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Terry Plumeri: Singing Strings

By Published: March 31, 2008
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AAJ: You have worked with some heavy hitters from the jazz world—Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and many others. Were these collaborative in nature or were you a sideman?

TP: They were as a sideman except for my experience with Herbie. Herbie was gracious enough to play on my very first jazz album [1971's He Who Lives in Many Places]. I will always be grateful to him for appreciating my work enough to agree to do that. The album came out great.

There was an unusual chemistry among the musicians who played on that recording and Herbie's presence was certainly a treat for all of us.

AAJ:How long after your classical studies was it before you got involved with jazz?

Terry PlumeriTP: I was always involved in both styles of music simultaneously. Trumpet was my first instrument at the age of ten. I began playing acoustic bass when I was sixteen years old. Right away I was playing jazz and also playing electric bass in rhythm and blues bands, as well as playing in symphony orchestra.

AAJ: For playing jazz, do you find you must be in a different mindset than your score work or classical projects?

TP: It is a very different mindset. Writing music is like meditation on an idea. You could spend ten years in a room all by yourself, writing one minute of music if you so choose. The beauty of jazz is the spontaneity of it and the fact that you are in a situation where you can't really contrive anything. You have to take what comes out of the moment. So the beauty of the two working together is: the more time you spend composing, the higher quality your spontaneous improvisations are. And the more improvisation you do, the more spontaneous and less contrived your compositions sound.

What I began to realize, after years of working as a writer, was the more I wrote, the better my improvisations were. The more you improvise the better your writing is because when you improvise you are always exploring. You're finding new rooms, new avenues and you are developing and extending your vocabulary. The result of which is, when you sit down to meditate on an idea, generally your ideas are better for having experienced the research you achieve in improvisation. So, even though you may spend ten days writing one minute of music or a year writing twenty minutes of music, generally speaking it always comes out better because of your time spent as an improviser.

"The Pride of Baltimore" is a good example; there is a storage unit with about two times more music than what ended up in the score of the "The Pride of Baltimore."

AAJ: Will you use any of that for another project or in your mind is it too connected with "The Pride of Baltimore?"

TP:It's too connected. It ended up being material that I chose not to use. Once you begin to exercise the ideas, you say, "OK, this is too much" and "That's not enough" and "I want more of that" and "I don't care to use this at all," but "I do want to use this." Everyday there are hundreds of choices of notes to be used and ideas to be incorporated or left behind.

AAJ: Blue in Green (2005) is a trio date you recorded with David Goldblatt on piano and Joe La Barbera on drums. How did you decide upon the trio format?

TP: It's something that I have been doing since I was sixteen years old, bowing melodies to tunes and soloing on the bow. It's only because of getting lost in a room for 25 years writing film scores, that my bowed bass work has not been more exposed to the public.

Why bow a solo on the bass? My first influence on the bass was Paul Chambers. Paul educated me to the possibility of expression on the bass with both pizzicato and arco. I began to lean towards an arco style as a solo expression because I liked the sound of the bow and because you can sustain a note the way a voice or horn would sustain a note. Also, one of the other attractive elements about the bass is, the mid-to-upper register of the instrument is right in my vocal range. So the bass is a naturally placed extension of my voice. And it is a singing act that I do when I am bowing the instrument, with my voice being translated through the sound of the bass. It is a great thing to have the facility to sing like a voice where your general function on the instrument is more like that of a pitched drum. In utilizing both arco and pizzicato, you have two completely different instrumental colors and methods of expressing your musicality.

Bowing the instrument with a swing feel is not the most natural thing to do. One of the deterrents is the physical difficulty of playing in the upper register of the instrument and playing in tune. The other deterrent has to do with jazz being a percussive music, and the bowed bass is not so percussive by nature. Pizzicato is percussive, it's a very drum like action when you strike the string. Playing piano is a struck motion. The drums are struck, the tenor saxophone is struck by rhythmic tapping of the keys, and also there is a percussiveness with the tongue. Same thing with the trumpet, but if you think about the bowed bass, it's a drawn action that has no percussive quality unless you articulate every note.

From the beginning, I was always dreaming of being able express myself in a more legato and vocal style of phrasing, one in which I choose not to articulate each note with a separate bow. But in chasing this style of expression, there quickly became an evident problem, and that was playing a succession of notes without changing the bow became much more difficult in terms of achieving the percussiveness the music required.

Terry PlumeriAAJ: Is it something in playing in this style that you are restricted to playing only with musicians you have played with before or can you play with any jazz musicians and be in great sympathy with each other?

TP: No I can play with any musician and do it as long as the musician is sensitive to accompanying the bass. The bass has a recessed and transparent sound and is easy to cover. So as a bass soloist, you need to play with musicians who are sensitive to the delicacy of the instrument, and can play dynamics which support the bass rather than cover it. Joe La Barbera and David Goldblatt are two such musicians who always have a sense of just how far to go in support of the bass. With them, I never find myself stressing to hear myself over the drums or piano, nor does the supportive activity reach a point of overwhelming the solo voice of the bass. The result is I am immediately in the music and not spending energy just trying to accomplish the basics of hearing oneself or trying to find a place for my voice in the middle of a barrage of accompaniment.

AAJ: On the album with Herbie Hancock, did you do the same thing?

TP: No, it was more composition and less bowing because I was just beginning to get going at the bowing in a way which was comfortable for me. There's another album from that period with John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner. Those albums show a growth of the bowing because the one with Herbie was recorded in '71, and the other with John, Ralph, Marc Copland and Michael Smith was recorded in '76.

AAJ: The one with Ralph Towner, was that before the group Oregon?

TP: No. Oregon was in existence at that time. It was just that Ralph and John were playing duo on a regular basis at that time and Ralph was in town at the same time we were recording this album. So, I wrote a piece for strings and two guitars with rhythm section. The personnel was Michael Smith on drums, myself on bass, John on electric guitar, Ralph on acoustic guitar and a string quintet made up of members of the National Symphony in Washington, D.C.

AAJ: How long has the trio with David and Joe played together?

TP: David Goldblatt and I met playing with Wayne Shorter in Los Angeles, probably something like eighteen years ago. There was an immediate chemistry, and so we have played together off and on ever since. Joe, David and I have played together for roughly five or six years now.

AAJ: Did you do much rehearsing before recording or did you prefer complete spontaneity?

TP: I wanted to do a standards album to show that the bass was capable, within the traditional context, of bowing the heads of standard tunes and then soloing on them in a bowed fashion, without putting the listener through a painful experience. The result is, Blue In Green is a notable showcase of what the bass is capable of as a bowed instrument in the context of mainstream jazz. I say this as a student of the bass rather than as an egotist.

Other than adhering to the desired concept of the trio, there was no rehearsing whatsoever. Because musicians know me as someone who stands in front of a ninety piece orchestra, having written all the music and so forth, naturally when I go to the studio to record a trio album, I get asked "What are we gonna do here?" and I say, "Well, we are just going to play." We never said anything about we have to do this or that. The common goal was to present the bass as the lead voice in a trio context. Beyond that, we just played.

At one point, I remember asking David, "What do you think about a bit of an intro here before the bass enters?" That was the extent of what was said and nothing more. So the album is very much a composite effort of all three musicians. All three musicians interacting in the way they felt most comfortable, with hardly any direction whatsoever. We are just all there as three voices, which is the beauty of working with those two musicians. We sit down to play and magic begins to happen.

AAJ: The album's program is made up of standards. What dictated which pieces you chose?

TP: I chose the tunes because the physicality of bowing the bass is such that you need to have tunes that lay well on the instrument. Tunes that have large intervallic leaps don't work too well for the bass because they are awkward to play on the instrument. So I tend to choose tunes that have a quasi-vocal style of line. That is the way the tunes came about. I also lean towards moody type tunes because the instrumental color of the bass seems natural in that context. I must confess that I also, feel the most comfortable in that context.

AAJ: Will the trio tour at all?

Terry PlumeriTP: We have toured already and will be doing more in the future. There is a clip on YouTube of a portion of the performance at the East Coast Jazz Festival located here.

There's also a new album of the trio being released later this year.

AAJ: Overall, with all the hats you wear, do you have a preference to projects?

TP: I love playing in that trio, which is a serious treat. I also love conducting, especially my own pieces which is a very expressive actually conduct your own compositions with a full symphony orchestra. The palette is so extensive. The palette in a trio is more restrictive, but the spontaneous interaction between the musicians is incredible and very rewarding. It's hard to say what my preference is. Each has its own reward and each has its own education. I have always lived both lives. They each have their own beauty the same way that being alone inside your mind has its beauty, as does conversation with another being.

AAJ: Do you have a dream project as yet unrealized?

TP: There are a number of them: One is to do more recording with the trio of David Goldblatt and Joe La Barbera, similar to the style displayed on the Blue In Green CD. Also to do a recording with the Moscow Philharmonic strings and the trio, which as you can imagine, would be quite a nice combination.

In addition, I have a number of original works which have not yet been recorded, so I would love to be able to record those.

On May 16th [2008], there is a concert in Moscow, which is being filmed for public television, with myself and the Moscow Philharmonic performing the "Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5," as well as my own compositions, "The Pride of Baltimore" and "Windflower."

Selected Discography

Plumeri/Moscow Philharmonic, Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 & 6 (GMMC, 2007)

Terry Plumeri, Blue In Green (GMMC, 2005)
Terry Plumeri, Nate & The Colonel (GMMC, 2004)
Plumeri/Moscow Philharmonic, Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6; Plumeri: Concerto for Bassoon & Orchestra (GMMC, 1997)
Plumeri/Moscow Philharmonic, Plumeri Conducts Plumeri (GMMC, 1995)
Terry Plumeri, Water Garden (1978, reissued GMMC, 2007)
Terry Plumeri, He Who Lives In Many Places (1976, reissued GMMC, 2006)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Terry Plumeri

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