Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tony Hightower’s Re-release of “The New Standard" at 800 East Studios, Atlanta, GA

Tony Hightower "The New Standard"

Tucked away adjacent to the Freedom Parkway in the  Old Fourth Ward in Downtown Atlanta  is a recording studio that occasionally doubles as an intimate performance space. It is called 800 East Studios and on Wednesday night it was the scene of a performance by Atlanta’s own Tony Hightower.

Mr. Hightower is a vocalist whose sound is an amalgam of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Nat King Cole. It was a coming out of sort, billed as re-release of his latest album “The New Standard.”   He was backed by pianist Kenny Banks,Jr., bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Henry Coneway III, collectively known as the  HC3 trio. 

The evening, scheduled  to start at 8pm didn’t kick off till closer to 9.  I was fortunate enough to get a front row seat and had the pleasure of sitting next Mr. Hightower’s Grandmother Martha, who was an absolute delight and an unequivocal fan of her grandson, as is to be expected. Talking with her, I found out that Tony started out playing the drums, but always had a penchant for singing a tune.  There is no doubt Mr. Hightower has music in his DNA. His mother, Teresa Hightower, is a well know vocalist on the Atlanta music scene. A working musician herself, she had a standing gig at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead for an amazing  nineteen years, among her other musical credentials. Tony found a mentor in the brother of his musical idol, Nat King Cole. Freddie Cole, the brother of the great crooner/pianist  and a fine singer in his own right has been a guiding light , encouraging Hightower to pursue his career in jazz .

The evening started with the HC3 trio playing a fine rendition of “Dolphin Dance.” Mr. Banks demonstrated some elegance on the Yamaha grand, Mr. Smith produced large, plump notes from his upright bass and. Mr. Coneway kept the music swinging.
Mr. Hightower came into the room wearing stylish sunglasses, in a gold lame smoking jacket, with brushed velvet loafers, an upturned pork pie hat and a large diamond stud in his right earlobe.  In the current vernacular he was “fresh.”Part of Mr. Hightower’s mantra is to try to bring back the style and grace of the former performers like Sinatra and Cole, and so his dress and demeanor all play to that theme.
Kevin Smith & Tony Hightower photo by Ralph A. Miriello
The opening song was one of Mr. Hightower’s originals, “All Belong to You.” He sang this with an almost uncanny resemblance to Nat Cole’s voice. Mr. Hightower delivered the silky lyrics to perfection and you felt like you were temporarily  transported back to a night club in the nineteen-fifties.. The evening featured standards like “Kiss Me Baby,” “Gee Baby a’int I Good to You,” and a Cole-like version of “Nature Boy.” The most poignant song of the evening was Mr. Hightower’s “ Plain Jane,” a song that laments about  having a career  that never quite makes it to the front row.  The lyrics ache with the emotional angst of being teased with success only to have it suddenly removed. 

Perhaps the most jazz-like song of the performance was a deft handling of Thelonious Monk’s “I Mean You.” You could see this was a vehicle for the band to stretch out a bit from the confines of the repertoire and Banks, Smith and Coneway had fun with this one. The song t also allowed Mr. Hightower’s to use his voice as the instrument it is.  There is no denying the R and B in him, ala Smokey/Marvin, and he has great control of the falsetto aspects of his voice, but judicious use of this facility would be highly recommended if he wants true jazz cred.  I particularly found his Carpenter inspired version of the Bacharach song “:Close to You” painfully dragged out.. I was never a fan of this syrupy concoction and I am one that believes this song would be better left unearthed from the crypt from where it came.

Mr. Hightower has style and his voice is quite beguiling when he settles it in the middle register and his talent should not to be underestimated. He is on a quest to bring sophistication and savoir-fare back to the music and on many levels he is accomplishing just that; bridging the gap between soulful R and;B and Jazz in a way that few people are doing today successfully. My hat is off to him and I anxiously wait to hear where he takes it from here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brian Landrus Explores the Depths of Music on "The Deep Below"

Brian L:andrus "The Deep Below

Multireedist Brian Landrus is making a name for himself utilizing a creative approach to exploring the depths and textures of the lower register sounds that can be produced on his array of bottom instruments. People are apparently catching on as he has been named rising star on the Baritone Saxophone in this year’s Downbeat Critics poll. On The Deep Below, his latest effort, he probes into the lush and evocative sounds of the lower register, utilizing his signature baritone saxophone, the bass clarinet, the bass saxophone and the bass flute to make his point. Low can be intoxicatingly sexy and poignantly moving when played with thought, precision and passion. Mr. Landrus has no shortage of any of these qualities in his playing and his writing. On this album Landrus is joined by the consummate bassist Lonnie Plaxico and the veteran trap master Billy Hart. Together they make beautiful music of a kind and quality that is not often enough heard today.

Of the ten songs on this album all but three are Landrus compositions.  The three standards are Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” I suspect this is a tip of the hat to baritone master Harry Carney. This is a marvelous tribute to Carney's contribution to the canon, as well as a masterfully played rendition of an all time classic. Landrus’ sensuous tone melts into Plaxico’s plucky bass lines in a symbiotic way-this one’s magic. Coltrane’s “Giant Steps “is a solo performance of melting crescendos of sound that are as fluid as you’ll find on baritone.  “I’m a Fool to Want You,” the last standard on the cd, opens with a bellowing bass introduction by the plucky Plaxico. Landrus’ baritone lingers on every note, taking this one at a pace so slow as to almost be somnambulant, but somehow they make it work to their advantage. The song’s anguish is dripping in the painfully plaintive cry of Landrus’ horn. Hart’s brushes are barely perceptible except at precise accents and the song is hauntingly moving.

Landrus’s compositions are their own reward, from the playfully loping feel of “Fly” to bellowing bottom sounds of Landrus on the bass saxophone on “The Beginning” where you feel like you have entered another dimension somewhere dark and foreboding. Landrus utilizes the woody sound of the bass clarinet on the darkly rich “Fields of Zava,” and the shuffling “Orebro Treaty.” His bass clarinet is unaccompanied on both the mystical “Just a Fading Memory” and the peaceful “Open Water.”Playing  a beautifully evocative bass flute on “Will She Ever Know” and “Ancient,”, Mr. Landrus  shows that he has no limit within the confines of these lower register instruments, making beautiful and expressive music.

The album ends with Landrus returning to baritone on “The Age,” where the group’s has a chance to open up and the interplay is buoyant and playful. Plaxico’s bass anchors the theme and Hart is a master of understated precision. “Once Again” ends the cd on a somber note with Plaxico bowing deep into the lowest notes on his bass and Landrus' fluttering woody tones on the Bass Clarinet. The piece has a chamber music quality to it.

Brian Landrus has created homage to the bottom register with The Deep Below, a proclamation that lingering in the lower depths of the musical scale can yield surprisingly beautiful results. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Simon Phillips: Protocol III, Revitalizing Rock Fusion

From the opening sound of Satnam Singh’s  tablas on the lead off song “Narmada” , a fusion piece of World music inspired by the late Weather Report keyboard wizard Joe Zawinal’s work with his Zawinal Syndicate, we are transported into the world of drummer Simon Phillips super group on his latest release Protocol III.  The former drum slinger, who has pounded his toms for the likes of Toto, the Who , Jeff Beck and Judas Priest has formed a monster group with chops to spare and a driving sound that resurrects my lost love of well played fusion music.  The group features Phillips on his enormous set of drums, the masterful Andy Timmons on guitar, the indefatigable Ernest Tibbs laying down his anchored bass lines and the creative keyboard artist Steve Weingart. Together these guys bring back the fun and awe of rock-inspired , jazz fusion. Labeling musical styles is a pointless exercise and clearly the emphasis of Phillips music is on technically proficient, hard driving rock, but no matter the album kicks butt. The band has absorbed some of the best sounds of the masters, Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu, Return to Forever and Weather Report to name a few.

The catchy “Imaginary Ways” is a case in point with Tibbs throbbing electric bass laying down the bottom and Timmons  tasteful  guitar singing out the repeated melody as Weingart layers the song with a myriad of electronic accents. The breaks are crisp and executed impeccably as they mix a  hard rock bridge that could satiate any head bangers desires. The rapid-fired, synchronous bridge at the end is a bow to Mahavishnu and a stunning display of precision.

“Outlaw” is just a down and dirty electric blues with Timmons doing some tasty guitar work clearly inspired by Jeff Beck’s body of work.   ”Catalyst” has the most fractious breaks creating and electro-mechanical sound driven by Tibbs relentless bass, Phillips thunderous driving drums and Timmons Jimmy Page like guitar solo. 

 On “Amirta, a billowy suspension of sounds that crescendos into a Return to Forever like romp,  Timmons  voicing’s takes on more of a Larry Carlton inspired sound, sustaining wonderful nuances from each note.  When Phillips isn’t laying down the sauntering  beat he occasionally pounds his toms into rolling submission and Weingart creates an aural backdrop of other-worldliness.

”Circle Seven” starts out as Timmons bow to Beck’s “Diamond Dust” period before it turns into a Return to Forever romp.  Tibbs lays down a gorgeous bass line that is then repeated by Timmons guitar before Weingart struts his Wurlitzer/Rhodes chops beautifully with Tibbs matching him skillfully on bass. Phillips interjects timely fills over and eventually yielding to a rambunctious and tumultuous drum solo. The song is  a hard driving celebration of synchronicity.  The album finishes off this excursion into fusion with the funky  “You Can’t But You Can” and  the drum heavy “Undercover.”   With Protocol III  Simon Phillips and company have provided  a skillfully executed album, strongly influenced by those who came before them, but that brings rock/jazz fusion back into relevance.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Atlanta Jazz Festival: Top Artists & Free Jazz for the Masses

Banda Magda

On a gorgeous evening, with a cloudless sky above, throngs of Atlantans swarmed over the rolling hills of beautiful Piedmont Park to participate in this year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival. The grass lawns, so carefully designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and sons many decades before, offers the perfect vantage for the mass of spectators that come to listen to the music.  The venue offers three stages, operating at times simultaneously, where artists were performing to grateful crowds. The main stage was set in the Meadow just outside the tenth street entrance off Monroe. The International stage is placed just South Lake Clara Meer in a hollow off Oak Hill. The stage featuring local talent was located northeast along the path closer to the Park Drive entrance.

The park was teeming with visitors who strolled, sat on blankets, pitched tents or sat on folding chairs, all there to enjoy the park, the excitement and the music that makes up the Atlanta Jazz Festival. The Festival is one of the largest free open air festivals in the country and it is a major event for the City of Atlanta.

This year’s music was a cornucopia of aural delights and our hats should go off to the organizers, generous sponsors and volunteers that make this mammoth event happen so smoothly.
I arrived at about 6 pm and made my way to the International stage where the group Banda Magda was performing to an attentive crowd. Banda Magda hails from New York by way of Athens, Greece. The lead singer/composer  is a pixie like character Magda Giannikou who captivated the crowd with here impish energy and sweet vocals. She sang predominantly in French and the music was an amalgam of Latin, Brazilian, French Pop, and world music. At times she reminded me of the Polish singer Basia  (Trezetrzelewski) who had a successful career as a Latin-inflected, jazz crossover artist in the late eighties.  While Ms. Magda’s voice does not compare to the three-octave range of Basia, she did show an impressive ability to stir the crowd, both with her syncopated accordion playing and the easy sway of her fluent French lyrics. The band is an international affair with  Argentinean guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, who donned a tiger mask for Ms. Magda’s telling of a fairy tale inspired song, hand drummer and Tabla player Marcelo Woloski,  Japanese percussionist Keita Ogawa and multi-instrumentalist and electric bassist fellow Greek, Petros Klampanis.
Making my way across the park, it was astonishing how many people had come to this event. Many of the people just parked themselves along the many pathways or fields, content enough to listen from a distance to the sounds emanating from the various stages.   I came to the main meadow, the site of the main stage, and was amazed at the vast sea of humanity that had set up camp to enjoy the festivities. Despite the throngs at no time was the crowd so overwhelming as to be oppressive and you could move easily from venue to venue. People were uniformly in festive but respectful spirits.
The stage was setting up for the next act drummer Otis Brown III’s Quintet. Unfortunately I didn’t arrive early enough to see talented saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s group who made up one of the preceding act. The sun was shining, but it was dry and seasonable as a single hawk circled surveying the mass of humanity from above.  Mr. Brown is a powerful drummer who has worked with some many of jazz’s elite including the trumpeter/composer Terrence Blanchard, the saxophonist Oliver Lake and singer Kurt Elling. He has also collaborated with Grammy award winning pianist/composer Robert Glasper ,the new lion of crossover neo-soul/rap/jazz , who was featured on Mr. Brown’s latest release. 
Terry Brewer ,Marquis Hill, John Ellis, Alan Hampton and Otis Brown II
On this evening Mr. Brown was joined by the trumpeter Marquis Hall, the masterful saxophonist John Ellis, bassist Alan Hampton and pianist and B3 player Terry Brewer.  The group started the set with “The Way (Truth & Life)” from Mr. Brown’s latest release The Thought of You,   which featured the tight dual horn playing of Mr. Hall and Mr. Ellis in the Blue Note tradition. I am an unabashed fan of Mr. Ellis’s playing and he didn’t disappoint with some fine soloing that was measured but spot on. Mr. Hall is a effusive player with a strong sound and a clear tone. Mr. Brewer offered some interesting albeit brief solos and Mr. Brown and bassist Hampton laid down the bottom.  The group played Herbie Hancock’s    “ I Have  A Dream: which Mr. Brown later spoke of as an anthem for him of the continued struggles facing Black people in this country. Mr. Brown introduced Ms. Christie De Shield to the stage where she sang  ”Your Still the One,” a song sang on Mr. Brown’s album by Gretchen Parlato.  Ms. De Shield’s does not have the wispy quality of Ms. Parlato’s, but she had no trouble using her own instrument to great effect.

Alfredo Rodriguez, Peter Slavov and Henry Cole

I decided to return to the International stage for a chance to see the great Cuban piano sensation Alfredo Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez was famously plucked from Cuba through the efforts of the great musician/ arranger Quincy Jones, who once he heard the energetic player, moved heaven and earth to see him get into the United States.  Mr. Rodriguez was already in full swing when I got to the International Stage, joined by his trio of Henry Cole on Drums and Peter Slavov on bass.
The crowd was mesmerized by the kinetic Cuban. One of the things you cannot fake in a live performance is enthusiasm and joy and Mr. Rodriguez has ample supply of both of these precious commodities. Originally trained as a classical pianist he was given a copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous 
The Koln Concert record and as he has said it changed his life.

There is doubt that Mr. Rodriguez is a prodigious talent and he showed he could dazzle with spectacular runs, pounding percussive dynamics and a sensitive side that brought the grateful crowd to their feet by virtue of its pure aesthetic, despite having some technical difficulties with the piano.
He is a joy to behold.

Alfredo Rodriguez

To be able to see this kind of talent for free in the spectacular surroundings of Piedmont Park is a true treat not to be missed. Today’s venue will feature among others Arturo O’Farrill’s marvelous Latin Jazz band, the fantastic Dianne Shurr, guitar wizard Stanley Jordan’s Trio and the iconic Pharoah Sanders with guitarist extraordinaire  Kurt Rosenwinkel . If you’re in Atlanta don’t miss this opportunity to see these great artists.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Charlie Hunter Trio "Let the Bells Ring On"

Charlie Hunter Trio:  Let The Bells Ring On  CHT Publishing 2015

Charlie Hunter : Seven  String Guitar
Curtis Fowlkes: Trombone
Bobby Pevite : Drums & cymbals
Charlie Hunter

After first previewing parts of this album on Soundcloud I found myself going back to it again and again for the pure enjoyability factor. This is folksy, blues oriented roots music. Played in a frills free, unadulterated style that is both honest and endearing. Hunter has an inherent sense of how to make his seven string guitar sing  and Fowlkes gruff trombone voice is the perfect compliment to the Hunter gusty aesthetic. Traps master Bobby Previte plays in the pocket with unadorned punctuality and confident saunter. The music is gritty and cries out to you as being from the heart and the heartland, at times stinging, at times whimsical. A fun album you'll find yourself going back to this tableaux of songs for seconds. Check this one out.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Interview with the Saxophonist Kenny Garrett April 16, 2015

Kenny Garrett photo by Ralph A. Miriello
The saxophonist Kenny Garrett has been a prominent voice on the alto saxophone for several years. At age fifty-four, Garrett, is in the sweet spot of his musical career. He has honed his skills the old fashioned way, he’s earned it with a career spanning close to four decades and associations with some of jazz’s most celebrated creators. Garrett started in the Duke Ellington Band with Cootie Williams, was a member of The Mel Lewis Orchestra, and played in Charles Mingus alum Dannie Richmond’s band. He was a member of the Art Blakey School of music and gigged with iconic all stars Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. Perhaps his most dogged association is with Miles Davis. Garrett played for the legendary band leader for the last five years of Davis’ life. 

Today Garrett is the consummate professional and certainly his own man. His most recent two albums, Seeds from the Underground and Pushing the World Away are proof in point. Both albums were nominated for Grammy awards under the category of “Best Instrumental Jazz Album”.   Both feature Garrett compositions that pay homage to some of his influences. “J Mac” from Seeds from the Underground   is dedicated to alto great Jackie McLean. The song was nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Instrumental  Solo “ category.  “Wiggins,” also from Seeds, is a bow to Garrett’s former high school band and private teacher Bill Wiggins. “Do Wo Mo” is a three way tribute to Duke Ellington, Woody Shaw and Thelonious Monk,  all important influences. On his most recent album Pushing the World Away, Garrett continues in the same vein with  compositions dedicated to longtime  friend Chick Corea, “Hey Chick;” mentor the late Mulgrew Miller, “ A Side of Hijiki;” Sonny Rollins, “J’ouvert;” and his producer Donald Brown on “Brother Brown.”

Garrett, no stranger to recognition, has garnered no less than eight wins in the ”Best Alto Saxophonist”category  of the annual Downbeat polls. Despite an innate desire to be creative with his music he is always aware of his audience. We talked to the saxophonist by telephone on April 16, 2015.

NOJ: I am a big fan of your music. Your last two albums were pretty moving and I think you sort of bridged the gap, for people who are not quite willing to go far mainstream as people like Robert Glasper, but yet still produce solid improvisational music that has a wider appeal. I am not sure if you have been trying to consciously do that, but I think it is working.

KG: Well no actually I just play the music as I hear it. Some of my heroes in the music that I have heard, people like McCoy, and Trane and Sonny Rollins and people like that, that is the music that I hear, so I try to write what I am hearing and that ( my music)  is really a reflection of that.

NOJ: In interviews you have said that your musical path emerged by working with the elders and that now musicians are taking a more academic approach to learning jazz. Is this more academic approach affecting, what I would call the social connectivity that jazz used to have with its audience and is the music becoming too esoteric for its own good?

KG: See, I think every generation has to define the music. … I always like to tell the story, I was recording this CD  and the tune was called “Ain't Nothing But the Blues”  and when I wrote the song I was thinking about Miles Davis, BB King and Bone Thugs- N- Harmony, it’s a hip hop group. So Bobby Hutcherson was recording with me and he says to me, “ You’re  kidding me, is that the blues?”  I said to myself it’s the blues all day long, but with that being said, I guess because( he was from a different generation)  he heard it totally different. To me it had trickled down a little bit differently he said “Wow is that the blues?” Sometime when I hear music I say “Is that jazz?” So every generation kind of has to come to terms or get a grip on to how the music is moving differently than you might want it to move and I am the same way.

(The music)  Its moving, it’s a different way of learning it. I  come through the university so I don’t really look at it that way.  Actually the blessing is that I got to play with the greats. I played with people like Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Cootie Williams, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey, and Dizzy Gillespie when you think of that, you kind of hold onto that as something dear. I think it is a little different approach to the music. That’s neither good nor bad, it is what it is.  Others are trying to find it their way. The way I learned it, I learned from more of an almost an African tradition, it was passed down. It is not really passed on now as I did it. There are people, musicians who are teaching it ( in universities), they have actually been in the forefront, but it is just another approach.

NOJ: I want to get back to a point. To paraphrase a famous line attributed to Duke Ellington that there are only two kinds of music , good music and everything else. Do jazz musicians today get stuck on playing music for themselves and not making it entertaining enough for a broader audience?

KG: I think that depends on the generation. I think if you are in a laboratory and you come from a university and you are in a laboratory and that’s the way you’re assimilating it then that’s the way it might be. I think everybody is different. Our jazz has always been the same. People have always been saying, jazz musicians are playing for themselves.  Some of that is true, I think even for myself,  some of it is true I am playing for myself, but also I am cognizant that the audience is there. What I  would like for the audience to experience is this journey that I would like to take them on. It is not that I don’t acknowledge them, I definitely acknowledge them, I am hoping that this music will touch them in some way, even if they have never heard me before, I am hoping it will touch them. …I hear a lot of young people come up to me and say I never heard music like this before. I say to them it’s a little different because these are my experiences that I am presenting to you. You can’t expect a younger musician who hasn’t had that many experiences to really come up with something like that at this point. You’re going to have to wait, and I m sure that is what some people say about me. Ha ha.

NOJ: I read several interviews where you said that Pharaoh Sanders, who is a well know contemporary of John Coltrane, said he sees a lot of John in your playing. Do feel that connection and do you consciously try to achieve that connection or is it something that comes out of you because of his influence?
KG: I think for me it simply comes out of me. I look at a lot of times, when Pharaoh and I play together it’s so uncanny. A lot of times, because he played alto before he played tenor, we’ll go and play the same notes. Sometimes I am in his register or he is in mine and one of us will have to go higher.
 Of course, John  Coltrane is one of my heroes, there is no denying that, but I think I can still kind of find a way to get to that feeling ( that John had) in my music. So I am always looking for that feeling, I guess (it’s) that spiritual quality, really just a feeling that brought me to the music. I remember when I was a kid, I used to basically take all my forty-fives, I would hide them, and then during Christmas time I would pull them out and I would play all of them. They would fill me up. It was a very emotional feeling that I got. When I listen to music I would love to hear that. So when I am playing music I am trying to get back to that emotional experience that I had when I was a kid. 
NOJ: What kind of forty fives were you listening to?
KG: I would listen to anything, any of my favorite records, some R & B and some jazz. Coming from my home, my father was listening to jazz and my mother was listening to Motown so I had both. Any of my favorite records , it could have been Kool and the Gang, Maceo Parker , it could have been James Brown that feeling was  what I was looking for every time. When I start thinking about music, I say to myself, I wonder if I can bring that feeling back, for people to experience what I was experiencing at the time.

NOJ: Which was joy, it was real joy, right?

KG: It’s really joy. That is what I am hoping for. Everybody gets something different from it. The core of what I am trying to get people to understand, I think it gets there. When you travel people always  come up to me after a show and ask  “What is it that I was experiencing? It’s something but we can’t really put our finger on it.” To me that’s good because at least it’s something that they feel. They don’t have to be able to explain it, as long as I know you can feel something from it, then I think mission is accomplished.

NOJ: Well you obviously are doing something right. You received Grammy nominations for your last two albums Seeds from the Underground and Pushing the World Away .  These alums paid homage to some of the people who made an impression on your life and both had critical and general appeal.  What’s next for you after having looked back from where you came?

KG: I think that a lot of people were saying I looked back, but if you check out my cds I’ll always look back. I always acknowledge.  Seeds was acknowledging a lot of people. Most of the cds it might be just one person, maybe two people, maybe I might play some songs that remind me of someone. But I am always doing that , I always do that because I  always feel blessed that I had the opportunity to play with Miles, Freddie and Woody . I mean these guys…if I had come up at a different time I think it would have been something different, but to acknowledge that and to acknowledge people. There was a tenor saxophonist from Detroit, his name was Bobby Barnes, and he gave me a couple of lessons and I tracked him down just to thank him. He said, I really did (something for you), and I said the lesson that you gave me was an important lesson, because I still use it today. Sometimes it’s not the person that you think it is it’s another person who gave you something new. So I am always grateful for that. I wouldn't be here if there wasn’t a little struggle, I was working hard, but definitely their input was very important, it’s always important.

NOJ: I love that song “Wiggins” from Seeds, that was such a hot number  and I guess it was dedicated to one of your onetime school  band leader?

KG:  Bill Wiggins was my high school band director but I also took private lessons with Bill. Bill studied with Larry Teal, who is a classical saxophonist. Joe Henderson studied with Larry Teal, Vinnie Martin studied with Larry Teal. Brother Yusef ( Lateef) studied with Larry Teal. So the thing was I wanted to play with Larry Teal and Bill said you don’t have to study with Larry Teal I studied with Larry Teal. I wanted to go to Cass Tech which was the best school to be in, he said you don’t have to go to Cass Tech I went to Cass Tech and I will teach you. He was one of the cats along with Marcus Belgrave who really helped me. Wiggins was the one who actually sent me to Marcus to try to learn more.

NOJ: To go back to Coltrane for one second. What was the first recording of John Coltrane that you heard that really moved you?

KG: Actually it was a recording; I think it was called the Blowing Session with Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, I’m not sure who was playing piano on there, but I remember  playing on “All the Things You Are” and Johnny Griffin was killing, he was playing all this stuff, you know how Johnny plays, and Trane he was playing one note and ah man it’s all over. For me it was over he just  played one note, you got to be kidding me.

NOJ: Yeah, economy can sometimes be a very powerful thing and lost on some people.  You once related that Miles said to you “You sound like you are wearing Sonny Stitt’s dirty drawers.”

KG: (Laughing)

Sonny Stitt

NOJ: (Laughing) You know Kenny what you say on line can come back to haunt you.

KG: (Still Laughing) You know that’s the truth.

NOJ:  Was that a fair comparison at the time and were you trying to emulate Stitt?

KG:  Well no I don’t actually think I sounded anything like Stitt, but I think for him, I think that is what he heard. Of course I did listen to Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think… I was listening to  Bird and Cannonball and Sonny Criss, but I think for Miles , you know he heard that.

NOJ: Stitt was famously lost in Charlie Parker’s sound which was hard for him to get away from. He was a great player but it was hard for him to be under that shadow.

KG: Well of course.  I think a lot of musicians were able to discern Stitt rather than Bird, which is what I’ve heard. A lot of musicians were able to get that. But I think for me growing up in Detroit if you play alto you have know about Charlie Parker.

NOJ: As a musician who is now at the top of their game, it must be liberating to know you can proceed in any musical direction and be able to accomplish whatever you are trying to achieve. What musical challenges do you still want to conquer?

KG:  So many things I would really like to attempt to do, it’s just really the timing, but what would I like to do? Something I would like to do is to record a cd with strings. Something I would like to do is record with some Japanese Kabuki musicians. I mean there are a lot of things, but it depends if I have a lot of time to really prepare for it. Everything is moving so quickly, If I had the time to really go in and research and do it like I kind of  research I did  with Beyond the Wall for example.   So it depends on where I am at the time.

NOJ: You have played with the Five Peace Band and the live album actually won you a Grammy in 2010. With the exception of Christian ( McBride)  and Vinnie ( Colauita,) you , John () and Chick () had all played with Miles. Did you guys feel like you took what Miles started and brought it to a new level?

Five Peace Band

KG:  I m not sure what their goal was, but to me it was a learning experience. Playing with John, he has a lot of information. He has studied a lot of Raga, Indian music. Chick and I we have a relationship so that was great, but I can’t say what direction they were trying to go in. That would have to be something you would have to ask them. I took initially that we would all contribute to the music, but it ended up  (being) more Chick and John doing most of the writing, which  in the long run actually helped me. We had one song  and it was fifteen ( time)  and I really wasn’t  playing a lot of odd meters at the time. It was a learning experience playing with John.  Chick and I have been friends a long time, but musically I couldn't really say if they were trying to take it to the next level or not.

NOJ: You are primarily an alto player, but you are also a formidable soprano player. I read that you once played John Coltrane’s soprano.  Did that experience lead you to embrace the instrument?

KG:  No actually, when I played with Miles there were a lot of saxophone players asking me why I wasn’t playing soprano. I really just didn't hear it, at that time I was focusing on my alto playing and trying to find my voice, but then eventually … I don’t think with Miles I ever played any soprano, but then later I got a soprano and started to practice with it and that’s what happened.  I’m surprised you heard about my playing Coltrane’s soprano.

NOJ: What do you like about the soprano’s voice as opposed to the alto?

Kenny Garrett on Soprano

KG:  I think my treatment  of ( the soprano) it’s a lighter sound. The alto is kind of like a tenor for me, so when I play the soprano it kind of lightens it up a little bit , I don't have to have the same voice. It kind of breaks it up a little bit.

NOJ:   There have been many schools of alto playing over the years, the so called West Coast cool school of Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Paul Desmond and then there is the East Coast school coming out of the Parker lineage,  Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean and of course Dolphy, Cannonball and the Coltrane influence. Where do you think you fit in or is it relevant at all as to where you fit in?

KG: That’s a hard one,. I’m not sure, because there are so many different schools that I have been influenced by, so many of those people. When you’re studying music, you really don’t know where you’re coming from. (Laughing)  They start to draw you in and you start to try to emulate them, but of course one of  main influences is still Trane, but not only Trane there is Sonny Rollins, there is Joe Henderson, there is  Maceo Parker  so many people.

NOJ: But those are all tenor players right?

KG: Well yeah but so many , there is Bird , there is Hodges, there’s Sonny Criss there are so many people in the beginning. But in thinking about the voices that I really hear that influenced me the  most it would probably be like Sonny and Trane and Joe and Wayne ( Shorter)  those are the few guys that stick out. There was a point when I checked out Wayne, by playing with Miles it sent me back  checking out those records to listen to Wayne’s voice and this view that he is coming from. But of course when you talk about Wayne he’s coming from Trane and Trane’ss coming from Bird  so all those tongs lead back at some point.

NOJ: What do you think about the West Coast school and the cool sound? 
KG: I don't really think about that. I have listened to Lee Konitz  so I can’t really say… I don't really  think about West Coast vs. East Coast, whoever I like I just take it all in.

NOJ: Are there any young players that you are particularly impressed with?

KG: Actually I like an alto player from Baltimore this guy’s name is Tim Green. I like his voice and I like what he is trying to do/ There are of course is many players Jaleel Shaw and  Bruce Williams come to mind. Actually Antoine Roney,  Wallace Roney’s brother, I like Antoine’s playing a lot. There are of course quite a few players that I haven’t yet heard.

NOJ: You've become more melodic in your more recent compositions. Is this conscious effort to try to connect with your audience and perhaps widen the music’s appeal?

KG: I have always been very melodic. I ve always loved melodies since day one so that is just really a natural thing for me.

NOJ: You played piano on your last two albums. I particularly point out “Brother Brown” from Pushing the World Away,  where you are being uncharacteristically backed by strings (. I guess that is a window into what you want to do with strings in the future? ) ( Laughing)  How does the piano expand your voice in ways that the saxophone does not?

KG:  Playing the piano allows me to orchestrate a little bit more, harmonically to be able to play something for  gigs.  A  lot of the ideas  they come quicker on the piano, because it’s right there and of course I hear it  because I play it all the time.  I hear it  on the saxophone, but it’s a little bit quicker, for me it’s a visual thing you can see it right there ( on the piano) and it just kind of happens. Sometimes if you play the notes on a saxophone, like a C Major and its fine, but the same notes might be something a little different when you play the piano. I play piano on a lot of my records, but I don’t always play a solo like on “Brother Brown”.

NOJ: I remember the last time I saw you perform at the Iridium and Mulgrew Miller was there before he passed and he sat in with you guys. It was so interesting to see Benito Gonzalez and some other piano players hover around him watching him carefully as he played. It was a great show and a great experience.

KG:  There was so much respect from musicians because they realized that Mulgrew was trying to be the best he could be. I definitely remember that, with all the cats going wow. Mulgrew and I we have been friend for thirty five years so I knew what he was really striving to do.  He was trying to accomplish and be one of the greats!

When we first came to New York we would go to see Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Hank Jones and people like that, so I think for him that was what he aspired to be.  I came up through the Duke Ellington Orchestra,  but he  also had a chance to play with Woody Shaw and Betty Carter and all these different experiences, big band and small groups. A group with Woody Shaw that harmonically was just crazy. So all these experiences led him to be the great player he was.

NOJ: You have favored pianists with a very percussive technique, distinctively a very McCoy Tyner influenced sound.  Your pianist Benito Gonzalez is  a good example of this style. McCoy’s style  with Coltrane was once described to me by the pianist Steve Kuhn ( who briefly played with Trane just before Tyner) as laying down a carpet of sound that John could then explore from. Is this what you look for in a pianist, to give you this kind of platform to work off of?

KG:  Well that’s definitely how I hear it. Of course by listening to those records of Coltrane playing with Mc Coy, at some point when I play the piano , when I am writing I hear that and that is what I am trying to get them to explore. I think for me Mulgrew , because I played with him the most, was able to…he was like a glove,  when I would play, he knew how to open up those chords. It was almost like when Miles Davis  with Herbie ( Hancock). Miles would play a note and Herbie and those guys would know what to do. What I try to do, it is the same thing with the pianist that play with me, try to get them  to learn how to orchestrate and how to follow that and sometime not to (follow). They start to understand what is needed and what is not needed. 

NOJ: You have incorporated more voice and chanting into your music. It was particularly effective in the haunting composition “Detroit” from Seeds. What is the sentiment that you are trying to portray in that  moving song.

KG:  At  twelve o'clock every day in Detroit there was a radio announcer, her name was Martha Jean the Queen. Every day, every day she played the same song, I think it was  a James Cleveland song. I think it was called “Without a Song” it wasn't the standard that we know, but I think that was the name of it. But everyday at twelve o'clock she would play this sad song. I would say “Wow , Really! “ But I remembered it , that’s the craziest thing, I remembered that haunting  sense of that tune. So when I  was writing I wanted to find a song to  capture that feeling  like “oh no not again”. I tried to capture the spirit of what that song meant to me. 

NOJ: The song was beautiful but had a haunting, melancholy feel to it, I thought it was a statement about how far Detroit had fallen?

KG:  Not so much that, of course that was part of me wanting to write a song for Detroit. They were going through some rough times but  it will come back. Like every city it  has to come back, hopefully sooner rather than later.

NOJ: The Iridium is presently your choice venue in New York. while it has a history of providing top talent jazz in recent years it has been more of a guitar-centric venue. What makes you feel  right at home as a performer there?

KG: I first used to play a lot at Sweet Basil that was my home. And then they did something, they had a change or something so eventually I had to find another place and Ron ( Sturm, the Owner of Iridium) was able to allow me to come there when I  wanted to play and so that became my new home. So when I come to New York that is where I go. I call him and say  I am  looking for some place to come and play and he has always been accommodating.

NOJ:  So you will be playing at the iridium on May 22 through May 24th and who will be in the band?

KG: Vernell Brown playing piano, Rudy Bird, playing percussion, Mc Lenty Hunter playing drums and Corchran  Holt playing bass. It is like the working band.

NOJ: Will you be introducing anything new?

KG: Every once in a while we try to throw in something new, I'am not sure if we will do that but mainly it will be a repertoire from the last two records.

NOJ: You have just been on tour in Europe  recently?

KG:  We just came back from Japan two days ago. We are in Europe a lot, traveling a great deal. It has been great, to go to Japan too. I was there last year doing the International Jazz with Herbie and the crew. We go to Europe a lot seems like we are there every other week ( laughing)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Roberta Piket: A Emerging Talent Offers Emanation: Solo Piano Vol 2

Roberta Piket: Emanation Solo Vol 2

From the very first notes of the very first song “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” from Roberta Piket’s Emanation (Solo Piano Volume 2)  one can hear the intent of purpose behind the pianist’s  interpretation of this well known standard. This is the second of Ms. Piket's solo piano efforts and it is a further step in her maturation as a formidable player.

 As Richie Beirach, a superb musician  in his own right, who is a one time teacher and now a long time friend of Ms. Piket states in the liner notes, a solo piano recording is very different from any other instrumental recording. There is no rhythm section to use as a life line, there is no interplay with others exploring the possibilities, there is only you and the piano and your own deepest, most personal sense of what it should sound like. Your ability honed to a fine edge, the  result of years of painstaking practice, relentless dedication and  patient listening . With this proficiency comes freedom  to express the nuances that make all the difference. These are the paths that a musician like Ms. Piket has taken to be able to attempt to portray this music within the solo piano format. In every sense of the word Ms. Piket successfully takes up the challenge, leaving herself bare to express the music the way she hears it and she does so in a most personal and satisfying way. Listen to her deeply moving “Haunted Heart” and you’ll be swept away in shear sensitivity of her playing.

Her choice of music is both interesting and challenging. Witness her kinetically alive left hand  on Dizzy’s masterpiece “Con Alma,” an accompaniment that fills this robust piece with just the right amount of rhythmic drive. She delves into the abstraction of Monk’s  “Ba Lue Bolivar Ba Lues” successfully bringing  her own refined refraction to the quirky  composition.  On Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” Ms. Piket revels in the beautiful of the well worn melody and runs spectacularly across the keyboard in a display of fluid facility. On Marian McPartland’s “Ambiance,” a song not often heard, Ms. Piket  captures  a sense  of reverence and her playing at the coda is a flourish of embroidered beauty not to be missed. “She confronts the challenge of performing  "Actual Proof,” a Herbie Hancock piece from his electric funk days with the Headhunters.  Originally a large group electronic piece, Ms. Piket’s  syncopated stabbing and piercing attack pulls this one off with just eighty-eight  keys and her own creative take on the sense of the song.

Roberta Piket photo by Daniel Sheehan
Perhaps the most telling testament to the progress in  Ms. Piket’s development lies in her own compositions like the delicate  “Saying Goodbye” or the free form unstructured  “Emanation,”  
but ultimately I have to agree with Mr. Beirach’s  liner note assessment of the highlight of this CD. Ms. Piket ends the program with a re-imagining of Chopin’s haunting miniature “Fantasy on a Theme.” The ruminations on this piece are delightful, like the wanderlust of a child's first time  exploring of a forest. Ms. Piket seems at once comfortable with bridging the gap between the classical and the improvisational possibilities this music can lead to. Spending  fifty minutes,  listening to an emerging talent's  solo piano voice on Emanation is time well spent.