I recently had a the honor of interviewing former ECM producer Sun Chung, who now runs his own label, Red Hook Records. Click the photo below to see the interview on All About Jazz.
(Photo credit: Arianna Tae Cimarosti)
I recently had a the honor of interviewing former ECM producer Sun Chung, who now runs his own label, Red Hook Records. Click the photo below to see the interview on All About Jazz.
(Photo credit: Arianna Tae Cimarosti)
The career of musical polymath Ethan Iverson has taken the pianist—and his pen—around the world and then some, in both the geographic and creative senses. Since striking oil in collaboration with bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King as The Bad Plus, Iverson has simultaneously broadened his palette and focused his sound throughout a range of far-thinking endeavors. Among those is his landmark Bud Powell in the 21st Century, a big band project recorded December 2018 at the Umbria Jazz Festival and released at the end of this month on Sunnyside Records. You can continue to track his various trajectories in his web archive, DO THE M@TH.
Tyran Grillo: Who is Ethan Iverson now that he wasn’t 15 years ago?
Ethan Iverson: I always had a plan to keep studying. When The Bad Plus had our surprise breakout success in 2003, I didn’t feel like it was automatically the endpoint. Playing with that band was incredible, but all along I was also thinking about other ways to make a contribution.
One of the reasons I started writing about the music was to let Bad Plus fans know about this great tradition. When you’re the new flavor, it can be seductive to feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but everybody stands on the shoulders of those who preceded them.
TG: When you speak of tradition, do you see that as a monolithic term or is it always evolving?
EI: Someone once said that it’s important for an artist to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time. On the one hand, yes, tradition, but on the other hand you have to be in the moment; there’s always the present day, or even looking to build a better future. Both things are true. At the very least, it doesn’t seem to work to say, “I only deal with the tradition.” Neither does it work to say, “I am only new.” Nobody I admire says that only one of those viewpoints is correct.
TG: How does your thinking in that regard connect to Bud Powell?
EI: He’s someone that I keep on learning from. In fact, this project happened two years ago, but just this morning I was practicing and thinking about Bud Powell. He’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
There’s room to find inspiration from almost anything. One of my mentors is the choreographer Mark Morris. He goes out all the time to see varied shows. He is always listening to and talking about different forms of music. Despite being schooled in high, conceptual art, you might just as easily find him watching and enjoying the most banal TV show imaginable. He is inflamed by all of it creatively, from high to low. And that, I think, is a pretty good model.
TG: How did the Powell project come about?
EI: It was a commission by the Umbria Jazz Festival, marrying an American quintet with an Italian big band. I was delighted when Carlos Pagnotta and Enzo Capua at Umbria first approached me. Manuele Morbidini, who directed the big band, prepared the musicians so well before I got there that I actually cut a rehearsal. The band was ready. When it came time to look for a label, Sunnyside founder François Zalacain is a bit of an old-school bebopper and really liked the project.
TG: How does the sound you achieved at Umbria differ from what you’ve done before?
EI: Post-Bad Plus, I’ve been doing quite a bit of larger-canvas pieces. I wrote a piano concerto for the American Composers Orchestra. I curated a celebration of Thelonious Monk for his centennial at Duke University. For Mark Morris, I did Pepperland, an evening-length piece connected to The Beatles. There’s been quite a lot of formal composition in the last five years, but Bud Powell in the 21st Century is the first of these projects that’s coming out commercially for everyone to hear.
Speaking of tradition versus being in the present day, when I think of the tribute projects I admire, there’s quite a bit of original composition. Ornette Coleman, even when playing standards, always started with an original melody. So, there’s original composition in this project—the very first track is completely original—but there’s also Powell’s music, which in and of itself is very difficult.
TG: Can you unpack “difficult” for us a little?
EI: With Powell, it’s hard to get all the details exactly right, because they’re quite specific, fast and complicated. I swore to myself that we would get those details right—such that if Bud was there, even if he didn’t like the whole thing, at least he couldn’t look at me and say, “You didn’t even play my melodies right, man.”
TG: How would you describe your relationship to Powell’s music?
EI: I like knowing the text. When The Bad Plus played The Rite of Spring, I played it just like Stravinsky wrote it. If I play Tadd Dameron with [drummer Albert] “Tootie” Heath, I learn Dameron’s original voicings. At one point I transcribed Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for The Bad Plus. My brain gets really excited by the details. I like to sit there and ask myself what really happened here. I can dive in, think about those details, transcribe and appreciate the subtleties.
There’s also this other side of creativity. I’m confident everything I do has a personal sound, that it sounds like me and part of that sound is wild and woolly. The fantastical or surreal comes in pretty naturally with Bud. At the end of the day, Bud Powell was an avant garde musician. Had the project been dedicated to the music of Dizzy Gillespie or Benny Golson, it might have been harder to find a way in to do something personal. But there’s a surreal glint in Bud Powell’s eye, so that’s a fit for me as well.
TG: What sorts of extra-musical inspirational forces do you find creep into your music?
EI: When I interface with literature, movies, or television, it helps me see that parameters of genre are freeing, not constricting. I like genres. Some people don’t believe in them and want to live their life “genre-free.” I have little interest in that perspective. I’m more like, “What is the genre?” If we know what genre it is, then we can fill the container with the right kind of material. In this project, Bud Powell is within the genre of bebop. I take bebop very seriously as a genre. I do things to it that are not pure bebop, but at the same time, I’m aware of the difference.
Everything “new” is a combination of previous things. What matters is how well you know each element you’re combining. If you’re writing a supernatural detective story, you need to ask yourself how well you know the supernatural genre and how well you know the detective genre. People often know one side more than the other. That’s always been an issue in the arts, but here in the postmodern age of the 21st Century, everything’s a click away. It’s all one big mashup. The question is how well you can control all the aspects you’re dialing in to the final product.
Sometimes, a college music student will say, “I don’t want to be labeled. Don’t even call it jazz; it’s all beyond category.” I get it, but at the same time, any single phrase you can play on an instrument has a heritage, so what lineage are you in? And if you know your lineage, you can accept it or work against it.
TG: Does this influence your selection of musicians as well?
EI: I chose the musicians for this project for specific reasons. There’s a core quintet of Americans, plus the Italian big band. The result is sort of a concerto grosso. My friend Ben Street plays bass. Ben really believes in jazz and plays with so much personality. There aren’t too many bass players you can hear on a record and immediately identify, but Ben is one of those.
Drummer Lewis Nash was suggested by Umbria. I’d heard and admired Lewis my whole life but hadn’t played with him before. For a big band you need a drummer who lays down the law. You can’t necessarily go in with a really idiosyncratic force like Paul Motian or Elvin Jones for a big band. Lewis is a consecrated bebop master who’s played with the Who’s Who, so he was a perfect choice.
I’d admired [trumpeter] Ingrid Jensen for years in the context of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, so she was always in the back of my mind as someone I’d choose if I ever did a big band project. She’s got connections musically to Kenny Wheeler, who wrote some of the more durable modern big band music. As for tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, I heard about him from Ben when in need of a sub for Mark Turner in the Billy Hart Quartet. Dayna is fast and very creative. Both Dayna and Ingrid get a few expansive solos in this project, but they also have solos in which they need to tell a story in just a chorus or two, like the original Powell session with Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes.
It was hard for all of us. We all left with a new appreciation for that genre of pure bebop, where everybody says their piece in three minutes. It was a joy to work within those confines.
TG: What surprised you the most when you first got together and played?
EI: I knew Lewis was great, but he struck me as very generous in his playing. He’s a natural accompanist. I’m not so used to that. I’m used to these people who push me around—and I want to be pushed around. But Lewis was like a beautiful jazz couch that you could just sit on and relax. As for Ingrid and Dayna, I knew they were virtuosos, but hearing them play these high-level, burning jazz solos confirmed that I’d gotten the right people. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but sometimes you put things together in your mind and it doesn’t always come out that way in reality. But they showed up, they kicked ass and it was great.
TG: What’s next for you?
EI: I expect to play quite a bit more solo piano eventually; that’s been coming along. A current commission is six formal sonatas for six virtuosos, which is going great. More formal composition is certainly in my future. The Billy Hart Quartet continues and we’re live-streaming at Dizzy’s Club to celebrate his 80th birthday. There’s also a wonderful singer named Marcy Harriell who I had a New Year’s Eve gig with last year doing music of Burt Bacharach and it was a huge success. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do. I’m blessed with a pretty sizable list of geniuses who are somehow willing to work with me.
TG: What would you most like to see happen in jazz that hasn’t happened already—or, for that matter, hasn’t happened for a long time and should be revived?
EI: Composition is important. Instrumental virtuosity is important. The blues is really important. Afro-Cuban rhythm is important. Romantic harmony is important. Telling a story is important. When we hear the great jazz records of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s all in a pretty perfect balance. After John Coltrane passed away, we’ve had 50 years of great music, but it’s seldom been the whole package. I believe in inclusivity. There are so many elements of music and if you can get a passing grade in many of them, you can keep moving it forward. When I talk about Burt Bacharach in the same breath as Bud Powell, I don’t see them that differently in the sense that both are the very highest level composers within their respective genres.
(This interview originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)
This ultra-rare promotional CD from 1994 contains an interview with Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill. Much of the interview is spent discussing the backstory and recording circumstances of At The Deer Head Inn, Jarrett’s phenomenal live album with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, and Bridge Of Light, a program of classical music composed by Jarrett.
When Jarrett first encountered the Deer Head Inn itself, it was the only place of its kind in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where jazz wasn’t exactly on the hearts and minds of communities far more concerned with everyday practicalities. Jarrett was living in Allentown, where jazz was limited to generic rooms at best. Deer Head was far enough away that he wasn’t really aware of it until he got his first regular gig there, playing drums for local pianist (and Jarret’s personal friend) Johnny Coates. “I learned a lot about what not to do twice,” he recalls of those early gigging days, long before the piano became his forte. After two summers of grabbing the Deer Head by its antlers, sitting in sometimes on guitar (which, incidentally, earned him an invitation from Stan Getz to play in a Calypso band), he left that part of his history behind to dive headlong into his career as a pianist. By the time the Deer Head gig materialized, he hadn’t played there as pianist for nearly three decades.
Many elements came together for that performance to make it what it was. First, the venue was a “piano room” in the truest sense, a place of intimate construction that practically begged for Jarrett’s song. Second was the fact that drummer Jack DeJohnette, his trio go-to, was unable to make it, leading Motian to fill in at the last minute. Third was the “behavior and concentration” of everyone involved—a rapt attention he attributes at least in part to Motian’s involvement. When things come together like that, following a natural flow without depending on “large things,” as he puts it, magic is born.
Jarrett further bows to a certain magic in the recording itself. He mentions the “crucial little keys” of how a player is feeling, and how technology may struggle to capture those details in such a beautiful way. In this case, however, they shine through with utmost clarity, including the vocal exclamations for which he is (in)famously known. “I should’ve written them a thank you note,” he quips, speaking of Peacock and Motian, who he makes a point of noting added their own whoops of excitement in the heat of the moment. “If I’m going to be the culprit, let it be all three of us.” The conversation turns naturally to the tune “Chandra” (included along with “It’s Easy To Remember” at the end of this CD), which Jarrett praises for Motian’s avoidance of sticks altogether. Where any drummer would start with brushes and switch to the punctuation of sticks, Motian’s continuous brushing spoke directly to Jarrett’s heart: “This is what we’ve got now. This is what it is. And it put me in another place, where the expectations were not the same as they would be every time you play.” Thus did Motian pull everyone into the center of things.
At around the time that Bridge Of Light was coming together, he was already working on a commission from Japan to write the Adagio for oboe and string orchestra featured on the album. When told there would be time left in the program, his thoughts turned to the Elegy he was writing for his Hungarian grandmother. Taking such an active role in directing that recording was, for him, like “being in charge of a country,” whereas Deer Head was like “being not in charge and knowing it would be okay.” Such polar, yet parallel, opposites would seem to define his career. At Deer Head, for example, there wasn’t any music until it was played, whereas in a classical setting, anxieties toward perfection ran high. Classical musicians, he avers, should be less obsessed over playing the same music better than anyone else and more concerned about being themselves enough not to care, allowing the music to “bloom for itself” instead. And if blooming is what it’s all about, then Bridge (from which the Adagio and the “Dance” of Jarrett’s violin sonata are also included here) is a veritable field of life.
“You don’t have to be emphatic when you’re doing something beautiful,” says Jarrett of the creative process. “If you emphasize the beauty of something, you might step on it.” And while one might easily flag this statement for hypocrisy, spoken as it is by someone who can stretch a concert staple like “Autumn Leaves” to well over 20 minutes, there’s a sense that Jarrett is always saying what needs to be said and, accordingly, wasting no notes whenever he’s “on.” As he observes of jazz: “It would be as though you were to write poetry in more than one language at a time…and make it somehow into a coherent language of its own.”
As interesting as the above insights are, at best I would say this rarity has value only as an archival curiosity for the Jarrett completist, though it’s always fascinating to hear him speak of his own work. Either way, the objects of this discussion tell more of their past, present, and future than even he could, and perhaps our journey to find and experience them is the strongest bridge of all.
In March of 1979, Pat Metheny appeared on the “Oral Tradition” radio program (broadcast out of Venice, California) to talk about the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled debut and his then freshly released solo follow-up, New Chautauqua. Produced by Martin Perlich, this hour-long special was released on a rare promo LP by ECM and features an in-depth conversation with the guitarist between selections from both of albums.
Metheny gets into the meat and potatoes of his upbringing. Growing up in small-town Missouri among a family of trumpet players, his brother Mike having taught the instrument at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1983, Metheny needed only reach his hand out to grab hold of one. And that he did, joining the school band and doing fairly well for himself until his need for braces put an end to his future in brass. Immersed as he was in Top 40 culture, guitar was an easy choice for a substitute, and so he picked out his first axe and starting swinging. After doing the “garage band thing” for about a year, at age 14 he had a watershed moment when he saw Wes Montgomery and Gary Burton’s group perform a stone’s throw away in Kansas City. Hearing improvisation in earnest for the first time, and in such close quarters, converted him to jazz on the spot. It wasn’t long before he had every album by Burton, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane he could get his hands on. He recalls how naturally the concepts of jazz came to him, whereas in rock music the role of the guitar was ultimately unclear. Sitting in with blues musicians in Kansas City, where he humbly guesses he was being brought onstage as more of a novelty at first than anything else, was his first real classroom. After a year of teaching in Miami, he joined Burton’s band with Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Mick Goodrick, all of whom saw something in the young guitarist. Along with their already-heightened abilities came the patience needed to allow someone like Metheny to blossom.
Metheny elaborates on his jump from rock to jazz. Whereas in the former vein he saw a vital sensuality that was of organic appeal to younger listeners, he also yearned for a subtlety that rock just didn’t have. He even gave prog (Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, etc.) a chance in the hopes there might be something there. But he quickly realized how those guitarists were just “playing blues scales up and down like every rock player always did, [only] a lot longer and twice as boring.” It was in improvisation that he found the wider, more nuanced feeling he was searching for, and the first guitar icon to show him how it was done was Jimi Hendrix. Thinking back on it, he still wonders how Hendrix was as popular as he was. Still, Hendrix was in no way a conscious influence, but a talent to look upon with wonder. In Metheny’s estimation, the guitar was essentially neglected as a frontline instrument until Larry Coryell joined forces with Burton in 1967, paving the way for John McLaughlin and other pioneers. Before then, advances in guitar technology just weren’t developed enough to make it stand out against the harmonic landscape of a saxophone or piano. Coryell was groundbreaking for bringing a hard-edged sound to a jazz context, thereby widening the scope of what the instrument could do as a method of sound production. When Metheny himself came on the scene in 1974, the only viable gigs for jazz guitarists were with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton, or Burton. Burton was the natural fit.
From Pat Metheny Group we hear “Phase Dance” and “San Lorenzo.” In light these wonders, even Metheny is aware of their commercial appeal the non-jazz listeners (the album hit the Billboard charts, after all) but is adamant about changing nothing to achieve that success. “I just physically couldn’t play something that I didn’t really believe in,” he admits, thus capturing something essential to the steadfastness of his art.
Metheny transitions into reminiscing about touring in Oslo, where he spent three days writing, and two more recording, the music that would become New Chautauqua. Spurred on by fears of typecasting himself, and encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, transitioning from a quartet to a solo project was the logical next step in his recording journey (though he isn’t without his sense of humor, as when quipping about a “fantasy record” with Lyle Mays and singer Nicolette Larson). Metheny likens the sound of Chautauqua to the open spaces of his childhood—hence the country twang of the album’s title tune (heard here, along with “Sueño Con Mexico” and “Daybreak,” the latter a nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”). He also unpacks the title, which pays homage to the so-called Chautauqua who drove around playing one-nighters all up and down the Midwest (his great-grandfather, in fact, was a leader of one such group).
In addition to these anecdotal details, Metheny reveals a bit of his creative process. “Every time we hit the stage and we play the first notes, it enters a completely different realm for me,” he says of live performance, which is more than his wheelhouse but a way of life. He goes on to describe his style as one of playing “out” and never for himself, and shares an analogy for playing that was passed on to him by Burton: “There’s a whole grammar thing you go through when you’re becoming a musician and an improviser that’s very similar to…when you’re a child and you’re learning…how to speak…. It gets to the point where…you don’t think about verbs and pronouns and stuff…you just say whatever you have to say and it comes out. Sometimes there’s little goofs…but the message comes through if you’ve got something to say. It’s exactly the same when you’re improvising. You have this whole backlog of information, but when it comes time to play, as you become more advanced as a player, you think less and less about the technical things…and you just say what you have to say, and hopefully the audience will respond to what you’re saying if you make the picture clear enough for them.” And how does he respond whenever people come up to him and ask how he plays so well? “I haven’t practiced in four years.” The stage is where it all goes down.
“I don’t see myself as a guitar player that plays melodies in a setting,” he self-observes. “I see the act of playing the guitar and writing the tunes and having the band as a statement about what I want to be like as a guy, you know…. If I were ever not going to do that, I would go sell cars for my father.” Of course, we can be thankful he isn’t selling cars but rather music that was made to flow from their stereos as we drive along open roads to places we’ve yet to know.
Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.
Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, violinist Ruth Tumpalan is a dedicated musician and educator. She is currently a faculty member at the Lindeblad School of Music, where her pedagogical zeal has earned her a place of distinction in the hearts of students. She has studied with such renowned classical artists as violinist Christoph Poppen and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and has performed with a range of others across genres, from Jaime Laredo to Michael Bublé. Most recently, she won first place in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Composition, and as a result of that honor was a featured soloist at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her focus on cultural diversity is paramount and drives her to constantly improve her technique in all areas.
Yet behind the glamour of performing on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, Tumpalan has found special fulfillment as part of the music ministry at Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. Her love of God and music have been intertwined since childhood, and manifest with especial depth in her work with the church’s choir as part of a vibrant ministry.
I recently sat down with Tumpalan via Skype to discuss the role of faith in her personal and professional life, asking first about her musical foundations.
“My father is a pastor, so we were all homeschooled, but when I was 10 he enrolled me and my siblings in an extension program at the University of the Philippines to study music. Two weeks later, I was playing in a Christian wedding officiated by my father. Since then, I’ve always played in church, both as a violinist and choir pianist.”
At the age of 12, Tumpalan got the chance to visit the United States with her father while he was touring churches. Upon returning home, she immersed herself in recordings and live performances, all the while cultivating a desire to pursue music as a profession. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of the Philippines, with a focus on violin, graduating cum laude in 2009.
“After college, I played with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, but after five years decided I wanted to develop myself even further through study. I had been praying since high school for an opportunity to study abroad, ideally in the U.S., in pursuit of new perspectives and higher standards. In 2014, God led me to a full scholarship to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.”
Tumpalan doesn’t take such blessings lightly and has always seen her gifts as God-given. While at UMass, however, she found herself at an impasse.
“There I was, halfway through my two-year program, contemplating what the Lord’s real will was for me. Did he want me to go back to the Philippines or did he have something bigger in store? It was a long journey, filled with prayer. But God provided, one step at a time, lining me up with a job before I even finished my degree. Although music had originally led me here to the U.S., I know in hindsight that it was actually God’s provision all along, working through all the little things to get me where I am now.”
Although Tumpalan’s husband was in Hong Kong at the time, he also earned a scholarship to study percussion at UMass, bringing them closer under an unseen but ever-felt guiding hand. They were further led to Heritage Baptist Church, where Tumpalan became immediately involved in the music ministry.
“Playing at Heritage is my priority. My job is important, but I like the need of going to church and being with brethren. It also enhances my career, leading me with strength through daily life and its many decisions. When I don’t go to church, even for just a week, I feel that my well-being is lowered.”
(Tumpalan performs at Heritage Baptist Church)
And what, I asked, of her experience playing at Carnegie?
“I never thought I would get to play there as a soloist. I’d played there before with the Philippine Philharmonic, and thought that was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, last year, I was working with an excellent pianist named Jongsun Lee, who suggested we try out for the competition. With my full studio schedule, it wasn’t easy to manage practice time and teaching, but my teaching actually helped me to prepare. Certain things my own teachers had taught me before suddenly made sense. I never expected to get first place, but God made it possible.”
For that performance, she chose Henryk Wieniawski’s formidable Scherzo Tarantelle Op. 16, a work brimming with the very excitement that stokes her appreciation for music as a means of communication.
“The best feedback I’ve ever gotten as a musician is being told that I moved someone to tears. In that respect, in my playing I aim to be more of an inspiration, to connect with people at a level beyond words.”
This approach is integral to Tumpalan’s teaching, which builds upon the renowned methods of Shinichi Suzuki.
“I always make sure to explain to parents that the Suzuki method was designed to create better human beings through music, and that the most important things to learn from the experience are discipline, empathy, and cooperation. These are more than musical skills; they’re life skills. Without them, playing well and achieving success in music mean nothing. Whenever someone makes a mistake in my group classes, no one is allowed to point. They must respect themselves, first and foremost.”
As for the future, Tumpalan sees herself becoming even more involved in the church, and has been considering putting together a book of Christian music arranged for various instruments. Whatever may come, her faith will only continue to grow.
Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD.
Please check out “Lauantaijatsit” (Saturday Jazz), a radio show hosted by DJ Matti Nives on FM station Bassoradio out of Helsinki, Finland. The latest edition, which you can stream here, features interviews with Manfred Eicher and yours truly, as well as a fine assortment of ECM gems, including a preview of the new Stanko record, Wisława. Matti’s occasional talking segments are in Finnish, but the interviews are all in English.