Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jim Snidero: Jazz Alto Saxophone Revisited


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“For most of the last three decades, the tenor saxophone has dominated the forest of jazz woodwinds, its dark, obviously romantic shadow all but obscuring the once-prominent alto sax. In recent years, though, the alto saxophone's singular, sexy intensity has again gained fashion, re-establishing its vital niche in the jazz environment. You can thank guys like Jim Snidero for helping make it so.”
- Neil Tesser, Jazz writer/critic

“I want to be as creative as possible.  But I don’t think you ever can exhaust straight-ahead music. There are so many things that you can do just by changing a few notes, by changing phrasing, by changing octaves. I sense something missing in the shape of a line and the time feel of cats who haven’t gotten deeply into Bird and bebop. Basically, I want my music not to sound straight-ahead but still have that bebop attitude—a bit of abstraction and a bit of grease.”
- Jim Snidero

“he takes this music for quartet and quintet beyond the jam session mentality that assures so many small-group sessions of only momentary interest. In an area of music that is underused—in fact, largely undiscovered—by most jazz artists, he invests his work with dynamics” as well as “harmonic shape and texture.”
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz author, writer, critic


Whenever I listen to the music of alto saxophonist Jim Snidero, it always makes me wonder why I don’t do so more often.

It’s all there: the bop tradition of Bird, Cannonball and Stitt; some freer post bop influences; gobs of technique; impressive improvisation ideas; an irrepressible sense of swing.

What makes the music of Jim Snidero even more impressive is that he didn’t begin his career in Jazz until the early 1980s.

Given the relative paucity of the US Jazz scene at that time, it’s amazing that he found the music at all, let alone his own direction in it.

Here’s a quick synopsis of Jim’s background and credentials as excerpted from the Concord Music website:

“A teenage student of Phil Woods and a product of the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton, Snidero received postgraduate training with organist Jack McDuff in 1982-83. He side-manned from 1983 to 2003 with the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band, played with Eddie Palmieri from 1994 to 1997 and with the Mingus Orchestra from 1999 to 2001, and has appeared as a sideman on albums by pianists David Hazeltine and Mike LeDonne [who also plays Hammond B-3 Organ], tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, and trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and Brian Lynch. Since the late Eighties, he’s led numerous ensembles featuring the top musicians of his peer group, and toured them extensively in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.”

Paralleling Jim education and work experience is the fact that Jim continues to grow and develop his own, personal vision and sound as a Jazz artist.

Or as Neil Tesser explains it:

“More to the point, Snidero has identified, studied, and even elaborated upon the classic virtues of his instrument. These include a fierce rhythmic authority, which dovetails with the instrument's natural bite (and without which the alto can sound gray and fallen), and the ability to really fill the horn: to "sing out," whether it be through a single note or a flurry of wildly complicated improvisation. But it all starts with the sound.


Perhaps no element in jazz strikes with the immediacy of sound; but in the case of the alto sax — the most "vocal" of saxophones, capable of an opera singer's proverbial "pear-shaped tones" — it takes on greater importance still. Such concerns are not lost on Snidero, who says that in the last few years, "I've been striving most to define my style and my sound. I think I do have my own sound, and I'm just trying to get closer to it; I want it to be more flexible, to have more colors, to be more characteristic, to make it both bigger and more focused. Sound has always been really important to me."

Another great feature of Jim Snidero’s music is that one gets to hear it against a backdrop of some of the best, young musicians on the New York City Jazz scene. Of the 16 recordings that he has issued to date under his own name, Jim is joined by the likes of trumpeters Tom Harrell, Brian Lynch and Joe Magnarelli, trombonist Conrad Herwig, alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Walt Weiskopf, guitarist Paul Bollenback, pianists Andy LaVerne, Renee Rosnes, Benny Green, David Hazeltine, Marc Copeland, Mulgrew Miller, and Mike LeDonne [who also plays Hammond B-3 organ on one date], bassists Peter Washington, Dennis Irwin, Steve LaSpina and Paul Gill and drummers Jeff Hirshfield, Kenny Washington, Tony Reedus, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff “Tain” Watts and McClenty Hunter.

What a showcase of talent. Is it any wonder that Jim Snidero makes such great music? As Jazz columnist Ted Panken has observed: “Music is a social medium, and the palpable ensemble feel, the sense of co-equal voices transmuting notes and tones into four-way conversation, is directly attributable to the musician­ship and interpersonal chemistry of Snidero's band mates,  "These guys can play bebop, but each one adds something that's fresh but still hip," Snidero says.

Snidero sums up his approach to music best in his interview with Ted when he says:

"I grew up listening to a standard of excellence, be it Coltrane. Rollins, Bird, Joe Henderson. Cannonball or even as a kid, Phil Woods and Dave Leibman. It's an incredible achievement to play an instrument like that, and the music itself is so warm and spiritual. When you hear their tone, it's perfected and compete—it isn't missing any colors or nuance, it's expressive, it has a human quality. I'm not saying my sound is on that level, but I value those things. My goal, whether I'm playing inside or outside, slow or fast, Latin or swing, is to have those qualities in my playing, especially when I'm playing my own music. If it has a spiritual quality and it's very refined, then I think people get into it no matter what."

All of these qualities are on exhibit in the following video tribute to Jim. The tune is his original composition Enforcement which is based on the chord progression to Kurt Weill's Speak Low. Joining him are Brian Lynch, trumpet, Benny Green, piano, Peter Washington, bass and Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Brian Lynch - Peer Pressure [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In his incisive and informative insert notes for Brian Lynch's Peer Pressure, a Criss Cross recording [1029 CD], Mike Hennessy offers up the following rhetorical question – “Where are the Gillespies, Parkers, Rollinses, Getzes, J.J. Johnsons and Miles Davieses of the new Jazz generation? [To which he answers] “There aren’t any.”

Hennessy goes on to explain that the implication of this question and answer is “… intended to imply that the general level of [Jazz] artistry and creativity today is in a state of decline.”

To this charge, Hennessy offers two pertinent quotations, taken appropriately from members of today’s Jazz generation.

The first is from trumpeter Terence Blanchard: “The real problem is that people keep looking for new Dizzys, Birds and Tranes instead of judging the new generation of musicians on their own terms and evaluating their music objectively.  Why should they be expected to be clones of other musicians?”

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Blanchard’s partner at the time of this writing continues the sentiment by adding: “The general standard of playing among today’s young Jazz musicians is getting higher and higher all the time.”

Any doubt about the merit contained in these assertions by Blanchard and Harrison is further swept away by listening to the playing of the musicians that trumpeter Brian Lynch has assembled on Peer Pressure

After stints with the Horace Silver Quintet, the Mel Lewis big band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Peer Pressure was the first album that trumpeter Brian recorded under his own name.  On it, he is ably assisted by tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore, his front-line mate with Horace’s quintet, and alto saxophonist Jim Snidero, also a member of Toshiko’s big band.

The cookin’ rhythm section is made-up of Kirk Lightsey on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Victor Lewis on drums who was to spend most of the decade of the 1980s as Stan Getz’s drummer.

In evidence throughout the seven tracks on this album are the general high standards which Harrison uses to characterize the players on today’s Jazz scene.

A great deal of thought and care has gone into this recording from the standpoint of the selection of tunes and their sequence, the seeking out of Rudy van Gelder to engineer the recording in his inimitable style which makes the listener feel enveloped by the sound of the music, and especially, the high quality that went into the crafting of the solos.

Every one is listening to everyone else; adding something to what the soloist is saying through the use of background riffs and dynamics, pulsating bass lines, piano “comping” that’s just right and just enough, with the whole thing encapsulated by Lewis’ beautiful time-keeping and wonderful “kicks” and “licks.”

All of these qualities are discernible in the opening track of the CD; the rarely heard Thomasville, a looping blues by the trumpeter Tommy Turrentine that gives everyone a chance to get loose at a relaxed tempo that includes all three horn players trading four’s with Victor before Victor takes his own 12-bar solo.

This is followed by Park Avenue Petite another rarely heard tune, although this one is by Benny Golson one of modern Jazz’s prolific composers, and it becomes a beautifully played ballad feature for Lynch.

Sandwiched in between Peer Pressure and Change of Plan, two originals by Lynch, is a superb version of Horace Silver’s The Outlaw.

This composition is vintage Horace with its twists and turns containing all sorts of surprises due to its unusual structural form.  Like Ecaroh, it employs both 4/4 straight-ahead and Latin-inflected rhythmic passages, but The Outlaw does so within an asymmetric construction that employs two sections of thirteen [13] bars divided into seven [7] measures of straight-ahead 4/4 and six [6] of Latin rhythms, a ten [10] bar 4/4 section which acts as a bridge followed by a sixteen [16] bar Latin vamp [or Latin pedal] with a two [2] break that leads into the next solo.

It’s a masterpiece whose seemingly disparate parts generate a powerful “tension and release” effect that will leave you wanting to listen to this sprightly bit of musical magic over and over again.

While we all miss the great musicians who created modern Jazz, the music on this recording is an example that their legacy of excellence in musicianship, creativity and improvisation lives on and that the music is in good hands.

Treat yourself – these guys can PLAY!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bill Evans - Piano Player

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Sooner or later, it seemed that many of the major Jazz artists of the 2nd half of the 20th century recorded for Columbia.

Some, like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Erroll Garner had extensive catalogues and were with the label for many years while others like Mulligan, Monk and Mingus had only the occasional fling with the label.

Pianist Bill Evans falls into the later category of short-lived stays having spent the majority of his career with Riverside and Verve before moving onto Milestone and Warner Brothers Records later in his career until his death in 1980.

Bill only did two recordings for Columbia: The Bill Evans Album [CK 64963] and Bill Evans - Piano Player [CK 65361] from which this piece derives it names.  The latter, one of the lesser known Evans recordings, was advertised by Sony Music Entertainment when it released the album on CD in 1998 as follows:

Assembled by Evans' veteran producer, multi-Grammy winner. Orrin Keepnews, and with new liner notes by Eddie Gomez, BILL EVANS: PIANO PLAYER will provide ample cause for celebration among his many fans the world over. It's also a first-rate introduction to an artist who continually gains new adherents.

To expand a bit on the last sentence from the Sony media release, it could reasonably be argued, as Orrin Keepnews his first producer at Riverside Records has stated: “that Bill Evans is the most widely influential of all improvising pianists. Certainly he's the most often imitated. Only Bud Powell, the fountainhead of bebop piano (and a major influence on Evans) comparably affected the work of his fellow pianists.

Almost two decades after his death (in 1980 at 51), a small army that numbers the brilliant likes of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett has derived some measure of their keyboard approach from Evans' lyrical conception.

At the heart of his crepuscular, introspective style was The Sound —or, more accurately, the touch (and the way he used the piano's sustain pedals) that produced the indelible, crystalline sound.

For sheer beauty, it is without equal. And jazz players on all instruments have been to one degree or another shaped, or at the very least, profoundly moved, by the inner voicings of his pellucid chords, his free, but in no way cacophonous rhythmic sense, and his deep-song balladry.”

However. Evans' ability to swing was at one time questioned in some quarters. This is, of course, absurd, but if there's anyone left who doubts his proficiency at propelling the beat, proceed to All About Rosie, the introductory track on the CD.

One of eight previously unreleased numbers in this collection, All About Rosie  from 1957 is an orchestral suite by composer George Russell, one of modern music's keenest minds. In the third section. Evans' right hand unfurls lines that make for a rhythmically impelling, tension-building masterpiece.

Russell’s piece attracted a good deal of attention, both as performed at an early Third Stream [formed by combining Classical Music with Jazz] concert organized by Gunther Schuller at Brandeis University in Boston and through an LP recreation of the event - The Birth of Third Stream [Columbia Legacy CK 64929].

Its highlight was a remarkable Evans solo in the composition’s third movement. This is not that solo, because the performance here is from an earlier take, recorded ten days earlier and never previously issued. I have no idea what dissatisfaction with ensemble playing in this or other movements led someone to record again: I do know that this particular Evans solo is a masterpiece that was housed in the vaults until Orrin Keepnews uncovered it and included it in Bill Evans - Piano Player [CK 65361].

This set also captures Evans' poetic ballad-playing on "My Funny Valentine"— recorded live in 1958 when he was near the end of a nine-month stay with the great Miles Davis sextet—as well as two standout tracks from vibist Dave Pike's long-deleted 1961 LP, PIKE'S PEAK.

But the headline news is the six November, 1970, duets (featuring four Evans originals) with virtuoso bassist Eddie Gomez, who's 11 years in closely knit support of the pianist makes him Evans' collaborator of longest standing.  These performances were recorded six months before Evans began a brief association with Columbia. The final exultant selection, "Fun Ride" (also by the pianist), adds longtime drummer Marty Morrell and is from one of the dates that yielded The Bill Evans Album [CK 64963].

Here are some comments from bassist Eddie Gomez from the insert notes to Bill Evans - Piano Player [CK 65361] about the magic of working with Bill Evans after which you’ll find a video that features Bill stunning solo on All About Rosie [3rd Section].

“Bill's music is profoundly expressive. It is passionate, intellectual, and without pretense. Eleven years with his trio afforded me the opportunity to perform, record, travel, and most importantly learn. My development as an artist is largely due to his encouragement, support, and patience. He instilled confidence in me, while at the same time urging me to search for my own voice and for new ways to make the music vital and creative. And Bill believed that repertoire, both new and old, would organically flourish in repeated live performance. In fact, there were precious few rehearsals, even before recording sessions. …

When Bill passed away late in 1980, it was clear that all of us in the jazz world had sustained a huge loss. I was shocked and saddened; in my heart I had always felt that some day there would be a reunion concert. Had I been able to look into a crystal ball and foresee his death, perhaps I might have stayed in the trio for a longer period. I still dream about one more set with Bill. He closes his eyes, turns his head to one side, and every heartfelt note seems etched and bathed in gold. How I miss that sound.”







Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Conversation About Jazz With Bill Kirchner

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Over the years, I learned a great deal about Jazz from Bill Kirchner. Not first-hand, mind you, as I live on the Left Coast and he lives on the other one. So we can’t just get together for an espresso or a brewski or a glass of vino while Bill expounds on his unique understanding of Jazz.

No, I’ve had to learn from Bill vicariously - through listening to his recordings, reading his many writings about the music, and via the occasional correspondences we’ve exchanged over the years. The latter are mostly to do with requests for copyright permissions which Bill, being the heckuva nice guy that he is, always grants.

Phone calls and video conferencing would be good, but he’s a busy guy and I’m more than a bit aurally challenged these days so that approach has its limitations.

What to do; what to do?

And then I came across the following from - “Writing About People: The Interview” in William Zinnsser’s On Writing Well:

“Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does — in his own words.

His own words will always be better than your words, even if you are the most elegant stylist in the land. They carry the inflection of his speaking voice and the idiosyncrasies of how he puts a sentence together. They contain the regionalisms of his conversation and the lingo of his trade. They convey his enthusiasms. This is a person talking to the reader directly, not through the filter of a writer. As soon as a writer steps in, everyone else's experience becomes secondhand.

Therefore, learn how to conduct an interview.”

And, to take it a step further, how about conducting an interview that essentially conducts itself by creating a series of questions that attach to an email, contacting Bill and asking if he would be willing to write responses?

No pressure. No time constraints. No impediments.

Bill takes his time and constructs thoughtful and instructive responses that make my pedestrian questions sound better than they are and - Viola! - I’m learning more about Jazz from Bill Kirchner.

So that’s what I did and the following is what he shared in return - all 13 pages of it!

Did I mention that Bill is a heckuva nice guy?

© -Steven Cerra and Bill Kirchner, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

A Conversation About Jazz with Bill Kirchner

How and when did music first come into your life?  
Probably around the age of five—which would have been 1958.  There were a number of TV cop shows that featured modern jazz scores, beginning with Peter Gunn.  Most of them only lasted a season or two:  Mr. Lucky, Johnny Staccato, Richard Diamond, Dan Raven, Checkmate, etc.  But all of them had scores by Henry Mancini, Pete Rugolo, John Williams, and others.  They used sounds that intrigued me; I later discovered that these sounds were called “harmonies.”

What are your earliest recollections of Jazz?  
Again, probably the Peter Gunn series, which was popular beginning in the fall of 1958.  It had an innovative jazz score by Henry Mancini that was very influential, and they even showed real jazz musicians like Victor Feldman and Shorty Rogers on camera.  (You can see many of these episodes today on YouTube.)

By the way, Peter Gunn also was my introduction to the concept of sex. Even at the tender age of five, I understood that Lola Albright, who played Peter Gunn’s singer-girlfriend, was stunning. She died only this year at age 92.

What made you decide to become a Jazz musician?  
On June 19, 1965, I attended the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival with my parents.  The festival was produced by George Wein and lasted for three days; we went on a Saturday night.  The lineup that evening included the Walt Harper Quintet, a local group; Earl Hines with a trio; Carmen McRae with the Norman Simmons Trio; the Stan Getz Quartet with Gary Burton, Steve Swallow, and probably Roy Haynes; the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones; and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

I had never heard Coltrane before, and he left my parents and me baffled; this was nine days before he recorded Ascension.  But we hung in for Duke’s band at the end.  Overall, this was a mind-boggling experience for a kid who was just short of twelve years old.  From then on, I somehow knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Many conversations about Jazz invariably turn to “impressions” and “favorites.” Why do you think this is the case?
I’m not quite sure what you mean.  In my case, I’m a devout eclectic, so I’ve been affected musically by many, many people.  To narrow these to a handful would be impossible and pointless.

Okay, so let’s turn to “impressions”; who were the Jazz musicians who first impressed you and why?
All of the aforementioned.  Most of all Duke Ellington, whose band I first heard on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was ten. The sound of that saxophone section playing “Satin Doll” with those voicings lingered in my head for weeks thereafter.

Staying with your impressions for a while, what comes to mind when I mention the following Jazz musicians:

Louis Armstrong
The father of “vernacular music,” which was made possible by the microphone.  Anyone with any kind of contemporary rhythmic concept—be they singer, instrumentalist, or composer-arranger—owes a debt to Armstrong.  By the way, my favorite Armstrong performance, both playing and singing, is his 1957 recording of “You Go To My Head” with Oscar Peterson. If you want to understand where Miles Davis came from, and why Armstrong is still relevant today, listen to this.  I often play it for students, and many of them find it a life-changing record.

Duke Ellington
The most important and innovative name in jazz composing and arranging. Though I’m puzzled by people who put him in competition with composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Copland. Ellington was a unique voice, and he could do things that those others could not do, but they could likewise do things that he could not do.  So what’s the point of such comparisons?  Music is not the National Football League.  More to the point, I’m one of a zillion jazz composer-arrangers who have been deeply affected by his work (and Billy Strayhorn’s).

Coleman Hawkins
The father of jazz tenor saxophone, and along with Art Tatum, the first major jazz soloist for whom harmony was the primary consideration.  There would not have been a Don Byas, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and many others as we know them without Hawkins.  Though all of those players had other influences as well—most notably Tatum and/or Lester Young.

Lester Young
The father of modern linear thinking in jazz.  Including an even-eighth-note concept that he probably got from Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer and that was expanded upon by Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, as well as over-the-bar phrasing that Christian and Parker likewise embraced. There probably has never been a more emotionally naked jazz soloist than Lester; his fondness for singers, especially Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, reflects this. Too bad that Sinatra and Lester never did an album together. (Or for that matter, Sinatra and Miles Davis.)

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker
The yin and yang of bebop.  Or as Dizzy called Bird, “the other half of my heartbeat.”  Bird was bebop’s most inspired and inspiring voice, and Dizzy was its master theoretician, teacher, and organizer; he had a self-discipline that Bird lacked.  I think that both Dizzy and Miles reached their peaks as players in their early 40s: circa 1957-62 and circa 1966-71, respectively.  Bird of course died young because of his excesses, so it’s impossible to know how or even if he would have developed further.

Stan Getz
A master player who has been more of an influence than he’s often been credited.  As Coltrane said, “We’d all sound like that if we could.”
My favorite Getz album is Sweet Rain from 1967, with Chick Corea, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate—Getz at his most challenged and inspired.  Though Focus, with Eddie Sauter’s masterly string writing, is a close second.

Lest I forget, Getz the sophisticated lyricist was also capable of the straight-ahead, stomping virtuosity of the 1955 “S-H-I-N-E.”  As with Sweet Rain and Focus, this too is one of his most acknowledged recorded masterpieces.  Getz’s virtuosity was a multifaceted one.

John Coltrane
As I said, I first heard Coltrane when I was very young, but it took me many years to fully appreciate him. One of the most underappreciated things about him was his encyclopedic knowledge of the American Popular Song.  As a result, he and Red Garland could walk into those 1957-58 Prestige record dates unprepared and effortlessly record many obscure tunes. No matter how “out” his music got later on, Coltrane retained a basic, grounding lyricism that was missing in many of his less-capable imitators.  Not to mention his deep harmonic knowledge and astounding technical virtuosity.

Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaborations
One of the greatest partnerships in twentieth-century music—matched only by Ellington/Strayhorn and Sinatra/Nelson Riddle.  Miles was Gil’s greatest interpreter, and Gil could frame and inspire Miles as no one else could.  (When Miles died, he and Johnny Mandel were discussing doing an orchestral project.  Given the success of Mandel’s Here’s To Life album with Shirley Horn—which Miles was scheduled to have played on—one can only lament that Miles and Mandel never got together.)

Gil was a master colorist, and part of the thrill of looking at his autograph scores is seeing some of the unconventional sonorities he came up with. (One chart for Porgy and Bess had three bass clarinets in both unison and harmony; they sounded like a grainy cello section.) But he was more than just a colorist. Compare his 1956 five-horn chart on Blues for Pablo for Hal McKusick with the much larger version of Blues for Pablo on the Miles Ahead album a year later.  There’s a structural and harmonic strength in both versions that makes the size of the bands irrelevant.

Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain all belong in any serious jazz record collection; even the lesser Quiet Nights, a relative failure, has its charms.  Gil continued to do uncredited work on Miles’ small-group albums for another two decades.  Given the value of the Miles and Gil projects and Gil’s best albums as a leader and for others, Evans deserves his reputation as jazz’s finest orchestrator after Ellington and Strayhorn. That reputation is undiminished today despite his relatively small output.  

Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and the Concert Jazz Band
Mulligan’s 13-piece CJB began in 1960, went full-steam for a little over a year, then lasted part-time until petering out at the end of 1964. Brookmeyer was its “hirer and firer,” chief arranger, and (along with Mulligan) principal soloist.  Other contributors to its book were Al Cohn, Bill Holman, the young newcomer Gary McFarland, Johnny Carisi, George Russell, and (only occasionally) Mulligan.

The CJB was a successful attempt at preserving the airiness of Mulligan’s small groups while maintaining the punch and colors of a big band.  Brookmeyer, Mel Lewis, and Thad Jones—all CJB sidemen—eventually got impatient with Mulligan’s musical conservatism; Jones called it a “velvet wall.”  In the later Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, they sought to expand the possibilities of the big band/small band dichotomy.

On Mulligan’s own terms, though, the CJB was a remarkable ensemble unlike any other.  In a sense, it was an expansion of the Red Norvo and Claude Thornhill bands of the Swing Era.  All three bands excelled in a kind of quiet ecstasy built around relatively subdued instruments: the xylophone (Norvo), French horns and clarinets (Thornhill), and a single clarinet lead and Mulligan’s light baritone (CJB).

The pleasures of the CJB’s music are real and considerable, but as with Mulligan’s “pianoless” small groups, I find that I need to wear a different set of ears for it.  This music is the antithesis of the simple, roaring bluesiness of Count Basie or the raw physicality of Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich.  Sometimes that’s just fine, sometimes not.  “Velvet wall” indeed!

Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band
This is a band that has grown on me over the past 45 years.  It existed in Europe in the 1960s and was half top European players and half American expatriates.  It was co-led by the pioneer bebop drummer Kenny Clarke and the Belgian pianist-composer-arranger Francy Boland.  Boland was the band’s principal writer.

The Clarke-Boland band in its heyday was often compared with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, but I don’t believe that the comparison holds up too well.  Both bands were brimming with jazz virtuosi, but I generally don’t find Boland’s writing nearly as satisfying as Jones’s (and Bob Brookmeyer’s).  Boland’s writing was always competent, but it seldom had the point of view or personality that Jones’s and Brookmeyer’s had.  With Thad and Bob, one often got the sense of writers trying to do new things within older traditions.  I seldom get that from Boland.  (A notable exception: the CBBB’s 1971 album Change of Scenes with Stan Getz as guest soloist.  I facetiously call this recording “Francy Boland on acid.”)

Another crucial difference:  the Jones-Lewis band had Thad out front as soloist-conductor, whereas with the CBBB, both co-leaders remained in the rhythm section.  Jones was an inspiring conductor and a natural-assed bandleader, whereas both Clarke and Boland were seemingly reserved men devoid of any showmanship.  Despite the CBBB’s collective excellence, there was no one overtly in charge.  Interestingly, the band in 1967 permanently added Kenny Clare as a second drummer.  It was never clear why this was done, though one wonders if the added visual dimension had something to do with it.

Here’s my favorite video of the CBBB:  a 1970 concert with Dizzy Gillespie as guest soloist:  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dizzy+gillespie+clarke-boland
With Dizzy out front, the band instantly had a dimension it usually lacked:  a soloist-frontman who was one of jazz’s foremost showmen.  It’s great fun to watch the band respond to Dizzy, and vice versa.

Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra
The most important large jazz band of the past half-century.  More than anyone else, Thad Jones gave conventional big-band writing (i.e., 8 brass, 5 saxophones-with-doubles, rhythm) a new lease on life.  And he and Mel changed listeners’ expectations of a big band. With Jones-Lewis, the band could shift effortlessly from complex ensembles to the looseness and hipness of the best small groups.  Big bands and composer-arrangers all over the world took notice.

I first heard Bob Brookmeyer’s “ABC Blues” (from the first Jones-Lewis album) when I was 13 years old.  Though I had already heard Ellington, Basie, Harry James, Buddy Rich, and Glenn Miller, I had never heard a big band like this, and it hit me hard.  I devoured all of the available Jones-Lewis albums when I was in high school, and when I went to New York to attend college, Monday nights at the Village Vanguard became a major part of my musical education.  Watching Thad conducting that band was an experience I’ll never forget.  Later, I got to know both Thad and Mel, and still later I subbed in the saxophone section of Mel’s band (after Thad’s departure in 1979) in the 1980s.

Given all this, I’ve been dismayed in recent years that several jazz-history texts have paid little or no attention to the Jones-Lewis band and its successors, the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and (since Mel’s death in 1990) the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.  This to me is inexcusable.  So I’m gratified to see the newly-published book 50 Years at the Village Vanguard: Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.  I hope that this book will shine a needed light on one of the seminal ensembles in jazz history.  

What brought about your interest in Jazz composition – arranging - orchestrating? How did you go about acquiring these skills?  Who were/are some of your greatest influences in these areas?
As I’ve said, from the age of five I heard sounds that captivated my ears—sounds that I later learned were polychords and contemporary harmonies.  Jazz and contemporary classical music had more of those sounds than did any other musics—certainly more than rock, country, and folk musics.  So my tastes as a listener were set, and when I was in high school, I was lucky to have a hip band director named Sam D’Angelo.  We had a “stage band,” as they were then called euphemistically, and for that band I wrote my first charts and played my first jazz solos.

As a composer-arranger, I’ve been most influenced by writers such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Gary McFarland, Clare Fischer, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Rod Levitt, Mike Abene, Mike Gibbs, and others.  When I lived in Washington, D.C. from 1975 to 1980, I was extremely fortunate to work for several years with a big band led by Mike Crotty, who at the time was staff arranger for the USAF Airmen of Note.  Crotty was and is an undersung heavyweight; I tell people that I went to the University of Mike Crotty.  Later, I got a National Endowment jazz grant and studied with Rayburn Wright, who was head of the Jazz and Film-Scoring Department at the Eastman School of Music.  So with Crotty, Wright, and later Brookmeyer and Manny Albam at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop in New York, I had four of the best jazz composing-arranging teachers on the planet.

When I moved back to New York in 1980, I knew that however I was going to make a living as a musician, I needed my own band to write for.  That led to forming my Nonet, which I had for 21 years.  There’s nothing like having some of the world’s best jazz musicians to write for to kick your derrière.  We eventually did five albums:  What It Is To Be Frank and Infant Eyes (both LPs for Sea Breeze), and Trance Dance (a two-CD set for A-Records), One Starry Night, and Lifeline (both CDs for Jazzheads).

I try to pass along what I’ve learned.  I’ve taught advanced jazz composing-arranging (and numerous other courses) at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York for 26 years, and a “Music of Duke Ellington” course at Manhattan School of Music for 14 years.

One of my proudest achievements as a record producer was a 5-CD set for the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra.  It’s a collection of post-Swing Era big band recordings from 1941 to 1991.  Smithsonian Recordings went out of business almost twenty years ago, but you can still find copies of the boxed set online.

When you form a rhythm section, what do you look for in a pianist; a bassist; a drummer. If you could substitute a guitarist for a pianist in this rhythm section would you be inclined to do so? Or would you prefer to have both and if so why and if not why?
In all cases, I look for players who know how to LISTEN—to each other and to the rest of the ensemble.  And hook up rhythmically.  Also, their reading skills need to be at least adequate, though I’ll take a superior listener with a hip time feel over a great reader any day.

I don’t know any guitarist who can play the harmonies generated by my favorite pianists.  So there would be few instances where I would prefer guitar to piano in a rhythm section.  Having both piano and guitar tends to be too cluttered unless the roles of each are carefully defined.  If you have a guitarist who reads single lines fluently (Barry Galbraith was legendary for that), having guitar doubling lines with sections in a big band is a great color.

What instruments make up your current Nonet and why did you decide on this format for your regular working group?
  1. 2) Two trumpets (with mutes) doubling flugelhorns
  1. Bass trombone (with mutes)
  2. Reed I:  soprano and alto saxophones, flute, alto flute, clarinet, piccolo
  3. Reed II:  tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet
  4. Reed III:  baritone saxophone (or bassoon), bass clarinet, flute
  5. Piano and synthesizer
  6. Acoustic and electric basses
  7. Drums

Having two trumpets and a bass trombone, with three reeds as inner        voices, allows for a quasi-big-band sound when desired. Having the bass trombone on the bottom is a hipper, fatter sound than baritone saxophone.  Also, extensive woodwind doubling and muted brass give a huge variety of coloristic possibilities.

Switching to the subject of “favorites:”
What are some of your favorite books about Jazz?
Just a few, in no particular order:
Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition
Max Harrison, A Jazz Retrospect
Larry Kart, Jazz In Search of Itself
Walter van de Leur, Something To Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn
Keith Waters, The Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68
Rayburn Wright, Inside the Score
Dan Morgenstern, Living with Jazz
Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords
Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz
Gene Lees, Meet Me at Jim & Andy’s

What are some of your favorite Jazz recordings?
Again, just a few, in no particular order:
Duke Ellington, The Far East Suite
Miles Davis, Miles Ahead
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles
Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil
Herbie Hancock, The Prisoner
Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Monday Night
Denny Zeitlin, Zeitgeist
Kenny Wheeler, Gnu High
Sarah Vaughan, Sassy Swings Again
Lester Young Trio
Shirley Horn, Here’s to Life
Joe Henderson in Japan
Steve Kuhn-Gary McFarland, The October Suite
Sonny Rollins, Our Man in Jazz
Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
The Lee Konitz Duets

Who are your favorite big band arrangers?
I think that I’ve already answered that, more or less.

Who are your favorite Jazz vocalists?
Among the deceased, Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horn top my list.  I won’t mention anyone living for fear of making enemies among those I omit. One living exception, though, is a singer-pianist who I’m sure no one will begrudge me:  Andy Bey.  

Who among current Jazz musicians do you enjoy listening to?
All of my former and current students who have done well.  By dumb luck, I’ve managed since 1991 to have had many of the best jazz musicians under current age 46 as students.  I’ve had well over 1000 (mostly classroom) students at this point.

How did you become involved in Jazz education?  
In 1979, arranger Bill Potts got me my first college-teaching gig at Montgomery Community College in Maryland.  And I started doing clinics elsewhere. In 1991, I was hired to teach at The New School, and the rest has mushroomed from there.  

What classes have you taught and/or are you currently teaching and where?
At the risk of appearing overly academic, here’s from my resumé:

The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music

Adjunct Faculty 1991-present (all undergraduate students).  Classes include:
Advanced Composing/Arranging (1991-present)
Jazz History (1996-present)
Jazz & Ballet (2000-01)
Composers Forum (2001-02)
Composition Styles (2002-05)
Improvisation Ensembles (2006-07, 2014-present)
Contemporary Jazz & Its Exponents (2010, 2013-14)  
Music of Bill Evans (2013)
Manhattan School of Music
Adjunct Faculty 2004-present (undergraduate and graduate students).
Music of Duke Ellington (2004-present), Music of Miles Davis (2016-present)

New Jersey City University

Adjunct Faculty 2002-2015
Jazz History (Master’s Program); Composition Styles (Master’s Program)
Rutgers University/Newark
Guest Lecturer of Graduate Seminars, 2002-03, 2006: Jazz-Research Master’s Program

I’ve also done clinics, school concerts, and artist-in-residences all over the world.

What brought about your selection as the editor of the Oxford Companion to Jazz?
In 1996, Dan Morgenstern recommended me to Sheldon Meyer, a longtime editor at Oxford University Press who was responsible for commissioning many of their jazz books.  Sheldon wanted to do a jazz volume for their “Companion” series and asked me to edit it.  After the initial shock wore off, I accepted and set off on a four-year odyssey: 60 articles by 59 writers.

How did you go about identifying who would author the individual chapters in the Oxford Companion to Jazz?
First I had to decide on the nature of the articles themselves, then it was a matter of deciding who would do the best job on each piece. In a way, it was similar to leading a band and writing music for it and deciding who would be the best soloists for each piece.  So the whole thing came rather naturally to me.

Then I got on the phone and made offers to the writers. Very few turned me down, though a few ended up bailing out later on and needed to be replaced.  But for the most part, people delivered the goods for me and on a high level, though not always on deadline.  I earned my honorary Ph.D in psychology doing this book.  It was quite an experience.

Given your special skills as a Jazz musician who can write, over the years you’ve written numerous liner and booklet notes to various recordings. Which of these are among your favorites and why?
I guess that my “magnum opus” was a 40,000-word booklet for Big Band Renaissance: The Evolution of the Jazz Orchestra.  I spent three years on that project, co-producing it and picking five CDs worth of music.  The booklet won a NAIRD “Indie” award for “Best Liner Notes.”

Then there were the booklet notes for Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.  George Avakian, Bob Belden, Phil Schaap, and I won a Grammy for those.

I’m equally proud, however, of the extensive booklet notes I did for Mosaic for their Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band boxed sets.  Needless to say, both of those projects were close to my heart, and I put in a lot of effort to ensure that they were done right.

Overall, I’ve done close to sixty liner note and booklet projects over the years, mostly for reissues but occasionally for new releases. For about a decade, there was a lot of work, but with the decline of the record business and CD sales, the demand for liner notes has slowed down to a trickle.

If you could put on an imaginary 3-Day Jazz Festival in NYC, how would you structure it and whom would you invite to perform?
Let’s just say that I would include both veterans and up-and-comers.
Actually, I would be more interested in focusing on a single project that I could sink my teeth into, rather than having to design an entire festival. When doing what a George Wein does, you always have to be mindful of having enough tushies in seats to justify your overhead.  I’d rather that someone else determined that Concert X would draw, then gave me the responsibility for planning the music and hiring the musicians.

If you were asked to host a television show entitled “The Subject Is Jazz,” whom would you like to interview on the first few episodes?
My models for such a show would be the 1962 Jazz Scene USA hosted by Oscar Brown Jr., and Frankly Jazz, hosted by Frank Evans during the same period.  As long as the musicians are really good, it almost doesn’t matter who they are.  It’s more important that the host not be pontificating or asking vapid questions.  Keep talk to a minimum, as Robert Herridge did with the 1959 The Sound of Miles Davis.  Give essential information, such as the names of musicians and titles of tunes, and use the cameras imaginatively.  Let television do what television does best—engage the audience visually.  Once that is done, then the music can, as they so often say, speak for itself.

You’ve accomplished many wonderful things in your life both personally and professionally. Why is it that Jazz has continued to play a role in your life?
Simple answer: it allows me to make a living doing things I love.  Those things cover a lot of territory—as a composer-arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, jazz historian, record and radio producer, and educator.  Though not all of these things are happening all the time or in equal proportions.  Because I’ve had serious health issues for almost 25 years, I’m physically limited, so I’m fortunate that I have enough skills that enable me to piece together a livelihood.

Years after Artie Shaw quit the music business, he appeared on a TV talk show along with Count Basie.  Shaw asked Basie, “Why don’t you quit this business?”  Basie shrewdly replied: “What would I do?  Be a janitor?”  I understand intimately what Basie meant—at least, in my own way.  This is what we do.

I tell my students:  You’re being trained as jazz improvisers, and part of that skill involves being able to improvise a career.  Many of the onetime ways of making a living in music have evaporated or have sharply diminished.  Now more than ever, every tub, as the saying goes, has to sit on its own bottom.