Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

Drum Composers Series Part 5: Kendrick Scott

Photo by Deneka Peniston

Hearing Kendrick Scott is an experience.  There’s no other way to explain the entrancing language of one of this generation’s most gifted drummers.  His masterful drumming, without fail, somehow propels his audience to a spiritual journey; a bestowal that is far beyond the music itself.  It’s been five years since Scott released his debut album, The Source, for World Culture Music, his independent music label.  The “hiatus” has been with good reason.  Scott has been touring consistently and extensively with mentor and employer of eight years, Terence Blanchard.  He has also been featured, playing on several film scores (A Tale of God’s Will, Just Wright and others) and was part of the 50th Anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band, which was led in-part by the late, great James Moody.  Scott also released Reverence for the Criss Cross label; an outstanding quintet session of standards from Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Dorham, and Herbie Hancock; the latter whom Scott has also spent substantial time touring with.

Conviction, Scott’s sophomore album for World Culture Music will drop early next year, and features Scott’s splendid “Oracle” band which includes pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Mike Moreno, saxophonist John Ellis, and bassist Joe SandersConviction represents, as Scott describes, “The shedding of me wanting to be like all of my idols.”  This is an interesting testament given that Scott is a drummer with one of the most original voices in modern jazz.  However, he also attributes the title to a shift in the way he presents music as a composer, and also in the way he delivers those compositions, now displaying a more prominent drum presence to balance out his strong affinity for melody; a love birthed from his gospel roots.

“See, now I’m trying to reconcile two different views,” Scott explains.  “My lyrical view of what I think music should be like and feel like, and then being a drummer.  If you notice, on The Source, most of the tunes are very lyrical, but there’s not a lot of aggressive drum writing, so I actually relished in that; I love that.  But now as I’m growing a little bit, I want to write some more aggressive stuff.  I’m always the sensitive guy sometimes, and I still want to be that, but I also want to play some drums, you know?”

There’s no question that Scott is a powerhouse drummer, playing with a compulsion and dynamism that few can match.  But he also possesses an unparalleled compassion, sagacity and clarity in his playing; there are few drummers who can rouse so much emotion and create such a range and mélange of colors.  These dynamics glisten in his writing.  Scott’s compositions, like his drumming, have the ability to transport listeners in a way that is far beyond descriptions like mood or vibe; it is intensely ancestral.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

The title track of his debut album was also featured on Blanchard’s Flow (Blue Note).  Produced by Herbie Hancock, Flow is a gorgeous collection of songs from his uniquely inspired band mates, with Hancock being a featured guest on Scott’s composition.  “That was a funny situation,” Scott reminisces.  “Herbie was going to play on another tune and that didn’t happen, so my tune was the one that we felt Herbie would take to another level, and of course he did.  It all fell into place seamlessly, really.  And it was one of the first times I enjoyed a composition I had written [laughs].”  The song would go on to be nominated for a Grammy © for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo.

For “The Source”, Scott used a method of composition that is becoming more of an integral part of his writing today.  Taught to him by Blanchard, it’s a method that expanded on his basic ideas for the tune.  “There’s a process that [pianist, educator and Pulitzer Prize nominee] Roger Dickerson taught Terence,” says Scott. “It’s called If I Could, I Would Tell You.  And it’s mainly about theme and variation.  So, you take one theme and you turn it on its head, and then you write it backwards and then you write all of these variations out, and then pretty much, your original idea informs your whole writing process.  So instead of “stream of consciousness”; instead of me singing a melody and singing it all the way to the end, I’m taking my one little idea and making a whole song out of it.  So, if you listen to “The Source”,  I took [sings melody] and I transferred that to the bass, I transferred it in the melody, and then if you listen to the end of it, I elongated it.  Instead of a beat a piece, it’s bar a piece and then I transferred the bass notes.  So it’s just one of those things where I’m just learning how to manipulate ideas more than just “stream of consciousness” now.  It’s interesting to watch Terence teach it because it has this whole different…it gets so in-depth.  I mean, it’s infinite.”

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Scott has also adopted this same method to inform his developed philosophy about his purpose on the bandstand.  He explains, “Usually when I play the drums, all of the elements of the ideas from the foundation of the tune itself, is one layer.  The people I’m playing with are another layer, and then my imagination is the top layer.  But the bottom layer is my references, right?  My references of knowing like, what Ben Riley has played, what Al Foster, or Shadow Wilson has played; Max and all of those guys.  So you have your references, then you have the tune, people, and then on top of that, I think you have your imagination.  So you’re hearing all of those things, and the hierarchy is those guys, and what you’re playing is the next level and then relating to the people is paramount, and then your ideas are paramount but they’re not as paramount as the basis…for me.  So what I try to do is use that If I Could, I Would Tell You if we’re playing something like ‘All The Things You Are.’  I’m going to use things from the tune because we’re playing the form of the tune, or lets’ say Stablemates because I always use that as an exercise.  I say, OK take “dah-dah-dah”;  just three notes, and make it go all the way through the tune.  And then using the ideas of the people that you play with to inform you in creating those ideas, and as you can see it starts creating a web a huge web.  And you’re like ‘Oh wow, all of these things are springing from three notes.’  So that’s just the way I’m starting to compose now; just little small elements that I can manipulate, instead of the really big ones… the through-composed things.”

Scott credits his several years in Blanchard’s band to much of his growth as a drummer, and particularly to his development as a composer.  Blanchard has among other things, augmented the realm of possibilities for jazz musicians, becoming one of the film industry’s most revered scorers.  For Scott, Blanchard’s early advice to “learn to do what you do,” helped him to develop such striking individuality.  “It took me so long to figure out that that’s what I need to do,” says Scott.  “Because even if someone says that…you know.  So that release of surrendering to that…that was like a huge light bulb moment.  So, I always attribute that to Terence, because I don’t think it would have happened in other situations.  Well…I think it would have, but I don’t think I would have had the opportunity for things to just bud the way they have over eight years of playing with him, and him being encouraging about it.  Because I think people can encourage, but then you’ll forget.”

Blanchard is not Scott’s first or only point of reference when it comes to composition.  His mother, an accomplished pianist, was also very impressionable on Scott.  “One of my mother’s good friends was song writer Michael McKay, so I was always in an environment where people were being creative and writing not necessarily just jazz, but gospel music,” says Scott.  “I only came to start composing in jazz when I turned fourteen or so.  All before then, it was just pretty much gospel music or classical music that I was around, you know?  And R&B and stuff at home.  So when I finally got to high school, I just started opening up and just kind of writing down ideas here and there but not really knowing what the hell I was doing.”

Scott is a product of the burgeoning group of jazz musicians that came out of Houston’s renowned High School for the Performing and Visual Arts; a cultural hub that exported the likes of Jason Moran, Mike Moreno, Eric Harland, and Chris Dave to the New York City jazz scene.  He went on to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and before graduation he had already caught the attention of several jazz greats, gigging with Pat Metheny and Kenny Garrett.  But it was soon after graduating that Blanchard would grab up the immensely talented and budding drummer.

Years and mammoth transitions and experiences later, Scott has made an indubitable mark as a truly inspired and brilliant artist.  With Conviction, the suitably titled project will create another benchmark for possibilities.  “I’m pretty proud of it,” says Scott.  “It’s a departure from The Source.  A little more aggressive and little more drum oriented, which is different for me because I always said I want the drums to be powerful, yet transparent, and I think any great musician… his musicianship is always that way.  It’s always upfront, but it always lets the other things around it shine through.  So the transparency is always something I’m looking for in my drumming.”

That transparency spills over to facets beyond Scott’s drumming.  There is accordance on a human level that Scott embodies off of the band stand. And when it speaks through his art (both writing and performing) it can’t help but inspire.  For Scott, there is never a sense of being settled, but constant searching.  “I heard that Prince gets up every day and writes a song; same thing with Wayne [Shorter],” says Scott.  “I wanna become married to the process.  There’s this book Stravinsky wrote called The Poetics of Music and he talks about there being two kinds of writers.  There’s one that writes from inspiration and one from necessity.  So mostly I’ve been an inspirational writer, I’ll say ‘Oh this picture is beautiful, let me write something.’  But he said he was more the type of guy who gets up and says I’m going to write now. I’m going to make it happen.  So I’m just learning every day from that and going between those two types of writing; the necessity and the inspirational, and just trying to bring that to light through my compositions.”♦

Drum Composers Series Part 4: Ari Hoenig

Photo by Angelika Beener

There is nothing conventional about drummer Ari Hoenig.  Even as a sideman, he is not your typical drummer, with over sixty recordings to the much-in-demand Hoenig’s credit.  However, Hoenig’s amalgamation of technique, innovation, and creativity are what make him difficult to compare, and impossible to peg.

Since the Philly native’s emergence on the New York City jazz scene in the late 90s, Hoenig has played with the likes of Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Leibman, Joshua Redman, Shirley Scott, Richard Bona and more.  Hoenig also found a long-standing home in the trio’s of two of today’s most exceptional pianists: Jean Michel Pilc and Kenny Werner; the former urging Hoenig early on to make steps toward the forefront.  “He never really gave me any musical advice [per se], but he did build my confidence a lot.”  Jean said, “For one, you should definitely start your own band. I’d love to be a part of it, and even if not, you know, this is something that should definitely happen.”

Pilc surely knew about what he was talking and would later occupy the piano spot on two of Hoenig’s albums.  Hoenig released his debut album, Time Travels, in 2000, and never looked back.  With eight albums as a leader, Hoenig has been a trailblazer for the new wave of drummer front men, and the ultimate prototype of the modern drummer’s wingspan.

Hoenig is also a flourishing and prolific writer.  Like every drummer in my “investigative series”, I asked Hoenig about his writing process.  His latest album, Lines of Oppression (Naive Records), offers seven original tunes, including the title piece which is a mixture of complex melody, lush harmony, and rhythmic intensity.  The album features previous collaborators and pathfinders in their own right; pianist Tigran Hamasyan, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and bassists Orlando Le Fleming and Chris Tordini.  “I’ve never studied composition formally.  I mean, I’ve always kind of composed stuff just on my own but I’ve never actually had a class in it.  But I’ve noticed that there are a few different ways that people compose.  At least the way that I describe it.  From the melody is one, which is not a way that I do; almost never.  Maybe one song I started from the melody.  I start out with the chords usually…the harmony.  Probably eighty percent of the time, my songs are written with the chords first, the harmony first.  I sit at the piano.  I do play piano a lot.  And I write on piano all the time.  The drum part, as you will, actually never ever gets written.  That’s the very last thing, if it even is.  So, I don’t think about what I’m doing when I play on drums at all in terms of writing.  So, when I sit down and everyone has gotten their thing together, then I just play whatever seems right.  I write a few tunes with the bass line first, as well.  If you listen to any of Dave Holland’s music or…a lot of bass players actually write like that.  Like, a bass line, and then the tune kind of comes around it.”

Before I sat down to chat with Hoenig, I read somewhere that he hated the actual process of song writing.  With Hoenig being the author of one of my favorite ballads, “For Tracy”, I half-dispelled the question when I posed it to him, and was surprised when he confirmed on the matter.

“Oh yeah, that’s totally true,” Hoenig admits.  “The only part that I like about it is finishing.  I like to mess around with coming up with ideas, but as soon as this thing clicks in my head that ‘Oh, I should write a piece, and this should become a tune…’  From that moment until the moment I finish the song, I can’t stand it.  I don’t like the process.  Why don’t I like it?  Because it makes me feel…it’s like a puzzle.  It’s a challenge but it’s more than that.  It’s a personal challenge.  It gets in deeper than you’re trying to just do a puzzle that you know you’re going to eventually do, because you know there’s a solution.  But writing music, you don’t really know that there’s a solution.  Nobody’s worked it out before you.  If you’re writing a piece, you know…so what if it never works out?  I don’t know…I mean, it’s so personalized and it’s a certain amount of angst for me.  I have to force myself to do it. If I want to write a piece, I have to really force myself.  I’ve actually spent very, very little time writing music, and I haven’t written any songs that I haven’t used, except for one that I wrote in high school that is just stupid that I will never use.  It actually only took me five minutes to write.”

Hoenig’s off-center humor and humility augment the intrigue of his musical mystique.  Beyond being a conspicuously skillful drummer with seemingly boundless creativity, he can literally transform the use of the drum in ways rarely seen.  Hoenig’s affinity for melody has been manifested in his mind-blowing ability to create fluid melody lines on the drums, making the “non-melodic” classification of the instrument a misnomer.

Hoenig’s first two albums (Time Travels and The Life of a Day) are completely solo recordings.  Hoenig plays a collection of originals and standards, using the drums to produce aspects of the composition that are seemingly impossible to create.  This is most recently illustrated on his latest album, where the band performs their version of Bobby Timmons’ Moanin.  Hoenig brilliantly takes on the soulful melody of the call-and-response type bluesy classic.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“I started playing melodies on the drums pretty early on,” explains Hoenig.  “I guess [I was] around 18, and I heard Max Roach, for one, do it.  Jeff Hamilton did stuff similar, and another drummer named Earl Harvin who I was really influenced by.  Not so much [for] getting the notes out of the drums, but being able to play a tune on the drums with the basic contour and the ups and downs, and even more importantly, the phrasing.  Just being able to get the phrasing on the drums.  So if you listen to Mack the Knife and you hear Ella [Fitzgerald] sing it, you want to kind of be able to emulate her phrasing.  And just getting the phrasing without even worrying about the pitches of the drums, it’s going to be noticeable, like people are going to recognize that.  So I started doing that, and then I realized that I can actually get some of the notes too, out of the drums, so then I just started developing this system of how I can actually play whole pieces with the melodies on the drums with the actual pitches.  So I realized I can get either a 9th or a 10th from the floor tom to the snare drum and I can get all the notes in between so I can play any tune as long as they’re not really wide ranges.  Sometimes a really high note would have to be played an octave lower [for example].”  Hoenig also confirms that he has relative pitch; an aptitude he inherited, likely from his parents, both classical musicians.

While Hoenig is consistently reluctant to accept much praise in terms of his ability to reconstruct the drums, he is passionate about how invested drummers need to be inside of the music, beyond keeping the time.

“I think drummers sometimes — not the really good ones — but other ones, tend to be able to play the drums, but not really know the songs that they’re playing that well.  So you can be an amazing technician and drummer and have a lot of coordination, and, you know, [be] a ‘drummer’s drummer’, but if you don’t know the music that you’re playing, it just automatically means that you’re not as good.  It just will not make you as good as a musician, and that’s noticeable to everybody.  I mean, melody is something that I hear really strongly on all of the songs that I play, and if I’m playing a session and a gig that I don’t know, I’ll make a point to learn the song, and really know the song.  A lot of songs have the same form, for example, like a lot of blues have the same form but they have different melodies, so if you’re going to compose a solo, for example, on that form, I want it to be different than any other song, not any other form.  I’m not thinking the form like ABA or like blues twelve.  I’m thinking of the song.  And I think the really good drummers do that.  You know…drummers know that, but that’s something that I stress a lot especially with my students.”

Hoenig’s career is as multi-faceted as his playing, with several interesting projects on the horizon.  For one, he has reunited with Jean-Michel Pilc and bassist Francois Moutin to record Threedom (Motema) which is due for release next month, marking the resurgence of one of the most nonconforming and essential trios in today’s jazz music scene.  Hoenig is also currently touring with saxophonist Chris Potter in a series of duo concerts across Europe, where they will perform a set list that is heavily dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Hoenig, who has recorded a fair share of Monk tunes on his albums as a leader, described his unsurprising fondness of the eccentric icon.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“It’s just that his tunes…they’re very rhythmic.  They’re melodies that some would call slightly awkward, which I wouldn’t even say that.  It’s just they have an interesting thing to them which is different than the ones people used over and over and over again.  Or any standards that are written with just chords and melody but no real rhythms in the tunes, so Monk – all the songs have that.  They’re built into the melody.  So it’s not just about playing the melody and the changes, but during the solos it gives the tune somewhere to go.  It’s almost saying like OK, there’s a destination…places to land.  So yeah, Monk’s tunes are especially appealing to me.  [With Chris Potter], we play probably close to half Monk tunes.  It’s fun.  And I actually used to do a duo with another drummer named Andrew Griffith in Dallas, and we did some Monk tunes as well, and for a drum duo I feel like it works really well, and actually with anybody.  Duo with anyone…those tunes definitely speak to me.  They give me a lot of ideas.”

Hoenig’s incessant need to push beyond so-called limits, and reinvent not only himself, but the vehicles used in his expression, also make him an optimal educator.  Hoenig has authored Systems Book 1: Drumming Technique and Melodic Jazz Independence (Alfred Publishing 2011) and writes for Modern Drummer Magazine.  He has also released The Ari Hoenig Songbook, which includes the complete lead sheets of Hoenig’s compositions.

Angst transformed into beauty, indeed. ♦

Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig perform at the Blue Note in NYC on August 30 & 31.  Click here for details.

Drum Composers Series Part 3: Eric Harland

Photo Credit: John Rogers/WBGO

When I met with Eric Harland at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca, I got a glimpse of a day in the life of jazz music’s most in-demand drummer.  He had just arrived to New York; his next east coast stop following a triple appearance at Newport Jazz Festival.  Harland, who is arguably the hardest working drummer in the jazz biz, played more drums in one day, than most play in a week.  I’ll give you the run down: As one-quarter of the co-led all-star ensemble, James Farm, Harland got started at one 1 PM.  Then, on to trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s group at 2:20 PM.  Then finally playing with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and tabla master Zakir Hussain at 4 PM.  One has to wonder how anyone can wear that many musical hats over the course of a few hours.

I got to ask him about it during sound check of his next performance; a live on-air double bill shared with saxophonist Marcus Strickland and produced by The Checkout’s Josh Jackson for WBGO and NPR Music.  I managed to whisk Harland away, while the rest of his quintet went over some charts.  On keeping it all together, Harland explains that the balance in his personal life helps keep his professional copiousness intact.  “Family gives me a sense of structure, a sense of center, and so if I’m working too much, then that starts to get compromised a little bit.  And you know, I enjoy the money and I enjoy the opportunity of playing, but having a family definitely gives me a deeper connection with music, and the people around the music.”  A father of two young children, Harland’s playing is further influenced by the experiences of parenthood.  “As a father, you make a lot more sacrifices than you would if you didn’t have children or didn’t have a spouse.  And I like taking care of people and nurturing others on stage and stuff.  As long as I keep it balanced and I’m eating [right] and stuff…it’s a beautiful paradise.”

Harland released his debut album Voyager (Space Time) last year to high praises.  The album features the fantastic ensemble of saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Julian Lage, and bassist Harish Raghavan.  An album of fiery (and mostly original) tunes, Harland enlightened about his beginnings as a composer.

“Coming from Houston, you always write,” says Harland.  “At least for me, because I started in the church, and so I’ve always kinda had this sound that I wanted to kind of bring to fruition through a band.  I think everyone has a sound that they really want to bring across…but it’s just [a matter of] how to do it, or having the vehicle to do it.”  Unbeknownst to their influence, Harland’s musical family helped drive him toward the drums.  “Piano is my first instrument.  [But] I didn’t pursue the piano because there were too many piano players in my family.  My mom is a piano player, my grandmother, my aunt was, my uncle…he could play piano but he was a trumpet player and a vocalist and stuff…and they were all vocalists as well.  So needless to say, when I was in the room trying to practice, there was all this critiquing going on.  Always someone over your shoulder like, ‘No that’s not right, you gotta play the scale like this.  Put your fingering like this.’  And I was like, you know what?  There was no room to explore…I would just wanna mess up for no reason and just see what that feels like.  So I was also kind of at the same time playing the drums, just kind of messing around with it.  And I think I had more freedom with the drums because no one really knew what was going on.”

Harland honed his skills while he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA); a school unparalleled at preparing and producing some of the finest jazz musicians at the academic level.  Harland is in good company as drummers go, with Chris Dave and Kendrick Scott as fellow alumni.  By the time Harland graduated from high school, he had already won a plethora of awards, and was playing professionally.  Harland subsequently came to New York City on full scholarship to the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and quickly became an in-demand drummer garnering a list of collaborators too extensive to complete.  To name (literally) a few: Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner and Betty Carter, who Harland has a long-standing musical friendship with.  But it was his time with trumpeter extraordinaire Terence Blanchard that would develop Harland as a composer.

Transform was kind of like my first thoroughly thought out piece, you know, that I really had an idea for and I wrote it specifically for that band,” says Harland of his compositional contribution to Blanchard’s album Bounce.  Like, I had Terence in mind, I had [saxophonist] Brice Winston in mind.  [Bassist] Brandon Owens, at the time…and we even tried it a little bit before that.”

Harland also makes a point to discuss the importance of timing.  “Terence was on that edge of like ‘OK, I want to start welcoming other people’s tunes’ but he wasn’t quite ready yet, which was a good thing because I don’t think a lot of our tunes were ready,” confesses Harland.  “I think the change in personnel…also [his] working at the Monk Institute with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter].  That generation still being excited about new things, I think helped open his mind, which gave us the opportunity to write.”

Transform is a fast 7/4 anthem-like piece with strong sensibilities both rhythmically and lyrically.  On Voyager, Harland keeps these elements and  demonstrates his vast pen, with songs ranging from ethereal to explosive.  “I love melody,” says Harland.  “Those are the things that move me.  I mean drums really move me, but I don’t think as much as harmony.  So it’s amazing, drums were always an adjustment.  Like, I had to really learn how to play drums.  Because when I would listen to bands, I would never listen to the drummer.  The lyricism that was going on was more interesting to me than what the drummer would be doing.”

With such an illustrious career, Harland’s fairly recent emergence as a front man has surely been pondered.  Harland explains, “I prefer the background a little bit. I like to observe what’s going on and kinda fix it from the back.  The drums always seemed like a lot of chops, you play super-fast…it’s real showy…and you know, I had to kind of grow to be a showy person.  So I think that’s what took me so long as far as my band.  It took people going ‘Get out there!’  And sometimes you need that because you never know your potential until you really get out there and explore the things that need to be explored.  Just exploring yourself.  I think that’s what life is about.  Just discovering who you are…this time.”

In my examining the composing drummer, I am always fascinated about the process of writing.  As a composer, Harland draws from his complete musical wellness, in addition to the opportunities presented from modern technology.  “At first it started at the piano because that’s what I love,” says Harland.  “But then with all the notation software and stuff like that, you have the freedom to be like a painter, where a painter can just throw paint on the canvas, and then try to find the beauty within the chaos that’s just been presented to him or that he sees.  Well, with the notation software, sometimes I experiment with kind of throwing notes on the page.  Seeing how that sounds, and then orchestrating from a different angel.  Because it gives me a different thing to think about.  And plus it gives me something I would have never come up with unless I took that chance to do that.  Then sometimes I compose from the drums.  I think of some really fun rhythmic idea I really want to do, and then I just mess around with it.”

L-R: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks and Eric Harland. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

Now with an established body of work, it’s full steam ahead for Harland as an artist.  In addition to his own group, Harland is also busy with James Farm; a co-led ensemble of musicians at the height of their powers, which includes saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, and bassist Matt Penman.  The band released their self-titled album in April, and it received critical acclaim across musical boards; a reflection of the goal of the record.  This album speaks to jazz audiences, but not exclusively.  The music is warm, cohesive, and fresh with a perfect balance of intention and profuse unrestraint; a harmony as intriguing as their collective name.

“It’s an acronym,” Harland reveals.  “Josh, Aaron, Matt, and Eric.  The “S” is just the plural form of the name.  Like James’ Farm, but we just left out the apostrophe.  And then “Farm” was just a way to try to describe what we wanted to do.  When you think about a farm, it’s nurturing , organic, something that feeds the body, cultivation, harvest, seed planting…you know. These were things that we felt really related to the style of music we wanted to do.”

As for what’s next for the man who is everywhere doing everything, Harland gives some insight, “I have a certain sound in my head.  So, you know, I think maybe that just comes with age, as I’m getting older….What am I gonna do now?  And then it’s always good to just kind of  have a change to do something different.  I have some ideas…they haven’t been ironed out yet.  I definitely have this one song that I want James Taylor to sing.  But I love taking my time.  I’m like a slow mule…like, I want to just think about it for a while.  When it’s right, I mean it’s just gonna soar.  Because when you develop a sense of trust in something greater, versus it’s just you, because as gratifying as that may feel, it also beings about pressure, feeling like you have to do it.  As long as my desire is there and I can act upon that, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Drum Composers Series Pt. 2: Adam Cruz

Photo by: Shelagh Murphy

Drummer Adam Cruz released the aptly titled Milestone (Sunnyside) this past spring.  A striking debut, Cruz re-introduces himself as not just a deftly talented drummer, but an impressive composer.  Milestone is comprised of eight original compositions and a fantastic ensemble to interpret them, with saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Steve Wilson and Chris Potter, pianist Ed Simon, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and bassist Ben Street.  An album with a superb amount of depth and freshness, Milestone has (conceptually-speaking) been years in the making.  But in life and in music, timing is everything, and perhaps for Cruz, it is most distinctly illustrated in his outing as a bandleader.  For what seems like a long overdue venture is actually right on schedule; a project culminating life experience, introspection, awakening, and a gentle push from those closest to him.

With a career spanning over twenty years now, and over forty album credits as a sideman, the New York native has already earned his rightful place among the company of jazz music’s most exceptional modern drummers.  Regarding his decision to compose, he references one of his earlier pivotal moments, which followed his relatively short run in pianist Chick Corea’s band. “[It had] less to do with piano per se, and even less maybe, to do with music,” explains Cruz.   “But just more of a psychological point I was at, I think.  So after I did that run with Chick, which was just a little over a year, there was a bit more of a space in my life professionally. It was before I started with Danilo and  I wasn’t steady with anyone at that moment, so I felt compelled to look deeper at that time, like hmmm, what am I doing here with music, with my drumming, my writing?  And just kind of realizing that composition was a major way I’d like to express myself.  In the late 90s, I felt I had to invest myself more in that direction; kind of a self-awareness that came up.  Because maybe up until that time, it was just more like simply ‘playing gigs.’  And so when that gig [with Chick] finished I felt that kind of a vista, a space…like now what?  So I looked a little more inside and realized this was something I wanted to develop more, with composition.  And so little by little I started to put my feet in that direction.”

A gutsy, haunting and pensive album, Milestone exhibits a musical cohesiveness so evident, and no doubt rooted in the longstanding relationships between Cruz and his band mates.  That closeness also gave Cruz a trusted push to go for what was now calling him.  “The earlier pieces I had written, I didn’t feel that there was a particular sound of identity that made them…I would say it was just a little more run of the mill by my own standards and didn’t have…identity is the word.  I didn’t feel something coming through like I did with these pieces.  Up until the last minute, I wasn’t sure how well they were gonna work, but when we had the first rehearsal, a year before recording, I was really pleased.  I said okay, there is something here.  And then the encouragement of the band.  Everyone was really supportive of the music and revealed that to me so there was an instinct that said now’s the time.  And I wanted it to be with people I feel a certain relationship with and have a certain friendship with.  So Steve Wilson for instance, and also Miguel and Ed Simon in part, are all people whose bands I’ve played in.  I think when you have a relationship with somebody rather than bringing somebody in who’s maybe a great player but you haven’t played with much and is gonna do a great job on a record date…for me, I was trying to get somewhat of a band feeling and when you have the relationship, there’s a certain depth you perceive in bands like that.  So I was trying to honor a band aesthetic from the start.  That, and my own intuition of what would work well.”

Cruz and bassist Ben Street have had the longest union.  Together they are two-thirds of Danilo Perez’ trio, recently hitting the decade mark as a band.  His time with Danilo was, among many things, a major source of support for Cruz’ decision to write.  “Sometimes as a drummer, one can have a complex about harmony, and when you’re putting the notes together,” reveals Cruz.  “I remember reading something that [Jeff] “Tain” [Watts] had said.  Something that I really related to.  He was talking to Kenny Kirkland about writing, and he was wondering if like, is this okay, making certain harmonic moves?  Kenny just said trust your ears, trust your instinct.  That kind of happened with me and Danilo.  Danilo encouraged me not to think so much about nomenclature or harmony in a certain kind of fixed way but to assemble the notes and look for sounds before you know what you’re naming them and trust what you’re hearing, and that opened a lot for me because as a drummer you have to learn how to trust that.  Because we’re coming from a non-melodic instrument so for me, it took some time.  I think that’s part of why it took so long also.  Just trusting my own instinct and ears to what I’m doing as a composer.”

If Milestone were cinematic, it would begin with the victorious ending.  The triumph is in the air from the outset of the first song.  The songs are deeply colorful and communicative.  I haven’t heard many albums where I feel like I can almost hear the words of what these melodies may be saying.  And although the album is dark in mood (one of my favorite vibes) there are these peaks of elation, and hope and epiphany; particularly, on the album’s opening track, “Secret Life.”

One striking detail is that Cruz doesn’t seem to be proving any of the wrong points on this album.  When you listen, you know that this is a drummer’s album, but for all of the right reasons.  The drum execution is delectable, and seems to float within all of the layers of the music, rather than pounding on top of it.

“I realize that the reason that it came out with that kind of a balance is maybe because I feel like I had so much energy, and more of my private life, focused on composing and playing the piano while in my professional life, there was no evidence of that,” offers Cruz.  “I was playing drums on gigs of course, and there’s a way one can say that because of studying piano or composing that it’s coming through my drumming.  But you know I was just spending so much time writing and studying piano that I think when it came time to put the pieces together, and I felt like this is a new part of me or a new part of my artistic process that I really wanted to be focused on that dimension.  And perhaps I’d let the drums not be this center stage or that focus because I had been spending so many months — years really — with putting the notes together.  So I kind of pieced it together that way.”

Cruz’ “tailor-made” compositions further exemplify the closeness of the band.  There is thoughtfulness in all of the pieces, driven by a personal connection to the other musicians, creating one of the most synergistic albums that I’ve heard in a very long time.  “I would write first on the piano and then a little bit on Logic, and as I was hearing the parts, I was just enjoying myself imagining the players,” Cruz reflects.  There’s something about Miguel Zenón’s sound when I would listen back to my own midi recording of “Secret Life,” I thought about him on that melody, and it really made sense.  It might just be a moment when someone might jump out as an image and that would be enough for me to say ok let’s try him on the whole thing.  I also felt just having dynamic soloists like Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón …all of them really because I have these long sections that were wide open and I wanted musicians who could bring a certain sense of power but at the same time they’re all very sensitive, and tuned into what’s going on around them. They’re not gonna go off on their own so to speak but yield to what is happening in the band.”

It may be a more recent phenomenon that jazz drummers are composing, but pondering the subject, Cruz reflected on some of the drummers who have done it before, and who he is influenced by, giving me an insightful history lesson in the meantime.  “One of my favorite all time heroes is Roy Haynes, though not known for composing.  For me, ever few bars is a composition with Roy Haynes, the way he plays!  I just saw Billy Hart at the [Village] Vanguard last week, and he’s always written, and he’s one of my favorites.  I think he just did a new record too.  Victor Lewis; he’s a great composer.  He was a teacher of mine.  I took a couple lessons, I used to go see Victor play a lot when I was coming up and he has wonderful tunes, so yeah there are some exceptions.  Al Foster, who writes…Jack DeJohnette, who played piano first.  Paul Motian is a very inspiring composer as well. So yeah those are some models. There’s a tune “Sister Cheryl,” by Tony Williams which is a good tune.  He actually studied more formally in later years. I think he was trying to get a Masters [degree] in composition and was getting really into classical composition.  Before he passed I know he was studying more seriously.  That’s why it was such a tragic loss, because it looked like he was looking to expand even further.

Cruz’ cross-pollenating of music styles and aesthetics in his drumming is often an intriguing topic for many of jazz music’s analysts.  On Milestone, there are such broad strokes of diverse expression.  Songs like “Emjé” and “The Gadfly” having an undeniable and infectious Latin drive, while on songs like “Outer Reaches” Cruz is steeped in the sound of the African American tradition, playing a brilliant fury of imaginative lines, where you can hear the influence of drummers like

Photo by: Fernando Aceves

Roy Haynes.  Often regarded as a Latin drummer who plays jazz versus a “Latin jazz drummer,” I wondered about the connotation of that kind of seemingly congratulatory analysis.  “If you’re somebody who’s Latino or somebody who’s mixed or of any ethnicity really, like, you can sense those implications,” says Cruz.  “I’d like to think that if people make that distinction, it’s not necessarily about the dilution of the Latin aesthetic being a good thing, but more of an acknowledgment of a certain kind of creative process going on, a certain kind of flexibility that gets associated with jazz and is not perhaps as commonly associated with what is typically considered Latin jazz.  I think we’re living in a time when there’s a breakdown of old perceptions, and so we sometimes witness the old ways of seeing things, the old boxes that are in place.  So because you know, there might have been a time when things were a little more clear-cut.  Oh, you got a Latin date, you get this guy, you got a jazz date you get that guy, and there was some truth to that.  But in the times we live in now, the boundaries are so much more fluid and you have musicians from Latin America like David Sanchez for instance, who I play with.  Or Danilo for that matter, who are incredible jazz musicians in every way, and breaking barriers.  Miguel Zenón, for instance, or Antonio Sanchez, you know? And you have drummers like Marcus Gilmore playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba dealing with clave and all, and David Virelles from Cuba who seriously knows his Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.  I think that the perception perhaps of some people who write about music is not totally caught up with the reality of how fluid things are.  I’m Latino, I’m Jewish, Italian, black and white, and I grew up here around New York.  I feel just as much of a relationship to bebop and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes as to Tito Puente and Willie Bobo.  Beyond that, I think we need to realize that just in the music itself there is often more in common than there is in difference.  If I hear Roy Haynes playing a drum solo it often sounds to me like a great timbale solo.  At its source, the music at the roots, I feel like since the discovery of the New World, the codes that came with the slaves, and the music that came all over the New World is the major phenomenon.  There’s all these different branches how in Brazil the music took shape, and how in the Caribbean, The States, New Orleans.  But I think we’re getting to a point where if we look, we can see an underlying, unifying principal.  And I think musician’s today are starting to not identify as much the locality as with that principal that underlies it.”

Adam Cruz and his Milestone group play tomorrow, August 10th at the Harbor Conservatory at 1 East 104th Street.  7:30pm.  Concert is FREE.  For more details, click here .

Drum Composers Series Part 1: E.J. Strickland

E.J. Strickland

There may not be a shortage of good jazz drummers living in New York City, but few are more prolific in today’s scene than E.J. Strickland.  The Miami native arrived in New York City in 1997, studying at the prestigious New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.  Before graduation, he had already performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Abbey Lincoln, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, and Dianne Reeves, and after twenty-something recording credits as a sideman, Strickland stepped out as a leader with his 2009 release In This Day (Strick Muzik).

A strong debut with clear direction, Strickland not only showcases his immense talent as a drummer, but stuns his audience with strikingly compelling compositions.  The album is produced by his long-time mentor and band mate of over ten years, Ravi Coltrane, and features saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Marcus Strickland, pianist Luis Perdomo, and bassist Hans Glawischnig.  On the decision to have Coltrane produce his debut, Strickland says “he’s very creative, especially in the studio.  He gets very excited and you know ideas and crazy things come out of his mind when he gets into the studio and I needed more of that.  Like, I wanted to worry a little bit more about the playing and the execution of the music, and let him handle brainstorming.  Plus he’s listening from the outside, and he’s somebody I trust.  He’s like an older brother to me.  And it worked out great.  It worked out really great.”

Sipping lemon-flavored Pellegrino in Brooklyn, Strickland recently shared the genesis of his writing. Recalling nervously asking his high school band director if he could write a tune for the jazz combo class, he would get his first itch to write out of this experience, among another one very close to him.

“My brother had a private lesson teacher named Whit Sidener, and actually every time he would go for piano lessons I would go with him and I would learn some of the things Sidener was showing him on the piano, and it was very interesting to me.  I was like well this can open some doors.  Like maybe I can play differently if I know what’s going on around me.  So I think that was maybe like freshman year in high school when I really started playing at the piano and I started trying to compose right away.  Started writing songs, things like that.”

The first recording of one of his tunes comes from twin brother Marcus Strickland’s debut album At Last.  “That’s the first tune that has been documented but I’d written others before that, that don’t really need to see the light of day [laughs].”  His second recorded original tune “The Unsung Hero” would appear on Marcus’ follow-up album Brotherhood.  “I think I wrote that when I was in high school.  I think I may have been a senior in high school.  I was finding a way to play it, and it was my opportunity right there.”

Photo by Lafiya Watson

Having piqued my interest for a decade with his curiously melodic compositions, the soft-spoken Strickland offered me some insight on his process.  “I guess a lot of it has to do with most of the time when I’m composing a song, I’m singing along with it.  No matter how complex the harmony is or what rhythmic things are going on, I always sing the melody, and since I can’t sing a fast line or anything like that, I’m forced to deal with simple structures or simple figures that are very catchy or very melodic, things like that.  And it’s good in a lot of ways.  Only recently I’ve kinda gone into more complex lines, things like that.  But for the most part I think it’s because I sing along with what I do.”

Songs like the a fore mentioned “The Unsung Hero” and more recent tunes like “In This Day” and “Eternal” are examples of Strickland’s gorgeous compositions that are as melodic as they are rhythmically robust with flowing lines, entrancing harmonies and soulful chord changes.  In my talking to a lot of drummers who write, many revealed to me that their tunes are conceptualized at the piano.  Strickland’s tunes, however, begin in the drum seat.  “Every tune has a different way that it comes about but there are a lot of tunes that start out with the drum groove.  I’ll find something that I’m really comfortable with, something that I really love to play, some kind of pattern or some kind of groove, or even just some sort of shape of drums that I really love and then I’ll go to the piano and try to associate some kind of melody or harmony that goes with that and then a tune arrives.  Like there’s a tune that’s really reflective of that.  “New Beginnings” and that song “In This Day”.  That started out as a drum pattern.  That one came from a drum groove, just like a pattern in 5/4 and then, you know, the next thing that came was the bass line and then after that it was the harmony on top of the bass line, and then with all of that going I had a loop going in my computer and then over that I was singing a melodic line over that.”

Strickland’s influences are various, and he has studied under some of jazz music’s most important drummers like Joe Chambers, Lewis Nash, and Jimmy Cobb.  When asked about drummers who are influential from a compositional aspect, Strickland credits an all-important and unsung innovator.  “James Black.  He is awesome.  Everything I’ve heard from James Black so far is just to me, a masterpiece.  It’s truly his own thing, and doesn’t sound like anybody else.  He’s definitely been a big influence.  What drew my attention to him was an album called Whistle Stop by Ellis Marsalis, and most of the music on there I believe is his music, and I was like ‘wow, these are some bad compositions,’ I was like ‘who wrote these tunes?’  And it was James Black. And then I really started investigating him.  He’s awesome.”

Photo by Lafiya Watson

Strickland stands out not only as an extraordinarily gifted composer, but his seamless infusion of strong African elements in his drumming, is something to behold and is becoming one of his most distinctive trademarks.  “One of my strongest influences is Elvin Jones.  And you know, I’m not here to claim that I’m the first person to deal with that kind of thing because it’s been done like many times before, but it still interests me and I think there’s even more…there’s infinite things you can explore in that realm, and one thing that really struck me about Elvin is that it just sounded real earthy and real …it sounded very African when he played.  Like an ensemble of djembes when he took a drum solo.  So I checked out some interviews with Elvin and he talked about African rhythms, so I decided myself to explore that kind of thing.  I listened to a lot of different African music from different regions, but one region that really got to me was the West African drumming.  That really spoke to me, and I just kind of went into it full force.  I’m not really trying to replicate what’s being done because you can’t really replicate that, but just let it come through naturally.”

It is precisely the natural delivery of the African aesthetic that makes it so utterly enjoyable to hear.  Strickland’s organic approach to these roots along with his mastery of the technique and the flawlessness of the integration of traditions is refreshing to the soul and a musical anamnesis of Black music.♦

Strickland has plans to release a double CD that will feature his quintet, as well as the E.J. Strickland project; a more groove-oriented ensemble.

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Coming in August: A Drummer Composers Series!

Photo by Francis Wolff

Every Tuesday in August!

The drum is one of the most integral parts of the jazz ensemble, and is a primary identifier of each era of jazz music.  Yet, the drums are not always fully appreciated or understood in the larger scope of the discussion.  Being a non-melodic instrument, the drums and the drummer are sometimes pushed into a corner of reliable and necessary contribution.  This is not to say that the collective of legendary drum heroes have not been justly celebrated, but drummers generally do not receive the same fanfare, or even public interest  as their melodic counterparts.   But the drum is as important as any other instrument in the jazz ensemble, and this is a great time to highlight that, especially in the context of composing.  Over the last several years, there has been a wave of jazz drummers who are coming to the forefront as bandleaders, recording their own albums, and most interestingly for me, composing their own music.  This year alone brings albums from drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Adam CruzJohnathan Blake, and Otis Brown III to name a few.  In addition, drummers like Kendrick Scott, Eric Harland, Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, E.J. Strickland and others have released wonderful work as band leaders and are all uniquely strong composers.  Alternate Takes is giving you a look inside, and giving a window into understanding their writing process, outlook, influences and signatures.  The series also attempts to edify the audience with discussion of drummers throughout earlier generations who have been influential writers.

Starting August 2nd, and continuing each Tuesday in August, the Alternate Takes Composers Series kicks off with drummer E.J. Strickland.  Look for more interviews from Adam Cruz, Johnathan Blake, Kendrick Scott, and Eric Harland and explore the other side of the rhythm — the writer.

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.

—————————————–

“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB
ride

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

Nicholas Payton on Jazz, Politics and the Courage to be Himself

“If I can’t be myself, what’s the point in saying anything?”

Photo by: Angelika Beener

This is a mantra that trumpeter Nicholas Payton lives by. Outspoken, at times shocking, at times brutally honest, at times perfectly poetic, Payton is as verbally diverse as he is musically.

At just 37 years old, Payton has the depth and breadth of experience and perspective of someone twice his age. A musical prodigy and professional musician for over twenty years, the New Orleans native is the culture, and an authoritative figure in Black music. The GRAMMY® winning musician, with nine albums to boast, is also accomplished on several instruments including piano, bass, and drums; an adeptness he was able to demonstrate on his latest album Bitches, an autobiographical musical memoir of love and heartbreak.

One of jazz music’s most vigorous provocateurs, Payton has unabashedly confronted every elephant in the room when it comes to jazz, particularly as it pertains to race, culture and politics. Payton does not shy away, instead forcing critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike to deal with the uncomfortable yet imperative subjects. If ever there was a figure in jazz today, who voices what others only ponder, it is Nicholas Payton, who has carried on the tradition of some of the most outspoken jazz musicians I can think of: Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. (Must be a trumpeter thing. The trumpet, after all, has always symbolized an awakening, a truth, a call to action.)

“A lot of folks have gotten really upset with me about a lot of stuff I’ve said, and that’s OK,” says Payton. “To me, you wouldn’t be getting upset really, if what I was saying didn’t have any merit, you know, and it’s affirmation to me that I need to continue to speak. I do feel like I have a gift of sorts to provoke thought, and to get people to think and to have a voice out here for what I feel is not really represented in the way that I feel that it should be. To not do that, to me is…I would feel like I’m not being responsible. I would feel a burden of guilt, perhaps, for not doing something about something I feel like I am called to do, so to speak.”

There is arguably no genre of music that reaches more points of contention when it comes to definition than jazz.  Critics, documenters and so-called historians have long used their position and power to inject their theories of what is and isn’t jazz – many times with detrimental consequence to black inventors. Moreover, black jazz musicians have experienced their share of disproportionate exposure, appreciation, and financial support.  Internally, the subject has been strained between musicians, and as the spectrum of jazz musicians broadens, so do the theories of what constitutes as credible. Payton deals with this issue head on, striking a chord with some, and a nerve with others resulting in a divide that is more often than not, a racial one. “To me you’re not furthering the so-called jazz tradition if you don’t address the fundamentals of what that thing is. To me, it has to have to have a blues sensibility… it has to have a groove sensibility. If you obscure both of those and highlight the European elements of it, then to me it ceases to be what’s known as jazz. I mean, it’s fine for what it is, but don’t call it jazz.”

In our ridiculously labeled “post-racial” era, it seems as if when someone brings up the issue of race as a matter of speaking their truth, in turn, they will automatically be looked at as some form of a racist. Currently, it is conveniently almost in poor taste to even bring up race, treated as a cop out to some, others branding one as being angry for acknowledging it. Payton refutes all of these suggestions, and challenges people to deal with what’s on the table. In a generation where an African-American tradition can be almost devoid of African-American participants in various mediums on any given day (read your average jazz blog, magazine or festival or club line-up), we have come face to face with a cultural crisis.  Post young lion era, jazz has become less of itself and more of something else: grunge, rock, country, ambient…

Photo by: Adam Weiss

“I do have a problem in general with just this whole notion that so-called jazz can be whatever you want it to be. Just this whole, like, ‘Oh, you can mix this with Indian music and not have to deal with [the tradition], you can mix it with Eastern European music…’ It’s like, why? Why is that necessary? Those [styles of] music have those traditions.  Most ethnic music… most music [styles] period, have an improvisatory aspect of it. So why is it necessary to take Black music and just kinda make it what you want, and that’s OK?  That’s really what my whole beef is. People have died to play this music. This music is our path to freedom. And now that we are able to enjoy some of the fruits of all the work that our ancestors did, you’re not just gonna take this and make it what you want to make it. Respect our tradition.”

When it comes to the passing on the tradition to Black youth, Payton is not so sure that the mark is being met, and with good reason. In fact, I can attest to this myself. When working on a radio broadcast a few years back, which featured the top five or so college jazz bands in the tri-state area, including Julliard, The New School, and SUNY Purchase, there was not one black musician among them – in ANY band. A blaring signal to me that the institutionalization of jazz may not be in the interest of serving black youth.

“When has an institution ever been a good thing?,” Payton blatantly stated to me. “In anything Black, already the connotation to me is not good.  When does that ever mean anything positive?  Prison is an institution. Institutions are funded by people who have money who want to see a certain thing. Which doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called  “people”, and doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called ‘community.’ It serves some kind of interest. It’s become an institution and that’s so not what the spirit of the music is supposed to be. A big reason why you’re not seeing Black kids matriculate into college level programs is because there aren’t high school level programs… jazz bands after school, etc. If you look at… programs… I don’t want to call them out, but a lot of institutions that have high school outreach. Which ones do they go to? They don’t really go to the ones in the ‘hood. Where are those musicians coming from? The Black church used to be a big source. Music in general is just dying in the black community. There used to be a piano is every house, didn’t matter if you was poor or not. People sang in the choir, they had some kind of musical outlet.”

Being from New Orleans, Payton is as close to the social foundation of jazz music as anyone can get, and he consistently draws clear correlation between the culture and the music, which he believes need to co-exist, unquestionably. “Jazz music has a social function, and I think the music has gotten away from that, and the more it’s sort of gotten in other arenas like the concert hall, and the performing arts centers, and the schools, it became something else. It’s life and you have to feel it, and that intuitive part of it, which is the most important part, it’s all but overlooked. You go to colleges, and you know, all these young cats, and they can read fly shit and they can play all these changes and intricate things, and then you call a medium tempo blues, and they can’t hold it together. That’s a part of the problem.”

Photo by: Ingrid Hertfelder

Photo by Ingrid Hertfelder

Payton’s protective stance has been a hot button for many. His one or two sentence observations and proclamations about jazz on Facebook can easily garner upwards of two hundred spirited response comments – a testament to his belief that while all is calm on the surface, just below is a sea of controversy. And everyone wants in. But while he may have a reputation for being a thorn in your side, depending on where you stand on the issues, he is also a staunch supporter of today’s up and coming jazz musicians, often a humbly silent hero behind significant good deeds in the jazz community. For Payton, it’s just simply the right thing to do.

“I’m not just paying lip service. I’m not just trying to be controversial or drum up controversy. I mean these things. And to me, if you gonna talk the talk, then you gotta walk the walk. I want to support that because you know, I can’t say all of this shit about well ‘such and such doesn’t do for the music’ and not contribute myself. And I feel a lot of musicians are selfish, like if someone don’t give them a CD or if they gotta pay to get in a club, they won’t go, and I don’t do that. If I show up, unless the guy [at the door] recognizes me off the bat, I’ll pay the whatever. Because this is how I make my money. How you gonna expect to get all the time and you don’t want to ever give? I feel like I’ve been blessed and given a lot, and for me just to be able to support cats who I feel have a voice, and who have done some interesting things. I’m not a rich man, I’m not Coca-Cola [laughs] but I’ll give my last dollar to someone I feel is trying to do something, because quality has to be supported. And if I don’t do it then who’s gonna do it? I don’t look to wait for somebody else to do things if I feel I have the power to do it. I really feel like we’re fighting a losing battle here and there’s just not enough people who are willing to do shit for one another in this world, and I just don’t wanna be that kind of person, and I don’t care if I don’t see anyone else doing it, then I’ll die trying to do the things I believe. Otherwise what worth is my life if I’m not consistent in not only what I say, but what I do… how I live? On every level, I wanna be the same person, and exude all the things that I believe. Otherwise my life is for naught.”

Inspired in part by the way jazz musicians are still treated and regarded in our society, Payton believes things need to change on a lot of levels. “That’s why I’ve come to have disdain for the word jazz. Because it automatically just means that you’re gonna be disrespected. It’s OK to treat you any kinda way. It’s OK that there are only two people in the club, it’s OK for them to tell you, ‘There’s a whole menu, but ya’ll can only eat this off the menu.’ It’s OK to not have a dressing room, or a dressing room with no ventilation. At a certain point you have to learn to say no.”

Payton has said “no” to much of what’s going on in the world of jazz today, but never without profound insight.  Whether you agree or doggedly reject where he’s coming from, you will walk away different. He will leave an impression on your brain, and a desire in your heart to at least think about what he’s saying.  his is the most intriguing aspect of Nicholas Payton off of his horn. At the end of the most heated debate, the one sentiment that everyone can agree on is that they respect Nicholas Payton for being who he is.

“But on a broader level there’s room for it all to exist. I’m not gonna hate on anybody’s right to express themselves the way they want to, but I’m certainly gonna say what I have to say about it and because I feel like what I represent is not really talked about, I find myself having to be vocal because no one is really saying it. And I’ve kinda had to accept somewhat being the fall guy for what is actually right. So I’m like, well, cool, if that’s what it has to be… fine. But I know what I can’t do. I can’t just be the kind of person to sit there and let it happen, because to me then I’m part of the problem…that’s not me.”