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Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life

By Published: January 14, 2008
Schuller is off-the-wall with this. He doesn't have a clue. He's a wonderful, fantastic composer. I didn't think [McFarland's October Suite] was deep enough. I don't think Gary McFarland had enough understanding of classical [music] to make a marriage. Schuller is a fantastic classical composer and conductor and musician of the highest order, if anyone is underrated he is, but to call his opera, "The Visitation, a jazz opera is a joke. The only thing that is related to jazz or that you could hear, because I went to the premier, you heard a bass part that sounded like Ray Brown and that was it. I'm sure it wasn't his idea to call it a jazz opera. It's a very difficult piece to warm up to. In [Bird with Strings], Charlie Parker played great, but the part that was written for the strings was just corn.

AAJ: Are you concerned that by trying to meld the two forms of music into a so-called Third Stream, you may alienate listeners from both camps and wind up with a depleted audience?

JR: I believe you will alienate your listeners if that's what you want to do in a patchwork sense, from classical to jazz, and come up with something. It won't have any depth for me as a listener and you would alienate your audience if that's all you did. It sickens me that now classical pianist are coming in and trying to play jazz, and they're getting notoriety and I know what they sound like before I hear them.

Jack ReillyAAJ: Your music has been characterized as being somewhat cerebral. Would you consider it specialized or elitist or do you see it having mass appeal?

JR: I see it as having mass appeal. It's not cerebral at all other than having to listen and be very aware of what you're doing when you write. First comes the inspiration with me. If it's a large work it's harder, because it's harder to see the end. With a song you have thirty-two bars, forty bars; that's easy. Some of my music is only eleven measures, yet it's complete. It's a challenge to improvise in eleven measures, playing it over and over. "Orbitals," the piano concerto, was the biggest challenge of my life.

AAJ: It has been said that improvisation is the instantaneous art of faithfully translating musical ideas formed in your head to actual sounds played on your instrument. Exceptional improvisation is accomplished by freeing yourself from the confines of your musical history to the extent that you must create—not copy or emulate from what you have heard before. Is this a fair statement?

JR: It's spontaneous certainly because that's what improvisation is defined as, but it's the art of sitting down with your instrument and inventing something for the moment. It's not something that you see ahead. You go with the flow. The idea at the moment. The more you know, the more you're accomplished on your instrument; to me the higher and deeper you can go when you start to improvise. If you want to divide improvisation to modal, tonal and atonal, then you have three different periods of jazz and classical music to draw on. Yes, you kind of draw on the spirit of each era when you improvise. I'm thinking as a pianist. The goal is to get beyond, go to something fresh and new. I think you have to walk through the eye of the needle to do that.

Lennie always said, "Don't worry if you play something that someone already played, that you've heard and it comes out like Parker or it comes out like Earl Hines, don't worry about that. You have to go through that." I just thought of that now; I haven't thought of that for thirty or forty years. That advice stuck with me. Guys would learn stuff and they think they're improvising and they're not. I know some well-known up-and- coming young lions, pianists who don't move me at all but they're fantastic players. None of them did do a freeform thing. They just play the song form.

AAJ: As a teacher, how do you instruct your students how to best accomplish this?

JR: Very slowly. When they approach improvising, whether it's blues form or boogie-woogie up to swing or even Lennie; he played a blues, a Requiem for Charlie Parker ...pretty far out. Whether it's the American popular song or whether is free form... I start with teaching them how to hear a melody and the second note takes you to the melody. If you hit one note there's emptiness; as soon as you hit the next note you have to take it somewhere. That's what you start teaching someone—how to create spontaneously, whether it's on a chord progression or scale or the interval you just played.

align=center>Jack Reilly Trio l:r Jack Reilly, Steven Keough, Dave Green

AAJ: If, in fact, real improvisation can only be achieved when the artist frees himself from the collective musical memory of the past, then is freeform jazz the only genre that truly creates with no attachment to what has been played before?

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