Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation.  It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon.  Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.  Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, Black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie’s soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse… “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”.  With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz.

“My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad.  It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge.  Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of Black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called ‘Talking All That Jazz‘, which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz.  It was frowned upon.  You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone who’s footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz.  So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done… in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad’s mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart.  “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’,” recalls Muhammad. “[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.  It was sort of quirky.  The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory.  He was pretty advanced in his thinking.  But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time.  It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands.  You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’.  And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as…bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself.  The strong artwork on the cover…and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”
Twenty years worth.

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has.  Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts.  Musically, you definitely come to understand the universalness which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation.  The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane.  A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of Black culture.  On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip.  He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that.  And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’  He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it.  One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate… and next thing you know he shows up with his bass!  And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs].  No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it… just real quick. We were just like, ‘Wow, he’s here,’ like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist… he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on.  Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea.  Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop.  I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late.  In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts.  “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands.  That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now.  I think it lacks a bit of soul.  It lacks warmth.  It lacks something that you can cling to.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent.  It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings.  Even the music is just so cold.  Like, I love chords and chord progressions.  There don’t have to be any vocals there…like jazz music.  It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life…I say that a lot.  And right now, I think people are cold.  They’re going through a lot.  They’re suffering.  We’re suffering…but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection.  When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold.  Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why.  We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless.  So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together.  Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his Voodoomasterpiece), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O'Neal

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period — and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre — but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the…how should I say this… it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things… free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do.  So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it.  And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well.  You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave…there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach…when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know?  I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play.  And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I think it’s so beautiful.”

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two.  “For all those people who were hating on hop hip, you know, the purists…at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around,” asserts Muhammad.  We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form.  So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz.  For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters…they’re haters.”

Gretchen Parlato: On All Things Lost and Found

Photo by Angelika Beener

“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s not about trying to sound like anyone else,” singer Gretchen Parlato said to me on a pleasantly balmy fall afternoon, as we sat under a colossal tree in my neighborhood park.  We talked about life, love and embracing it all, the good and the bad.  When she said those words to me, they resonated particularly deep, as such is true no matter what your career or path may be.  It’s a simple statement, but just like we discerned for ourselves that day, the older we get, the more those sagacious sayings take on real meaning.  For Parlato, her true understanding of those proclamations has been manifested in her latest work, The Lost and Found.

Her most personal and poignant project yet, Parlato has lived a lot more life, and it shows.  The Lost and Found is a story of vulnerability, heartbreak, endurance and revelation.  And as in real life, there is no resolve per se; the goal is not to necessarily make sense of it all, nor is it about wishing away the things that we’d rather not go through.

It’s just life.

“It’s actually braver to be vulnerable and let it all out,” says Parlato about the true meaning of courage, a quality she called upon most during her writing for the album.  “It’s moving through all kinds of emotions and tapping into love and life philosophies and…this process was all very healing.  There are stories behind every song, and yet some people will never know what it is I’m really talking about.  [We can be] kind of hesitant about how much we should expose of ourselves, but I think when it’s done in a productive and artistic way, but still kind of mysterious, people can really resonate with that. Nothing I do is really thrown in your face.”

Which brings us to the second part of Parlato’s initial philosophy; she certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else, her voice as understated and enigmatic as her story-telling phraseology.  There is a quiet intensity which is as captivating and resounding as voices three times her size.  She is a singer who doesn’t proclaim to be someone she’s not.  The flip side is that she doesn’t have to; who she actually is measures up.  “When I was first coming up, my repertoire was standards,” recalls Parlato.  “Swing or Brazilian standards…and so this is like fifteen years ago, or something.  People were like ‘Oh, you should do a standards album,’ and I always resisted that. I felt like I don’t know if I have a lot to say with that.  So from the beginning, I’ve been off the beaten path with that, so no one is assuming that I’m going to fill this traditional singer role.  Maybe that’s because of my natural voice.  I don’t really have this Sarah Vaughan or Dianne Reeves kind of jazz singer voice.  That’s not my calling and I think I always knew that’s not where my voice should be.  And it kind of makes sense to just find what is natural.”

Photo by David Bartolomi

Parlato was afforded priceless space to explicitly discover what her calling indeed is.  Born into a long line of entertainers, the arts were ingenerate and commonplace.  “Everybody…literally everyone in my family is a musician, or in the entertainment industry, or they didn’t pursue art as a career but they’re talented people,” explains Parlato.  “My dad, he’s a bass player and my mom, she played piano and violin, and now she’s a web designer.  And then her dad was a recording engineer; he built a studio in L.A. and recorded Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong], and the Beatles, so it’s in the family.  My mom’s mom had a radio show in the 40s…kind of like a “Hollywood Gossip” kind of thing, and on my dad’s side his dad was a singer and a trumpet player.  So I just grew up with this knowledge that art was a part of everyday.  So it’s also cool to learn early on that it’s a valid profession.  There’s no one saying like, ‘You need to get a real job.’ No one was on anyone’s case about making money; it was always just about finding your passion.  No one was pushing art on anyone either, but my sister and I happened to both go into art.  She’s a graphic designer.  So it was just a nature/nurture thing that’s in my blood, and from birth, it was in me.”

As with any jazz musician, growing up listening to the giants is unquestionably influential and essential, but it was an introduction to the music of Bobby McFerrin which would change Parlato’s understanding of how a jazz musician could be perceived and defined.  “[From] very early on, I’ve never been a traditionalist, as far as what jazz has to be,” says Parlato as she credits this impressively matured discernment to her childhood experiences hearing McFerrin.  His one-man-band performance for The Cosby Show opening theme was particularly impressionable on her young musical pallet.  “I heard Bobby McFerrin use his voice in an instrumental way early on in my life.  Hearing him, I learned we can do anything with our voices. He shifted my definition of a jazz singer.”

The amalgamation of broad-minded perceptions about jazz and a distinctive approach to those perceptions produced an infectious musical styling, which is signally hers.  Sure, there have been other light, airy, velutinous voices that have enchanted us before, but just like Astrud Gilberto, Meredith D’Ambrosio, and Blossom Dearie, Parlato has set herself apart, developing a following that is as vast as her repertoire, and has critics predicting big year-end recognition for her latest album.

Photo by David Bartolomi

The Lost and Found combines jazz, Brazilian and pop aesthetics in one of the most organic ways I’ve ever heard.  Parlato credits co-producer Robert Glasper for helping to realize her vision.  “I thought, Robert and I have already collaborated on arrangements, and the band is like family to him, and he’s gonna understand what we’re trying to do, and he’s gonna enhance that and I wanted to work with him on some arrangements and collaborations, so I said let’s just see if he’s available, and it ended up working magically,” recalls Parlato.  She also enlisted the super-talents of pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott, musicians with whom she has long-standing musical relationships.  The album also includes guest appearances from saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Alan Hampton, who would contribute the warm and folksy “Still”, which featured Hampton on lead vocals and guitar.  “We really did it in two days.  It was a smooth-running, stress-free session just because everyone was really focused and everyone respects and loves each other and they all were there for the same goal of let’s just make beautiful music.  And Robert took on that producer role like a complete professional.  He would say, ‘Let’s get together maybe just with Kendrick and work on beats.'”

Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

It is this mutual musical vastness that has resulted in some of her most surprising and beautiful covers.  Parlato’s nostalgic affinity for 90s R&B unlocked a treasure chest of possibilities for the modern jazz vocalist, when she covered SWV’s hit ballad “Weak” on her sophomore album In a Dream.  Glasper initially thought the idea to cover the song was a joke, but after Parlato put the lyrics to the lush “Glasperized” re-harms that are so distinguishably his, it was no longer a laughing matter.  “Weak” catapulted Parlato into the current soul music scene, introducing her music to a wider, younger, Blacker audience.  On The Lost and Found, Parlato struck gold again with the “Stevie Wonder-esque” Mary J. Blige classic, “All That I Can Say”.  But it was Glasper’s suggestion to cover a more pop-leaning song that would result in the dynamic album opener, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”.

“When Robert suggested ‘Holding Back the Years’, I thought, ‘Hmm…really?’  It’s such a song that everyone knows,” Parlato confesses.  “But he was like, ‘Exactly! Let’s do something that everyone knows, something that everyone will have a connection to.’ So he started playing his “Rob G” chords and immediately transformed the song.”

The song begins with Scott laying a drum groove; it sounds far away and vintage…kind of like when you can hear someone else’s music through their headphones (it’s actually from a cell phone recording).  As it fades up, Eigsti and Hodge join in with a gorgeous progression.  You can hear Glasper’s voice saying ‘Yeah…yep,’ warmly approving and encouraging the vibe.  Parlato is last to come in, interpreting the classic with a breathy angst.  One thing signature to Parlato’s performance throughout is that she’s never singing on top of her band, but always seamlessly intertwined.  It’s no accident.

L-R Dayna Stephens, Alan Hampton, Gretchen Parlato, Kendrick Scott. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato.

“I’ve always enjoyed being a part of an ensemble,” says Parlato.  “When I was really young, there was a time when I was realizing that I could sing, but I was really shy as a child, and it freaked me out because I was like, ‘I don’t like all this attention.  I don’t like being the center of everyone.’  So there’s always been a part of myself that likes to be part of a team, that’s the first thing.  But then I realized being a singer is not about being in front of a band…it’s a band…it’s a team…it’s a joint effort.  It’s sounds and space and interacting, and you’re not alone there, so there was always this sense of we’re in this together and I like the fact that I could use my voice as a texture and not just out front.  And then beyond that, I was getting into trying to play percussion and get into locking into the rhythm of the ensemble too, so I think when you do that you have no choice but to back up and listen.  I can’t just get up there with my shakers and not listening to what the drummer’s doing, you know?  It’s about this whole collective sound, and every single person up there is very important and needed and I like giving people their space to be themselves.”

The album is journey provoking, and the songs flow without a glitch.  Musically, there are few ensembles that can match this one’s cohesion and finesse.  Lyrically, Parlato is so resonant that it’s hard to conceive that the songwriter’s pen has only recently hit the paper.

It was under the tutelage and encouragement of mentor Terence Blanchard that Parlato first tried her hand at writing lyrics.  While a student at the Monk Institute, her fellow classmate and friend Dayna Stephens suggested that the ensemble perform the Wayne Shorter masterpiece “JuJu”.  Blanchard, who served as Artistic Director, working closely with the band, assigned Parlato to the lyrics.  She rose to the occasion with a beautiful proverb-like mantra.  Now, on The Lost and Found, Parlato not only wrote much of the music, she also wrote almost all of the lyrics, including those to the songs contributed by the band.  In addition to “Still”, Parlato wrote the lyrics to the title track, a composition written by Stephens, who previously recorded the gem under his own name on his stunning debut.  She also graced trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s gorgeous “Henya” with hauntingly ethereal poeticism.

Gretchen and Esperanza Spalding. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

Parlato’s growth, like all of ours, is always birthed from treading uncharted waters; rising to an occasion when an opportunity presents itself.  For women, especially in jazz, those opportunities are not always so abundant.  I wanted to ask Parlato about women as we relate to jazz.  Ironically, even as a woman myself, I was careful not to come off sounding cliché, or more importantly, with a patronizing air.  It’s a presentation that I am really sensitive about, as I loathe the often condescending attempts at discourse regarding women’s roles in jazz that often result in the most meaningless and stupid suppositions ever.  Parlato welcomed the topic, almost seemingly waiting to embrace the opportunity to talk about it.  She is at the forefront of jazz singers today, and part of a growing group of female jazz artists at large who are showing women as collaborators.  Working frequently with singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, and a member of Tillery, a vocal trio collaboration with singers Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin, Parlato is making a huge statement about community, through her collective-minded approach with women, despite the all too convenient clichés about women – especially jazz singers – being catty and diva-like.

“Some people are like, ‘Singers are so competitive.’  It’s a game though,” says Parlato dismissing those banal traps.  “If you don’t participate in the game, it doesn’t exist.  I got that from my third grade teacher.  I remember, her response when another student complained, ‘Johnny is always chasing me at recess!’  The teacher said, ‘So, just stop running.’  The whole thing of being competitive in art is really so simple. Just stop. Don’t participate. That’s not acceptable to create a vibe where we’re against each other because this is a community. Think, what if we support each other and join forces, instead? And with the women I’ve worked with there have never been any issues.  With all these women, it is always complete love and let’s just come together and make music. There’s something much bigger and much deeper taking place when I sing with Esperanza, or Becca or Rebecca.  It’s just this woman nurturing thing that is kind of unexplainable, but as a woman you just get it.  It’s this whole enveloped ‘Blanket of Love’, as Rebecca says.  And it’s just very sisterly and completely dedicated.  It’s saying I’ve got your back in life and in music, and no one is trying too hard to prove themselves.  That’s what is needed in the music.”

Agreed.

Amidst all of these silly “Jazz Is Dead” conversations (that are thankfully getting old), there is a surge of modern and daring jazz which is free from the anchors of fulfilling nostalgic expectations, while remaining authentic.  There are excitable artists who are completely themselves, and continuing the momentum of their predecessors.  Parlato is among them with all certainty.

“I think for the most part, people have accepted what I do.  I’m sure there, of course, are those who don’t like it, but I believe there’s room for everyone.  Ultimately, that’s what art is and what it does. It causes a response and reaction. Good or bad, it makes people think and feel something. It triggers, inspires…allows us to reveal.  There’s always an audience for each specific artist, so we’ll be cool, we’re all fine.”

In other words…everyone has their own story to tell.  Right on, Geeps.♦

Gretchen is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Listening Party series this month.  Join her at JALC on Thursday, October 27 at 7:00 PM as she discusses her latest album.  Admission is FREE.  For more details, click here.

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.”

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.

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“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

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III


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.