Jonathan Kreisberg: Unearthed
JK: I actually saw the Doc play in Miami when I was a kid. He was laying low and playing piano for a few years down there. I thought, "Man, that pianist is a bad dude!" It's funny, at the time I didn't realize exactly who he was and that I was already listening to him on organ and some totally burning Benson stuff I had from the '60s. Then of course I was kicking myself years later for not camping out on his front porch until he'd show me some of his tunes [laughs].
AAJ: You were an accomplished performer before you began playing with Smith. What have you learned, both musically and professionally, from playing in Smith's group?
JK: Oh, man, I've learned so much. The first thing is the importance of the blues. I mean, Doc's the real deal when it comes to the blues. So I'm just trying to absorb some of that, and of course there's his time feel. He's an original funkmaster who swings like nobody else can.
Another thing, which was a reconfirming rather than new thing for me, was to see this legend of jazz embrace such a wide range of influences within his music. I mean our shows go from the most intimate ballad to a screaming post-apocalyptic psychedelic rock tune [laughs].
I feel like this trio really travels through a great range of music on a really organic journey. It's like I was mentioning with the bass thing, Lonnie can go anywhere and it's always the real deal.
AAJ:You choose a bit of a larger group, a quintet, for your CD Unearthed, as compared to some of your other albums which are trio-based. Was this a result of the compositions, or were the compositions a result of the quintet set up?
JK: It's a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, really. I wrote some tunes specifically for a quintet, and I was really enjoying where this was going on the gigs. Next thing I knew I had an album waiting to be recorded. So I actually fronted the money to record the album. Afterwards, I was lucky to have Mel Bay buy it and release it on their new label. It was great luck for me, but the process took a while, that's why it came out after my first two records on the Criss Cross label, even though it was actually recorded before them.
AAJ: Unearth is a great example of your ability to mix the jazz tradition with a forward sense of the genre. Your lines and ideas always seem to be well rooted in the traditional vocabulary, yet they have a uniqueness that is all their own. How important was it to you to learn the bebop vocabulary when you were coming up, and do you feel that has helped you now as you explore new and exciting musical territories?
JK: Bebop, and the jazz tradition in general, is a huge part of my music. But within that tradition, it's been the innovators that I've been drawn to the most, guys like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Miles etc. There are guys that are among us that are continuing that tradition. That's where that title of my record New for Now came from, the idea that innovation has the effect of always sounding fresh, even a hundred years later. I'm always trying to be open to those kinds of sounds.
AAJ: What was it like recording with Bill Stewart and FLY, who have both become regulars in the groups of some of the best jazz guitarists on the scene today, on your album Nine Stories Wide?
JK: Those guys were already playing with Metheny and Scofield, not to mention many of the other greats, so it was definitely intimidating. But nerves are just energy, so if you can focus it correctly, it can make for great playing. That's always a challenge in a new situation like that.
My favorite take on that record is probably "Relaxin' at Camarillo," which we recorded as a quick last take before Larry had to run to the Vanguard to play with Brad Mehldau. I think the energy in that moment translated nicely onto the recording.
AAJ: For your album New for Now, you choose to use the organ trio formation. What is it about the organ trio that draws you to that lineup?
JK: The organ trio sound is a real particular thing, and I have a great respect for it. The trio with Gary and Mark was touring a lot at the time, and I felt we were coming at the organ trio concept from a different angle than the tradition, and it was something that was worth documenting. Once again, it was the music on the gigs first, and then the decision to record what was happening came afterward.
AAJ: Jazz guitar albums can sometimes end up sounding like blowing sessions, but your album The South of Everywhere is very carefully arranged and well put together from a musical standpoint. Is this something you think about when putting an album together?
JK: Thanks for noticing. It was really important on that record that I could take the listener someplace new. Of course I wanted to feature all the great individual musicians, but it was more about creating a world where the band could then do their thing. I'm really happy with the mood of the record. It really captured the feeling of my life at that time.