Lenny Pickett: Equal Opportunity Explorer

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"I enjoyed it. They're really good musicians. They all seem to be jazz scholars," says Pickett. "They know that music really well. They were very flexible and they enjoyed the experience of it. There was a lot of good feelings exchanged. It was sort of effortless. We did do rehearsals and all that. It didn't require any convincing. They were very enthusiastic about the music and very talented. It was pretty straight forward... I had written most of the material. I gave Rich some recordings and charts of different ensembles playing a variety of music. He picked out some music he thought would work well for his arranging talents. Then he wrote some things on his own and I wrote some arrangements on my own. We recorded a bunch of material. The record represents about half of what we worked out."

A CD release party was held July 22 at the Jazz Standard in New York City, but with a small group. Pickett will be doing some work with UMOP in September. He says that perhaps next year some touring can be arranged using the big band charts.

Meanwhile, Pickett is as busy as he needs to be, between teaching, SNL and other projects. Not bad for someone who someone is largely self-taught—a term he feels is more figurative, not literal.

"­Self-taught is a term you use when you didn't go to school," says the affable Pickett, who has an easy wit and a focused way of telling stories. "I didn't finish ninth grade and I didn't go to university. I had very little of what you'd call formal training. Learning improvised music is something you usually do at the feet of the masters. I spent a lot of time playing with a lot of musicians and in that sense I wasn't self-taught, because I was taught by the people involved in playing this music and their experiences. I learned by listening. I listened to records. That means you're learning from somebody, because somebody had to make the record. But very little formal training."

Pickett, from the Berkeley, California area, did take some clarinet lessons at about age 9 and played in the school band and orchestra, but that stopped at about age 13. However, his stepfather was a bebop trumpet player and he picked up things listening to him. He learned more from jam sessions and hanging out with other musicians. A friend in his neighborhood, Burt Wilson, was a saxophonist with whom Pickett spent a lot of time. He gleaned a lot from Wilson.

"It was not very much in the way of an actual lesson," says Pickett. "It was an occasional line scribbled out. That sort of thing... it's a form of education, but it''s not like going to jazz school or taking lessons all the time." he was also a voracious listener, checking out all styles of music.

"I grew up with that. The fluid interchange between a myriad of music. When I was with Tower of Power, we were opening for Santana. He had Leon Thomas singing. And he had Leon Ndugu Chancler playing drums, who ended up playing with Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
for a time. I think among musicians—it depends on the group—but among the older and more sophisticated musicians you find less of a schism between those two forms. One was more like dance music and one was more listen-to music. If you listen to Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
Lou Donaldson
b.1926
saxophone
, he played 'Alligator Bugaloo,' but he also played on the quintessential bebop recording with Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
1928 - 2014
piano
and Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
and Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
. (A Night at Birdland, Vol 1 and A Night at Birdland, Vol. 2, Blue Note, 1954) Those musics are all out of the same diaspora, the same germination.

"But I've never had any issue with going back and forth. I listen to everybody. I was a big Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
b.1930
saxophone
fan. But also King Curtis
King Curtis
King Curtis
1934 - 1971
saxophone
and Junior Walker. Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
Illinois Jacquet
1922 - 2004
sax, tenor
. All sorts of people. I feel comfortable. I don't feel put off by any of it. I've spent a lot of time teaching myself how to improvise over lots of different varieties of chord changes so my ear is ready for whatever environment I find myself in."

As his playing developed, Pickett was doing more gigs. He began playing with a lot of modern dance and theater groups. He purchased recording equipment, including an eight-track mixer he put together with some synthesizers, with help from Patrick Gleeson, a synthesizer player who had done some work with Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
in the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Tower of Power, a group in the 1970s that made a big mark on the pop and funk scene. They recorded their first album, Tower of Power in 1973.

All the while, Pickett was teaching himself how to compose using a simple method: playing into a tape recorder. "You write one line, then you write another line. You play it together. You improvise something else. You try figure out what it was you did and you write it down. Over some years, I was figuring out how to combine sounds and make music out of that."


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