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David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

By Published: February 25, 2008

When I'm really contributing, I get into a space where I'm not thinking about anything else, I may not even be conscious of what I'm doing, but I feel that I'm taking the space that a jazz musician should take. —Jim Ridl, Pianist

The idea for this interview came to me when I became aware of two aspects of jazz as a creative, artistic process. First, unlike most other art forms, jazz creativity emerges directly in performance through improvisation. Every jazz performance is unique and comes together in real time while it is being played. Each moment is an original contribution, and not merely an interpretation. Second, it is clear that some musicians push the envelope more than others. They take necessary risks to explore new territory. Sometimes, they redefine the nature of jazz itself. While they appreciate their lineage, they are not satisfied with merely pursuing what came before them. I began to wonder what such musicians themselves think of their creative process. What leads them to push the envelope and expand their repertoire and approach?

align=center>David Liebman / Jim Ridl

David Liebman and Jim Ridl

The jazz legacy, not to mention the contemporary scene, is rich with individuals and groups who are inventive, thoughtful, and innovative. There are many I could have interviewed about their creativity. Two who immediately came to my mind were saxophonist David Liebman and pianist Jim Ridl. First of all, I know their work well—my record library is packed with their recordings and I've heard them in person numerous times. Second, pushing the envelope is part and parcel of what they do. Every performance and recording covers new territory and goes beyond what they did the last time. Furthermore, Liebman and Ridl are independent practitioners, so to speak, yet from time to time they come together to work on various projects. They are good friends and colleagues. So I suggested to them a conjoint interview, and they liked the idea. We met at Liebman's home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania on a Saturday afternoon. The interview itself had all the spontaneity and color of a good jazz set.

As Ridl points out, jazz is a complex medium of expression. It calls for both musical intelligence and passion. The musician draws on multiple sources: music of all kinds, personal life experience, current events, history, and culture, and something intangible within the self, whether it be called soul, inspiration, the Muse, or the Spirit. This interview covers the gamut of what goes into making jazz at its best such a creative, inspiring, and self-generating endeavor.

Chapter Index

  1. On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope
  2. Sources of Inspiration and Ideas
  3. The Creative Process: Putting It All Together
  4. Getting to the Source
  5. On Improvisation
  6. Music on the Brain
  7. The Individual and Collective Unconscious: Freud Versus Jung
  8. Practical Matters, Goals, and Advice to Young Musicians

On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope

All About Jazz: Both of you are willing to take risks when you play. For example, I was listening recently to Ridl's Five Minutes to Madness & Joy (Synergy, 1999) and Dave's CD based on Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965), and both recordings have a sense of adventure, of pushing the envelope, as distinct from those who stay "close to the shore" and do the traditional thing. So my first question is what are some of the sources in the jazz heritage, in your groups, and in life in general from which you find yourself drawing inspiration?

Jim Ridl: For me, I'm influenced by many, many things. In terms of musical styles, it's really across the board. That's why I'm so glad I'm in this art form of jazz. It can absorb all these different things into one person, who can express in a jazz way and a creative way what they have to say, even though they're influenced by anything from Rachmaninoff to a country tune to something Brazilian. And that's just in music; the influences can include literature, the visual arts, and so on. More specifically, when I started out, I was listening to all kinds of jazz music. There's enough complexity in what people are playing, but I'm not thinking intellectually about it. I'm just taking in that it's grooving, it has a blues thing about it, it has a complexity. So let's say I'm listening to Oscar Peterson, I'm not getting a deep philosophical thing; I'm getting this groove, and the complexity of what he's playing. Whereas if I listen to Bill Evans, I start to dream a little bit more, because maybe it's a certain impressionistic sound that I can relate to some classical things.

David LiebmanDavid Liebman: You bring up a few points, Vic, for example this notion of taking a chance when you play, which is not the norm. That's something I've thought about quite a bit. But regarding inspirations, I think the whole idea of being inspired, for any artist, is really the key for longevity in this field. Because when you're young you're going to be inspired by what's around you, and of course your own work. But after twenty or thirty years, it's a real challenge to keep inspired. It's not that you've seen it all and been around, you've had your love affairs, you've seen war, and so on: the things that make you what you are, and the music. But how do you accomplish what Duke Ellington did, or Picasso? That, for me, is the real deal of ageing, which is relevant to me now because I'm in my sixties and into my fortieth year in the business.

AAJ: Do you have some suggestions for musicians in later phases of their career?

DL: Yes—accepting that "forward" is not the only way to go. "Sideways" is valid, meaning that when I was younger, everything had to be "more" to be convincing, learning a new scale, a new influence, new Indian player, new painting, new book, etc. That run is over. I see that you can go backwards, taking a new look at something you've done before. Jim walked in and I'm working on Jerome Kern. Now, Kern is standard material that we have been through—everybody plays All the Things You Are," for example [Note: Liebman and Ridl jammed on that tune after the interview. Give a listen: here] We've been through the Jerome Kern literature, because that's part of the learning, the bebop literature, so to say. But now I'm looking at it in a new way, and that's what I call sideways and backwards. Something you didn't cover you might cover again, or cover it in a different way, and it might not necessarily be 'new' in capital letters, but new for you. Once you accept it, and get good at it, then you'll probably be good until the day you die, as far as inspiration goes.

AAJ: So in a sense the creative process itself changes and evolves in the course of your career.

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Sources of Inspiration and Ideas

DL: Exactly, first you learn the language, as inspired by our masters, then by our contemporaries and those we play with. Then, if you're fortunate enough, you'll have outside influences from other artists, and if you're the kind of person who looks around you, then you're going to have inspirations from the trees, or from the Hiroshima Memorial, which I've written about, or the death of someone close, and so on. In other words, you're going to take everything you can and use it. Once you say you're an artist, your job is to take and use in order to give your feeling and your beliefs to the world. So you don't waste a drop, once you realize that this is your job.

AAJ: The two of you are making some interesting points. One is that inspiration can come from music and musicians, but it can also come from significant life experiences. For instance, some of Jim's compositions, like "Sun on My Hands," relate directly to personal images and memories.

DL: I would say that most of mine do also.

AAJ: To me, Dave, that's interesting, because your music is so complex, that one would imagine that you're focusing on the music as such, and using music theory most of the time.

DL: If I write a tune, it might be, say, about my dog Cleo who died, and I'm not being facetious here. But does that make a difference to the listener? The typical listener doesn't really care about such details. It took me a long time to realize that just because something inspires me, it doesn't mean anybody else is going to get that same feeling out of that tune. It's just that it's food for me.

AAJ: I don't quite agree. I think that the sources of the music are of interest to the listener, even though he or she might not experience it in the same way. The philosopher Georg Gadamer, who was a student of Heidegger, held that the "interpretation" of a work of art emerges from the dialogue between the viewer or listener, the artist, and the work itself. It's not an objective truth, but something that emerges between the participants. It's not a given.

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The Creative Process: Putting It All Together

AAJ: Now, the next question requires a lot of ego, so you need to let go of any false humility [(laughter]. If someone were going to introduce you at a jazz education or jazz journalism conference, and they intended to introduce you as a genuinely original and creative force in jazz, what would you want them to say about you?

Jim RidlDL: Well, false humility aside, I would never deign to think that I've contributed on a major level in comparison with the jazz "fathers" whom I adore. On the other hand, I have made a contribution to my instrument, in my case to the soprano saxophone, which is really what I intended to do when I stopped playing tenor for a time in the 1980s. I've thought about the instrument and ways to verbalize my observations. Some of my books have made a contribution to theory and aesthetics. I'm proud of that. On the other hand, there are four or five great innovators of this music, and the rest of us are lucky if we get a little piece of it. Richie Beirach and I would say that if you could get a little pinky toe of Coltrane, you could spend your life on it.

JR: For me, I feel as if I'm still in the process of contributing. I've been composing and improvising since I was really young, but now I'm beginning to understand more of what I'm doing. In that sense, I believe that when I'm really contributing, I get into a space where I'm not thinking about anything else, I may not even be conscious of what I'm doing, but I feel that I'm taking the space that a jazz musician should take. Like when I work with Dave, he takes that space every time, meaning that's where the musician should be. So, OK, maybe what I'm doing is not all that innovative, but I'm pushing, I'm pushing something, I'm stretching it in a way that at times it's different enough, that it pushes the envelope. For example, these days, I'm more selective about when and where I play. I'm not gonna play every gig, but I'm going to do work where I can contribute to this art form—that's really important to me. I've always been creative, but it took me a long time to get to where I know that's what I'm about.

AAJ: To quote from Miles Davis, "I'll play it first, and tell you what it is later." That's the creative "space" you're talking about.

DL: A lot of times you don't know what you're doing initially, and then you codify it. In my case, for example, I recently taught my "chromatic approach" at the Manhattan School of Music, and they asked me, "How did you come up with that?" And I said, "Well the truth is, when I was playing with Elvin or Miles, I had no idea what I was doing. I never really thought about it. I was just hanging on for dear life! Then in the mid-eighties, I was teaching, and I had to explain what I'm playing." Actually, Miles and his generation didn't talk about these things at all. They were a little reticent or unwilling. There's a little bit of voodoo there—don't give it away, can't explain it, or we just don't explain it. In the current time, it's completely the opposite. I just came from the IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators] conference in Toronto, with all the clinics and symposia and books—jazz education has become a business. And I do think an artist should be able to explain how he got to the point where he is now.

AAJ: And that's one reason for this interview. Jim, apropos of this subject, it seems to me that one of your real contributions to jazz is bringing in various forms. Just as one example, your CD Your Cheatin' Heart and Other Works (Dreambox Media, 2005) turns country tunes into jazz, elaborating on the story each song contains, and then in Pianadelphia (Soulsearch, 2006), you did a takeoff on the Pat Martino tune, "The Great Stream," that was so far out that it sounded like it could have been written by Schoenberg or Shostakovich! Would it be fair to say that when you play, you're bringing in the rich legacy of music-as-a-whole in its great variety?

JR: Yes. I think I'm influenced my many things. Some of it is just by osmosis, but some of it is conscious. For example, I grew up on a farm, and that vibe is always coming through me in a certain way. Yet I can play much more complex things. I like both real "out music" and real "in music," and what I do is really a combination of the two. So in other words, I don't think I'm a "mutt," with too many things going on at once. I think I have enough cohesiveness to kind of hang and say what I'm supposed to say, whether it's a country tune or something a lot more 'out,' like twelve tone rows, or whatever. I don't feel funny about putting those things together—I think it's cool.

AAJ: There's something that runs through all of it—its not just a mish mash of styles.

JR: That's part of what's great about this art form. Like Dave draws from Puccini, Brazilan music, so many different sources. But it's always "Dave."

David LiebmanDL: Well, thankfully, eclecticism is now kosher. I'm a product of the sixties, which was a time of musical explosion on a mass level. You didn't have to be Charlie Parker to listen to Edgar Varese, or Indian music, but for a normal guy like me in Brooklyn, there was Folkways Records, UNESCO, the Bulgarian Girls' Choir, I mean I heard all this stuff, and it was all food for me. There was no distinction between Indian influence, or Beethoven or Puccini or James Brown. Of course, jazz was my avocation, so I put all my money in that ring, to develop myself in that way. But all the musical influences were valid. In the beginning of the sixties, it was the "Common Era" of jazz, so to speak. There was a common understanding of what jazz was all about. It was standard repertoire, blues, standard rhythm changes; people basically played the same language, which was why they became so good at it. Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, they played the same music night after night.

And then in the sixties, due to the cultural changes in America, suddenly you could have everything on the plate. You could do rock 'n roll, you could do fusion, you could have an Indian guy on the stage. Miles was very influential in that respect. He made it valid. John McLaughlin, what he did with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then eclecticism became a style. Before that, eclecticism was a negative judgment—it meant you're dilly-dallying with too many things, without having a focus. I used to get that criticism with my first group, Lookout Farm, because we'd go from a rock tune to an Indian tune. Jim's generation is a little younger than me, and certainly now, it's not only kosher, but it's a prerequisite that you should dance around to different idioms. You can go from an Indian raga to Schoenberg in the same set. The listener expects that. So jazz has really matured in that respect, to become truly a "fusion" music. I mean it was always "fusion" in the respect that it brought in blues, European harmony, African rhythms, and so forth, but we could trace the three to five things. Now we have thirty to fifty things so to say. And the internet has only sped that up.

AAJ: So the vocabulary has vastly increased.

DL: Absolutely, and the requirements have vastly increased. And the challenge now for a young artist is that there's so much food on the plate, what are you going to eat? You're in New York and within three blocks of each other, there are ten different ethnic restaurants, let's say. So now we have to consider, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna be really good at something, or are you gonna be a jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing?

AAJ: OK. So let's try to focus now on the actual process of the act of creation, try to put a microscope on it. For example, a player comes up and says, "Let's do this tune." It's a Jerome Kern tune, or it's an original by one of the group members, and you can do what you want with it. Can you sort of take us in that room and in that space in your head, and give us an idea about how you go about developing that raw material into some format which then becomes a whole arrangement and, in a sense, a new, improvised composition' How do you go from the initial inspiration to what is fleshed out in the performance?

DL: This was a big lesson I learned from Miles, because that was one of his strengths. In the studio, he was the greatest editor of all time—he'd cut away all the fat from the meat. What I learned from him is to ask, first, what does that band do best? Not what you wish it were, but what are your raw materials? What does that pianist do best? Now you need a keen sense of perception or judgment for that. So, play to their strengths in your arrangement. Then the musicians are going to do their best, and they're going to be personally satisfied as well. So it's both psychological and musical. Secondly, with a group, you always want a sense of group construction. So I will always say to them, what do you think? I'd want the input of the guys who are doing it. Jim here is a pianist, so he knows chords. I'm a melody player. If he brings in a tune, and it's awkward, it's my prerogative to suggest a change. So we go to where the strength is.

Jim RidlJR: I'm in total agreement with that. I'd just add that, for my own group, or even if I'm bringing in my own composition to someone else's group, as a composer, I want to have my tune so together, that the musicians will be able to absorb it really quickly. As much as possible, I want to get all the awkwardness out of my tune. Even the way I write it out—I don't want the guys to get all confused—if they do, it's my fault. You want the musicians to play great, so don't get in their way. So, I sit down at the piano, and it's part of the creative process to trim all the fat and "BS," so it'll sort of lay out. The musician will be able to take it all in and say, "Oh yeah, that's what it is." And then, in a jazz context, I like to present the tune, and then I want the particular players to bring their particular thing into the music. I don't like to specify too much in advance. If the tune is good, it'll have a certain vibe in it, and that's sufficient.

AAJ: You both suggest that an important part of creativity is parsimony—getting rid of the excess, the fat.

DL: Clarity is everything. For one thing, things will go faster, and in this day and age when you make recordings, you have very little time to go over the tunes. And we don't have the six nights a week at the club to get the tune in shape. Coltrane could afford that time to fix things, and believe me, by the third night it was together.

AAJ: You're saying that we are in an era of instant creativity.

DL: Yes we are, by our circumstances.

AAJ: Jim said another important thing—that part of a good composition is keeping it open, so that your musicians can develop it. And that's what really makes for a great jazz arrangement. The guys can take it and use it—it's not just interesting in itself, but it inspires the players in their own creativity.

DL: Elasticity. I'm always ready to yield to one of the guys if necessary. Someone prefers another chord—he's got it. I'm not stuck on what I wrote—it's just a point of departure. Once we have a mutual understanding, we can go forward.

JR: Before you arrived here, Vic, Dave asked me to read through a couple of his arrangements, and I thought to myself, "If this had been eight years ago, I could have hardly read this," because I didn't know Dave's musical language as I do now. Now, I can take in his harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic sense, and I can get it much more quickly, and get to some more creative moments with it instead of puzzling over it.

DL: That what musicianship is, and Jim is a great musician. He can get to it pretty quickly,

AAJ: Jim is also saying that he internalized it, that he's incorporated a piece of you. So he has a template which he can use. And then he can just go with the flow.

DL: It's like being in a foreign country. The first time, you're at sea, confused. After a while, you know what you can do. Now you can start to use the new culture in a way that it expands you. In the end, it's language. It's communication.

AAJ: And music really is a language. Someone recently told me about a book about a tribe somewhere, where they literally sing everything! Their whole society is based on song!

DL: Perfect!

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Getting to the Source

AAJ: Another aspect of the creative process is the nature of its source. Many times, creative people tell you they don't know where the idea came from. It's as if they believe there's a source beyond themselves. Sonny Rollins told me that at a certain point, it's not him that's playing—something takes over. This source, whatever it might be, has different names in different disciplines. In psychology, we call it the unconscious. Literary people call it the Muse. Zen Buddishm calls it transcendence. And Western religion calls it God. But all agree that there's something beyond the conscious self. So I wonder, do you feel the inspiration comes from a source outside yourself, or you feel it's just you doing your thing, constructing something interesting' Like a furniture maker putting together a chest of drawers, and so on.

DL: For me, I actually wrote a tune entitled "Le Roi du Monde," and when you're playing you are indeed the "king of the world." In French, it doesn't mean that you're the feudal lord; it means you're on top of the universe. When you're playing, there's nothing better. Everything is what you want it to be. It's your horn, your group is doing great, it's coming from yourself, but it's also coming from elsewhere. Some of it is mystical, but some of it is nuts and bolts. All of that's happening when your playing. And for me, it never happens other than when I'm playing music. You can, if you want, liken it to the sexual act: there's that moment of ecstasy. Maybe that's closest to what I'm talking about.

AAJ: In an orgasm, however, it's an emotion, rather than a construction. One usually doesn't get the idea for a novel or a tune when having sex or at the moment of orgasm! [Laughter] If you do, you're pretty cool!

DL: Well, this moment of "king of the world" includes the orgasmic feeling, but it's more than that.

AAJ: It's a wonderful terminology, because the paradox is that you feel like a king, but at the same time you're a humble channel for something bigger than yourself.

DL: Yes, and that's when you can say that you're "king of the world." You need to be pretty high up in the first place, in order to look higher up. So that's the moment of playing that is mystical—but also grounded.

AAJ: So, healthy narcissism is a good thing.

DL: Absolutely!

AAJ: Let's hear from Jim on this.

JR: It often times runs the gamut. If I'm arranging music for someone, and I don't have a deep connection, then I'm creative, but more as a craftsman. In that sense, I'm not having a truly transcendent moment, yet I'm being creative. But once in a while, on some arrangements I've done, it has felt much more personal and therefore, even more compositional. It's as if I'm in a space where I can feel it, like I'm goin' for that third cup of coffee, I'm not conscious of time, and it becomes a whole other activity that feels like I'm spontaneously composing.

Now, when playing, there are times when I feel I'm in an amazing space. Not necessarily an out-of-body experience, but like Dave was saying, I'm aware that, say, this is a C-seventh chord, but I'm playing things on it that I've never done before. Now, where that comes from, man, I really don't know. Maybe in some ways we are blessed with a Higher Power—I'm not one hundred percent sure about that. But it can happen in the craziest places. Like I'll be playing a crappy gig where no one's listening, but I'll be so inside what I'm doing that I'm in a very creative space. But even better is when you're connected with your audience.

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On Improvisation

DL: I think that as improvisers—whether jazz or not—playing in the moment, we know more about it than anyone on the planet. Unlike the painter or the composer, the improviser is doing his thing in real time---like a race car driver! Athletes are also in the moment. But we improvisers make an art out of being in the present time.

AAJ: It just occurred to me that a side question might be why real time improvising came to it's height in jazz. Why didn't Beethoven do it, for example?

David LiebmanDL: He did do it. But we don't have recordings!

AAJ: So in a way recordings have a lot to do with the evolution of improvisation in jazz.

DL: That's the truth. Jim here could've been Beethoven. History says these guys were the baddest cats around. Bach was the greatest improviser.

AAJ: So the jazz idiom itself is not responsible for improvisation as such.

DL: Well, there is something in the rhythm, in the African roots, that facilitates the real time aspect. The groove is what facilitates the real time. I might say there's no groove in a minuet, but Beethoven might say, wait a minute, man, there's a real groove in the minuet—you just don't know about it. But what's important is that in improvisation you're calling on all your faculties at the moment, and it's a magical moment that's unlike anything else in the world. Composing is interesting in itself. I've written hundreds of tunes over the course of forty years, and I don't know how I wrote them.

AAJ: Do you have any take on why some excellent musicians can improvise and some cannot? One of the first things that inspired pianist Bill Evans, was when he discovered that he could make something up as he was playing, change some aspect of the tune. He was immediately an improviser. But you have classical musicians who are superb performers, and they can't improvise at all.

DL: It's fear—they're afraid to improvise. They're so used to reading what's on the page, and getting their security from it—what could be more secure than Mozart? The thought of improvising a cadenza, say, is so fearful to them, and I would love it if you, Vic, who is a psychologist, would explain why they are so fearful to do their thing.

AAJ: It's an anxiety disorder—a phobia.

JR: It's also a learned behavior. Historically, I think there was a lot of improvising done until the nineteenth century. Then, when the Romantic period began, it became this thing of playing totally what the composer wanted, being faithful to the original, and you didn't go outside of that. But when I think about the great pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, I understand that he was an improviser, and he did an awesome takeoff on "Stars and Stripes." If he would've stepped out and taken a cadenza and improvised on it, the audience would have freaked out.

But I do think there are a lot of closet classical musicians who are actually highly creative improvisers, but that trend is just beginning. There's getting to be a crossover between classical and jazz. For example, Keith Jarrett's work has many classical elements in his improvising. It relates so much to a classical European repertoire, which he knows well. But I'm surprised more classical cats haven't come out and done that.

AAJ: The classical musician would have to overcome a certain taboo against breaking with tradition. But you raise an interesting question, namely, what allows someone to compose in real time, to be spontaneous in the moment in a certain medium?

DL: I think it's cultural. And the Romantic image of the writer, the artiste, the composer, being the conveyor or emulator of the Supreme Being, "I am the performer of the master's works." Now the fact that Horowitz became famous as a performer is basically a later development. On the other hand, way back when, Mozart was hired to work in the court of a King or Duke. Bach was hired by the Church. They were fully functioning in their job, so to speak: composing, performing, conducting to meet specific assignments. Later, the composer and performer became two different professions, two different individuals. So, it's the society that gives you permission what you can do. For example, African cultures have no problem with improvising. The Chinese, on the other hand, follow the western traditions. Jazz comes out of the "melting pot" mix of cultures in New Orleans which said, "Do as you want." It has to do with freedom. And the African influence on rhythm happened to slip in, so we have what we call jazz.

AAJ: Well, maybe we could say it's 'both/and': the culture and the individual. But you really brought to my attention that the culture has a huge impact. In some cultures, the children are brought up to improvise, while in western culture, the kids are brought up practicing scales. In Africa, they might just give the kid a drum and say, "Join us! Here are some things you can do."

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Music on the Brain

AAJ: Now let me go somewhat out of this context for a bit. As a psychologist, I'm interested in neuropsychology and the study of the brain. Recently, guitarist Pat Martino participated in a documentary about his miraculous recovery from memory loss due to an aneurysm and surgery. But that aside, neuroscientists tell us that musicians' brains are different from the rest of us. Modern brain scans can show both the structure of the brain and shifting activity levels in various parts as the subject performs certain tasks.

Interestingly, it appears that jazz musicians have more connecting fibers between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, and is actually larger in jazz musicians, even larger than those of classical musicians! The left brain does the cognitive, language, and logical stuff, while the right brain deals more with images, perceptions, emotions, and so on. When you play jazz, its real force comes from the bringing together of ideas and concepts (the inspiration, so to speak) with the emotions and the musical images. I just want to check that out with you as musicians—does part of what you do involve crossing that divide between ideas and images, concepts and realization, thought and action?

David LiebmanJR: Yes, that's true, and I think it's poorly understood by the masses that that's what jazz is, that it's a combination of soulfulness, yes, but you can't leave out that it's a real intellectual process. Jazz has grown into a very complex language, yet we can communicate a very complex thing to people who may never have heard it before. But the listener doesn't have to know this. Like when you listen to Coltrane's twenty-seven minute solo on "One Down, One Up." It becomes such a visceral thing to hear, but as a musician, I go "Wow, he's wipin' everybody out here!" It's highly complex, yet it's such a soulful place he got to.

AAJ: Trane was almost chanting when he played, almost trancelike. Yet it's all been thought out in a very complex way—with chord progressions, intervals. He even invented some new ones. And you guys do the same thing.

DL: What you're looking for in any artistic statement is a balance between head, hand, and heart, or mind, body, and soul. You want the thought, the feeling, and the technical means to do it. Some musicians have only one of the three—thirty-three percent of it. Some have the soul; some have incredible ingenuity and thinking—serialism, ideas, computers, etc. but no feeling, no vibe. But I think the ideal is mind, body, and soul, equally shared between the three. That's what I'm striving for. Playing it clean, no misses. Plus you're getting that feeling like you get from Trane, which of course is spiritual. Of course you can't do that all the time, but that's the goal, the vision.

AAJ: Let's stay with the brain/mind thing for a moment. Oliver Sacks recently wrote a book entitled Musicophilia (Knopf, 2007), in which he discusses musical oddities. One anomaly he discusses is a woman student, who was failing her class because she couldn't pass the exams. Her professor thought she was bright and called her into his office to find out why she was having trouble with the exams. As it turned out, she was a vocalist, and said, "I can remember things much better if I sing them." So he said, "'Well, sing it." And she proceeded to sing verbatim the entire course! Not only that, she sang it beautifully and the professor was enthralled.

Another example which occurs fairly often is where people see sounds and hear colors—they cross sensory modalities. In fact some great artists and musicians have this. For example, various tonalities and sonorities form different colors in their minds. It's a disorder, but it can also facilitate creativity. I'd like to ask you if you ever notice such oddities in yourself or your fellow musicians?

JR: It's pretty rare for me. I guess I can have a sense that a sound is blue, for example.

DL: I've only had it when I've been high on LSD. Out of body experiences, and so on. I think the brain is definitely capable of that. Musicians definitely have something going on there. Like a cat who can play things on his left hand that we can't even do with two hands, or the guy who can play tunes upside down and backwards, things like that.

JR: I've had dreams where I'm doing things that in reality are impossible to do. Like in one dream, it's surreal, but I'm playing piano on the floor, but there's no keyboard, and yet the sounds of string instruments are coming out. Then, the keyboard I'm playing on is a person, and it's my wife! Yet even though it's a dream, I can relate to it when I actually perform. Like there are times when I'm playing piano, but I hear string instruments in my mind.

AAJ: That's fascinating, and it's what I'm really getting at—not the freak behaviors, but just what the brain can do with sounds. And I'm wondering whether jazz musicians have a wider range of what they can do with sounds.

DL: Definitely. Brains are differently wired. The brain has even evolved over history—our brains are different from the cave man, right?

Jim RidlAAJ: Scientists have differing opinions about that. But today they believe the brain is more plastic than we believed; for example, it can generate new nerve cells, so there may be some truth to what you're saying. Julian Jaynes, in his book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Mariner, 2000), held that consciousness, hence the brain, has changed over the millennia. In particular, self-awareness and the ability to think about thinking was not a given, but emerged culturally and reached its apex in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jazz improvisation would not be possible in the absence of such a development.

DL: So too, what our brains can do musically is evolving, and the next generation will have something we don't, and so on. Charles Lloyd said to me, "You guys are better than I was." Last night, I had a sixteen year-old kid over here for lessons. I couldn't figure out how he was doing what he was doing! It's in the air! His young brain is wired differently from us older guys!

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The Individual and Collective Unconscious: Freud Versus Jung

AAJ: Dave, you have an interesting idea that you've stated in different ways, namely that creativity evolves over time. For example, modern abstract art is so very different from what realist painters did. Yet there are continuities as well. Now let's look at the depth psychological angle. Freud and Jung had two different theories of creativity and the arts. Freud held that creativity was a higher expression or sublimation of the basic instincts, say hunger and sex. Civilization, he said, causes us to channel our instincts for social and artistic purposes. For example, Freud attributed some of Leonardo DaVinci's work to his being a latent homosexual. He had another theory that art is the expression of an unconscious wish to give birth, have a baby.

DL: Primal stuff.

AAJ: Primal stuff—birth, hunger, sexuality. Jung felt that creativity comes from the racial unconscious.

DL: Archetypes.

AAJ: Yes. So that there are inherent symbols and forms from our ancestry that are innately present in our unconscious and that when we tap into them, we become creative.

DL: Would that be in the DNA?

AAJ: Yes, Jung would say that somewhere in the DNA is the archetype—not in a specific gene necessarily, but somewhere in the double helix, in the chemical structure. But the key point here is that for Freud, the creative process stems from gut level instincts and personal conflicts, while for Jung, the inspiration comes from an inner source that represents collective experience across many generations of humans on the planet, and even perhaps going back to our animal inheritance.

DL: So for Jung, our need to be creative is based on our need to acknowledge the past?

David LiebmanAAJ: For Jung, it's the need to be whole, to be complete, that makes us creative. We want to get in touch with our unconscious. It's integrative.

DL: For Freud, it was more temporal, based on personal history.

AAJ: More Darwinian perhaps as well---it's about survival, wanting to be fed, nurtured, procreate, reach orgasm, etc. So, I don't know if it's a fair question to ask musicians as opposed to scientists, but do you have some intuitive feeling about whether Freud or Jung speak more to your own creative process?

DL: Well, I can only tell you about an experience I had. I always felt that my attraction to the soprano saxophone in particular comes from the fact that it's a straight horn, and that somewhere in my past lives—whether figuratively or literally—that I once lived somewhere in deep heat and sunlight and sand in a desert environment. At one time, in the late seventies, I went to the Psychic Institute in Berkeley, California. I asked them, "Do you see anything in my aura that has to do with music?" They said, "You are in white robes, people are in a circle dancing, you are in blazing sun, you have something in your hand, and it's definitely white all around."

It later turned out that, just last March, I went to the Sahara Desert in Mauritania, as a treat for my sixtieth birthday with two friends. I tell you man, I felt home! As I developed my intense interest in the soprano saxophone, I wondered, why that instrument? That straight horn, and playing in that Middle Eastern vibe, it's Bedouin or Arab or something.

So to answer your question, I feel that both Jung and Freud are right, I know that Jung's Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (Vintage, 1961) is an important book in my life. I feel strongly that the artist has a responsibility to look back. To get back to the roots. On the other hand, there's no question that the need to play is based, say, on a difficult childhood. In my case I had a bad leg from polio. This is human—and Freud is saying that the human need to deal with frustration is there. But part of what the artist is responsible for is to dig out the archetypes and make them apparent to the world.

AAJ: The personal unconscious comes from childhood, and the collective unconscious comes from the evolution of the species. Jim, you must think this is intellectual bullshit. [Laughter.]

JR: No, no, it's not. I think there's a lot of truth in this psychological stuff, but for me I've never really studied Freud or Jung as to how it affects what I'm doing musically. I do think there is something very primal about what we do. I do feel that the places I've gone to with my music is such a privilege, I can't explain it, but my mind goes all over the place with it. Like Dave's experience with the soprano sax, that's amazing, but for me, I've been with the piano my whole life, it's real, it's my duty, and it's also very earthy for me.

AAJ: In your rendition of "Tennessee Waltz." on Your Cheatin' Heart, you play a child's mini-piano (Happyland baby piano) with it's unusual tinkling sound. I think that in a way, the serendipitous use of that instrument is a primal expression of something universal about the child in all of us. But what you're saying is that you're not as self-analytical as Dave.

David LiebmanJR: Well, I think I do analyze, but not in that way. Sometimes I wish I didn't analyze myself so damn much! [Laughter.]

AAJ: I think of you, Jim, as a very earthy guy, very practical, homespun. I'm surprised to hear you say that you obsess a lot!

JR: Well, the obsessive part never ends. I think you have to be obsessive to be an artist. It's like, "I'm afraid of this because I don't know when I can stop." But the culture is going to say, "You can only go so far." Yet with jazz, you can go deep, but as a musical community, we keep each other safe, we provide checks and balances. So that's very earthy, I mean I'm very aware of that, I feel very tribal, very ancient with this music, but I can't quite explain it all.

AAJ: You relate to the primal nature, the instinctual and emotional nature of what you do.

DL: And also the communal aspect of the jazz group. It is the vibe of the clan and the club and the party. The feeling of the group. Music is clean and pure. We're involved together in something clean and pure, and I might not even know the guy's name I'm playing with. I'm going to London soon, and I'll be playing with three guys I never met! This need to be in family, to be with others, to be connected. This is primal.

AAJ: And music facilitates that communal feeling.

DL: The clan, so to speak, invites others "the audience" to join them.

AAJ: Those are the African roots—the tribe gathers together, and the music generates this feeling of merger, of oneness.

DL: Inclusive rather than exclusive. It's not just me on that mountaintop; it's my brothers with me. There's that communal thing that drives us—it's a very strong force.

AAJ: Some noted authors, poets, and philosophers have touted this awesome "fellow feeling." I think of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," which Beethoven employed in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. The words are very much about fellow-feeling, about mankind united. What you seem to be saying is that somehow the music itself emerges from that fellow-feeling and also reinforces it.

JR: That's deep, man.

DL: The music is the perfection, the beauty, that all of us are trying to obtain.

AAJ: That's great praise for jazz. Paradoxically, in the fifties and sixties, jazz was thought of as a way to resist cultural conformity, to be hip, to be an individual. But you're saying that the other aspect is the communal aspect.

DL: Look at New Orleans—the funerals, the clubs, etc. The music was the way the community came together. People came there from all over—the Carribean, South America, Europe, they came to trade—and they were looking for ways to connect.

AAJ: Jazz has never been a "museum" art form, rather it's part of all our lives. Now, could each of you give us a sense about what it's like to go from the initial inspiration to the performance or recording? For instance, Jim's piece, "Five Minutes to Madness and Joy," based on the Walt Whitman poem. Or Dave looking for something new in the Jerome Kern tunes. You're trying to pull something out of an initial inspiration and "make it new," as the poet Ezra Pound said.

JR: Well, for me, my stuff comes from improvising at the piano. With the Whitman poem, the music actually came first for me, something way back from when I was in college. It played very well and felt very natural for me to play. Then I got a commission to write some music for a church that had a project about the history of Trenton, New Jersey. I checked out some poetry, and when I was reading Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), I found his poem "One Hour to Madness and Joy." It tied into what I was playing, and it made sense to relate the two. The poem is very exciting and passionate, very similar in tone and meaning to the musical idea I had. For me, it's very intuitive—it's a confident moment when an idea comes and I develop it.

AAJ: I read the poem several times as a result of listening to your piece, and the match is indeed very striking.

JR: It was successful in that way. It's conveying a certain story, not just an emotion. Like I've played angry. I've played all my emotions on the piano. It doesn't talk back to me! It does center me. But with that poem, there's a message and a story.

DL: Apropos, I've always envied songwriters—Cole Porter, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, let's say. They don't have any problem telling you what they're thinking. The music supports the words. As instrumentalists, we have more ambiguous situation, communicating without words. But I need words for inspiration—like the word "Blue" became the title of a tune I wrote—I went right to the piano to hear it. It's fantastic for me. As soon as I have one element, the rest comes out in the composition.

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Practical Matters, Goals, and Advice to Young Musicians

AAJ: A few more things before we close. First of all, does the music business inhibit your creativity? Like the club owner who says, "I only want you to play such and such." Or the record label which only wants to produce what sells. From what I hear, the music business is getting more and more difficult. Do you have some ideas about what could be done to create a better climate for the creative musician'

David LiebmanDL: This is about life in the real world. It's way past what we can do as musicians. We need support. The purpose of government is, say, to support homeland security, health, education, and culture. Our current government does very little for the latter purposes. It just does war! Although Europe does a little better, it's still a bad situation. It's almost a caste system. I was chosen to be a musician—I should be supported in my endeavor.

AAJ: You're saying that the powers that be should really value culture.

DL: We musicians exist below the radar these days, unlike the sixties and seventies when there was a mecca of culture and music here.

JR: I'm bewildered about this whole thing, about the business and trying to make it better. In that sense, I've gone much more inside, and I'm just trying to be successful about doing my own music. I wanna make music in an important and compelling way that has a meaning behind it. But in terms of how to connect all of that into the music business, I'm part of the whole mechanism, but I don't know what to make of it all.

DL: No one ever promised us a rose garden. No one ever said it's going to be easy. There's no free pass.

AAJ: To turn to an unrelated question: Do you ever feel a need to re-invent yourself or your music at a fundamental level?

DL: All the time.

JR: I feel a pressure sometimes to get a new thing together, but I always come back to feeling that I should stay with the art, stay with likeminded people who stretch you.

AAJ: So for you, its an ongoing evolution, not a self-conscious moment of changing your direction. Coltrane, on the other hand, seems to have re-invented himself a few times.

DL: He did, but he did it in a very fast fifteen years. It's another thing over the longer haul. Sometimes you've just got to keep going with what you're doing. You've got a certain responsibility to go on.

AAJ: Wouldn't you like to do that "one great thing"?

DL: I wish that would happen.

AAJ: I just read where Richard Strauss' last song cycle was the greatest music he ever wrote.

JR: But that's what's cool about jazz. It's a lifetime art form. Like the Rolling Stones are still performing, but they're not creating anything new. Their window is really small.

DL: Because their language is more limited than jazz.

JR: I just want to go on playing jazz until I die. Hopefully I'll live a long time, because I know that my jazz community will allow me and give me a duty to invent and create. One of my heroes, Leonard Bernstein, was creating until the end.

DL: We're lucky. Like I'm sixty-one. Roy Haynes is eighty-three. We're up there doing it. We have a living art form here. And we have another blessing—as we get older we get more respect and we get better. I'm better now than I was.

AAJ: You have to give your creative impulse some credit for that, because of your desire to push the envelope. There are jazz musicians who get lost in the shuffle as they get older, partly because they don't create something new. Finally, what advice would you give to a budding young jazz musician who wants to break the sound barrier creatively and doesn't just want to be a clone or imitator'

DL: He's got to look outside the box. But first he's got to know the box. He's got to get the basics, but then I'll say to him, "Now's the time to drop everything you've ever learned. Look beyond the music you love—seek other avenues. Understand culture. If you have the will and the desire and the talent, you will be transformed. You have to want to be heavy, you have to want to be an individual, you have to want it more than anything else in the world."

Jim RidlJR: I'll just add that a young musician has to be aware, make it a part of their being to discern what's happening at the moment. For example, Coltrane is one of my heroes. His solos are unbelievable. Recently I read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862). It took me a year to read that. Hugo has paragraphs that are three pages long. This is also Coltrane. Like there's this stream of consciousness, this flow, and I'm not gonna let an indentation get in my way, much less a period.

Now that's cool, and that inspires me, and what that says to me as a musician is that it's OK! It's OK to say what you say. All the heavy cats, they step out and they say, "I'm here, I have something to say." You gotta step out. When I play with Dave, he steps out. When I play with Pat Martino, he steps out. You can tell it in their playing. Bill Evans was personally very shy, but he always stepped out in his music. You've gotta take the risks.

AAJ: It's what Jung called individuation. You have to slay your dragon. You have to meet that challenge. Well, guys, this has been terrific. Thank you both for stepping out and sharing your views with us today.

Selected Discography

David Liebman Group, Blues All Ways (OmniTone, 2007)
David Liebman/Roberto Taranzi/Paolo Benedettini/Tony Arco, Dream of Nite (Verve, 2007)
David Liebman/Richie Beirach/Ron McClure/Billy Hart, Redemption - Quest Live in Europe (HatOLOGY, 2007)
David Liebman, Back on the Corner (Tone Center, 2006)
David Liebman/Phil Markowitz, Manhattan Dialogues (Zoho, 2005)
David Liebman, The Distance Runner (HatOLOGY, 2005)
Jim Ridl, Pianadelphia (Soulsearch, 2006)
Jim Ridl, Your Cheatin' Heart and Other Works (Dreambox Media, 2005)
David Liebman Group, In a Mellow Tone (Zoho, 2004)
David Liebman/Richie Beirach, Mosaic Select 12 (Mosaic, 2004)
Jim Ridl, Door in a Field (Dreambox Media, 2003)
David Liebman Group,
Conversation (Sunnyside, 2003)
Jim Ridl Trio, Live (Dreambox Media, 2001)
David Liebman, The Elements: Water (Arkadia, 1999)
Jim Ridl, Blues Liberations (Dreambox Media, 2001)
Jim Ridl, Five Minutes to Madness & Joy (Synergy, 1999)

Visit David Liebman and Jim Ridl on the web.

Photo Credits
Photo of Liebman and Ridl Together: Caris Visentin
David Liebman Photo: Ben Johnson
Jim Ridl Photo: Courtesy of Jim Ridl

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