Interview with Jim McNeely
Jim McNeely was an important early teacher and influence. I had met and heard him at Jamey Aebersold camps as a teenager and still remember a trio set with Kelly Sill and Joel Spencer at Pops for Champagne in Chicago (the tunes included "How My Heart Sings" and "Zingaro") and a duo set with John Goldsby at the camp in Elmhurst (the tunes included "Hi-Fly" and "Bye-ya"). Jim was the reason I attended NYU, where he showed me how many notes I got wrong when transcribing Herbie Nichols pieces.
The following interview was taped in May 2011 after performances of Jim's arrangements of TBP music with the hr-Bigband.
Included in the middle is a note from Jim in memory of the late Bob Brookmeyer. At the end, the previous McNeely music listening sessions with Darcy James Argue are reposted.
Ethan Iverson: What year did you come to New York?
Jim McNeely: I came to New York in 1975.
It seemed like there was nothing left for me to do in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. It took me 8 years to finish my bachelor's degree. I won't go into all the reasons why, but it was the early 70's, and things were kinda crazy. I was playing in the big band there, as well as playing a lot of jam sessions and gigs. I spent 6 months playing 6 nights a week with a country and western band and learned a lot there, played in R&B bands and so forth and finally got it together to finish my degree in composition.
I had toyed with the idea for at least a year about coming to New York: it was Mecca, the Emerald City, whatever you wanted to call it. Two things started to happen. There was a club in Champaign called Ruby Gulch that had nationally known bands like Elvin Jones or Charles Mingus on Monday nights when those bands wanted to fill in their schedule on the way to Chicago. One of us jazzers would have a house where you could jam all night long and we'd invite the guys over after the gig. I was playing with some of these cats and things would go on all night. And I started to get the feeling that, well, OK, they're from New York, and they're good, but there's nothing really special about some of them except for the fact that they've got a gig with Elvin or whoever. I felt I could at least hold my own with them. And then, kind of the clincher, I heard a Roy Haynes record, and -- I'm not going to say who the piano player was because I met him later and he was a really nice cat -- but I heard this Roy Haynes record and I heard the piano player, and I said to myself, “I can do that.” I had finally finished my degree, I could have just gone back to Chicago and worked, there are always good musicians in Chicago, but the scene didn't really excite me, and I thought, “Well, now's the time.” I was single, no responsibilities, and had a car, and so I drove out.
EI: What were some of the bands you'd seen before you moved to New York?
JM: They were mostly at Ruby Gulch, and later after I had left a woman named Toni Caputo took it over and it became Caputo's, but they continued the tradition, so for a number of years this place was a real hot spot for nationally known groups coming through town. I heard Elvin's group, I remember Junior Cook was playing. I heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk, I heard Pat Metheny – no, it was Gary Burton's band with a 19-year Pat Metheny playing 2nd guitar, Mick Goodrick was playing the real guitar. I remember Pat had all this hair, which he still does, and those big bell bottom jeans, and he was playing a lot of 12-string stuff, just textural stuff, you know, and that was with Steve Swallow, and Bob Moses, yeah! I also heard Mose Allison at that club. Mose was great, Mose was playing all of this two-handed linear stuff, he was kind of a unique player in a lot of ways.
There was another place, a Unitarian Universalist church with a space called the Channing-Murray Foundation. That was a bigger venue, and they would have groups maybe for 3 or 4 nights. Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi sextet with Jabali and that group – they came there, I was there for every set of every night. Weather Report was there too, it was an early version with Miroslav and Eric Gravatt and Wayne. The big thing at that time was Joe added a ring modulator to his Fender Rhodes setup, that was before he started using synthesizers. And McCoy too, McCoy with Sonny Fortune and Al Mouzon. So that place was very valuable because when a group came through that I really wanted to hear I'd just buy tickets for every show and just sit there and absorb the whole thing, you know.
EI: I think those three bands in particular are what people from that era cite as real guiding lights, Weather Report and Mwandishi and McCoy Tyner's group.
JM: I guess the other one would be Return to Forever. I heard them but I was on the road with a “Music Made Famous by Glenn Miller” package that Ray McKinley was leading and we had an off night, and Chick was playing in whatever this town was, with Al Dimeola and Lenny White and Stanley Clarke.
But yeah, those bands especially. I thought it was great because that was right after McCoy had come out with Sahara. I loved those Blue Note records he did in the 60's, but his fortunes kind of went south for a while, he was driving a taxi, he was working with Ike and Tina Turner, and then Sahara was his first hookup with Orrin Keepnews, and that record with Al Mouzon and Sonny Fortune was deep. At the time I was really into Chick, you know, and then Sahara came out, and then I thought, “Man, McCoy is back.” I'm loving it, because he was really burning.
Yeah, this was kind of the early 70's atmosphere. Coltrane had passed. I always had the feeling that when Coltrane died, it loosened the rules and guys that maybe would have pursued Coltrane’s path decided now, “I'm going to go electric,” or go somewhere else. And so things kind of opened up, because even McCoy's band at that time, while harmonically he was still a lot in that zone, rhythmically it was much more of this churning kind of stuff, the kind of thing that Coltrane had never really been into really, not so regular.
EI: There wasn’t so much swing rhythm from any of those bands. They'd have pieces that would swing, but there were more vamps and even-eighth grooves.
JM: Yeah, right.
EI: Was there anything you had besides the records to try to learn about how to play some Chick and McCoy at the piano?
JM: No. I finally decided to do a transcription of one of McCoy's solos on one of the tunes from one of his later Blue Note records, it was before Sahara. I figured instead of just kind of dorking around, “Oh I think he's playing this,” OK, it was time to really get serious here and get in. When I transcribed the solo I got a lot of insight on how he was constructing his lines. It wasn't just this random chromaticism, but they had shapes. He was kind of implying progressions through what sounded ethereal and chromatic. Other than that, no, it was just records.
EI: Was there a mentor in that area that would show you things at the piano?
JM: There was a mentor. There were two guys especially. When I do clinics, I always tell people as important as it is to listen to recordings, you gotta find somebody in your town that you can hang out with and learn from. In my case, there were two guys. There was a pianist named Ron Elliston who was completely into Bill Evans – worshipped Bill Evans. In fact, he was one of the only people I ever knew that took a lesson with Bill Evans. Bill said, “I don't teach, but you can come over,” and they just hung out. He worshipped Bill, but at the same time, he was a working pianist, he had a gig 5 nights a week usually at some restaurant or something, and I could go and just check out how he led a trio, with intros and communication with the bass player and drummer. I never really took lessons with him, but we'd talk and just seeing him work was a real education for me.
The other guy was a tenor sax player named Ron Dewar, who's still in Chicago playing around. We always thought that he was the guy that's going to make it out of all of us down there. An amazing tenor saxophone player. In fact, he transcribed some of the tunes from Sahara and he transcribed some Art Blakey tunes and we had several different bands together, playing one night a week in a bar or restaurant.
EI: Was Jon Burr on bass?
JM: Jon Burr was involved with that. We finally had a group. Ron Dewar and I were both into this Bob and Ray interview where they talk about the Komodo Dragon. I don't know if you've ever heard it, I should play it for you, it's ridiculous, it's really absurd. Anyway, with Dewar we had a quartet called the Komodo Dragon, and then he disbanded that quartet, so Jon Burr and I put together a quintet called the Gecko Lizard with a tenor player and a trumpet player. Then we disbanded the quintet, and that left the Gecko Trio. We had that group essentially until I graduated and decided to leave.
There was also a vibrant scene happening in the town of Champaign. The Bridgewater brothers, Cecil and Ron, grew up there. Their uncle Pete played bass and had a jazz radio show. Cecil and Ron were also students at the U. of I., you know, they acted as a link between the university and the local scene. Jack McDuff was from there, so there was a strong B-3 tradition, with guys like Russel Cheatham, Milton Knox, and Jimmy Hill. Lonnie Liston Smith’s brother, Donald, was there; he sang, played piano and flute, and was an amazing musician. And there was Tony Zamora, a tenor player who had a band that played on campus, I used to work with him. The Elks Club was segregated in those days, with a white chapter and a black chapter. I used to play the Black Elks with Tony, man, it was so much hipper than the white version!
EI: Before we move to the early New York years for you, I would just be curious to hear about more of the records you were able to get and check out in the early 70's and late 60's. Was Paul Bley on your radar?
JM: Yeah, not that big, but yes, Footloose. I used to love his time feel, his right hand was just swinging like crazy with all these great angles and lines and stuff.
Mostly, though, I was into bands that had horns. Miles Davis, Coltrane, Blakey, those were the three big ones. I was really into hearing piano players comp. If I had my druthers, I'd probably be happiest just comping for other people and staying in the background, it's like wanting to stay in the hotel on a nice summer day. I like staying back in the bushes being part of it and helping the thing work and helping a guy really sound good. That's why one of my heroes is Wynton Kelly, of course he died so young, but the way he plays, especially on the Live at the Black Hawk stuff with Miles Davis, for me it shows how the piano player can shape a band even though his name's not the headliner on the record.
EI: Contrast Wynton Kelly and Red Garland for me.
JM: Well, first of all, they both swung. Wynton Kelly is one of the hardest swinging guys; I mean he would play an eighth note line and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It's just killing. And they both had a rhythmic thing they did in their comping behind Miles. I think I dug Wynton a little more, he might have had a little harder touch, although you never know, a lot of Red's recordings were done at Rudy's studio, and it's almost like everyone almost sounded the same on that piano. I was a fan of Rudy's sound until the first time I ever recorded out there and then I realized, “Man, I was screaming on the upper register,” and it just comes out like [Jim sings tik-i-tik-i-tik-i], he'd take all the highs off the sound. Anyway, Red Garland seemed to have a little bit of a lighter touch. And of course, what he called the block chord thing, the octave with the 5th and the left hand stuff that was his signature sound.
I got to know Red a little bit in the later 70's. Dexter Gordon was kind of the poster guy for bringing back some of the older players wherever they had gone, and Red Garland played the Vanguard. By that time I think Red was playing 5 nights a week in a club in Dallas and lived in a one-room apartment. And so he came up to the Vanguard and this guy who had been a neighbor of mine knew Red from the Dallas days so we hung out with him one night in his hotel room and talked with him, and he was telling all kinds of stories. And I'd go to hear Red at the Vanguard. His closing theme was “Going Home” from the Dvorak symphony. He'd play it in the key of F so the melody has a D at the end [Jim sings “dum dum dum DEE”] but in the left hand he's playing the flat-9, the D-flat [dum dum dum duh]. And I'd sit there and think, “Wait a minute, you're not supposed to do that.” Then realized, “But that sounds like Red Garland.” That tension in there, you know?
This is stuff I've learned from seeing some of Thad's scores and other things of people from that time. There were rules that had been developed in Jazz education, but these guys didn't have these rules when they were making their music. There were just certain tensions they used, and not only did they work, but they became part of what made them sound that way.
So Red had those little things, but I think it's because of hearing Wynton comp with Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers that I was just attracted to that a little more, plus he swung so hard. I regret that I never really got to hear him play live.
And then, you know, then I got into the next group of piano players with Miles – Herbie of course, you know, then Chick and Keith.
EI: Both Chick and Keith arrived on the scene with a splash. It's hard to get a sense for what it was like at this point. Do you remember hearing Chick and Keith for the first time?
JM: Yeah, I think the first record I ever heard with Chick on it was Tones for Joan's Bones with Joe Farrell and Woody Shaw.
EI: Classic record.
JM: Yeah! The piano is so out of tune, within another couple years he would never have recorded on a piano like that. Then, yeah, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, another classic, and then I also got into Circle, you know, the group that he had with Anthony Braxton. And then, what was that trio record he did with Dave Holland? Was it Pyramid? The three of them look so wasted on the cover.
EI: Oh, A.R.C.?
JM: A.R.C., yeah. So I was really into that aspect of Chick's playing, you know, I wanted to play that way. At the same time McCoy was developing, I wanted to play that. And Herbie, ever since I was in high school I wanted to play like Herbie. Keith for me came a little later, I think Forest Flower was the first thing I ever heard him on. I dug him with Charles Lloyd's group.
But Facing You was the first thing of Keith’s that really grabbed me. Because up until that time solo piano was something that a guy like Ralph Sutton or another stride player would do. Or Jaki Byard. One of my desert island records has always been Jaki Byard's first solo record, the one where the cover is the back of his head. Just a killing piano player: He would play stride, but he broke all the rules, all of sudden it'd be Cecil Taylor in the right, I loved that. So the solo piano had a certain kind of textural aspect to it, in fact Fats Waller recorded tunes with titles like this, like “Fistful of Keys” and “Smashing Thirds.” It was this thing, “the solo piano player,” and then all of a sudden here's Keith strumming a delicate harmony and expanding, wow.
Then I got into the bands, like we were talking about the other night: there was the American Quartet and the European Quartet and the differences between the two groups and the time feels and all that. I was always kind of more into the American side, some of those tunes I transcribed.
Another kind of eye opener was when Gary Burton was a soloist with the University of Illinois Big Band in about 1970. First of all he had some big band charts written by Michael Gibbs, I had never heard of Michael before and those were nice. And we did some small group playing. I think we played one of Carla Bley's, we played a Steve Swallow tune, we played a Keith Jarrett tune. Gary didn't write that much himself, but he was really into the music that was being written by his contemporaries who were good songwriters, and we played a couple of Keith's tunes.
With Keith, again, I was really into the aspect of him both as a solo player and as the piano player in a quartet.
EI: Yeah, I like the fact that Keith could have right away had a virtuoso solo career, but he wanted to add Dewey Redman or Jan Garbarek and celebrate them as well.
JM: Having accompanied a lot of people for a long time, I know there's an art to that. I've never met the man, but just thinking about it, he probably didn't always want to have the ball in his court, that he knew there was another kind of chemistry that could happen that would really involve him playing with another soloist. Bob Brookmeyer had a term, “union book comping” -- generic stuff. Keith never did that, it was really interactive.
EI: Now, could you and your contemporaries perceive a rivalry between Keith and Chick at that time? Did you have to choose sides, Rolling Stones versus the Beatles type of stuff?
JM: For me, it was always between Chick and Herbie, that to me was the dichotomy. Because Keith followed Chick into Miles' band, and by the time Keith was with Miles he was playing organ and electric piano, he wasn't really playing the instrument he really wanted to play, you know. And you can argue that, well, Chick was playing electric keyboards when he was with Miles too, but he was into it.
But for me, the two big contenders were Herbie and Chick because they had both been with Miles Davis. McCoy was kind of in his own little realm over here, and then there was Chick and Herbie and Keith, and then the other guys that had no relationship to each other, like Paul Bley, Jaki Byard, guys that were still active and playing, but they weren't the “household names” that the big four were.
EI: You moved to New York in 1975. You told me one time that your first real gig of note was with Ted Curson.
JM: I was playing with a trombone player named Jerry Tilitz, he had a sextet. He booked a series of weekends at the Tin Palace. Ted Curson was another guy kind of riding the wave of the ex-pats coming back from Europe (although he never really was an expatriate, he always had a house in Jersey City, his wife lived there). Of course I heard the classic record with him and Eric Dolphy and Mingus and Dannie Richmond (Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus), so I knew who he was, and that he played with Cecil Taylor and so forth.
The Five Spot was going to reopen, it had been closed for code violations or something, and they were going to reopen with Ted Curson. Turned out, about three or four days beforehand, the Five Spot figures out they can't reopen, they're broke. So Ted's manager hooked up a deal with the Tin Palace. Paul Pines, the guy that was running the Tin Palace, said, “We've already got bands playing here, maybe you could just split the sets?” He said OK, and so that's where Ted heard me play and asked me to join the band. And I thought, oh, this will be great because it's going to be free playing and all that stuff.
But there was very little of that, it was just kind of crazy – you know, he's from Philadelphia, and I always had the feeling that deep down inside there was a Lee Morgan trying to get out. It was an interesting band, it was an eclectic group of people. In fact, somebody once heard the band at the Tin Palace, and they said, “you know, no one in that band belongs in that band.” Because Nick Brignola was this upstate New York bebop guy, and Chris Woods was from St. Louis and more down the pocket kind of bebop and blues kind of guy, and then Dave Friesen was at times this kind of New Agey bass player, and Steve McCall was this kind of free player, but also he could swing hard....
At times it was just chaos, and Ted's running the thing banging a cowbell and getting the rhythm section to stop by blowing a whistle, just nutty stuff. But I worked with him for a couple years. We played in New York a lot, and the first tour of Europe I did was with Ted's band. We played the West Coast several times, we played in Chicago a few times, and did a number of recordings. I remember there was one that was just me, Steve McCall and Cecil McBee - nice rhythm section! Ted has his moments, and he was always very nice to me. But after a while, it just got to be chaos. I always hoped we would do some of that early Ted stuff in this band, but we were just playing tunes, and trying to play real fast.
A big part when you get to New York is to get to know other musicians. There was a place called Folk City where Albert Dailey ran the jam session every Sunday afternoon. That's where I first met Joe Lovano. Art Blakey Jr. ran a jam session at a club called Barbara's at 3rd street in the Village, and there were a couple of other jam session joints. I got to know Harold Danko who was playing piano with Thad and Mel. I also got to know Joanne Brackeen who was playing with Stan Getz at the time. It seemed like with those two bands, I always knew people in the band.
So Harold called me once to sub for Thad and Mel. I went down there and Thad wasn't there that night, but Mel was there, and it seemed to go pretty well. In fact, Harold called the next day and kinda joking said, “Man, are you trying to cop my gig? I heard you played great.” And I said, “Well, you know, I've been playing a lot of this music in college.”
I never thought I'd play with that band, but if I had to play in a big band, that was the only big band I would ever want to. When I was back in Illinois I had chances to play a night with Buddy or Woody and I just wasn't interested in that music, but with Thad there was something in the writing with the grinding and grit down in the bottom that really appealed to me.
Anyway, a couple months later Harold asked me to sub again, and Thad was there that night. We had this Jerry Dodgion arrangement of “Body and Soul,” it's just a half a chorus, it's just the bridge and the out chorus. The piano player sets up the intro, and then Thad would just play it as a quartet for two choruses. So I set up the intro and we go into time and hit the first E-flat minor chord and the first note Thad played was a G natural. And in a fleeting split second, my reaction was, “Gee, maybe Thad doesn't know the changes to ‘Body and Soul.’” But of course he knows! This is his message to me, “Hey kid, do something with this.” So I found some major 3rd over the minor voicing, you know. We never talked about it, but I think he liked that I wasn't intimidated by it.
A couple months later I was playing a gig with Ted at a club on Sixth avenue called Hoppers. Ted's banging the cowbell and blowing the whistle and he's in his leather suit and going crazy and I finish the first set and, well, the only good thing that was I think Ratzo Harris was playing bass that time, that was fun, but I got off the bandstand and thought, “Man, I gotta do something to change my direction.”
And the maitre'd handed me a note saying “Call Mel Lewis,” and I thought, thank you, God. This was before cell phones, so I got on a pay phone and called Mel, and he said, “The band has a 12 week tour of Europe coming up, and Harold doesn't want to make the tour, so we're going to make a change, do you want to join the band?” and I said Yeah.
Ironically enough at the time I had agreed to do a 4-week tour of Europe with John Scofield, this was going to be his first tour as a leader, because I had been playing some gigs with him. I think Hal Galper was playing with him, and Richie Beirach had been playing with him, and for some reason they couldn't make the tour so he asked me to do it and I said yeah. I remember we had actually sat in his apartment with a big map of Europe looking at all the cities where we're going, “Oh we're going to go there, and there!” But I just thought, Thad and Mel have a 12-week tour, and something in me said I think I should do this. And so I called John and told him, he was cool about it, you know.
EI: So, what year was that?
JM: '78. And then Thad left the band just at the very beginning of '79. I was lucky to be on the cusp, because I was there for about 5 or 6 months, with Thad, and then that's when Bob Brookmeyer came in as the musical director of Mel Lewis' band. So that was a big thing for me to meet Bob. I had written some charts in high school and college and so forth, just sort trial and error – I didn't quite know what I was doing, and started to write a couple things when Bob was there, and he encouraged me to do more.
EI: Did you have any musical conversations with Thad Jones?
JM: You know, I wish I had, no. It’s good that you go in and you ask guys stuff. With me, at that time I was always thinking, oh, you know, there'll be another day where we can talk about it. And then all of sudden the guy's gone, and then your shot is gone. With Thad, we rehearsed a couple times, and he gave me some advice about comping and to be more consistent with the stuff and not play when the band did, that's kind of my cardinal rule in playing with a big band, the more they do, the less I do, because that's one reason why we’ve got all these other people! But no, we never really talked about music.
EI: So what did you know about Bob Brookmeyer when he became music director after Thad left?
JM: I knew him mostly as a valve trombone player and as a guy who wrote some of these amazing arrangements in the early Thad and Mel records. I wasn't aware of what he had done with the Gerry Mulligan concert jazz band until much later. I wasn't aware of his own writing projects, although there weren't that many yet. I was aware of the group he had with Clark Terry, the stuff he'd done with Gerry Mulligan, and stuff he did with Jimmy Giuffre. I was mostly aware of him as a player and then from the arrangements he wrote for Thad and Mel, which the band still plays some of them today, and are just some incredible writing, concise and beautiful.
So at the time he just came back from being off the scene for a few years, and Stan Getz hired him and made his band a quintet to give Bob a chance to get out and play. And then the stuff went down between Mel and Thad, so Mel invited Bob to come in. It was the world's greatest totally unpaid position to be in: musical director for Mel Lewis' band. It put him in charge of the musical direction of the band. We did a couple of albums live at the Vanguard that were really great, and of course it was all his writing.
The first one had “Ding, Dong, Ding” and “First Love Song” which features solo piano. The band would play and stop, and then I would play whatever, and then there was a cue to lead the band back in. That was the first time I had ever confronted that in a big band context. We'd go on tour for six weeks and be playing those every night. I found myself really breaking through a wall: In the beginning I'd sit there thinking, “All right, how am I going to start my solo?” and I'd start a prepared thing, and about 30 seconds later I'd be completely out of gas. So I took the other tactic, which was, the band stops, and I'll throw my hands on the keys and not try to think ahead and just find out where I am and keep being somewhere, and take it somewhere.
I had played solo piano gigs before in restaurants where you're wallpaper, and those are great because you can practice, but to have solo piano on this level where you really had an open door to do whatever you wanted was a great experience for me. Bob had a certain amount of trust in me that I could do that, and he also encouraged me when I started bringing in arrangements that weren't very good, but he would hear things and say, “Yeah, that part there is happening, you should do another one.”
[During the preparation of this post, Bob Brookmeyer died, and Jim had further thoughts.]
Bob Brookmeyer passed away on December 15, 2011. For me, Bob played a number of roles. The most important role was that of mentor. The free-lance world generally does not have a built-in mentoring system, in the way that more structured professions do. I was very lucky that this generous man saw something in me, and challenged me to develop what he saw as my talent. Whatever reputation I enjoy today as a composer/arranger/conductor can be traced back to the early ‘80’s, when Bob came in to Mel Lewis’s band as musical director. He encouraged my efforts as a writer; he brought me to Cologne as a soloist (along with Mel) for his WDR projects; he hired me to do some of the writing for those projects; and he was very instrumental in setting up my first writing project with the WDR, which led to many years of working and learning with them. Which led to working with other European groups. Which led to writing for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. Which led to my re-joining the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and writing two CD’s for them. Which led to my current position as chief conductor of the HR (Frankfurt) Big Band. All the time being encouraged and cheered on by “The New Hampshire Flash”, as he called himself.
But our relationship was more layered than that. Compositionally Bob had a huge impact. The music in the second album he wrote for Mel’s band, containing “Make Me Smile” and “Nasty Dance”, opened me to a huge new vista as a jazz composer. To this day I say that he and Thad Jones are still the two biggest, most direct influences on my writing. While I may have moved into many different areas as a composer/arranger, I still find myself asking, when confronted with a compositional question, “What would Bob do here?”
Bob was also a teacher. We never engaged in formal lessons. But we had many discussions on bus rides during tours with Mel’s band. And there were many times when I’d drive up to his house in Goshen, NY on a Sunday. We’d listen to some music, talk about mutes, watch a NY Giants game on TV, get a bite to eat, listen to more music. Those were good days…
Bob was also a bandleader; I played with him in duo, quartet, and sextet settings, most notably with the sextet he had with Dick Oatts, Joe Lovano, and either Mel or Adam Nussbaum on drums. He was a great improviser, and it was a challenge to play with him and support what he did without getting in the way.
These were all very important musical relationships. But I think that the most important role Bob played in my life was that of friend. Almost like an older brother, or a very hip uncle. We’d talk about life, politics, music and love. When Marie and I got married we had our rehearsal dinner at his place in Brooklyn. And when Bob found Jan, well, that seemed to be a match made in Heaven.
Thank you, dear Bob, for everything you meant for me and everyone who you touched. I’ll miss you…
EI: What about Mel?
JM: He was great. A great drummer, a force in both Thad and Mel and his own band.
You know, he could talk a lot! In fact, one time he and I were guest soloists with Brookmeyer over in Cologne with the WDR Big Band. That's back in the days where people would still write postcards to their friends at home. Mel was on a diet, and every morning he'd come down for breakfast telling us what he was going to eat that day, and what he had eaten the day before, and Brookmeyer wrote to a friend of his, “Mel is on the world's noisiest diet.”
I loved the guy, you know, but boy, there were times. He never learned to read body language, like people looking down at the floor or kind of shuffling their feet, or everyone having to go to the men's room at the same time. But that was all part of his charm, I guess. And in fact I knew I had gotten to a certain place with him when he and I were together some afternoon in a club we'd been playing in and he started talking to me, and he said, “You know, if you want me to shut up, you should just say so.”
I thought, OK, I reached a plateau with him, and said, “Yeah, I'm trying to practice here.” He said, “OK!” and left.
He's an example of a guy who didn't do much on the drums, but it was perfect. He could just make a band sound so good with the time he played. The fills he played were ridiculously simple and the perfect thing. One of my favorite examples of his playing is with Stan Kenton on Bill Holman’s arrangement of “Stomping at the Savoy” and the shout chorus is [Jim sings daaa dut dabadaba daaa dut dabadaba daa dut daba] and then [bada dut bada dut] and Mel's fills are like [daaa dut boom boom dabadaba daaa dut bryum] just quarter notes on the tom tom [daa dut badada daa dat badada etc] he could set it up perfectly, and, no disrespect, but think about how Buddy Rich would set something up, or how certain guys who were getting reps for big band drumming. Mel didn't hear any of that, he couldn't do that if he wanted to.
He tuned his drums fairly low. It's interesting, we'd rehearse once in a while with the band at the Vanguard, maybe on a Wednesday or Thursday, and we'd always use whatever drumset of the group that was there that week, and one week we rehearsed on Elvin's drums. Well, you hear Mel playing on Elvin's drums, first of all Elvin tuned everything a lot tighter. Second, we found out that Elvin tuned his floor tom lower than the bass drum, so this 1, 2, 3, ti-ki-boom-ka, so the floor tom, the 3rd note of the triplet, ti-ki-boom, was the big note, so ti-ki-boom, then he'd pop the bass drum. So all of a sudden, first of all, Mel's playing on these tighter drums, it sounded like he spent the last 48 hours practicing because all of a sudden you could hear every detail of what he was doing, it was crisp and clean except for this big tubby floor tom tom.
So I mean, in terms of real technique, he wasn't that kind of a guy, but man, he swung so hard. And there were certain tempos – I remember there were about 4 years in a row where he and I would go to Cologne as soloists with Brookmeyer's projects, and Bob wrote one piece called “Cats” and the tempo was one of these, what I call “adults only” tempos that kids can't really play, it was [Jim sings a medium-slow 1 2 ta ting] you know, it's not slow, and the melody was just [dya do dat dat dat da dat dat da da] just kind of this chromatic thing, and you just had this image of cats going [cat growl] but the tempo [ding da ding ding da ding] and it kept moving, and he just nailed it right there, and I thought I just don't know many people who could really play this and keep it moving. It never felt like like it was going to sag, it always had a little bit of a dance to it.
I remember doing a clinic with Eddie Moore once and somebody asked, “How do you play your ride cymbal?” and he just said, “You gotta make the stick dance.” And he did a thing, it's like dancing on the ride cymbal. Eddie Moore was a great drummer, I loved playing with him. I didn't play with him much, but I used to love comping with him. And watching him eat. He loved to eat.
But with Mel, you know, it was that dance thing, and just keeping the energy going, but never pushing. It was amazing.
EI: He also gave the guys so much opportunity to write crazy music for his band.
JM: At the time Bob had started studying with Earle Brown, who was a contemporary American composer and I had the feeling from Bob that he was kind of trying to make up for lost time, that he spent a certain amount of time off the scene. He was really getting to a lot of Western European post-war orchestra music, and he would make tapes for people and hand them out at the Vanguard, you know, “check this guy out,” give it to Jim Hall, all these guys. It was great. So he was writing some big band things, especially for the Cologne band, that were fairly out. Mel didn't quite know what to do in those contexts, but he hung in there, and he was open to it as long as at some point there could be a high hat on 2 and 4. “Then we swing, right? There'll be swing, right, Bob?”
But Mel was open to stuff up to a certain point; in fact, when Bob gave him a tape of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto, the next time Mel saw him he said, “That was great! Do you think he'd want to write something for the band?”
EI: Did he read music, Mel?
JM: Yeah. I think Mel played sousaphone or tuba or something like that for a couple years as a kid.
EI: So the charts would have a drum part?
JM: They'd have a drum part, and he'd learn like most drummers do, they learn the stuff pretty quickly. There's a sound of a drummer reading a chart that I hate, there's that term that a lot of people use, “Oh, he's so good, man, he reads fly shit.” And my experience is that a guy that reads fly shit, all you get is fly shit, you know they nail it the first time, and they nail it and nail it and nail it. I prefer players that can read fairly well, they may fuck up a little in the beginning, but then you hear the 10th time through and the 12th time through all of a sudden the lights are going on and they're internalizing the stuff and they're not reading, they're just using the printed page as a reference from that point on and then it gets deep.
Another thing I'll always remember about him, we were somewhere in Germany and somebody had sent him a couple of scores. We were at breakfast, and he opened up the envelope and he had this big smile on his face, “Oh what do we have here?” It was new music he couldn’t wait to check out. He read music enough that he could at least make a sense of it. I don't think Mel could have identified voicings and so forth, but he loved the prospect of looking at new stuff.
And yeah, he used to work a lot in the studios, and that's a whole other thing, when rock and roll came along, is one reason why he hated most anything to do with rock and roll is because at the time there were these kind of minimally qualified musicians starting to get a lot of work.
EI: Of course, he's on some of rock and roll records from the early days.
JM: I guess, but he always played it his own way, you know, especially when Thad wrote these funky kinds of things.
EI: I mean, there are hit records that Mel Lewis is on from the 50's and early 60's. L.A. stuff. "Alley Oop" for sure, I think there are others.
JM: Oh, really? Well, I'm not surprised. I mean, he did the stuff, but as time went on with the commercial work he'd talk his way out of work, frankly. Guys just wouldn't want to use him anymore.
Mel told me that back in the day when he was living out in LA he got a call, I think Jimmy Rowles was on this gig to play trio at a private party at Fred Astaire's house. He said, be there at 7 o'clock, it starts at 7 o'clock. So then they're setting up in this big living room, huge living room, and there's no one there, and finally, Fred Astaire comes in and says, “Oh thank you, I'm so happy you guys are here, it's going to be wonderful.” And then he says, “I've asked you to come an hour early, the party doesn't really start until 8, but once the guests start coming, I have to be a host, and I won't be able to dance. I want to dance to you guys for an hour, so just start playing.” So they started to play, and he spent an hour dancing around the living room. Fucking Fred Astaire!
EI: You're kidding!
JM: Dancing on the table, the floor, and the couch. They played for him. At 8 o'clock, ding dong, door starts ringing, and he didn't dance another lick the rest of the night. And I thought, what would that have been like? You know, you're playing for Fred Astaire, and he's dancing around a room for an hour. Wow.
EI: I guess we've covered Curson and Thad and Mel, we need to get to Stan Getz.
JM: Like I said, for some reason I got to know Joanne, I got to know Billy Hart. Billy Hart and I met on a Sonny Stitt gig at Sparky J's in Newark, there used to be a couple clubs in Newark, Sparky J's and the Cadillac Club.
EI: You were playing with Sonny Stitt?
JM: Just here and there, pick-up gigs. Calvin Hill was playing bass, and I was knocked out about that, too, because I knew him from the McCoy record, and I had seen him with McCoy, and “Oh, man, I'm playing with Calvin Hill!” on a little upright piano -- it was at one of those places where the bandstand was in the middle of a bar.
One of the reasons why I got the gig was because I had a car. I was living in Queens and I could pass through Manhattan, pick up Sonny and then go out to Jersey. So the first night Sonny says to me, “Well, you know, we're all professionals here, I know 5,000 tunes, and if I call something and you don't know it, just tell me and we'll play something else,” and I'm thinking that's pretty generous of him, because he had a reputation of playing some obscure tune in the key of E just to throw the young guys off. So I said, “Fine, you know, OK.” So the second set I think it was, he calls a tune, and I had never even heard the title of this thing before, and I looked at Calvin I say, “Calvin, do you know this?” and he says “No,” and I say, “Sonny, we don't know this,” and he said, “It's in E-flat. 1 - 2 - 1, 2, 3, 4.”
And so, we started making educated guesses, we figured, well, let's try E-flat as the first chord, it's probably an AABA tune, you know, and so it's kind of the scientific method where you have a hypothesis and you pursue that until you're proven wrong. If you're proven right, you keep going. So probably AABA, probably 8-bar phrases.
Sonny was helping us. He must have been in a charitable mood because maybe in the 5th bar when it might have been the II chord he'd play the melody but then he'd play an A natural to say that it's the dominant that F7. So he was helping us along. So we get to end of the first 8, and think, OK, we got, so it's probably the same thing, except we got to figure out a different way to end it to lead into the bridge, so we get through the second 8, and now we're there, the bridge. So it's in E-flat, so chances are it's either C minor or A-flat, so Calvin and I, I think we both go into A-flat. And we're right, so at least the first four bars are going to be in A-flat, you know, it's the genre. But then you got to get back to E-flat, how are we going to do that, and so we made up something that was close enough, and then all right, the final 8, let's hope there's not extension like “I've Got Rhythm” or something, let's just hope its just 8 bars, and it was, and we learned the tune well enough to get through the next eight minutes of our life. And you know, you're not going to learn the thing perfectly that way, but your job is to learn it well enough so you can make sense out of it.
EI: That's great. Well, you got to play with Sonny Stitt, I mean, that's awesome.
JM: Yeah, I played with him several times. The first night of the gig, he says, “Saturday night we're going to go to a jam session in Harlem,” and I said, oh, great, OK. And he didn't mention it again until Saturday night after the gig when I was getting ready to drive him back, he said, “So you ready to go to the jam session?” and I said yeah.
So we're driving in the city, he said, “Jim, I'm going to introduce you to black people.”
And I thought to myself, “Oh come on, I know black people,” but he was right, because up until then most of the time black people I had known we had met on either neutral ground or on white turf. I hadn't met them on their territory before. And Sonny walked in this club, I was the boy, I had his horns, you know, and Sonny walked in and it was like God had walked in.
It was this lower-middle class bar, it wasn't a club or anything and they had these guys with missing teeth and wearing baseball caps and drinking on a Saturday night, and Sonny walked in and pulls out his tenor and starts playing and they were going nuts. And all the shit he was playing, every lick he was playing, they all knew everything. He was like a preacher, you know, talking to the congregation. And I remember Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad, was playing bass, and the piano player was playing this little spinet piano. I thought, “Jeez, he’s playing way up high all the time, what's the deal with that?”
I go over to the piano player who says, “None of this works, the keys in the middle of the piano are permanently stuck down.” They couldn't be lifted up, that's why he was playing in the upper register, there were a few notes down there that worked. And he said, “I knew we were in trouble when we came in tonight to set up for the gig and the piano was sitting under a pile of chairs over in the corner.” I guess when they delivered the piano to the club it had fallen off the truck.
But being there with Sonny, at the end of the night he said, “From now on, you can come up here any time.” And I really appreciated that from him, it was great.
There's been a college jazz festival at Elmhurst College in Illinois just outside of Chicago for going on 40 or 45 years or something. I was there as a student from the University of Illinois, I think this was 1971, and I was there with a trio with a couple of guys from the University of Illinois, John Burr on bass and a drummer named Phil Gratteau, who's a very good drummer – he's still around Chicago, he's working. The other finalist – this was back when they had competitive festivals – the other finalist was James Williams' group from Memphis State. That's when I got to know James. We were hanging out and showing each other tunes, it was great.
But we lost in the finals to James' group, so I was pretty bummed out. At the end of the whole night we all get on the bus and we're going back to Champaign, it was about a three hour drive, I'm looking out the window, I'm kinda sad and bummed out, and then I thought of Bud Powell. “You know, if the biggest problem in his life had been that he had lost a college jazz competition, he would have had a pretty great life, considering everything that he went through being black AND crazy, you know with all the therapy and treatments.” So this burden was lifted from my shoulders and I said, “I just gotta keep doing what I'm doing.”
Then you come to New York and you start hanging out with these older black guys, and they're talking about days on the road in the 50's and even the early 60's where they're down south and staying in a boarding house, you know, with mother so-and-so, and she's cooking for them and she does it all the time because that's how they survived, and meanwhile the white guys are in a hotel somewhere. So I thought, there's a lot of people that have gone through a lot of crap with this music, and if I lose a college competition, what the hell, you know?
And then James and I were friends for a long time after that, until he passed.
To get back to Stan Getz, again I knew the people in his band, and at some point he had had the band with Mitch Forman, I think Chuck Loeb, and Chip Jackson was playing bass for him, and I got a call one day from Stan, and he asked me to join his band, he said, “I've heard about you.” You know, the way Stan worked it's like most people, they just ask the guys in the band, “Well, who's around, who do you recommend?” and so they recommended me. And I couldn't make his tour because I already had a tour with Mel Lewis – I think we were going to Australia or something like that. I said, “Gee, Stan, I'd love to do it sometime, but I can't do it. Please call some other time,” so about six months later he called me again.
By that time Lou Levy was there and he'd gone back to just playing tunes with an acoustic quartet. He’d also started divorce proceedings against his wife. He always blamed his wife Monica for the reason why he was playing this electric stuff, his heart wasn't really into it, and you could tell his heart wasn't really into it. Anyway, he drove out west and called me and said, “I played a gig the other day and it was just tunes, and I've decided that’s what I want to do. I want to go back to just playing tunes like I did before.” Lou was a fine pianist, but he was really busy in LA and he didn't want to travel, and by that time Marc Johnson had joined the band and Victor Lewis was already in the band and Stan said, “Why don't we get together and play?”
So he and I got together at Don Sickler's studio and we just played duo for a while. I thought, “This is great, Man, duo, we should do this more.”
EI: He had such great time.
JM: Amazing time, you know, just eighth notes, it was incredible. It was so relaxed, but strong, you know.
So he offered me the gig, “Yeah, OK, I like what I hear, we start with a six week tour of the states.” He had done an album that came out as The Dolphin, it was with Lou Levy and Monty Budwig on bass, because Marc hadn't joined the band yet, and Victor. It was done live at the Keystone Korner, He sent me all the takes from that recording, which was essentially the whole book that the band was playing. So I listened to those, and I made little cheat sheets for myself on the tunes; most of them were standards with little intros and little things they had worked out. I flew out to Seattle, we did a sound check, and ran through a couple things, and that was it, I started playing with them. In fact the first night, we finished some big, fast tune that ended on a big chord, you know, and Stan starts going [Jim imitates a lot of notes played on a tenor saxophone at once. He sounds like a chicken.] screeching and stuff, and turns around with a big smile and says to me, “I betcha didn't know I could play that way.”
So then, you know, I brought in some of the tunes I had been playing on my own over that kind of modern - “modren jazz” harmony. He could play those. To me he'd sound OK in rehearsal, but I think when he got on the gig he didn't want to play things unless he really felt comfortable with them, and he didn't feel comfortable with those. So I wrote a few tunes that were a little more inside and he recorded a few of them.
From him, I learned that the three big things in a player are their time, their sound and then the way they believe in what they're doing. It's not about the notes. You can hear the guy play the root of a chord and it can sound brilliant because it's in the pocket, the sound is distinct, and in his psychological makeup there's not any possible thing he could be doing in his life right now other than playing “bap.” Whether you're talking about ding ding da ding or bsh bsh bsh or crazy you know, it's the conviction that matters, and that was so strong in him. Then with his sound, we'd play a ballad in a club with him where you could see the audience, and especially Fat Tuesday, because there was this long skinny area where we couldn't set up like a normal set up. The piano was sideways and I could see the audience. Stan would start to play a ballad, and all the women in the audience, their faces would, you know, start to go soft, and start chewing on the pearls, and their guys would start getting nervous, like, “What the fuck is going on here?” He had that effect, he could play a couple notes, and people would melt.
About a year into my time with Stan we played a concert at the White House. This would have been in 1982, in the fall. PBS had a series called “In Concert at the White House.” It was usually classical music, but this was a special jazz edition. The host was Itzhak Perlman. The line-up was Stan’s quartet with Adam Nussbaum, Marc Johnson and myself; Chick Corea’s trio with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes; and Dizzy Gillespie. Stan and Diz each brought a protégé: Dizzy brought Jon Faddis, and Stan brought Diane Schuur. Dizzy and Stan played a tune with Chick and his trio; Stan played “Litha” with Chick’s trio; and Stan played my tune, “On the Up and Up” with me, Marc and Adam (it’s on YouTube).
I remember that we got picked up at our hotel by these White House security guys in big Chevrolet SUV’s. We did a sound check/blocking rehearsal the day before. It was funny: at one point Stan and Dizzy were running a tune with Chick & Co., and I thought “it looks like a bunch of jazz musicians have broken into the White House and started jamming!”
The next day was the concert. Ronald Reagan wasn’t there, he was in Nicaragua. But Nancy Reagan was there, and so was Vice President Bush. Itzhak actually sat in and played on “Summertime.” You know, he’s not a jazz musician, but, man, he was soulful! Played some real fiddle music, made that G string sing! Afterwards there was a reception in the State Dining Room. I remember a huge bowl of shrimp—and, of course, all of us musicians gathered around that. Chick had done a version of “Autumn Leaves” that started with a freely improvised intro with the trio. Mr. Bush came over and introduced himself. He said “Ya know, in that introduction it kinda sounded like you were talking with one another.” Chick said something like “Well, yes, that’s the idea.” I thought it was kind of nice that the V.P. “got it.” I doubt if his son would have. Okay, I didn’t really have to say that, but…
Afterwards we all went back to our hotel and hung out in the bar. Walter Cronkite was there, also Eddie Albert. (Green Acres, anybody?) Talk about your brush with greatness!
EI: People say Stan was a bebopper, which he was, of course, but he also had something of the swing era in his sound.
JM: His first band he played with was Jack Teagarden.
JM: He got that gig because this was during World War II, and guys just got drafted. He told me, he went as a kid to a rehearsal with Teagarden just to hang out and the tenor player wasn't there and Jack said to somebody else, “Who are we going to get on tenor?” and they pointed to this kid, and said, “Him!” So Stan got the job. Then he got the job with Woody Herman when he was about 18. He had “Early Autumn,” that was a hit, he was a good-looking guy that played the saxophone well... and from then on, he never had to grow up. Take away anything about heroin or any of the drugs he was into, besides the drugs, he was surrounded by people that kind of took care of him and were always around him because of the way he played.
Now you put all of the drugs into the equation, frankly, he probably would have been killed except for that he played so well! Because there are so many guys that will go on about Stan, he was this and that, then there's a pause and they say, “But man, he could sure play the saxophone.” He moved people, even other musicians, to the point where they'd cut him some slack because my God, once he puts the horn in his mouth...
By the time I got to play with him he was getting high on certain things, but junk was no longer part of his life, thank God. Still, you'd see when he'd put the horn in his mouth, he became another guy. A good friend of mine in Chicago heard us play one night and he said later, “You know, you're playing a ballad, and while you're playing a solo, he's taking a puff of a cigarette, looking at his watch, fidgeting with his horn, doing the mouth piece, you know, but when he starts to play it's like [Jim hums angelically] it's a different guy, you know.” He's this fidgeting kind of guy who all of a sudden gets the horn in his face and he's Mr. Cool School. What he played afforded him a way to express himself and it was a way to live that was so different that it was when the horn wasn't in his mouth, and especially when he was off the bandstand.
I had an Aebersold clinic once a few years ago where this young guy come in, who always already a teaching assistant at a college or something, he was maybe 25 years old, he got a neck strap around his neck, and comes up to me and says, “So, you played with Stan Getz, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Tell me, was he as great a human being as it comes through in his music?”
And I just said, “You know, he was a human being. He had his strengths and weaknesses,” and I didn't go into all the shit, but people – same thing with movie stars – people want to believe that the character they see on the screen is the actual person. It could be the absolute opposite. The bottom line is that the persona you see in the performing area may have very little relationship to the actual person. That's one of the big things I learned from Stan.
EI: Stan is from that earlier era: Was he comfortable reading chord symbols?
JM: Yeah, he was.
EI: But somehow I feel like that wasn't his first thing.
JM: It wasn't his first thing, but when I first joined his band he said to bring in some tunes so I brought in an existing tunes with slash chords and things like that, and he'd arpeggiate them. So he could real chord symbols well, but I think he also liked to read the melody and chord symbols together. About that White House piece, “On the Up and Up,” he made the comment, “You know, the chords of this tune don't look like the chords you'd expect if you just look at the melody.” If you just look at the melody it was like, [Jim whistles] it was a B-flat triad, but the chords were something like E-flat major to B major so it's F in the melody and all that.
So for him, if the harmony was strongly related to the melody, he could deal with it well, if it was a little more foreign it might take him a little while to get there. The bottom line was if he ultimately didn't feel comfortable with a tune, he just wouldn't play it on a gig, so some of the tunes of mine where he sounded pretty convincing in a rehearsal he still didn’t play it much. If the conviction wasn't there about being able to play on an A over F chord, then he didn't feel right about playing that on a gig.
But on the other hand, we'd do things spontaneously on certain tunes. There'd be a tune with a vamp and all of a sudden I'd throw some superimposed chord in there and the next chorus through I'd play it again, and he'd play it. And during the intermission he'd come over and say, “What's that thing you're putting behind me?” And then I'd tell him, and he said, “Where'd you learn chords like that?” and I said, “I learned them from records with you on it like Sweet Rain, you know, stuff with Chick and all that.” So he had an ear for those things, but I think sometimes he didn't quite feel confident about his ability to play on them.
EI: Well, his music came a long way, considering that his first gig was with Jack Teagarden. The record of his that I grew up on was The Master with Albert Dailey and Jabali and Clint Houston, and there's a Ralph Towner song on it!
JM: When I was with him, Marc Johnson wrote a tune that kinda sounded like Bill Evans meets Fauré, you know, and it was beautiful and Stan sounded great. Victor Lewis wrote a couple of tunes that were really nice. He had an ear. He played “Litha” and these Chick tunes, and played them really well. So he could play that way, you know, but yeah, you're right, I mean, he came up with Teagarden.
My first exposure to Stan Getz was bossa nova in the 60's. It was really nice-sounding, and I remember as a kid figuring out, oh, they're playing like this F chord, but there's an E on it, and that's the sound of - I didn't know what they called it, but this thing, the sound. I found out later it was a major 7: Ah! There’s a sound that appeals to me.
Anyway, I always thought of him as “Blah, blah, blah, bossa nova, kind of a lightweight,” and then finally somebody one night played me this record called For Musicians Only with him and Sonny and Dizzy. It was burning, they played Dizzy’s “Bebop” [Jims hums], and I remember we played the cut over and over, and it was an LP, so we probably wore it out, just played it over and over, this thing. And I thought, “Oh, this is Stan Getz.” So I had a bigger appreciation for him, and then he had the stuff he did with Chick and all that really impressed me.
EI: Now, you just mentioned Dizzy – you worked with Dizzy and Stan one time, right?
JM: Yeah, that was kind of a crazy thing. It was a two-week affair at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. One year Stan and Dizzy were the artists-in-residence, and on the weekend in the middle we were going to do a quintet record, it was going to be Stan's rhythm section, which was me, Victor Lewis and George Mraz, with Dizzy. Bruce Lundvall was coming out and they were going to record it for CBS or Columbia. So to get ready for it, Dizzy had a few tunes that he wanted to go over with me and I'd write out the final lead sheets. He had written them out already, and they looked pretty close, pretty good, you know.
So we got together just to over these tunes, and there's a couple things I remember from that, one he played what we would call a C half-diminished chord. I knew where he was going this, but he said, “What do you call that?” I was just going to walk right into this, and I said, “C half-diminished,” and he said, “Yeah, we call that E-flat minor with a 6 in the bass.” That's old way, Barry Harris calls it that today, they weren't thinking of that as half-diminished, they were thinking of it as a IV minor with a 6 in the bass, which was the II.
EI: Now why did he ask you about that?
JM: Well, you know, “OK, young whippersnapper.” It was mostly a generational thing.
EI: But was he saying that he really felt it was an E-flat chord?
JM: Yup, and then he said something I'll never forget, he said, “Yeah, it's E-flat minor, and when you go up [Jim hums boo ba ba ba] you put a D on that, 'cause some people they put the 6 in the bass and then they'll put a D-flat on top, nah, it's always bap! [Jim hums a D] He sang it, he went [Jim hums boo do do do vwah!] He said, “That’s what it's gotta be.” In 98% of the cases I agree with him, you know. I mean, Horace Silver's got a tune where there's a minor 7 flat 5 with the flat 9, so it works once in a while, but Dizzy was adamant about the fact. Because if you're in the key of B-flat major, E-flat minor had a major 7th on it, so even if you put the 6th in the bass, the 6 of the E-flat minor, so C minor 7 b5, it had to have the D natural. That was his thing, “Had to have the D natural!”
EI: I know about this controversy, of course, but that's actually the best explanation I've heard.
JM: A guy I learned a lot from later on was the composer/arranger Manny Albam. He started out playing baritone saxophone, but he got into writing. He said in the 40's the stuff was happening up at Minton's, and the word would come down the next day, mainly through Budd Johnson, because Budd Johnson was hanging out up there and he knew Manny, so Budd Johnson would say, “This is what Dizzy was showing us last night.” Guys would gather around Dizzy and Dizzy would play stuff on the piano and show the cats the harmony. The next day, they'd be saying, “Man, that's the buzz.” So I got a little sense of that from Dizzy showing me that chord, you know?
The other thing I took away from it was that he explained this thing about “Con Alma.” He was messing around with “All the Things You Are.” [Jim hums] The way the roots move, [Jim hums again], and he said, “I took that and said, Oh, what if take it up a half-step?” [Jim hums again] You know, that's “Con Alma.” So that was a great hang, you know, and I was working on writing out these tunes for him.
EI: Did he play piano in front of you?
JM: Yeah, he'd sit in front of the piano and play, you know.
EI: It's a shame there's no record of Dizzy just playing some chords. I mean, he's on some records comping....
JM: He's on the Charlie Parker record.
EI: Miles played some good comping once in a while on some of the records, too, both Dizzy and Miles comp beautifully in a few cases, but still I'd love an isolated example of Dizzy just playing his voicings.
Bird was never going to show you anything about harmony, neither was Bud or Monk, but Dizzy articulated the information.
JM: Yeah, he kind of assumed the role of teacher in this group of guys that were up there, you know.
EI: So when Stan and Diz were together, when they talked about music, were they intellectual?
JM: Not really! In fact, a couple days later we finally had the big rehearsal for this recording session and there was a tune, I forget which one it was, where there was a question about a chord change, and I had feeling that neither guy wanted to show that he could really figure out what the answer was.
EI: Wait...you mean that they were -
JM: They weren't sure about what the chord ought to be under this thing.
EI: And neither wanted to say they knew what it was?
JM: They didn't want to show that they could figure it out. Maybe part of it that they respected each other enough that they didn't want to step on each other's toes, that might have been part of it, too. But I had the feeling that each guy was kind of assuming the attitude of, “I don't know much about music, so I don't know...”
JM: It was weird.
EI: [laughs] To say the least!
JM: I forget what we finally decided on.
EI: What'd you feel about the issue, do you remember?
JM: I wanted to say, “You know, it's this,” but I was just this young guy and here's these two legends, and I figured they'll figure it out. I mean, Dizzy knew about harmony and I figured if anyone was going to tell us, it's Dizzy. But I had the feeling that neither one wanted to show that they knew too much because there was this thing with "the street”: “We're tough guys, we don't know too much about it.”
EI: “We're not eggheads.”
EI: “We're folk musicians, we're advanced folk musicians.”
JM: Yeah, “We learned it on the street, not in school.”
But all this was against a backdrop of Stan gradually drinking himself into absolute oblivion. Stan had gotten close with certain high-level professors at Stanford. They formed a thing called the Committee for Jazz at Stanford, and these weren't music school people, they were people from other disciplines. The athletic director was an alto player, this great art professor named Nate Oliviera, I wish I could have used one of his paintings on a record cover, great artist, used to be a trumpet player. So they worked to put together a situation to invite Stan to come in as artist-in-residence. The athletic director, Andy Geiger, was having a birthday and so Stan's girlfriend, Jane Walsh – they were living together – prepared this big party.
The night before, there had been a question and answer session at Stanford where Stan was taking questions from the audience. The way Stan did it was like George W. Bush: people had to write questions on paper and hand them in. Stan just sat there, looking very uncomfortable at a podium with a big light on it. He'd read, “What's your favorite record?” and answer curtly, Focus. “Who's your favorite drummer to play with?” “Roy Haynes.” You know, terrible. He was very nervous about doing this kind of thing, and that's how he dealt with it.
The next night, the night that there was going to be the party afterwards, Dizzy does his Q & A. Of course Dizzy is relaxed, taking the audience’s questions, he pulls out his Jew's Harp playing shit, you know, the crowd's going nuts, and I look and there's Stan going out the door. And he never showed up at the party at his own house.
I felt so bad for Jane, because everyone else came over, and there was all this food and everything and finally after a while Jane just said, “Thanks everyone for coming,” and they all left. Stan was out drinking or something, and he came back, I don't know, 3 in the morning or something and he started screaming. The thing was, I was staying in this house, as was Mraz and Victor Lewis. It was a nice house, we each had a little bedroom. Then he split, and he checked himself into a Holiday Inn. I'm forgetting all the timeline here, but anyway, finally, there was a concert that we were going to do, and Stan showed up to the soundcheck, but he never showed for the gig, and he was in his Holiday Inn. He wouldn't even see his AA sponsor, so it was getting bad, you know.
I remember the next day, Victor had a girlfriend in the area, and said, “I'm getting out of here, this is bad.” And something happened...it was a Monday, the concert was a Saturday, so there was a day....something happened. Anyway, Stan came back early in the morning and trashed his house. It was an art professor's house who was on leave in London, and he took paintings and threw them on the ground, took the TV and it just blew up.
JM: And by that time I had moved out too, I saw the writing on the wall and stayed with someone else. Jane first called the Stanford University police and said, “I want to report vandalism.” They said, “Who did it?” and she said, “His name is Stan Getz.” “Stan Getz? I got all his records, I can't arrest Stan Getz.” She said, “This guy just trashed a house,” and they said, “Do you have any eyewitnesses?” “Well, no, but I know that he did it,” and they said, “Well, we can't arrest anybody without eyewitnesses.”
So she calls the Palo Alto police, same thing. “Stan Getz? I can't arrest Stan Getz. Do you have any eyewitnesses?” “Well, no.” So now it's like this guy is out there, and who knows if it’s going to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining coming in with an ax?
So long story short, the concert ended up being a quartet concert with Dizzy. No recording. And then on the intermission we're all backstage when John Handy, who lived in the area, he was there, and he comes back, and Jim Nadel, the guy that ran the Stanford Workshops says, “John! You want to play the second half?” Handy says, “Well, I don't have my horn,” and Jim says, “Well I've got my alto in my office, how about it?” So John played on the second and that was fun, but the record date never happened with the tunes that I had worked on with Dizzy.
I'm foggy now on the whole timeline of the events, but man, it was a nasty situation. And at that point that's when finally...you know, people were calling me for gigs and I'd say at first, “Well I got to see what happens with Stan,” and then I thought, wait a minute, I'm not going to wait to see what happens with Stan. That's when I called Steve Getz, who was Stan's manager at the time, and said, “Steve, I can't work like this. It's not fuck you or anything, it's just I'm leaving the band because I can't just wait around to see what happens with Stan,” and he says, “I understand.” So I left for a while.
EI: Do you have any memories working with Dizzy, did he tell you anything about how you should comp for him or anything?
JM: [Thinks about it] No.
EI: Did you feel like you needed to play in a certain way to play with Dizzy Gillespie?
JM: No, I mean the couple of times I played with him, like I did on that night and there was a festival in Spain, where Stan didn't show up, that's a whole other long story where we just played quartet with Dizzy, I just kind of played my regular thing and he didn't say anything. It doesn't mean he liked it or not, he just didn't say anything. I found that almost every really good horn player at some point would say something to me about comping whether they liked what I was doing or not, you know. Dave Liebman certainly did, Thad mentioned something about, “You know, when you play these open big chords you should stay there for a while, don't just immediately go back down.”
Art Farmer, [chuckles], I did a workshop in Germany with him and we were going to do a ballad, I forget which one, and he says, “Play an intro.” I'm just trying to set it up, so I play the last four bars of the tune. We finish the tune, and somebody raises their hand and says, “So what do you like to have in a piano player?” and he says, “Well, one thing I like is a piano player that doesn't play the last four bars of the tune.” [laughter all around]
JM: Busted! I'm trying to think, I remember with Brookmeyer we used to talk about comping and rhythmic stuff and leaving space. With Joe Henderson, I don't know if we ever talked about comping, don't seem to remember that coming up. I figure if a guy doesn't say anything...
I mean, with bass players I'll go up to them and ask, “Look, is what I'm doing for you cool?” Dennis Irwin used to like absolutely nothing. Marc Johnson, used to say, “Well, I like a curtain behind me.” I asked, “Well, what do you mean?” and he couldn't really describe it, but I would kind of lay down these soft, open chords for him, and that was my idea of what a curtain was, so it seemed to work OK. Stan once accused me of trying to take over on a ballad, and I wasn't trying to take over on the ballad, but I had to respectfully stay out of the way, because he was hearing it from his perspective, because the bottom line was I was playing too much, you know, and so I learned to back off.
Playing with Stan was like playing with a singer, you know, you give him a chord and plays the melody [Jim sings zum..badadee...zum...badadadee] There's no big embellishing shit either. That's why, and I say it without irony, that Stan was probably the greatest singer I ever played with because the way he phrased and everything.
EI: You played a little bit with Stan and Chet Baker together.
JM: Yeah, wow, that was a tour, in 1983. I was down in Australia with Mel Lewis, we had done a week with the big band down there, and then myself and Dennis Irwin, Dick Oatts and Mel stayed and we did about 10 days of quartet stuff, very nice. And we're finished.
Stan and I had a couple screaming arguments about stuff. This was one of them, because there was nothing on Stan's calendar and I had gone ahead and booked this trip with Mel and then Stan found out about it and he was really pissed off, and I got really pissed at him and we ended up screaming at each other one night at Blues Alley in DC.
So we worked it all out because he had this tour of Europe come up, so the first 8 or 9 days of the tour he was going to have someone else play piano with his band in Europe and then I would join them. The plan was to fly home from Australia, unpack all my summer clothes because it was February, Australia's summer, unpack my summer clothes, pack my winter clothes and fly over to Oslo and meet them in Oslo. So we finished the thing in Sydney and the promoter for the last day set us up this motel on the beach, it was ridiculous, it was beautiful, you know, and I had a girlfriend at the time down there, we were just having a great time, and the phone rings, and it's Wim Wigt, the Dutch promoter, and I thought, “How'd he find my number here?”
Wim could find out anything, you know, so, “Hello, Jim, it's Wim. When are you joining this tour with Stan?” I started to get angry and said, “Look, we've worked this out, I'm flying to New York, I'm going to join him in Oslo.” He says, “Well the gig one night before in Stockholm has become now a live recording TV thing.” This was the tour with Chet Baker, Chet was on this, and he says, “Stan isn't happy with the piano sub, and he refuses to do it unless you're there.” I said, “Well look, my plane ticket has me going back from Sydney, blah blah blah, to New York.” He said, “I've already fixed that.” There was a book called the OAG, the Official Airline Guide, there was the pocket edition, but Wim had the huge official edition on his desk, it was about 1,000 pages, showed every flight in the work and he could work out all this stuff. So he says, “I've already rearranged your ticket for you.” I say, “OK, well it's summer down here, and I can't show up in Stockholm with shorts and t-shirt and the Mel Lewis plastic coat.” We had these band jackets that, you know, if you'd put a match to them they would melt, they wouldn't burn, they were some polyester shit, you know. I can't show up to Stan's gig in Stockholm wearing this shit, and he says, “I'll pay you extra money, I'll buy you extra clothes when you get here, but we really need you to be here for this to work.” I said, “OK, I'll do it.”
So we flew the next day Sydney, Fiji, Honolulu, LA, at which point I said bye to Mel and Dick and Dennis. Then I flew on to Dallas, London, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
I remember, man, we got to Copenhagen, and it was British Airways. At that time they're charter or whatever in the European airspace said that they could only drop off people in Copenhagen, they couldn't pick up passengers. So we take off from Copenhagen and it's me and this other guy who was coming back from Zaire and been on planes almost as long as I had, and I'll never forget, the stewardess looks us up, this was about 9 in the morning, she says, “You guys look like you could use some champagne,” and we said, “Fucking A!” so she popped open a bottle, and it was great. She read us, you know. [laughs]
So here, 40 hours earlier I had been on the beach on the New South Wales coast with this beautiful girl I thought I was madly in love with, now 40 hours later we're breaking through the clouds and there's snow. I was so depressed. We land in Stockholm and Billy Hoogstraten who was the great road manager for Stan for many years meets me at the airport and the first thing we do before we even go to the hotel is we go buy clothes. He says, “OK, I got money from Wim.” I had to buy a suit coat, I had to buy some slacks, I had to buy some shirts, dress shirts and so forth, a sweater. Then I got to the hotel and there's Chet who literally looked like a homeless guy that just walked in off the street, you know he had about an eight-day beard and stocking cap over his head and everything. So I said, “Hey Chet, how are you doing?” 'cause I played with him in '78 for about six months. Then I went to the hall and we did two complete concerts, it was four sets, two sets each concert, and at the soundcheck I remember I sat down, I physically felt the keys under my fingers, but there was no connection from here [gestures to hands] to there [gestures to head]. I mean, I was moving, I could feel the keys, but there was no other connection. I thought, “Oh man, this is going to be strange.”
I had played one set with George a couple of years earlier with Sco, we did at thing at the Public Theater, one set, and, “Oh hey George, how ya' doing?” And Victor was on drums, and yeah, we just started to play these tunes and Chet was sounding pretty good, but I didn't know that the two of them were like oil and water. Number one, Chet was still snorting heroin and Stan was on coke, so that's like [whistles] opposite directions.
But that night, I'll never forget, we finished the fourth set and I thought, “Now I'm going to collapse.” I got backstage and there was this journalist in Stockholm named Hans Friedlund and I saw Hans, and I saw all the other musicians hanging around, and all of a sudden I was like, “All right! Where's the hang?” You know, I was astounded, I thought, “I'm so fucking tired, but there's something else that's kicked in here.” Hey all right, let's go!
It wasn't until about 3 days later I finally just keeled over, you know. By that time we were in Saudi Arabia, because after Stockholm we went to Oslo, and meanwhile this concert in Stockholm became a video, all this stuff, even now when I go to Scandinavia there'll be older people who'll say to me, “You know, I was there at the Södra Theatre, the south theater, and that was the greatest concert of my life, thank you so much.” OK, you’re welcome! You never know. No matter how fucked up you are, you never know the effect you're having on some people.
EI: I've seen some of it on YouTube...
JM: You know, even musically, I thought, “OK, they're going to be playing together." But they didn't. They played individually, tune-by-tune and finally at the end they did “A Line for Lyons” just as a little duo thing.
EI: Yeah, that's what I noticed, it wasn't really a quintet.
JM: No. This was Wim's idea, it's what I called the Great White Dope tour. It was a promoter's idea, let's get Stan and Chet! So we go up to Oslo, and then that was recorded too as Quintessence Volume I and Volume II on Concord. Then we go down to Le Havre in France, and we get down there, and I had to take the train into Paris to get my Saudi visa, because we were going to Saudi Arabia. So I go to the Saudi embassy to fill out this form, and it says “religion.” I left it blank.
So I'm in line and I finally get to the clerk. He's in a swivel chair, and he looks at it and he says, “What is your religion?” I said, “Well, I don't have a religion.” “No religion, no visa!” He turns around, he turns his back to me, kind of like “fuck you,” I mean, really weird. So I put Buddhist on the thing, he said, “OK,” and I got my visa. Stan, who was Jewish, put Presbyterian. So, we get to Saudi Arabia, the flight was three hours late so finally we land it's like 4 in the morning in Jedda.
Every tour before that Stan used to fly coach with the rest of us. Now, on this tour, he said “I'm going to fly first class.” Of course, back in the coach days, Billy the road manager would take his horn, he'd handle his horn. Now that Stan was in first class, “OK, Stan, you take your own horn, because I'm back in coach, and you gotta have your horn with you.”
So we're all back in coach, Stan's in first class, we land in Jedda...
EI: Where's Chet Baker?
JM: He's in coach with us, he's back in coach.
EI: Chet Baker's in coach?
EI: Well, that's why Stan decided to fly first class, of course, he was trying to say "fuck you" to Chet Baker.
JM: Probably. So we land in Jedda, and we're waiting in line for customs, and Stan says, “Billy, where's my horn?” And Billy says, “Stan, you were in first class now, you had your own horn with you.” At which point we hear [wooooooosh] the plane takes off! It's going down to the Ascension Islands down in the Indian Ocean.
OK, so the next day we're doing two nights of concerts organized by a consortium of western embassies, they would organize these cultural events for the westerners. It was the Swiss and American embassies that combined on this thing. They put the word out - Stan Getz needs a saxophone. So it reminded me of the audition scene in the Baker Boys, where all these crazy things were coming in, all these shitty horns. Finally, there was one with a red plastic mouthpiece, and Stan decided, 'OK, I'll play this one.”
So, we played the first concert. Meanwhile, the word comes through. Billy was on the case and heard from Air France, “All right, we've got the horn, and it comes in the next day.” So Billy and I went out the airport, and there on the belt was his horn. So we picked it up, and at least Stan had his horn for the second night.
EI: Why did you go the airport?
JM: That's a good question! Uh, I think I just wanted to go the airport, you know, something to do.
The first day at the concert we had met this guy, he was an English lord, but his thing was mineralogy, he was a mineralogical scientist down there doing stuff for an oil company. We met him and his wife, and they said, “Tomorrow, why don't you come over for lunch? We'll take you to the 13 Palms,” which is supposed to be this wonderful place. So we go there, and first we had lunch. The law then was you could make 200 liters of your own wine as long as it was for personal consumption. That’s what this guy did. I remember we had this nice lunch, and drinking this homemade wine. At one point, Mraz says, “Hey, this stuff works!” because at this point we're all getting a little buzzed.
So the time came to come to the 13 Palms, we get in this Jeep and we're driving about three hours out in the middle of the desert, and finally, there's 13 palm trees. As Billy Hoogstraten said later in his Dutch accent, “Yeah, and we finally got to the 13 fucking dead palm trees.” Because that's what it was! Here we are, 13 palms, great, all right, let's get back in the jeep and go back, it was really a drag! I'm thinking, “Gee, I could have gone to the bazaar in the middle of town and seen all that shit, but I decided to go with these guys to the 13 palms.”
Anyway, the next day Stan had his horn. We flew back to France, and we continued to the tour.
At one point, Stan said to us in the rhythm section, “How is it playing with Chet?” We said, “It's fine.” Now when I played with Chet in '78 he was really strong, and he wasn't still at that level, but he was dealing, he was OK. Stan says, “You know, if you don't want to play with him, you can say so, and we can get another rhythm section to play with Chet.” [We] said, “No, it's fine.” Stan says, “You know, I can get him fired off the tour if you want.” He was trying to put it on us, you know, but we weren't going to bite. We all dug Chet, you know.
EI: Of course, he was a soulful player by any standard.
JM: Yeah! He was fine, he wasn't hurting anybody, he wasn't being nasty, he was playing, and playing pretty well. Stan was looking for us to the dirty work and we just wouldn't go for it. So finally a day or two later, I forget where we were, Stan says, “I fired Chet off the tour.” Oh, great.
So we go to Paris, and we're supposed to play several nights at the New Morning. The manager of the New Morning was a woman named Madam Farhi. Stan says to Billy, “Tell Madam Farhi I'm not playing tonight, I just don't feel like it.” I got this line I like to use as a joke before a concert, “I'm not feeling it tonight, I'm going back to the hotel.” Well, Stan actually pulled that shit!
OK, so Billy's job is now to call Wim and Madam Farhi, and say, this is what's happening. So the word comes to us later who's playing at the New Morning – it's Chet! So all three of us took a taxi to the New Morning, we sat in with him, we had a great time! [laughs]
Then we did the rest of the tour without Chet. Yeah, it was strange. I flew 40 hours to do all that. That was life with Getz, you know.
EI: Something you alluded to earlier I just wanted to get on tape, something about chord scales or not chord scales.
EI: Because that I feel like is at the crux of something about jazz playing that's important and under-discussed.
JM: There are certain relationships between chords and scales, and that's all well and good. The problem is in a lot of jazz pedagogy they teach what's easiest to teach. And what's the easiest to teach? "This chord goes with this scale."
So when I see certain things – and don't get me wrong, Jamey Aebersold is the reason why most of us in Jazz education are doing anything things days, he's the godfather. But when I look in his published version of "Confirmation," and you see the first bar, F lydian, second bar, two beats of E locrian or whatever the hell it is, to two beats of A altered dominant, and then D minor is D dorian, and then two beats of C dorian to F mixolydian....
No! That's not what those guys were thinking about. They were connecting melodies, they were connecting strong chord tones in a chain like Bach did. It's about targets, and melodic stuff. You don't get into that scalar thing until you're talking about a tune like “So What.” OK, in that case you got a scale that goes forever, but, now it's what do you do with that scale, and there's all kinds of stuff.
My biggest problem with the whole chord scale thing is that sometimes it's presented at the central issue in jazz improvisation, and it's not. It's a side issue. It's not anywhere near the important thing. It's about rhythm and phrasing and shape, not the scale.
EI: Were there any conversations you had with an older guy like Getz that were about scales or not-scales?
JM: Well, there was actually one. Maybe this illustrates the point and it's appropriate to talk about. “On the Up and Up” has about 5 bars of D Melodic Minor, but the root was moving every bar up a scale step.
And we walk into the studio, it's 10 o'clock in the morning, and Stan says, “Let's play Jim's tune.” He was in the middle of his divorce, and it was something that the New York Times called a “scorched earth” divorce. The mother of all divorces, it was so nasty. Stan was trying to present himself as this poor jazz musician, and Monica was trying to present him as somebody who would ”do it to mud,” as Lenny Bruce used to say.
Anyway, so he's got all this on his mind, plus we're playing at Fat Tuesday's every night, so we walk in at 10 in the morning, and he says, “Let's play Jim's tune. What was that scale you showed me?” I played it [hums fast]. He says, “OK. 1, 2, 1 2 3 4!” [hums tune] So in that case, he wanted to know about the scale, but other than that we never really talked about it.
I just would hear what guys would play, like Thad. You know, Mingus' famous quote the first time he heard Thad play was “I just heard Bartok with valves.” Thad would sometimes just go out of his way to avoid the chord, but it wasn't about a scale, it was about avoiding the chord. From him I got this way of playing where you'd have the root the third and the fifth and each one would have a chromatic zone around it, and you'd use that chromatic zone around the chord tones as your basis of what you were going for. It wasn't about a scale.
So the scale thing, I hardly heard anybody talk about it with the older guys I used to play with.
EI: Did Joe Henderson use to talk about it?
EI: Because you played with Joe quite a bit.
JM: Yeah, I played with Joe quite a bit.
EI: Contrast playing with Joe Henderson versus Stan Getz.
JM: Well, I think the biggest difference was in their sounds. Stan's sound was very big and Joe's sound was relatively small, but he knew how to use a microphone to make it sound big. And their time feels – Stan was right down the middle, Joe tended to be a little more on top. He had worked out certain patterns, OK, so it's eighth notes, but groups of 5 or 7, groupings like that. Some things he played weren't even in time, they were just kind of gestures over the basic time.
You know it's funny, both guys, if you played with them for a while, you'd realize they had things that they would do on certain tunes. I think we all do that. But with Joe, there was more of a feeling of being the last car on a roller coaster where you're just being whipped around, you're just trying to keep up with the guy: he's turning this way and that way, and you're just trying to hold on and keep up with him.
Stan was probably more...I don't say this in a bad way, more predictable, there were things you knew he'd do on certain tunes. In a way, you'd lay for them, you'd knew that on the 4th chorus he was going to do this thing, and then you'd get in with him simultaneously. So in that sense, he and the rhythm section were building the solo, the solo was becoming not a composed piece but a, I don't know, a pre-formatted event that you were all responsible for supporting. With Joe, you never quite knew what he was going to do, and it was more spontaneous, and that feeling of let's just hang on, and try and keep up with this guy.
EI: How did you get recommended to Joe?
JM: Well, I first got to know Joe through Don Sickler. I first met Don through one of the first gigs I did in New York, which was a series of weekends at a Catskill Italian resort called Villa Roma. And this bass player, Lynn Milano, was leading the band, and it was me and Don Sickler and a couple of other people. I start talking to Don, and at the time he was working at Warner Brothers 7 Arts, who had taken over the whole Blue Note catalogue. And we're talking about how, “Boy, I just loved all those old Blue Note records,” and he said, “Well, you know, I'm administering the catalog.” He said there were all these tunes lying around in the Blue Horizon catalog, that was Blue Note's own in-house publishing thing. And you notice, if a guy was young, like Coltrane's first couple of Blue Note records, the tunes are in Blue Horizon. A lot of guys when they were early on they'd put them in Blue Horizon.
He said, “Frankly, this music's sitting around. Nobody's making any money on it, I want to put together some legit fake books so these artists, these guys like Hank Mobley can at least make a little money off these tunes. It'll help generate sales of the records.” It was a good idea. So he had transcribed a lot of the melodies of the tunes and my job was to write in the changes. Every once in the while, I'd get to meet one of the guys whose tunes I was working on. That's how I met met Bobby Hutcherson, that's how I first met Joe Hen.
So over at Don Sickler's we're talking about certain tunes, it was really great how he was thinking about them.
EI: What was great about it?
JM: Well, just the way that he'd label the harmony, call the chord this or that, and correct me on certain issues just about chord changes. I thought it was this, and he'd say that he thought it was this other thing, and then I'd say on the record McCoy played this, and then he'd say what he really wanted was that. I started to get the sense that these tunes were fluid, you know, and even maybe when they were recorded that was fine then, but now, eight years later he's hearing it a different way. He didn't want it in the book the way it was recorded, he wanted it the way he's hearing it now.
Here’ a Joe story for you: He says to me, “Yeah, you know, I got this turntable at home, but the chord connecting the sound system to the turntable isn't long enough, it wouldn't reach. Finally one day, I decided I can slide the turn table over, and then the cord reaches into the tuner, and now I got all these sounds.” Joe had figured out if you actually slid the turntable over, the cord was no longer too short to reach the tuner. [laughs]
EI: Was he serious?
JM: I don't know. I'd like to think that maybe the day he set the system up he figured out he could move the turntable over. I would hope he wasn't sitting there for a whole year thinking, “Gee, my cord's too short, what am I going to do?” You’d like to think the guy who wrote “Inner Urge" was a little more on the ball! [laughs] So I dunno, he might have just been putting me on, I don't know.
That's how I first met Joe. And then, you know, I'd be playing at a club with guys who knew him, and I knew him a little bit myself, so we'd talk. I forget how it came about, but I think he finally called me to work a gig with him. So I played with him in New York, I played with him in Boston and down in DC, and out in Oakland at Yoshi's.
EI: Was Al Foster playing with you?
JM: Al played this week at the Vanguard, it was Al and a bass player named Delbert Felix who had just come up from the Navy School of Music.
EI: My generation knows him from some Branford Marsalis records.
JM: Yeah, Joe liked him, because he just played “boom boom boom” right down the middle, and that freed up everyone to do all their other shit, you know. And that was a big lesson to me about the bass player being the anchor. Like the first time I was played with Jack DeJohnnette, McClure was playing, and Ron knew the game. Just “Boom Boom Boom Boom, Bam Bam Bam Bam” and Jack just opened up, man. I played another time with this other bass player who did all this other diddly stuff, and Jack just seemed to shut down, you know.
When you give a drummer like Al an anchor they do all kinds of things. Al and Joe were magnificent together because Delbert was the glue. And there were times I would just lay out, because Al would do these comping things with his left hand, especially with a brush. He'd have a stick playing a ride cymbal and a brush in the left hand playing stuff on the snare drum. It was just like [bap, ba da doop bap], he was doing that on the snare drum. We all knew the changes, you don't need some guy just banging out chords, you know, when you've got that rhythmic stuff happening. And the texture and the openness, it was great.
And even when I was playing with Stan and Al was playing – we had one long run where Al was playing with Stan Getz – same thing, I'd lay out and, oh man, it was great, who needs a piano player to muck up the works? Why jump in with a chord when its perfect the way it is, you know?
EI: That's interesting about Joe talking about his tunes and the harmony and the stuff like that. Did you ever talk about the details of music with Joe Hen?
JM: Really the only time was when I invited him to be in a class of mine at NYU. He called me to do a Monday night down at Blues Alley in Washington and I knew that from Tuesday to Sunday that week he was at Fat Tuesday's and Kenny Barron was playing piano, and Kenny was either busy or just didn't want to go to DC. I said, “OK, Joe, I'll do it.” In fact, I even rented a car from Rent-A-Wreck, it cost me like thirty dollars or something. So I drove down to DC.
NYU at the time paid an honorarium of a hundred dollars for guest lecturers, a pittance. So I get down there, play the gig, and at the end of the night, he pays me two hundred dollars. I said, “Joe, I know you're in town next week, would you want to do my class at NYU on Thursday.” He said, “Yeah, well, I might want to do that,” and I said, “The official pay is a hundred dollars,” and he just broke out, laughing, “Wahaa!” as if to say, “You can’t be serious!” I never heard him crow like that. But then I took the money I just got and handed it to him and said, “Here, that's yours too.” He said, “OK! I'll be there.” And I said, “I'll have a guy post it on the door.” Dave Schroeder was still a student at that time and I told Dave, “OK, look, you stand outside, and when Joe arrives, you make sure he gets up to the floor.” I was hoping he'd even show up. It was the jazz orchestra class, that thing that you were in, it had maybe about 12 people in it. There were 40 people there, they all heard about it, they were there for Joe. He was early, showed up, great.
EI: But, you gave him the bread from the Blues Alley gig?
JM: I gave him my money, and I said, “I'll also get you the check for a hundred bucks, but here.” I gave it back to him, I figure I would guilt him into showing up. And he did, and he was great. Somebody asked him something about how do you play outside or something, and he finally said, “Well, there are times where I just play a whole step above the changes.” I said, “Can you demonstrate that?” and he said, “Yeah.” It was just him and me, I was just walking bass and playing changes. I forget, it might have been a blues or something. We just started to play, and he's playing a whole step above, and I thought, “That sounds like Joe Henderson!” That's where he gets it.
But that's the only really musical thing I heard specifically from him.
EI: And you had to pay two hundred bucks to get it!
JM: It cost me two hundred dollars, but it was worth it, hey!
Then the other thing was the clinic out at Stanford where someone asked what's it like playing without a piano player and he said, “Well, if you're playing with a piano player like Chick Corea or Jim McNeely it can be great (thank you) but on the other hand, on a clear day you can see forever.” So he liked that trio format, that was when he did State of the Tenor.
EI: I'm glad he played so much trio with Al late in his life because I think those are some of the masterpiece records from that era.
JM: Al just had this...the word I keep thinking of is meaty, he had this meaty kind of sound on the drums and he was a drummer, you know what I mean. Like I was saying tonight with Dave [King]'s solo, it was a drum solo. He was playing the drums, not [imitation of cymbals noises]. Al obviously uses cymbals, but he pays attention to the drums, you know, the drums are first. The ride thing is OK, but really playing the drums, I like that.
EI: I'd like to conclude actually asking you about some pianists that represent to me some idealized fantasy of a certain 70's and 80's scene. Let's start with Roland Hanna.
JM: I first heard him on the first live Thad/Mel record. That's the record that essentially created this feeling in me that said, “You know, New York seems like a pretty nice place to go to.” The atmosphere on the record - the playing and the guys – really affected me. And then Roland's playing on that I thought was just perfect, you know. Hank Jones was the original pianist in Thad/Mel, he was on the first studio record, but Roland's on the next two live things and I thought that he was just perfect, it was just great playing.
When I got to New York I got to know him some, there was a solo record that he did called Perugia, and there was some small group things that he had done. They were good, but still for me the killing Roland Hanna was with Thad/Mel, like that video we watched the other night of "The Groove Merchant," and he's doing a little bit of Erroll Garner, and he's doing some single line stuff, he's doing the block chord thing, but he's wrapping it all up into a coherent, swinging statement. None of it's forced.
EI: I don't know of another pianist who's as committed to the earlier styles of jazz, knows the modern language, but also writes classical piano pieces and explores those textures. There's a certain thing in his touch, it always had this glistening surface on it. Of course, Hank Jones is a bit like that too.
JM: Hank didn't play as dense as Roland did sometimes, though.
EI: With Roland, he really embraced almost a post-modern ethos....It wasn't as out as Jaki Byard would get, but at the same time in some he saw the whole spectrum.
JM: Yeah. I got to know him just hanging out at Bradley's. That was the clubhouse back then.
I ran into Bradley one night at the Vanguard and he says to me, “When are you coming in?” I said, “I'm always coming in.” He says, “When are you coming in to play?” I said, “Well, lets work out a date.” Bradley, man, he's asked me! I think I got Rufus Reid to play bass, so I was really thrilled: man, I've made it, I'm playing Bradley's.
I open up the Village Voice - “This Week: Big Jim McNeely.” Oh man, they're going to expect to see some guy with a derby hat and a cigar, “Big Jim.”
Then I started to think, when I'd walk in there, there'd be Roland, and Roland was about two feet high, he was a small guy. He'd be at the bar and say, “Hey Big Jim, how ya' doing.” You'd even see Bradley, who was taller than me, “Hey, Big Jim.” And I thought, that's what those guys called me, Big Jim. Hank Jones called me “Rather Large Jim,” he was a little bit more elegant with it. So Bradley figured, just, “Big Jim.” I told Bradley, “Look, in the future, Jim McNeely, that'll be fine.”
So I heard Roland play at Bradley's, just a great player, loved his playing. He was a really good piano player and he had a wide range, you know, he wasn't just locked into one thing. The bottom line was the way he played with the band, to me. He was my model for when I started to play with Thad and Mel on how to approach the gig.
EI: OK, next name, Albert Dailey.
JM: Yeah, I got to know him a little bit. I mean, he was one in the lineage of Stan Getz piano players and I also knew him because he ran the jam sessions, I think they were either Saturday or Sunday afternoons at Folk City, Dennis Irwin was always there, Lovano, all these guys. That classic thing where you start playing "Giant Steps" and all of a sudden there's ten tenor players up there and you think, oh my god. But I used to dig Al a lot.
EI: I think he's underrated today. When I hear him in top gear, I'm seriously impressed.
JM: I know Stan loved his playing. I don't know what it was with whatever he did or didn't do with his career, you know. I heard him a few times where he was playing where I really dug it and then he died. He was the first person I ever knew that died of AIDS. Back when it was a mysterious thing, you know. He was a good guy, he'd always say, “hey Jim, how you doing?” Nice to me, I was just a young piano player, he was into that kind of thing.
EI: Ronnie Matthews.
JM: I've got a soft spot in my heart for Ronnie because of this Freddie Hubbard record called Breaking Point from the 60's. There's a number of different tunes on there, Ronnie's playing on there, and they are very different kinds of tunes. What I really dug about him was his comping. It was all these different kinds of tunes, and every tune he'd just comp the right way for Freddie, you know what I mean. Soloing was fine, you know, but the comping thing was what really killed me about him. He had such a wide range of being able to comp in different ways.
He was one of these guys when I finally came to New York I got to know him and we had a lot of laughs at the Vanguard, he'd come in and hang out. He was playing with Johnny Griffin, and sounded good, you know. He was also really into Monk. He'd come into the Vanguard when I played there with Mel's band, and of course, you know, it's 3 in the morning and everyone's leaving, and he'd sit at the piano and play "Crepuscule with Nellie" or something, really accurately. He really got into that.
It's also interesting because there were several years he was off the scene. He was a buyer for a big department store chain, I forget which one, Alexander’s or something in New York. He had a family, got a job, you know. It was really sad when he passed, he was a funny guy, just a great guy to hang out with.
EI: Jimmy Rowles.
JM: Rowles...I always think of how Paul Desmond said he tried to achieve a sound like a dry martini, and it's kind of like Rowles, you know, not real flashy chops, everything was controlled, wonderful changes, and a nice wit. He would sing too. I mainly just heard him at Bradley's, and got to know him there, and also realized he was a very nice kind of sketch artist, he would make ink sketches on napkins, and some of them were hanging on the wall at Bradley's, he'd sketch different guys that were playing. I mean, he was the guy that wrote “The Peacocks,” what can you say? It's a gorgeous tune that's got one of the weirdest bridges that you'd ever want to hear, and it's stunning.
EI: Tommy Flanagan.
JM: Oh man, he's one of my heroes. Not only because he was the guy that had to deal with “Giant Steps.” and acquitted himself rather graciously. What I liked about Tommy was he'd start a phrase and you'd think it was going to be that thing, that bebop thing, and he'd just go somewhere. His bebop stuff functioned like entry points, a way to bring you in. You had to pay attention, because he was going to take you somewhere with it, you know.
It wasn't a lot of flashy stuff, and I've always said, I'd much rather hear Tommy Flanagan than Oscar Peterson. I'd rather hear a guy like Tommy thinking his way through a tune and hearing his mind operating than a guy like Oscar cranking out this stuff he worked out, the easy notes, the stuff that's easy to hear, real fast and flashy.
I remember I was in Japan with Phil in the early 90's. We had a night off in Tokyo and we went to a club to hear Tommy's trio with Mraz and Louis Nash. At the end of the night, I felt dirty, because this was pristine music, it was a chamber group. There was this kind of flexible time going, and all kinds of beautiful phrasing. It was a chamber trio. It just absolutely blew me away.
One of my favorite evenings of Bradley's lore was the night that Tommy never left. I went in there to play one night, and he's sitting at the end of the bar where the piano was, it was in April or something, and he says to me, “Hey, McNeely, it's good to see you. Look, I've been here all afternoon, it was a nice day, I was out for a walk. I'll probably leave before the first set's over.”
I said, “Fine, I understand that.” I'm playing, I look up. Has he left? No. By the end of the set, he's still there, so I go up to him, and he says, “Hey man, what was that second tune you played? That was beautiful.” So we're talking, and then he says, “So I'll probably be leaving by the end of the next set, so don't be offended.” We get up to play again, boom boom boom. Has Tommy gone yet? No. He's still there. He stayed the whole night. On one hand I was flattered that he would stay there. On the other hand, I kept thinking, “Would you please go?” [laughs]
But I loved Tommy Flanagan. He's the guy I learned the real bridge to “When Lights are Low” from. I was at a festival in Helsinki, in fact, I was sitting with Tommy's wife, Diana, and they're playing “When Lights are Low.” I knew the Miles Davis bridge where you take it up a fourth [hum], and I asked Diana, “Where did he get this bridge?” and she gave me this withering look. “That's the original.” Oh, whoops!
Tommy, he was my hero, yeah. I wish he was still around.
BONUS TRACKS: In March and April 2011, in advance of the hr-Bigband gigs, Darcy James Argue and I did two Jim McNeely listening sessions for our blogs, reposted below.
Mini McNeely Tutorial Part 1
I'm currently with Darcy James Argue. He is teaching me more about Jim McNeely's music. He has records and scores.
Track 1: "The Life of Riley" w/Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
Track 2: "The Life of Riley" w/HR-Bigband.
DJA says: This chart is my favorite recent McNeely work -- I included it in a listening session I hosted at Banff last spring, kind of a quick-'n-dirty survey of rhythmic techniques in contemporary large ensemble music. The studio version is from the Vanguard band's Up From The Skies, and the live version is by the Frankfurt-based HR-Bigband, of which Jim is the Artistic in Residence. Of course, Ethan's ulterior motive for having me over is to prepare for the upcoming The Bad Plus + HR project, as arranged by Jim.
Anyway, "The Life of Riley" was written as a feature for longtime Vanguard Orchestra drummer John Riley, and it's chock full of tricksy-but-elegant metric modulations and superimposed time feels. The result is very seamless-sounding -- it's a deceptively fluid and catchy chart that only really reveals its secrets upon repeated listening. (Having the cheat sheet [score] to refer to, as we do, also helps... )
EI says: I remember an NYU composition class with Jim where he analysed "Daydream" by Strayhorn. Among other things, he pointed out that the fat A-flat 7 b5 chord in the bridge "had a bagpipe" in the bottom. "The Life of Riley" also has a lot of clanging fifths moving around in the bass. Not an unfamilar sound to TBP...
Track 3: "Bury Me Standing" by Dave Douglas performed by Dave w/Mountain Passages
Track 4: "Bury Me Standing" by Dave arranged by Jim
DJA says: This is from A Single Sky, Dave's collaboration with HR, featuring several of his original bigband works, plus Jim's arrangements of DD's small group tunes. Obviously my agenda in playing "Bury Me Standing" was to show how Jim transforms what might seem a very unlikely candidate for bigbandization -- Dave's stately, somber chamber elegy to his father -- into something that works in a large ensemble setting. The original is a three-voice chorale over a D pedal, which Jim faithfully preserves -- but he frames it with some striking and inspired original material. Dave's own entrance on this is saved until the last possible moment, à la Harry Lime in The Third Man.
EI says: Well, this is really something. The song is beautiful, and what Jim does with it is stunning. I wasn't worried about the upcoming collaboration, but now I'm completely relaxed.
Track 5: "Blue Note" by Jim McNeely performed by the Mel Lewis Orchestra
DJA says: If I'm not mistaken, this 1985 chart is the earliest large ensemble McNeely composition to be recorded. I think he once told me it was his third bigband chart ever? What's amazing to me is how fully-formed and instantly recognizable it is -- all the elements of his later style are in place.
EI says: Clockwork touches in the piano, right away -- that's clearly part of the McNeely style. Of course, as a great pianist himself, Jim knows how to write for the instrument as part of a big band. That's one thing I always hated about reading so many big band charts in college: they were just a march of chord symbols with no relationship to the song. Darcy's own pieces also have "chamber music" piano parts.
Track 6: "Paper Spoons" by Jim McNeely performed by the Mel Lewis Orchestra
DJA says: Recorded shortly after Mel's death, with Dennis Mackrel on drums just destroying on this track. This chart was the my first exposure to McNeely -- my arranging teacher at McGill, Chuck Dotas, brought in the score and recording, which was a wee bit of a mindfuck for all of us 19-year old kids just trying to get a handle on the basics! I actually haven't listened to this in many years but I realized playing it for Ethan just now I can still sing along to the whole thing.
EI says: Hah! Jim played this for me in composition class, too -- what was that, 18 or 19 years ago? I love paraphrases of standards, and this is just a total decontruction of "It's Only a Paper Moon." Actually, I don't think the form is really used, just cute quotes of the melody. Ralph Lalama plays a strong solo. I was in Lalama's ensemble at NYU: he told me Paul Bley couldn't play and to stop bringing in a new tune every week. Oh well. Those roadblocks are also part of the jazz tradition!
Track 7: "Extra Credit" by Jim McNeely performed by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra
DJA says: The opening track from Lickety Split, Jim's first full album of music for the Vanguard band, a big formative record for me. Jim's detailed liner notes go really deep into the composition woods, including a form graph for this chart, which is, as he calls it, a kind of "moving rondo." Great piano solo from the Maestro on this cut.
EI says: Rich Perry is an underrated player.
Funny to think about Jim, Fred, and Kenny Werner (who's on the Mel Lewis Orchestra cuts). They were the young piano mafia of a certain era. All three are doing great these days. I've been blessed with my interactions with Jim and Fred. Kenny I don't know as well but he certainly has been an influence.
Impressive form on "Extra Credit." With a lot of the TBP stuff, Jim won't get a chance to stretch like this. However, we spoke Saturday and he is already working on an original composition with modular sections. I expect that will be a highlight of the concert.
DJA and I ran out of time...Part two of the Tutorial is scheduled for next week. See also Jim's interview with Ronan Guilfoyle.
Mini McNeely Tutorial Part 2
At one point Darcy says I am a "maniac." OK, I accept this. For whatever reason, I seem to be the Rupert Giles of jazz. ("Well, we start, not surprisingly, with research.")
In this "librarian" capacity (as well as ex-McNeely student), I concur with DJA: 1989's East Coast Blow Out is unjustly obscure.
Darcy James Argue: So as a follow-up to our previous Jim McNeely listening session, Ethan Iverson and I got together again last week to listen to Jim's epic recording, East Coast Blow Out, in its entirety.
To begin, let me lay my cards on the table: this is one of the most mindblowingly great bigband albums ever recorded. Jim is very prolific, and has written a ton of outstanding music before and since -- some of which we talked about last time -- but East Coast Blow Out will always have a special place in my personal pantheon. As an album-length cohesive artistic statement for large jazz ensemble, I think it's up there with Ellington+Strayhorn’s Such Sweet Thunder, George Russell's New York New York, Bob Brookmeyer’s Make Me Smile, Kenny Wheeler’s Sweet Time Suite from Music for Large and Small Ensembles, and Maria Schneider’s Concert in the Garden. But unless you are an obsessive bigband junkie (and bless you if you are), you probably haven’t heard (or even heard of) East Coast Blow Out. Even John Scofield completists aren’t necessarily hip to this record, which features some of Sco’s most tantalizing work on disc.
It doesn’t help that the album is long out of print, has never been issued on iTunes or similar, and used copies of the CD tend to be rather pricey. But listen, people: Jim McNeely is badass and this is his masterpiece. You need to seek it out. (I’ve taken the liberty of uploading a few brief clips in this post so you can have a taste of what Ethan and I are talking about.)
That core quartet is joined by almost the entire WDR Big Band -- 14 horns, plus guitar and keyboards. (Only WDR’s regular bassist and drummer were not involved, though Jim says he originally wanted them in as well!) The WDR Big Band is a resident ensemble of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, the massive West German radio and television broadcaster. Many European nations have publicly funded full-time big bands (and Germany actually has several) but the WDR Big Band is probably the best-known of these European groups, and is also one of the oldest -- it was founded in 1946!
Securing a spot in the WDR band is extremely competitive -- jazz musicians from all around the world audition for the group whenever there is an opening -- but once you’re in, the gig offers benefits and stability similar to a full-time symphony orchestra. (To give you some idea: of the WDR musicians who performed on this album, which was recorded in September 1989, six of them were still in the band as of last fall, when I went over to work with the ensemble.)
EI: Interesting to think about the stars’ previous history:
First McNeely album, The Plot Thickens, has Scofield.
Both McNeely and Johnson were in the same Stan Getz band.
Scofield and Nussbaum were in an important trio w/Steve Swallow.
From the Heart was Jim McNeely trio w/Johnson and Nussbaum.
Sco’s working quartet at time of this recording had Johnson -- I loved seeing them at Sweet Basil several times after moving to NYC
I saw all four musicians plus Joe Lovano onstage at Stanford Jazz Workshop in 1989. Jim encouraged me to go to NYU, where he played the entire tape of East Coast Blow-Out in comp class before the album was released.
DJA: That‘s all from memory... ? You are a maniac.
[EI postscript: Subsequent research turned up the following video -- while Stan Getz’s band with McNeely, Johnson, and Nussbaum:
Also, I was at this gig:
From about 1992, when Visiones was still around.
DJA postcript: I have Through A Looking Glass on vinyl -- it is insane.]
Here is what McNeely has to say about his history with Scofield, Johnson, and Nussbaum:
I’d played with both Sco and Adam a lot around NYC since around 1976. Various gigs and jam sessions.
When I was planning The Plot Thickens it was originally to be a trio album. I told the producer "Let's get John on a couple of tunes while we can still afford him; he's gonna be big one day." In fact I was scheduled to go on tour with John's quartet in Europe in 1978; he was with Enja, and this was to be his first tour on the "schnitzel circuit" as we called it. But Mel Lewis invited me to join Thad & Mel for a 12-week tour of Europe, so I bowed out of John's tour. He was cool about it. I sometimes wonder how things might have turned out had I stayed with John. I probably wouldn't have you and Ethan blogging about me!
I first met Marc when he was with Woody Herman. But got to know him a little when he was with Bill [Evans]. I'd played some with Joe LaBarbera, and would come to hear Bill's trio. In fact Marc invited me to Bill's 50th birthday party. That was something! About a year later Bill died and Marc joined Stan Getz's quartet. Stan had decided to go back to playing more straight-ahead and had a rhythm section with Marc, Victor Lewis, and Lou Levy on piano. Lou didn't want to travel; Marc and a few others recommended me for the gig. That’s where I got to know him well. Adam also subbed on that band. And I did a trio album (From the Heart) with them. We had a lot of fun with that group.
So I was thinking of that trio, and my experiences with Sco, and how I could wrap a big band around all of us, when I proposed the “Blow-Out.” I originally called it the “New York Blow Out,” but then Marc moved to Virginia. Hence “East Coast.”
DJA: Also, one last word from McNeely -- before we (finally!) get to listening, we should let the composer set it up for us:
Each movement was conceived as a different solo situation: 1) Sco 2) the trio, then the quartet, alternating with the band 3) Marc 4) Sco gets consumed by the band yet emerges unscathed 5) Blues with a bridge; Sco and Adam. And each movement would have a solo statement from one of us to lead into the next movement.
Okay, ready? Let’s do this!
Part 1: Do You Really Think... ? (excerpt)
(click to play)
EI: The fanfare opening sounds like it was fun to play. I’m sure Jim wants to get the band on his side from the beginning.
Adam Nussbaum can really play serious jazz. On this record he has to appropriate styles that can seem fusiony in the hands of lesser talents.
DJA: This is true. But also on the other hand, I kind of see this record as a meditation on the music of McNeely’s formative years, which most definitely includes some late 1970’s and early 1980’s fusion. For instance, I hear a lot of Joe Zawinul in this music, albeit filtered through Jim’s own compositional voice, and also considered retrospectively. I mean, this album was recorded at a time when fusion had become incredibly uncool, and pure acoustic jazz was ascendant.
The slow swing after the intro is authentic, and off-center: the 4/4 is clearly two bars of three plus a bar of two.
DJA: And during the out head, it actually shifts into 7.
EI: I think something you learned from Jim was writing a melody that works “against” the beat (in a vocalized way) as well as on the beat.
DJA: Indeed. Also check out the orchestration of the melody: piano 8va above guitar... a great sound which I have found many occasions to deploy in my own music.
EI: The tune is extended! A complete story before any blowing for sure.
I remember once in a master class Marc Johnson talking about “wanting to phrase like John Scofield.” Sco’s chainsaw-meets-nonchalance is remarkable given those scarily difficult McNeely chord changes.
DJA: He is on fire here. It’s proof of how making a soloist fight through a large ensemble can bring out aspects of someone’s playing that aren’t always evident in more “normal” small group situations.
EI: McNeely loves codas. In class he mentioned how in a Shakespearian tragedy, after everyone is dead, “A mouse comes on stage and gives the final word.”
DJA: I think Jim must have a different edition of the complete Shakespeare than I do... Anyway, the muted brass (“mice”) here melt into the first of the improvised solo cadenzas that bridge each movement. This one is McNeely on piano -- it’s actually his first solo statement in the piece.
Part 2: Skittish (excerpt)
(click to play)
EI: One of my oft-stated theories on DTM is the under-rated influence of the Keith Jarrett American quartet. The music on this record has moments of chaotic freedom within otherwise tight parameters. While that could have come from diverse sources, the charismatic melody to “Skittish” is unquestionably in the tradition of how Keith put Ornette on the piano and in the band sound.
DJA: Huh -- never considered that angle before but I think you’re right. The twisty, sequential, singsong-y melody does kind of have that vibe.
I just adore those piano+synth pulses that set up the horns’ statement of the head. This 4+4+4+6 vamp in the piano solo is a nice bit of foreshadowing. I know Jim likes to think of musical themes as characters in a play, and this is a great example.
Notice that there are no horn backgrounds underneath the piano solo -- it’s all trading with the band. This chart is clearly written by a pianist who’s had his solos stepped on by over-busy horn backgrounds one too many times!
EI: The fragmentation of the tune before the bass solo is thrilling.
DJA: And there’s those pulses again! Always heralding a major new event.
EI: Nice “pads” in bands for the bass solo. (All bassists love quiet, even, on-the-beat comping.)
DJA: Those pads are also contributing yet more foreshadowing...
So now Marc is out for a bit after that totally burning bass solo, as the horns get to work backed by Nussbaum alone. When the rest of the rhythm section finally comes back in, we finally get the half-time backbeat version of that 4+4+4+6 groove Jim’s spent pretty much the whole tune setting us up for.
EI: I think every track has a killing extended technique or avant-garde moment. Here it is in the breaks during the funk guitar solo.
All the principals solo, but they all solo on different forms. “Skittish,” indeed.
DJA: Scofield’s linking cadenza here is a a gem, a beautiful miniature that could stand alone as its own thing.
Part 3: More Questions (excerpt)
(click to play)
EI: So, clearly McNeely wants to change the mood now. Is that “offstage” horns?
DJA:: Oh, you mean like in Mahler? Those are actually synth pads. But yeah, the mood is certainly shifting to a more contemplative, “in der Ferne” kind of vibe.
EI: Jesus, I thought they were horns. Now it’s obvious, of course. Actually I don’t usually approve of mixing in synthesizers with acoustic jazz very much, nice to find out I’m wrong.
DJA: Really digging the way Sco and Marc Johnson phrase the melody together here. This is really one of Jim’s most tuneful themes.
EI: Hmm, the endless magic of the diatonic scale! First part is just in Eb, but sounds very sophisticated. I could use the drums being mixed a tad hotter, myself. (I always want more drums in everything.)
That melody was really just an intro to a very sophisticated jazz ballad -- classic ’70s complexity. I heard Richie Beirach play his canonical “Elm” recently, he’s just a bit older than Jim.
Bass solo! Marc Johnson is fabulous -- very singing.
DJA: Marc’s playing is gorgeous. I wish we could hear more of the natural sound though -- the WDR engineers are getting a very nice pickup sound from him, but it’s still a pickup sound. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a real woody acoustic bass would mesh with those 80’s FM synth pads.
Those gradually accelerating horn responses at the end of Marc Johnson’s solo is a clear highlight of the entire work. Such a simple but brilliant idea, perfectly executed.
EI: I never heard that before!
DJA: I have stolen this bit multiple times.
Part 4: Cantus Infirmus (excerpt)
(click to listen)
DJA: This one is almost Oliver Nelson-esque, in the way it works a sequence to the bone.
EI: Could be all twelve chromatic notes in the bass line? Herbie Nichols and Kurt Rosenwinkel do that too.
DJA: I think you’re almost certainly right. Let me check. [DJA checks.] Yep -- root motion is: C-Ab-E-A-F-Db-Gb-D-Bb-Eb-B-G and then back to C. So the pattern is a descending augmented triad (à la “Giant Steps”) followed by an ascending fourth. Truth be told, I don’t normally go for that sort of thing. (Confession time: none of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”-derived tunes, up to and including “Giant Steps” itself, do a whole lot for me.) But here, Jim’s harmonic and melodic inventiveness helps disguise the deterministic bass sequence.
EI: I’d love hearing the layers adding up to massive live -- the record surely doesn’t do it justice.
DJA: Jim tells me that after the recording sessions, they actually did play Blow Out live two nights in a row at Stadgarten (a club in Cologne, capacity about 250 I think if you pack everyone in tight). Hearing that would have been an unbelievable experience!
EI: Oh, god, another great Sco solo. This is really a superb document of his playing. He’s so famous, but in a weird way I think he may be under-appreciated by the cognoscenti.
DJA: Each solo setting seems designed to extract a different aspect of the Scofield alchemy.
These chromatic clouds in the horn backgrounds here always kind of blew by me before -- they are great, though! Nice to always be hearing new things in this piece, even after all these years of checking it out.
EI: With a moving bassline like this, it’s very hard to feel the top of the cycle. I believe Jim’s generation credits Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace” with creating this “endless form in miniature.”
DJA: Very interesting -- that connection had not occurred to me! But now that you point it out...
DJA: “Finally” the blues (albeit heavily abstracted) -- plus, this movement also features some subtle and very hip recapitulation of themes from the entire work.
EI: Massive big band! It’s great. But I also appreciate that when everyone drops out but Sco and Nussbaum, we finally get the most exciting drumming on the record -- not just in terms of content, but in terms of feel.
Drumming for a big band must be a particularly taxing endeavor, trying to put everybody on the same page at all times. As far as I know, Nussbaum is not known as a big-band drummer, but he sounds great throughout. I need to see him live again soon.
DJA: Especially hard to stroll into a situation like this, where the four soloists are thick as thieves, but meanwhile the horn players are used to a completely different rhythmic section, which they have worked with almost every single day, for years on end!
EI: The free-from horn cues kick the drum solo into a far cooler place than most “obligatory drum solos.”
DJA: I thought you might appreciate that!
Also, this quasi-chorale thing over the swing at the end really comes as a surprise...
EI: Of all things, I think of Pat Metheny -- loose diatonicism and overt lyricism.
The final elongated chord -- A major triad over Bb -- is the sort of chord I accept from a master like Jim McNeely but would never use extensively myself.
DJA: Um, didn’t you just come off of a performance of The Rite of Spring? Context is everything. (And, yeah, the famous "Augurs of Spring" chord is a full-on polychord, not just a major triad over a b9 in the bass -- but there is a family resemblance, no?)
Anyway, I think I’ve made it fairly clear I consider East Coast Blow Out to be a consummate masterpiece. However, if you held a gun to my head and forced me to offer one small criticism, it would be that the piece ends too abruptly. The band plays the head out, there’s a brief tag, then we close with three groups of three tutti punches, with a fermatta on the last one from the rhythm section... I mean, it gets the job done, but the beginning of Part 1 is so intense and all-encompassing that I can’t help find myself longing for a similar kind of sustained meltdown at the very end here.
On the other hand, there is definitely something to be said for “always leave them wanting more...”
EI: How cool to listen to a classic record carefully a few times and then sit down with someone who really knows it.
DJA: The pleasure is all mine, sir. Thanks for coming over to check it out! It’s been a long time since I’ve done a proper album listening hang. I’d forgotten how much fun they can be! We should do this again sometime...