PM: I would say the most difficult thing about making "Don't Be Shy" was the part over which I had no control, and that was waiting for feedback and decisions from the various record companies I approached. I had gone to several record stores looking for piano trio recordings, noting the names and contact information of the record companies involved. Most of them are by now long gone, but at the time they were the whole ball game. I then began the long process of calling, writing and sending tapes to everyone. I still have the 3x5 cards on which I kept track of my communication with the principals at the labels. It was a good lesson in the business of music including handling rejection, always a part of the life of a freelance artist. It made my resolve stronger in the way fire tempers steel, and, as I said, I sure learned a lot about the business.
Really, the best part of the whole thing was the music. It was a magical day at Rudy Van Gelder's, for me a very special place. I had decided to record, as I have since then, as though on a live date, by sequencing the selections in the tentative order in which they would appear on the eventual recording, with no repeats until a "set" was completed. For that reason, the music flowed well, and the result is a relaxed, musical session. And of course that's the artifact which remains.
AAJ: Is this recording when you first met bassist Dennis Irwin? If not, what were the circumstances of your first meeting?
PM: As I said, "Don't Be Shy" captured a trio which had been performing live in New York. I first met and played with Dennis several years before at the Sag Harbor, NY home of saxophonist Hal McKusick. I was living out there on Long Island's East End at the time and had been playing and informally studying with Hal. Dennis came out for a gig and we met, after which I started calling Dennis for engagements in New York. I first played with Mel at the wedding of Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano, which was some party, by the way. Mel's groove was intoxicating, and I wanted more. Thereafter, whenever I had anything at all in the way of trio work I called Mel.
AAJ: Since 1993 you've served as church musician at the Devoe Street Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. How has this affected the way you play and compose?
PM: My stay as Minister of Music at Devoe Street has profoundly affected me in many ways, musical and otherwise. The pastor, Reverend Frederick C. Ennette, Sr., is a dear friend of long standing. When he got the church he asked me to come and help out initially while the church searched for a steady musician. It was after several weeks that it struck me that this was no longer a favor for a friend, but had become something I was looking forward to each week. It was then that the church offered me the position, and I was honored to do it. I play for all the congregational singing as well as direct the choir. Some of what we do on any given Sunday is music from current modern gospel artists and some is from the book of the Spirituals. I arrange everything for the voices I have. It's a small choir, between eight and twelve voices, but they are strong, dedicated beautiful singers
In recent years I've begun writing suites for gospel choir and jazz quartet, setting biblical text, mostly from the Psalms of David, to my own original music. We've been doing a new suite every year around Mother's Day, and this year is no exception. Last year we were joined by members from the combined choirs of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, bringing the number of voices to around 75. That was an experience I'll not soon forget. By now there's a lot of music, and my larger goal is to get this music recorded. Our yearly concerts usually also feature solo performance by the wonderful singer, Yvette Glover.
As I said, I've been affected greatly by my work at Devoe, spiritually as well as in my personal relationship with music itself. I view my role as musician much more as that of a vessel now, believing that my job is to prepare myself as an instrument, ready to deliver to the audience whatever music as may come to me. I like to say that music is the voice of God. This attitude carries over to the bandstand and the recording studio as well. To feel as though I am not ultimately responsible for the inspiration of the music allows me to relax and let the music flow. This removes much of the anxiety associated with performance, by the way. Besides my wife Jody who is one of my soloists, our seven-year-old son, Peter Luca, is there every Sunday too, and this is something which will have a warm and lasting effect on his life.
AAJ: Your first three albums were recorded with Rudy Van Gelder. What did you learn from working with him?
PM: Actually, my first four. In addition to "Don't Be Shy" and "This Time" and "A Very Good Year" for Reservoir, there was a self-produced 1989 quartet recording on Jody and my label, Saranac Records. Titled "The Spirit," it was Mel Lewis' last recording before his passing. Bassist Pat O'Leary and tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama were also on that recording. Rudy Van Gelder is, of course, an institution, a well-earned status. He is an absolute professional and I've been honored to work with him, not only on my own dates but also on those of my wife, Jody Sandhaus. In fact we're due to go back this spring for Jody's newest date. The studio itself, designed by Rudy, has a wonderful native sound, and is a very comfortable and inspiring place to record. He's heard so much music that I trust his judgment with regard to matters of sound. Anything in the recording process which allows me to focus exclusively on the music is much appreciated, and Rudy's skillful care does that for me. I'm also moved by Rudy's constant desire to improve and update his skills. After all, he's Rudy Van Gelder, so he really wouldn't have to experiment with new technologies, but he really loves what he does and continues to move forward. That's a pretty good lesson.