Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life
AAJ: If one album sums up the eclectic nature of your musical interests it's Masks (Unichrom, 1998). In this compilation you combine performances from many different venues, taken over a period of several years, and encompassing a musical variety that includes vignettes of stride, bebop, third stream, avant-garde and even church music into this one recording. Who were you trying to reach with this recording?
JR: An agent! I didn't put it together that way. I want to put out a record and I started with the Requiem back in 1969. I always recorded a lot of my concerts some with professional engineers. So yes, it is a picture of me as to where I still am musically all over.
AAJ: I have noticed in your work a tremendous ability to create unpredictable lines from seemingly predictable melodies, while keeping the listener involved and always somehow tying the variations back to the melody. Is this all the result of some formulaic methodology that you employ or is it a spontaneous creation from your mind's eye?
JR: It's the composer in me. It's like looking over the music from above. It's my sense of balance has a composer and my sense of variety never wanting to repeat thinks twice. I heard "Halloween" from the first album [Blue Sean Green] and, in all humility, I am quite amazed at the improvisation section that I breathe in and out. I heard it recently and I said, "Man that's fresh still!"
AAJ: Some artists believe that jazz music has basically run its course; that there is nothing new or innovative since Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Some say it is filled with a plethora of retro players, playing the hell out of the music, but with no real innovation. Has jazz as a musical form run out of new and innovative ideas?
JR: If you define jazz as a small group [format] and that's what we were talking about, then I think in that sense yes. The art of jazz in that sense has run its course. If you are talking about the song form, the American a song, yes. To me, I have composed within that framework, of that structure, thinking a melody that is singable and I've come up with [something]; that's pretty standard. If you're jazz player there is always a challenge to make the improvisation "From This Moment On " or on "My Funny Valentine"; I still play that [song]. I have worked on that for years and I try to break away from the form that [Richard] Rodgers had. I don't destroy what he had; I try to enhance it with a certain progression, so it challenges me too.
When I say there is no composer that has married classical and jazz [that] well, I would like to think I have achieved some [success] with that. Rodgers was a song form composer, so his greatest songs will last. Jazz players who compose something on top of "All the Things You Are" harmonies; to me that is a cop out. Parker did it and Lennie Tristano did it all the time. When you think like the composer and come up with a structure that has an appeal to jazz players, [then] they're challenged by it. "My Funny Valentine," to me I shied away from it for years because of the openingdescending bass lines you can't get away from. "Everything I Love," by Cole Porter, I reworked. If you read the piano chart, it is the simplest thing in the world. When I first approached it I said, "Oh wow." I sat down and tried to re-harmonize it. I did it and put it away for years. I took it out and played it in London for the last couple of years and it is totally different.
AAJ: Who best represents a new direction in the music today to you?
JR: That's hard. I say George Russell right off the top of my head. He has a very special kind of vocabulary; so developed out of his theory, the Lydian Chromatic theory. I studied with George, too. It was about four lessons over two years. Because I had to learn what was in each chapter.
AAJ: Was Russell the one who got Miles Davis to play Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)?
JR: No, Bill Evans did. Bill had the whole modal thing down, and Miles knew and Miles learned from him. George's modal thinking is totally different. His thinking, you might say, is diametrically opposed to anything that jazz players have to face. His theory makes it easy to superimpose scales over chords. There's no tonality in George's music. There's no key.
AAJ: Despite your prolific and accomplished career you remain relatively under the radar to the mainstream listener. To what do you attribute this?
JR: As I look back now, it's partly not having the network, [like] where a major label is behind me. I had to do it all myself. It's not that I didn't play in public a lot. Since I've gone out of my way to get my name in the trades it's slowly coming around.
AAJ: Of all the students that you taught is there anyone that particularly stands out as someone who has found a distinctive voice on the instrument?
JR: Most of my students do find a distinctive voice and don't become as famous as Bill Charlap, but he was a student of mine in his teens. He had already shown a lot of finesse [before coming to me]. He was with me weekly. I don't like to say he has his own voice because of me. The way I teach, as I said before- -very slowly, note-to-note, there's a special path to go through where you develop your own individuality immediately. You're forced to hear your own way. Kevin Hays was with me and he showed great promise.