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Interviews

Peter Madsen: Comfortable Inside and Out

By Published: June 5, 2006

I try to listen to so many different people and not just jazz people. Im fascinated by a lot of different things, from African music to Chinese music.

Peter MadzenPianist Peter Madsen is well rounded in his jazz foundation, having played inside the mainstream and outside. He has the knowledge, musicianship and technique for both, and in fact says he comes by it honestly, being attracted to both sides as a youngster.

"I can tell you the first two records I bought. Maybe that's why I've been fascinated with both sides of jazz, straight ahead and very avant-garde things. That was Oscar Peterson Night Train (Verve, 1962) and John Coltrane's Selflessness (Impulse!, 1963), with McCoy Tyner on piano. So I kind of started from the outside and the inside right at the first moment. From there I really didn't stop, says Madsen. "I expanded both of those things quite a lot in my understanding and playing and collecting of music, and trying to understand what's going on out there and what people have been trying to do. Trying to be respectful with an understanding of all the great people who've put their energy into this kind of a lifestyle.

It's with that respect, and also with his particular sense of improvisational adventure, that Madsen developed his latest Playscape recording, Prevue of Tomorrow. It's a solo piano disc in which Madsen takes other musicians' tunes and runs them down intriguing creative paths that spring from his mind alone. The songs are not jazz standards. They aren't the kinds of tunes that seem to show up on so many other solo piano projects. They were created by some of the people he admires; some of the people he feels were worthy of getting more exposure.

Says Madsen, "I've always been fascinated by pianists who are composers. The underground. The alternative guys. As much as I love all the straight-ahead guys and admired them for years too, I'm always somehow more fascinated with the guys who are trying to scrape out their own little world somehow, outside of the visible jazz world, shall we say. I'm a record collector and I'm always searching for interesting recordings, especially piano players of course. All of these guys were my heroes in a way for the past many, many years. As I was looking to put something together, kind of an alternative type of concept, I started looking through, picking things out of records, listening back and picking things out that over the years may have influenced me and what I was doing.

The songs include Mal Waldron's "Boo, Cecil Taylor's "Rick Kick Shaw, Andrew Hill's "Subterfuge and "A Portrait of the Living Shy, by Sun Ra. Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, Lennie Tristano, Muhal Richard Abrams, Hasaan Ibn Ali, and Richard Twardzik are also represented with selections

Of the songs from which he took the inspiration "none of them were really solo piano records, so right off the bat I'm starting from a different point of view. But they were at least trio records. Some were large groups. ... I think these guys have not had so much visibility and they deserve more visibility. Not just from me but for themselves, of course. I'm just happy I could use them, in a sense, to springboard into my own improvisation.

In his renditions, Madsen is percussive and aggressive at times. Softer, more lyrical at others, as the spirit moves him He seems to take advantage of a wide range of the piano's dynamics. The ideas are fresh and it's interesting to follow the journey. Cerebral, and yet it very much has emotional qualities, which can be heard in the records he has done with a great many musicians.

Boo is a strong, bold statement with lots of two-handed playing in the lower register and a wisp of the blues. "Subterfuge is a rumbling, rolling ride through the hills. "Three-Four vs. Six-Eight Four-Four Ways is a quirky trek through varying time signatures, weaving "in and "out. "Blues for Africa projects an almost classical sensibility overlaid on a dark blues lament, before getting more to the center of the matter with pointed chords and authoritative single-note runs. The pianist speaks originally on each.

"It was a very strong thing for me to do, Madsen says. "It was a very emotional kind of project for me. Because these people (the song composers) the thing that makes them very special is at the core of their music is something very deep and powerful. They're touching from themselves and giving from some place very deep inside themselves when they play, and also when they write. And then what I tried to capture from myself, what I've always tried to capture in my music when I play.

Madsen's previous disc was also solo, as he re-worked Thelonious Monk tunes on Sphere Essence. While the material came from a pianist who is now mainstream, Monk was far from "standard during his lifetime. The pianist took a similar approach there, showing the ability to give his own expressions, coming at the material with an original bent.

"It's the same thing. Even how I approach it, I try not to do his normal pieces that everyone seems to know. I tried to pick other alternative pieces (of Monk). Because he did write so many great pieces and everybody focuses on the same four. Great pieces, of course, but there are a lot of great pieces that didn't get as much attention. That's one of my things. I'm always trying to look for some other quality things that haven't been getting the attention that they should.

Madsen's resume as a musician includes associations with a wide variety of styles and with artists renowned, and not so well known. He is capable of adding the right elements to any of those scenes. It includes Stan Getz, Stanley Turrentine, Dewey Redman, George Coleman, Oscar Brown Jr., Arthur Blythe, Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Dave Liebman, Eddie Henderson, Ravi Coltrane, Greg Osby, Carlos Ward, Thomas Chapin, Ralph Moore, Paul McCandless, Pee Wee Ellis, Steve Slagle, Marty Ehrlich, Tony Malaby, Richie Cole, Maceo Parker, Steve Wilson, Chris Potter, Seamus Blake, Tom Harrell, Bill Frisell, the Mingus Big Band, the Village Vanguard Orchestra and many more. And yet, stylistically, he says it's difficult to pick out his major influences, because he's listened to all the pianists in the jazz pantheon—and beyond.

"I'm a historical record collector. I really can't say any particular people. I listen to so many. I don't think you can know the 'outside' of music until you know the 'inside' of music. I'm fascinated by the inside guys as much as the outside guys. I try to listen to so many different people and not just jazz people. I'm fascinated by a lot of different things, from African music to Chinese music—any kind of world music, says Madsen.

"I'm fascinated by the great musicians that play all these different kinds of music. Right now, (in Austria, where he lives part of the time), I'm in a group with two African guys, two American guys and two Austrian guys. It's a mixture between jazz and African music. It's an interesting experiment. We write music together as a group. Everybody throws in what they know.

Madsen, 50, has come a long way from his beginnings in Racine, Wisconsin. He started tinkering with the piano at a young age. "Like most people, Mom said, 'Go out and take some lessons.' My grandmother had a piano. There are pictures of me playing when I was two years old or something. So I was always somehow interested. They started me on classical, because that's all you really could do then.

He got his first exposure to jazz in the school system where music was important and he was a member of the big band and was actually playing bass, a direction he took for a time, though he still would play the 88s. "From the school system, I just kept playing and playing. When I was 17 I went to one of those summer jazz camps. I can remember the exact moment when I determined this is what I wanted to do. It was at this jazz camp.

It was also in high school that Madsen began to play out on gigs as a bassist. "I wouldn't say I was doing serious jazz gigs, but I was playing piano bar music in restaurants. Typical things piano players get to do when they're pretty young. I had my first when I was 15 or 16. My piano teacher also played gigs and he got me some gigs playing with him. He played accordion and I was playing bass at the time.

After graduation, it was off to the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, which had a good jazz program. Double bass was his major instrument at university, but "I figured I just couldn't be really good at both of those instruments at the same time. That was pretty impossible. My love is really the piano anyway. I felt really at home with that instrument. The bass was always kind of for fun, he says. Madsen earned a teaching degree, but spent most of his time playing jazz.

"I graduated and was offered a job right out of school. I said, no thanks. I went to Minneapolis, about an hour and a half away. Some of the guys I knew from university were from there, so I had some contacts. I got some gigs. At school when I was finishing up was a guy who became important for me through my entire career, and that's Anthony Cox, a great bassist. We were playing together pretty much all the time. We were roommates for a while. We practiced together everyday. We were both dreaming about going to New York, says the pianist.

Madsen visited New York City and the former Bradley's nightclub, known as a piano bar where many of the great pianists would work in the 1970s. He was fascinated with the duet playing he saw, and he and Cox would often focus on that format. Both went to the Big Apple during the same period in 1980.

"I don't think there were as many players at the time and maybe even more places to play for us non-famous guys, back in 1980. I started working pretty quickly, actually. Anthony and I got a gig playing at 1 Fifth Avenue, which had jazz every night. He also worked with bassist Phil Bowler there for a few years while his reputation got around the city. The pay was enough to survive, along with other small gigs in the city, and Madsen met a lot of musicians during those years. Finding an inexpensive apartment in Brooklyn, which had room for musicians to play without bothering neighbors, also became an important step in Madsen's development. It became a place where musicians could play and experiment and word got around.

"That's how I met most of the guys I know even now, is from that place. I bought a drum set. I had a nice piano and amplifiers. People would just come over and play. I had all kinds of people at my house. It's amazing. Most people find out you're into creative music and you're doing some cool stuff and you have a good place to play and you can play any time—people come. Word spreads around.

"It's also how I got into composing too. I figured these guys didn't want to come over and play things out of the real book. So I though I'd better have some interesting things for them to play. I did two things: I did a lot of writing and challenging things for them and for myself, and I did a lot of transcribing of some very unusual music. It enticed people to want to come over even more, because here was this guy who had all this interesting music to play. It was a great thing for me.

Piano bar gigs, even working with various singers in clubs around the city, were steady and sustained Madsen. Then through Cox, he managed to land work with one of the jazz elite.

"In 1986, Anthony Cox was working with Stan Getz and he was looking for a pianist to go on a tour within a few days. Anthony recommended me. Stan calls and asked if I wanted to do it. Of course, I jumped at the chance. It's funny, just a few days before that I had auditioned for Gerry Mulligan. Then Stan called and I immediately took that. I really wanted to do that gig. The first thing was a tour in Europe, with Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Anthony and myself. A really great band. It was quite creative.

"Stan calls me in and says, 'What music do you like to play?' I'm like, what music do I like to play? I like all kinds of stuff. He said, 'Well bring some with you, we'll play it.' Madsen chuckles recounting the story, surprised that Getz was interested in getting music from someone he had just hired. "So I brought all kinds of stuff. He picked out some stuff he liked and we did a bunch of stuff. It was fun. It was pretty creative. We were pushing him pretty hard. He was pretty sick at the time with cancer, but he was playing hard every night. He came out to really play. He never was holding back for one second. We were more in the 'out' direction and he liked it. He was going with us. He didn't just play pretty like everyone somehow assumes he does. He extended beyond what I always thought of him.

"From that point it grew to many different things. After that, Anthony got me on a gig with Fred Wesley who was doing a recording. At the time he was using Geri Allen. She couldn't do the recording. Anthony recommended me and that's how I met Fred. I've been in his band since then. I haven't stopped being in his band. We have gigs all the time. On that first recording was Maceo Parker and a bunch of the guys that became the Fred Wesley Band after that.

He also worked steady in a club in the lower Village, where various top musicians would get booked and Madsen would be in the rhythm section. "That's where I met a lot of people, whether it be Joe Lovano, Billy Drewes, Ellery Eskelin, Arthur Blythe, all kinds of people he had to play with us. A lot of great drummers and bass players. It was one great rhythm section after another. I got to meet a lot of great people on that gig.

In 1993, He released his first CD as a leader, Snuggling Snake's on Minor Music, an independent label from Germany. In addition to steady work with a group led by Pee Wee Ellis (a gig running for about the last five years) and Wesley, for years Madsen had a duo with Austrian bassist Peter Herbert performing entirely original compositions and teaching workshops around Europe and Japan. Known as Peter and Peter they have two CDs available on the Austrian POA label. (Darkness Pursues the Butterfly and Puppets Dance).

Madsen is married and lives part-time in Austria, where his wife is from. He maintains a place in New York City, and is able to work both the Stateside scene and the European scene. "It's a cool lifestyle in a way. We get to enjoy both worlds. I live in a small little town, Hŧchst. It's very quiet. The opposite of New York, total opposite. It's a tiny little town on the border of Switzerland, so I'm actually the opposite end of Austria from Vienna, which is on the east side.

"Definitely, people over here have a different kind of mindset, in the culture in general. Television definitely has a much smaller role that it does in the United States. People are willing to go out and see good music, or check out some good art. It's a different kind of quality. I find I can actually work a lot more over here then I was doing in New York, though I was working a lot in New York. The other thing is, they tend to pay a little more over here, which is really great.

But, he adds, "There are many, many reasons why I'm here. My grandparents were from Denmark, so I've always had a fascination about Europe and thinking about living here at some point, just to try it out. I don't know how long I'll stay. At this point it feels great to have two places to enjoy and make music and meet some great musicians.

He remains busy. In addition to his own work, and the Ellis and Wesley bands, Madsen has recorded and worked in many other situations, including a fruitful link with Mario Pavone and Mike Musillami.

Madsen became the pianist for Thomas Chapin's band after he moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey. He says it is Chapin who introduced him to Pavone.

"Mario wanted to put his own group together and he thought I'd fit perfectly with what he was trying to do. So I was working a lot with Thomas and Mario, sometimes together, sometimes separately in different situations, says Madsen. "It's one of the many things I'm into. Trying to develop improvisation from no chord changes, coming out of Ornette Coleman and other people. Mario does the same. Most of his music is without chords. Sometimes he writes them in, and sometimes I put them in. I improvise chords to the melodies that he writes. But it's mostly improvised, nothing really structured. Which is fascinating to me, to try to improvise chords as you go along rather than follow a set pattern.

The evidence can be seen on Pavone recordings like Deez to Blues (Playscaspe, 2006) and Boom (Playscape, 2004). Madsen, with his improvisational spirit, his experience, and big ears, fits into the group like hand in glove.

"A lot of people think it's very composed, what I'm doing, he says. "They come up and say, 'Wow, that's really complicated, what you're doing.' I say, 'No, it's not. It's improvised, most of it. It's very difficult music. A lot of music Mario writes has difficult time signatures, in and out of all kinds of different grooves. There's a lot of things you have to pay attention to while you're improvising all these different things. A lot of people who do pieces of music without harmony don't use a harmony instrument. They just drop the piano.

"Ornette didn't really use a pianist after his first couple of records. A lot of guys were using piano-less groups, because the piano often got in the way, I think they thought. Mario likes it when I put in harmonies that are sometimes fitting and sometimes dissonant, rubbing against, shall we say, the things that he writes. It's an interesting experiment. I really like it a lot.

Musillami runs Playscape Recordings that turns out fresh, creative music that people like Madsen, Pavone, Chapin and others delve into.

Madsen says Musillami "is really serious about putting out quality music that is not in the normal direction that people are going, always. He wants something very special. So I'm very happy that I met him quite a few years ago through Thomas Chapin and Mario and that he started this record label. Besides being a great guitarist, he's very serious about doing this. He's not doing it to make a lot of money. He does it because he's serious about the music. He wants to put something out that's serious for people to check out. It also gives us an avenue to be creative. He doesn't restrict us. He wants us to do some creative things. I fell very lucky about that.

Peter MadsenSo Madsen continues to move on, making music on two continents and always seeking creativity. "I'm doing a lot of solo work. This is what I'm trying to promote for myself over here. Present myself and what I can do by myself and play a variety of different kinds of music, he says. "And I do play with groups from over here and a lot of groups from the United States that call me when they're coming over or want me to come back to the United States to do a recording or whatever. It's kind of a full package and solo piano is just a part of it.

He says he has another CD being released in Europe. Again, it is not a run-of-the-mill project.

"I wrote some music to the Nine Greek Muses. There is a great trumpet player that lives in my area. He's also a great classical player. I wrote this music and thought it would be great for trumpet and piano, I had another friend of mine write some poetry to these Nine Muses, so it's an interesting project.

Interesting seems to be a theme, for which listeners can be glad.


Selected Discography

Peter Madsen, Prevue of Tomorrow (Playscape, 2006)
Mario Pavone, Deez to Blues (Playscape, 2006)
Michael Musillami Trio, Dachau (Playscape, 2005)
Michael Musillami Octet, Spirits (Playscape, 2004)
Mario Pavone, Boom (Playscape, 2004)
Peter Madsen, Sphere Essence: Another Side of Monk (Playscape, 2003)
Mario Pavone Nu Trio/Quintet, Orange (Playscape, 2003)
Mario Pavone, Totem Blues (Knitting Factory, 2001)
Carla White, The Sweetest Sounds (DIW, 2000)
Fred Wesley, Full Circle: From Bebop to Hip-Hop (Cleopatra, 1999)
Fred Ho & the Afro Asian Music Ensemble, Turn Pain into Power (O.O. Discs, 1997)
Mario Pavone, Dancer's Tales (Knitting Factory, 1997)
Three of a Kind, Three of a Kind (Minor Music, 1996)
Three of a Kind, Meets Mr. T. (Minor Music, 1995)
Thomas Chapin, You Don't Know Me (Arabesque, 1994)
Mario Pavone, Song for (Septet) (New World, 1993)
Peter Madsen, Snuggling Snakes (Minor Music, 1992)
Carla White, Listen Here (Evidence, 1991)
Fred Ho & The African Asian Music Ensemble, The Underground Railroad to My Heart (Soul Note, 1990)
Carla White, Mood Swings (Milestone, 1988)

Note: Peter Madsen contributed a column to AAJ called Wide Open Jazz and Beyond from June 1999 till May 2002. During its run, Peter provided various opinions on jazz and improvisation, and featured many of the artists he performed with over the years like Dewey Redman, Pee Wee Ellis, Don Cherry, Matt Wilson, Thomas Chapin, Stan Getz, and Lennie Tristano.

Photo Credit: Juan-Carlos Hernández



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