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An AAJ Interview with Mario Pavone

By Published: January 22, 2007 experience has been to work with composers who understand the important link between composing and improvisation. In fact, one goal for many of us is to blur the line between the two.

"Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird—that's easy. What's hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace—making the complicated simple, awesomely simple—that's creativity." —Charles Mingus

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." —Albert Einstein

Mario Pavone This interview was first published in December 2002.

It is often overlooked that a significant amount of dedication, determination, and plain ol' hard work goes into making things seem simple. But it is a "simple" truth that we are surrounded by complex systems in our everyday life. From automobiles to aircraft, refrigerators to radios, and coffee makers to compact disc players, a lot of work has gone into making things "just work."

The very fact that you are reading this now is a testimony to numerous industries and technologies working together. Although this "Internet stuff" can be outrageously frustrating and, at times, downright painful to use, the fact that it even works at all is fairly amazing, nearly miraculous, and unquestionably cool.

The above statements can often be said of music, especially jazz. It is not coincidence that the musicians who are best at making their art look and sound effortless are also the ones who have put the most effort into making things "just work."

One musician whose work especially embodies the Mingus and Einstein principles of making the complicated simple is bassist/composer Mario Pavone.

Although having been a professional musician for nearly 40 years, and having worked in the 60's—'80's with the likes of Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, and Leo Smith, the bulk of Mr. Pavone's recorded output has primarily occurred over the past decade as a member of the late Thomas Chapin's Trio and with a half dozen utterly remarkable discs released under his own name (please refer to "Selected Discography" which appends this article) which find him accompanied by saxophonists Marty Ehrlich, Josh Redman, Anthony Braxton, and Thomas Chapin, trumpeter Dave Douglas, drummers Matt Wilson, Mike Sarin, Pheeroan ak Laff, and Steve Johns, pianist Peter Madsen, and trombonist Peter McEachern.

While Mr. Pavone first began playing in the "free" or "outside" New York loft scene in the 60's, his recordings are anything but immersed in the music of that turbulent era. Nevertheless, this early experience has provided a unique element to his music.

In 1995, Mario Pavone told jazz journalist and educator Howard Mandel the following:

"I think my compositions have a special sound because of my outside leanings, but my bottoms have always been rooted in the tradition and groove-oriented. My tops are angular. I pay attention to rhythmic detail so it's not 4/4 all the time. I like to switch it up...You see, I'm thinking as a listener when I prepare this's about surprising the listener with changing textures and varieties of ensemble soundsswitI love performing, but I love recording and the crafting of every detail even more. I think that kind of care brings people closer to understanding the music..." (extracted from liner notes to Song For (Septet) (New World/Counter Currents, 1995))

Seven years later, AAJ managing editor Nils Jacobson writes of the CD Mythos (Playscape Recordings):

"As always, Pavone treads the line between swing and punch, structured composition and free improvisation—blending styles in interesting ways without ever getting noisy or pretentious...But the most exciting part of Mythos is Pavone himself. You can take many approaches to listening to this record, but if you make the effort to listen to his lines, you'll hear an unswerving devotion to forward motion...Mario Pavone remains impossible to categorize, with roots all over the map. This is toe-tapping, misty-swirling, percolating, mind-bending, heat-emitting music, all wrapped in one.

Jazz. And it works."

Mario Pavone's most recent release is Pivot (released December 2002 on Playscape Records), his third recording as co-leader with guitarist Michael Musillami and including trombonist Art Baron, drummer George Schuller, and saxophonist George Sovak.

Special thanks go to Mary Pavone and Wendy White for assistance in correspondence.

Extra special thanks to Mario Pavone for taking time out from the creative process to participate in the Q&A.

All About Jazz: Would you please tell the AAJ readers about where you were born, raised, and what your earliest musical memories are?

Mario Pavone: I was born in Waterbury, CT on November 11, 1940. I grew up there and actually loved music early on. I can remember playing hairbrushes on plastic kitchen chair seats to the 4 Aces on the radio. But I had no music lessons or studies. In 1954 I went to a primarily black high school (it was called "Leavenworth High") and I quickly became aware of black music, rhythm and blues and the most popular black vocal groups. The black versions of songs, say by The Penguins, and the white version by The Crew Cuts. It was clear to me how much better the black groups were—where the music really came from. First lesson!

AAJ: When did your first exposure to jazz occur? What was your reaction?

MP: While I was a freshman at The University of Connecticut in 1958 a fellow student had this incredible jazz record collection. Before long I was spending 4 hours a day in his room listening to Ahmad Jamal, Brubeck, Chico Hamilton's "South Pacific", etc. and the love affair with the music began. But I didn't really ever think I would be a player, too old, etc. On my honeymoon in N.Y.C in late October/early November 1961, Mary and I went to The Village Vanguard not really knowing what to expect. Turns out Coltrane was playing there with the classic quintet (Dolphy, Tyner, Garrison, and Elvin Jones). Well, this was the defining moment, for 2 hours we were pinned to our seats, not really knowing what was going on, was this really church, was this the real religion, etc. the torrent of sound, emotion, and love was overpowering! As we all know, and as I discovered later on, they were recording one of the most influential jazz albums ever made—"Live at the Village Vanguard".

AAJ: Your bio indicates that you did not begin playing the bass until the age of 24. Did you have any previous musical education? If so, how would you describe your musical training? Formal? Informal? Both? Your bio also states that guitarist Joe Diorio encouraged you to pick up the bass. Were there any other circumstances that led you to choose the bass as instrument of choice? Please elaborate.

MP: In the summer of my senior year at UConn (1964) I ventured on an impromptu trip with a friend to Chicago, where another Waterbury native, an already legendary guitarist, Joe Diorio, was living and playing. The experience was significant and when I returned I rented an upright bass and took 2 lessons with famed new music and chamber bassist Bert Turetsky. I liked the sound of the acoustic bass underneath the music, but I think primarily I thought starting music at this late age, that the bass would be the easiest instrument to learn. Boy was I wrong!

AAJ: You attended the funeral of John Coltrane. This seems to have been the event where you decided (or discovered) that you had to become a musician. Would you please share this experience with the AAJ readers?

MP: I graduated from UConn with a major in Industrial Engineering and worked for several large corporations. I was playing the bass on and off for a couple of years, but not fully committed. Then in July of 1967 I heard Trane has passed. I left my briefcase, etc. there at my desk knowing, I think, that I would never return, and drove to the city to attend the funeral. It was an unbelievable scene. There appeared to me, to be a mist or cloud or spirit just above Trane, up front on the altar; he seemed to be already rising. In the choir behind him, Ayler, Ornette, Tommy Flanagan, etc. were playing. We knew the music had lost its current moving force, and I knew that I wanted to do music full time.

AAJ: Who or what are your most profound sources for influence and inspiration? (these can include non-musical items) Why or how do these influence and inspire you?

MP: Well, the music of Trane, Scott Lafaro and Mingus all spoke to me most directly and most deeply. The black rhythm and blues vocal groups, as I have mentioned, were early influences. Movie music from the 40's (my mom took me to the movies several times a week when I was 8—11 years old). Today what inspires me is the music and personal integrity of my heroes, Threadgill, Braxton, Leo Smith, Marty Ehrlich, Dave Douglas, Muhal, Dave Holland, Marks Helias and Dresser, and many others—along with today's great young player/ composers, Tony Malaby, David Berkman, Ben Allison, Peter Madsen, Matt Wilson, Mike Sarin, and again - many many others.

AAJ: From 1968 to 1972 you toured with Paul Bley. In retrospect, what did you learn during this time period that proved to make the most impact on your career and/or musical philosophy?

MP: Paul is a master—his open harmony—use of space—long periods of silence—shading of notes, etc., and he is so lyrical. All this left its mark on me back then—but I must tell you that I also learned some important things from Bley about the music business. He was protective of his music, and he believed in documenting when he played. And invariably in Europe, he would bring over one or another incredible historic reel to reel tape to deal with the record people. It wasn't just about playing—early on, he took care of the business and conveyed that "take charge of your own stuff" attitude.

AAJ: Your initial experience as a musician seems to have been primarily with free improvisation. When did you become interested in composed forms and why? Also, are you self-taught as a composer?

MP: In the late 60's I met the vibraphonist and composer Bobby Naughton—who was already issuing his original compositions on self produced vinyl (OTIC). Then in the mid 70's with the formation of the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum (CMIF) with founding members Leo Smith, Gerry Hemingway, Wes Brown, Reverend Dwight Andrews, Bobby and myself—the chance to compose and have the piece performed became a reality. The CMIF was an organization whose guiding principles were loosely based on the precepts of Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music). The organization based in New Haven from 1978 to 1983 produced concerts and recordings. The major impetus for me to compose came directly from Leo. During this time Leo was really the guiding force in the organization and in my musical life. He was always encouraging members to compose their own pieces. He was just so supportive—with a great sense of integrity for what we were doing. Leo is an incredible trumpet player and equally incredible human being. So, while I am basically self-taught, I would credit Leo and Bobby with offering the motivation, and some ideas about open ended composing.

AAJ: What advantages of improvisation do you feel composers usually don't understand or appreciate? What advantages of composition do you feel improvisers usually don't understand or appreciate?

MP: As to these two questions—my experience has been to work with composers who understand the important link between composing and improvisation. In fact, one goal for many of us is to blur the line between the two. To some extent my composing comes from quirks of fingering, rhythmic slips, whatever—that occurs when I'm improvising—and invariably become seeds for a composition.

AAJ: Do you feel that your education and training as an industrial engineer has had an effect or influence on your methods of composing and /or playing? If 'yes" please elaborate on how you feel this is so.

MP: Well—only in a general way—as to constructing lines—like building blocks and then moving them around—deconstructing—I suppose some of the engineering training comes in—setting up components into grids, etc.—but it's really that final emotional color that's most important.

AAJ: In the liner notes to Song for (Septet) (released in 1994) you mentioned that your approach to the bass at the time was different than previously in your career. Do you feel your approach to the bass is different yet again here in 2002? As follow up, in hindsight, do you perceive your style of playing as consisting of distinct phases throughout your career? Or has it been a series of transitions? Or a combination of both?

MP: I hope my approach to the bass is always evolving. I try to learn from everything I hear—other music, everyday sounds, washing machines—language patterns. It's really a series of transitions.

AAJ: You've mentioned in earlier interviews that you compose on the bass and rarely, if ever, move to the piano (unlike other bassist/composers). Is this still the case? Why or why not?

MP: Yes, I still start the work on the bass—but I will check out one line against another—hear a little harmony and relation between the notes on the piano. But much of what I'm trying to do with these compositions comes from a rhythm section view. Kind of magnifying the myriad of things the bass does in the music.

AAJ: As follow up, what other relevant differences and distinctions do you believe exist between your method and style in comparison to those of other musicians?

MP: What gives each of us our distinctive voices? If one follows this music—they can usually recognize a Marty Ehrlich composition or a Threadgill piece—right away. In my work everything starts with the bass—and from there many things will guide where the music is headed—I'm looking for what pleases me—the combination of notes may not be so intentional—at times its like throwing paint randomly until the emerging pattern seems right.

Mario Pavone AAJ: What defines a successful piece of music for you? (whether in our own work or that of others).

MP: The element of surprise is very important. I want the piece to put me a bit on the edge of my seat. If it sounds too familiar, i.e. too closely references older styles—I will usually lose focus. I like the music to hit a groove—but maybe get there in a round about way.

AAJ: From among the many gifted musicians you've played with, who has provided the most challenging environment and/or satisfying creative relationship? (note: don't feel that you have to limit yourself to one musician. Another way of asking this question may be: Who have you learned the most from working with? What is it you've learned?)

MP: I have already mentioned Paul Bley and Leo Smith but I have been fortunate to have other masters as mentors. In the late 60's (with his Orchestra of the Streets in New York City) and then later touring and recording throughout the 80's—trumpet master Bill Dixon shaped my outlook. The music on the cds "November 81" and "Son of Sisyphus" on the Soul Note label are wonderful documents of this time. Bill's life long commitment to his music—in the face of minimal acknowledgement from the music establishment—has not wavered. One of the common threads among the musicians who have left a lasting mark on me—has been their use of space, sound and silence. Bill is a beautiful trumpet player who can sculpt a vision out of a handful of notes—perfectly placed. There were times when we were touring in Europe in the 80's when Bill would initiate each piece for the whole evening's performances with one or two gestures. With a certain movement of his hand, he would cue the music and we would know just where we were heading. More recently, in the 90's, I have been fortunate to have strong musical bonds with alto saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Marty Ehrlich and Thomas Chapin. And while we will probably speak about them later, their incredible energy and virtuosity has continued to spur me on.

AAJ: What recording(s) as a sideman do you wish more people would be exposed to? Why?

MP: One would certainly be "Son of Sisyphus" with Bill Dixon on the Soul Note label (1988) with Laurence Cook (drums) and John Buckingham (tuba). First of all, most of Bill's work has been very under-appreciated. This recording finds him leading the language charge—dialogue, sound and space (silence)—in eloquent fashion. There is so much information coming from the quartet! It's a way of playing that I don't do as much of now.

Also, there's a 1968 trio record (Canada radio) now out of print—with Paul Bley and Barry Altschul that I still like very much.

AAJ: How did you come to meet Thomas Chapin?

MP: In the summer of 1980—a friend suggested that I attend a concert at Bushnell Park in Hartford, CT—To hear this remarkable saxophonist. (The concert was a tribute to Charles Mingus and was directed and conducted by former Mingus sideman—Saxophonist Paul Jeffreys) the band was filled with notables such as Junior Cook, Ray Copeland, Bill Hardman, Joseph Celli, Kenny Barron, etc. It was an exciting concert—but the level was jacked up several notches every time Thomas stood up to solo—it really knocked me out! I met him after the concert—we became friends—and began an 18-year musical relationship—where we played in each other's groups and exchanged ideas and concepts.

AAJ: What have you learned from working with Thomas Chapin that you believe has made (or will continue to make) the most impact upon your musical philosophy?

MP: Thomas was a consummate professional—a stern task master—a virtuoso saxophonist and flautist—who always pushed himself and the group further—adding new challenges. He possessed a huge spirit. During the 80's & 90's we evolved along similar paths—sharing and exchanging concepts. His defining group—the trio—(with drummer Michael Sarin and myself) existed from 1990 to 1997, we had a great ride. I always thought he wrote big band music for trio (He was musical director of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in the 1980's). He could play in or out with great command of the languages of each genre.

All of this has had a large impact on my music—and I still play several of his compositions in my trio performances.

AAJ: What musicians that you have never worked with before would you like to work with?

MP: Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Ellery Eskelin, and Ornette.

AAJ: Although this next question is like asking a father to name his favorite child, which recording(s) would you most recommend to someone unacquainted with your work? Why?

MP: I would recommend Song for (Septet) (New World/Counter Currents, 1995) as a good starting place for someone unacquainted with my work. The brilliant arrangements by Marty Ehrlich and the late Thomas Chapin, as well as the instrumentation (vibes, clarinet, flutes) offer a rich pallet of attractive colors and textures. It's a very singing cd.

AAJ: In retrospect, which of your recordings was most challenging and/or "difficult" to complete? Why? Which of your recordings was most satisfying or "fun" to complete? Why? (note: these could be answered from the perspective of composing/rehearsing/recording or any combination of factors.)

MP: The most recent CD Mythos (Playscape Recordings, 2002) took some time to complete and was recorded at several studios in NYC and Vermont—mostly it was about logistics and scheduling of personnel and wanting to do some Quintet cuts along with the Nu Trio. But really most projects have come to completion very easily. Totem Blues (Knitting Factory Records, 2001) was really fun to do—It was a large group (Octet)—but everyone had fun and we got it done in 8 hours!

AAJ: What's the funniest or most embarrassing thing that's happened to you while performing or recording?

MP: Well, while I was touring with the Thomas Chapin Trio in 1992—and had to leave the tour bus—pick-up my own car—drive to NYC to sign a recording contract and then hook up with the tour in another city—I was late and drove for hours—got to the gig and noticed I had a flat tire—I played the set and went out and changed the tire. After the second set the trio (with Mike Sarin) came outside went to my parked car and as we approached it I exclaimed "My God—I have another flat tire!"—well, it turned out that in my rushing I had changed the wrong tire—a perfectly good one—it was a good laugh for all of us—and shortly thereafter Thomas wrote a new composition—entitled "Changes 2 Tires." (which appears on a Thomas Chapin cd called "Sky Piece." (Knitting Factory))

AAJ: Do you have any techniques you personally employ to enhance or restore your own creative energy when you encounter difficulties in composing? If so, what are they?

MP: Well I suppose "composers" block is inevitable at times. When this happens I will try to stay away from the bass for a day or two. Often I will seek out visual stimuli—for instance I'll read a biography of a painter whose work I like—revisit some paintings etc.

AAJ: What projects (releases, recording projects, tours) can we expect from you in 2003-2004?

MP: I've just returned from several European tours with both my Nu Trio (with Peter Madsen & Gerald Cleaver) and the co—led Quartet with guitarist Michael Musillami. Several tours are set for 2003 and I'm working on new music for the Quintet (with Tony Malaby and Steven Bernstein). I'm also excited about my relationship with Playscape Recordings and with Michael Musillami—we will release (on Dec. 1, 2002) a new co-led CD entitled Pivot with music composed by both leaders and featuring trombonist Art Baron, drummer George Schuller, and saxophonist George Sovak.

AAJ: Thank you, good sir, for spending time with All About Jazz.

MP: In closing, I would like to add an acknowledgment and thanks to those artists who, so generously, passed on to me their gift for creativity: Paul Bley, Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Dewey Redman, Marty Ehrlich, and of course the late Thomas Chapin...among many others. Thank you.

Selected Discography

as leader
Digit (Alacra, 1979)
Shodo (Alacra, 1981)
Sharpeville (Alacra, 1988; reissued Playscape, 2000)
Toulon Days (New World/Countercurrents, 1992)
Song for (Septet) (New World/Countercurrents, 1995)
Dancer's Tales (Knitting Factory, 1997)
Remembering Thomas (Knitting Factory, 1999)
Totem Blues (Knitting Factory, 2001)
Mythos (Playscape, 2002)

as co-leader with Michael Musillami
Op-Ed (Playscape, 2000)
Motion Poetry (Playscape, 2001)
Pivot (Playscape, 2002)

as co-leader with Anthony Braxton
Nine Duets (Music and Arts, 1993)
Seven Standards (Knitting Factory, 1994)

with Thomas Chapin
Third Force (Knitting Factory, 1990)
Insomnia (Knitting Factory, 1991)
Anima (Knitting Factory, 1992)
Menagerie Dreams (Knitting Factory, 1994)
Haywire (Knitting Factory, 1996)
Sky Piece (Knitting Factory, 1998)
Nightbird Song (Knitting Factory, 1999)
Alive (8 cd set) (Knitting Factory, 1999)
note: this set is the 7 cds listed above plus one live cd

with Bill Dixon
November 1981 (Soul Note, 1981)
Thoughts (Soul Note, 1985)
Son of Sisyphus (Soul Note, 1988)

with Paul Bley
Canada (Radio Canada, 1968)

with Paul Bley and Annette Peacock
Dual Unity (Tokuma, 1971)

with Michael Pavone
Trio (Playscape, 2001)

with Creative Improvisers Orchestra
The Sky Cries the Blues (CMIF, 1982)

with Samm Bennett
Knitting Factory Tours Europe 1991 (Knitting Factory, 1991)

with Vernon Frazer
Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike (Woodcrest, 1988)

with Motation
Live At Hillside (Alacra, 1988)

with Don Rose
Close Opposites (Alacra, 1979)

Photo Credit
Juan-Carlos Hernández

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