs back) until after the first of the year. The album with Nilson and Kenny is next (hopefully before 2011) and then finally an album of tangos and Cuban danzones that I am currently working on. This complicates my relationship with Nilson who, as always, is looking for recording opportunities. And I don't have any for him in the near future.

Jazzheads started radio promotion on Lua e Sol after the New Year and it has been on the Jazzweek world chart ever since. It peaked at #5, but is hanging around (14 weeks so far). It was voted best Brazilian Jazz Album of 2008 on the Latin Jazz Corner.  So I should have no complaints. Except I have a complaint and that is what this blog is all about. Lua e Sol is what I wanted to record ever since I first played Brazilian jazz in Jazz World Trios. It reunites Romero and Cyro, who along with Nilson Matta bring the creative energy of Jazz World Trios to a broad and representative range of Brazilian forms. Nilson and I picked great material. I rerecorded two of my favorite originals, Estralinha and Lua e Sol (first recorded as duets on Three Deuces) and it captures much of what I want to say in recording jazz with Brazilian music. The tunes range from the light-hearted sambas, Isuara, and Upa Negrinho, to a free form version of Lua e Sol;  a Flamenco-like take on Estrallinha and a time shifting composition by Nilson, Floresta. It includes two Pixinginha choros as well and some really interesting and deep compositions reflecting the spiritual side of Afro-Brazilian music, Canto de Ossanha and Emorio, as well as a heart-breaking ballad by Ary Barroso. 

More important, the guys play incredibly. As always the session was without any rehearsals. Nilson and I picked the tunes and we went to the studio to see what would happen. Giving those three guys complete freedom in the studio resulted in magic. The arrangements were spontaneous and the material compelling. Cyro brought room full of drums of every sort. Here is a picture of Cyro and his drums that can give you some sense of what that is all about. The sounds he makes are amazing. But most important without a trap drummer the concept of how rhythm is played becomes totally free. There are textures and surprises, happy swing and deep drama, and that is just the percussion. Romero plays magnificently, wonderful solos, perfect time and rich harmonic structures. Nilson  is at his most lyrical as a soloist and an ever-changing voice, both anchoring and inspiring the soloists and statements of themes. The interactions of the three rhythm players reflect the decades that these three musicians have played together, their perfect grasp of Brazilian forms and the total confidence that each had in the abilities of the others. This album is as good as anything I have ever recorded and deserves all of the excellent reviews it received and more!

When I had a final mix I sent pre-release copies to the three guys telling them how happy I was about the record and telling them that I would be thrilled to play with any of them on any occasion. Nilson got back to me, congratulating me on the result and told me that Romero loved the album. When the album was released I sent them all copies and yet another note reminding them how great it would be to perform this music live. I have been in contact with Nilson a few times, since he is always looking for additional projects. But with so much unreleased product I have nothing to offer him. Meanwhile the three of them work all of time and use other instrumentalists on their recordings and gigs. But not me! Me and the Maytag repairman. Those guys could really help me if they wanted to. They have the reputations and connections to hook me up with club-owners and booking agents. But they don't. What are they trying to tell me? I love the music I record and so do the musicians who record with me, or so it seems. Yet nobody is willing to give me a hand up, nobody is willing to let me use them as a stepping stone towards my dreams. And so the deep anxiety. Maybe I am really not that good a musician after all.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

the old days

I've been involved in a discussion on a Latin jazz email list about my old friend and mentor Barry Rogers. Barry, one of the all time great musicians of his era, was the trombonist and music director of Eddie Palmieri's original band, La Perfecta, and remained associated with Eddie (on and off) until his untimely death  in 1991. Barry is directly opposite me on the other side of the car (I'm holding the trombone). The discussion created so much interest that I am motivated to look back at my early experiences as a trombone player and share them with the readers of my blog.

I was 18 years old, playing bass with Larry Harlow in a Latin trio at Ben Maksik's Town and Country Club at the South end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. The back of the club over-looked an undeveloped marsh (near the old Floyd Bennet airfield) and I used the area to practice the trombone before the gig started. I was doing my lip-drills when a slightly built man came up to me. "Are you the trombone player in the show band?" he asked. "No," I answered, "I play in the lounge band." "Too bad," he responded, 'is there a trombone player in the band?" He went on the explain that he was the star of the new show, the Jewel Box Review, a female impersonator show, that with all of the innocence of the 1950's was a favorite of middle aged female audiences, seemingly oblivious to the connection between female impersonation and homosexuality. They came to see the beautiful clothes and wonder at how gorgeous the 'girls' looked in their elaborate costumes. It turned out that a trombone player was needed. The star, Lynne Carter, did a Pearl Bailey imitation and the high (or low) point of the act was when the trombone would play a loud and inappropriate note while Lynne was singing 'I'm Tired.' He (she) called the trombonist (soon to be me)  on to the hexagonal stage, jutting out into the table area, who then had to chase after Lynne, who was holding the trombone part, hitting her (him) in the butt with the trombone slide. I was a perfect foil, young, tall, with long hair for the time, and totally embarrassed by the prospect. After a bit of negotiation, I was switched from the lounge band to the show band and my career as a trombonist was started. I played on and off in the show band all through college and got my trombone chops up to speed. The lead trumpet player, Bob Bonsang, much distressed by a young inexperienced musician holding down such a well-paying job, would look at me as I struggled with difficult passages and muttered what was to become my motto as a musician and even as an academic, "Earn while you learn."

It was my stint playing bass with Harlow that moved me into my major focus as a trombonist, Latin dance bands. Eddie Palmieri had recorded his first album and was working with his band La Perfecta, a unique sound, with a trombone and flute front line (modeled on the flute and violin popular charanga style, but with a trombone instead of violins). The trombonist was Barry Rogers. Barry had a chance to make some good money playing a wedding and needed a sub. He heard about a trombone player, me, who could read well and play Latin bass (by that time I had played bass with Randy Carlos and Harvito as well as Harlow) and figured that I could hold my own in a Latin rhythm section, so he called me to do a gig for him with Eddie's band. Eddie liked the way I played so much that he hired me on the spot to play second trombone. Bass was gone forever; I was a trombone player. More people in the Latin community still think of me as the trombone player with La Perfecta despite everything else I have ever done. That is because La Perfecta had a unique role to play in the development of cultural consciousness among the young Latinos of that era.

 The base for Eddie's popularity was a loft club in the South Bronx, the Triton Club, down the street from the Hunts Point Palace, a lavish dance hall catering to older Latino audiences and featuring name bands like Machito. The Triton Club, on the other hand, was a bare-loft, painted black with a few tables and chairs and a large area for dancing. It was here that the young Latino's came to be hip, to dance to the hot new bands, Eddie, Johhny Pacheco and Orlando Marin, and to come to consciousness as Latinos through music that they saw as their own, helped along by the cheer-leading of the self-appointed host Izzy Sanabria, later to publish Latin New York. 

Playing with Eddie was a peak experience, playing the Palladium, Birdland and the Village Gate in the early 1960's. But it had a major down-side. The band had good arrangements, but what made the band unique was the 'mambo' section. Latin dance band arrangements had a standard form, intro, melody, montuno (where the singer improvised against a chorus, the 'coro'), mambo, montuno and coda. The mambo section was generally massed horns, trumpets played in the high register to generate maximum excitement. But Eddie only had two trombones. Eddies' best mambos were not pre-arranged but were created on the bandstand. Barry sang coro, and during the singer's (Ismeal Quintana) improvisation Barry would often come up with a lick that he liked. He would motion to me over to the mic where he was singing coro, and he would softly sing the lick to me (moving the trombone slide to show me how it was to be done). I had to catch it right away and on Barry's cue begin the lick. After a few times of playing it on my own, Barry would join me in unison, then add harmony. George Castro, the flute player, would start playing on top of the trombones and the drummers would start playing harder. Then Barry would do his thing. My job was to play the basic line, over and over. Barry would start improvising against the line, almost Dixie-land style, playing wonderfully crafted, driving, counter-melodies, evolving with more and more complexity and with tremendous swing. The place would go crazy. Nobody, not even Tito Puente with trumpets and saxes, could match the sheer energy, the electric abandon, with which Barry could push the band. It was exhilarating, and very depressing. I wanted to be Barry so badly. I wanted to play the improvised part, to be at the center of the swing. But instead I had to selflessly destroy my chops playing at full volume, the same figure over and over, endlessly, for 10 minutes or more. I quit Eddie's band and went to Europe to try to succeed as a jazz trombonist.

Europe didn't work out. I landed in Rotterdam on Christmas 1963, one of the coldest winters on record and headed south, Paris, than Italy. There was little jazz being played and Paris had just made a rule limiting horns in small clubs, so there was not even a jam session scene. I put my tail between my legs and came back home to find out that in my absence there was a trombone renaissance in the Latin scene. I was in  demand. Ray Barretto asked me to join his band, but Charlie Palmieri had a 6-night steady gig at a club called the Havana-Madrid. An interesting band with Chombo Silva on sax, myself and Rod Sewart playing flute. It was a free-blowing band, modeled after the first recorded Alegre All Stars and I got to play solos almost every tune. That lead to my recording with the Alegre All Stars on their second album and to gigs with just about every other Latin band that used a trombone. Barry was always busy with Eddie as was Jose Rodriquez who became Eddie's long-standing second trombone player. So I was first call trombone player for Latin gigs. I made a good living,  playing, recorded and arranging. I continued playing and recording with Eddie as well as such great bands as the La Playa Sextet, Bobby Valentin, Tito Puente, Ricardo Rey and many others. I had so many gigs I ended up giving my extra gigs to some great jazz trombone players, especially Julian Preister and Garnet Brown. They, in turn, would turn me on to big bands so I got to play with bands led by Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, Kenny Durham and Duke Pearson which led to gigs with Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton and Mel Lewis/Thad Jones.

The band that I made the biggest impact on, however, was my old friend of bass playing days Larry Harlow. Larry had a summer gig at Schenk's Paramount Hotel playing with  Latin quintet at the after-hours club, a hang out for musicians. He used me as the only horn player; trombone and rhythm section, something rarely seen. I got to solo to my heart's content, and since we hosted a jam session, I became well known among the jazz musicians playing in the Catskill mountains. One night Larry and I were laying around, toasted as usual, and Larry told me about his dream. A band with trombones like Eddies, but with a trumpet section to add fire and weight to the ensemble instead of the flute. He asked me to help him write the arrangements. His first album, Heavy Smoking did well on the newly formed record label, Fania, that was to dominate Latin recording for the next decades. I got the opportunity to write the next album, almost completely, Bajandote, which includes some writing and soloing that I am still quite proud of. I played with Larry for several years, playing solos and learning from the great trumpet player Chocolate, who played with the band. The trombone solo after the mass brass mambo, was Harlow's signature response to Eddie Palmieri and my tribute to what I had learned playing with Barry. You can compare Barry's and my playing on Eddie's album with Cal Tjader, Bamboleate. Barry and I both solo (on different tunes). 

A long-lasting stint with Herbie Mann grew out of this experience. Herbie wanted a Latin jazz band with trombones, and Barry wouldn't leave Eddie, so I was it. Herbie's band introduced me to Chick Corea and gave me some exposure on records, at clubs and at festivals. I started to meet some great musicians and recorded Cuban Roots. This led to me getting a taste of rock and roll with, among others, Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag. This, in turn, led to me getting called to put together a horn section for Janis Joplin, ironically, the immediate cause of my quitting the business. I had recorded Cuban Roots with Arnie Lawrence on alto saxophone. I was convinced it was a great album, but it only received one review (in a French jazz magazine) and almost no airplay. Worse, neither Barry nor Eddie was willing to tell me that it was a good album, and I worshiped those guys. I was really badly hurt by that. 

I had gotten a call from Albert Grossman, Janis' manager, about putting a horn band together for her. I was laying in bed with my wife Joyce watching the Tonight Show, and there was Arnie Lawrence playing in the band. Before the commercial the band had a feature, Arnie had played a few notes of a solo, when the band was cut off. I looked at Joyce and said, 'If I make it to the top and get to play on the Tonight Show, that is what I can look forward to. I'm not going to take the gig with Janis." In my head that was the turning point. I was out of the business! But there is a back-story. When I was negotiating to go with the Electric Flag (after a few gigs with the band in NYC) my wife had made all of these demands, that she had to go on the road, get her hotel room paid for etc. We had just had a baby, my daughter Rebecca, and Joyce did not want to risk her family while I led the rock and roll life. The Electric Flag didn't come through, the band was dropped by Columbia after one album, but Janis was going to pick up the concept, a hard driving blues band with horns. I was to write the horn arrangements and be music director, but Albert Grossman warned me not to make demands about my wife. I had to move to San Francisco and live at the band house while the band was being formed and rehearsed. I'd be on salary, but my wife and child would have to stay in New York. Joyce was freaked. I loved my daughter, and I was very, very unhappy with my marriage. To go to San Francisco would have meant the end of my family for sure. Joyce had a right to be freaked. The Tonight Show was the last straw, to leave my daughter to play rock and roll (when all I ever wanted was to play jazz), to have my solos cut off at the commercial break, to have my best efforts disregarded by the musicians I revered. It was all too much. I decided to go graduate school and get a PhD in Philosophy.