Bobby Zankel: Peaceful Jazz Warrior
AAJ: For some reason, when you were talking about Sandole's emphasiz on tonality, your big band, The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, came to mind.
BZ: Oh, yeah; Sandole inspired me to write for big band, and he gave me the tools to hear that stuff.
AAJ: So, what led you to start a big band, knowing that they are notoriously difficult to get together and keep going, given all the musician's commitments and the shortage of paid big band gigs. When did you start the Warriors?
BZ: Between 1985 and 1992, I was fortunately able to get some grants. And I did a couple of multimedia projects, some with dancers, some with visual artists, because that's what the grants paid for. I did it with eight-piece groups. The first record I did was from a project with Steve Rowland, the radio producer, and photographer about the city of Philadelphia. I was able to get Johnny Coles, Odean, Raeburn Wright, and Sumi Tonooka. Tyrone Brown, Odean Pope and Craig McIver. And then the next year, I got another grant, and was able to have a band featuring John Blake, Ralph Peterson and Uri Caine, in another octet.
So I started to accumulate this music for a larger group. But I always went out of my way to use guys who were more experienced than me who could teach me something, and make it sound good.
Then around 1991, a young alto player named Daniel Peterson approached me when he put on a festival called "Collective Voices." He asked me if I could do something for a big band, and he said, "Well, I'll get you a big band." I had some trepidation, but it was an exciting opportunity to get some young guys to see what they could do. I took players of whatever instruments I could get, so initially we had four saxophones, two trumpets, and a trombone, and I brought my own drummer, Craig McIver, and I got guitarist Rick Iannacone and bassist Dylan Taylor.
So we did this festival at the Tritone club on South Street, and it was lots of fun, and I Thought, "Let me go for this," And one of the smartest things I did was limit it to once a month. I didn't want to burn out. And we're coming around to our tenth anniversary.
We rehearse right here at my home. I was able to purchase the home where you and I are doing the interview from winning a Pew Fellowship for composition in 1996. The panel included a Pulitzer Prize winner and was not simply jazz. So eventually, what I had done for years for love came back to me in the form of this house! It's such great fortune, but it reminds me that positive, compassionate action to improve the world can bring good things to yourself as well. I'm a Nichiren BuddhistI became a Buddhist joining the Soka Gakkai in 1973. And Buddhist practice is based on Nam Myoho Renge Kyothe law of cause and effect. Sometimes you can't see it in the short term, but every good cause is rewarded. To put it simply, you get the right effect. Creatively, I've tried to impact the world in a positive beautiful way. So I have this house, and now I can rehearse the big band in my living room.
AAJ: Doesn't that disturb the neighbors?
BZ: No, they're jazz lovers.
AAJ: Now, the music The Warriors play is not the average big band chart you pick up at a music store. Most of the music consists of your originals, which are quite complex. For example, you wrote "Ndura," a beautiful piece based on Bambuti [Pygmy] philosophy. But in places it's like a hornet's nest of notes. Now the guys must have been totally unfamiliar with it at first. So, you bring in the charts, and then, how do you prep them? What do you do to get them to play it, the way you want it?
BZ: Well, in fact I'm not much into being a conductor. The music I write is extremely intricate rhythmically, and things have to fit together in very precise ways. But the guys are good readers. For example, this week, we played a piece I wrote in honor of the great composer, Bill Dixon. And I could say to the trumpet players, "This piece is for Bill Dixon," and they could begin to think about how to interpret it. I notate the music very precisely, but notation only goes so far. Especially in jazz, you really need interpretation, and you have to know the context and the language of the composer. For example, Tom Lawton, our brilliant pianist, is a quick learner, and we talked today about this piece, and I pointed out a couple of things, and he said, "Oh! That's what you meant!" And most of the guys are like that.
AAJ: So, a lot of the composition is between the lines.
BZ: Right. And that's the benefit of keeping a band together over an extended time period. It's like keeping a basketball team together: the guys learn to have a little ESP with each other. They know what I'm intending based on shared experience.
AAJ: How do you want your audience to listen to The Warriors? What I mean is that, often when people go to hear so-called "new music," they don't quite get it, and they sort of absorb it anyway, but they might miss the composer's intent entirely. So, for your really new, creative, and complex work that you do with the Warriors, what mindset would you like your audience to come in with?
BZ: I think, with The Warriors, because of the rhythmic thrust of the music, I never worry about it being above people or getting too abstract. If you have a groove like ours, I mean we have a tremendous swing in the music, then you can do most anything. Like in a lot of my pieces, I have a bunch of 12 tone things, frequent uses of tonality and things that might be called dissonant, but if there's a groove, that's the bottom line. If your heart's not beatin,' there's a problem. But if you have a beat, they'll listen. My problem is about how to get more people to come in the first place.
AAJ: But maybe that's my point. If they don't know how to listen, they won't come. This is a big concern with the whole jazz scene today, as to why it's not attracting larger audiences. One reason may be that it's advanced quite a bit, and the masses don't quite get it. Like, personally, I love The Warriors of the Wonderful Sound. I think the groove is incredible, as you say, and your musicians are out of this world. I love to hear them play. But the music tends to get very dense. And it stays dense for long periods of time. Three or four guys might be improvising at the same time, each in his own way, and the backdrop is rocking, and it's just going on and on like that. And then I'm thinking, "What's the message here? What can I hang my hat on?" Now, I'm aware of my own listening limitations, and I admit that I might not be able to get what a more sophisticated listener can get, so I'm not judging anyone. My question is: when the serious but, perhaps, limited listener such as myself gets into that density and is looking for something to lean on, what does he do?
BZ: [Chuckles] I really understand what you're saying, and I don't do that as much as I used to in my music. Cecil Taylor used to play really dense, and sometimes he would get booked for festivals with, say, Oscar Peterson, where it wouldn't be Cecil's audience. And usually the promoter was smart enough to have Cecil play last. And he would start to play, and a lot of people would leave. Or even sometimes, in the 1960s, he'd play two-and-a-half hour sets. Someone asked him, "What about the people who leave?" He said, "I play for the people who stay." He didn't say, "I just play for myself." He said, "I play for the people who like it."
And for me, I feel the same way. I want people to like it. But I want more people to like it, so I don't want the density to go on too long. I'm more careful about that in my recordings than in live gigs. But I apologize if I neglect a segment of the audience. I believe I have a gift to be able to transmit feeling when I play and sometimes this might require digging very deep but I have to go with it and many people want to go too.
AAJ: I don't think you need to apologize. But, for example, when I was a kid, my aunt used to listen to Bach on WQXR, a classical radio station in New York City. I thought that music was so weird. Then, one day, I remember it clicked in. Suddenly, I was enjoying Bach, almost in a finger-snapping way. Similarly with advances in jazz. I think we've neglected to get it to click in for the less avant-garde audiences. We've got to be able to talk to them and help them along with their appreciation. We need to help them understand the gestalt, the pattern, that makes it click in for the musicians and, hence, the listeners.
BZ: I think it's important to hear this new music live, being in the room where you can really become part of the experience. In the '60s and the '70s, people would say, "Well, that music might be fun to play, but it's not fun to listen to." But Duke Ellington used to say, "There's just good music and bad music." It's not about the category.
My point is that it's not a matter of how advanced or dense it is, it's whether it's good or bad, period. When Trane and Pharoah are playing far out, some might describe it as a finger scratching the blackboard, but to me it's ecstatic, it's beautiful playing. It's got that energy. It's similar to things in contemporary music. Like the composer Xenakisvery similar to him. Or some of Stockhausen and Boulez.
I think a lot of players took unfair advantage of the conceptual gains that Cecil Taylor, and Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Sunny Murray made of playing without chords and without meter. Some took advantage of it. I never liked the term "free jazz," and I told Cecil that. It should be called "knowledge music," because it's based on how much you know. A lot of guys take "freedom" to mean "license." If you can't play quarter notes well, if you can't get a nice tone out of your horn, whatever you play is going to be unpleasant. Free jazz isn't going to cover up the fact that you have a really bad sound.
AAJ: I think you have an excellent point, that "free jazz" is really a misnomer. It's really about wider structures and concepts, not the absence of structure. Now, getting back to The Warriors big band, someoneI forget whomade a connection between the Sun Ra Arkestra and The Warriors. And you yourself mentioned your exposure to Sun Ra.
BZ: Yeah, I went to see Sun Ra in New York quite a bit in the 1960s.
AAJ: Is there a conceptual or historical connection between the two bands?
BZ: I saw that band many, many times and loved it. I happen to be a great student of Sun Ra and admire his music. I listened to it very carefully. John Gilmore is one of my favorite saxophonists. Marshall Allen is a national treasure. But The Warriors are not modeled on the Arkestra at all. I live here with my wife [the Sun Ra band live in a house together], and all of the guys in my band are very independent have their own groups and ideas.
The most personal connection that I had with Sun Ra was through a really remarkable drummer and composer named Samrai Celestial (Eric Walker). Samrai moved to Philadelphia from New Orleans in the late '70s just to play with Sun Ra and he was an important member of the band for a number of years. We met through the long time Arkestra member, trombonist Tyrone Hill and we formed a band called Ancient Family, with guitarist Rick Iannacone and bassist Doug Kirschner. We performed some of mine, but mostly Samrai's amazing compositions, which sort of sounded like Ornette in a profound wayand, of course, Sun Ra. In 1995, Samrai got funding from a recording company in Chicago, and we made a truly wonderful recording of all his tunes in Chattanoga where he lived. It's called Cosmic Millenium Gold (Carrot Top Records, 1997)really special. Samrai died the next year.
AAJ: OK, let's talk about the other saxophonist you've been joining forces with recently: Rudresh Mahanthappa. Simply put, he's a fantastic musician.
BZ: He's a great player and composer.
AAJ: So, what were you hearing in his playing that you could relate to your own to the extent that you engaged in a joint venture with him?
BZ: When I first heard Rudresh, I really liked his playing. I'm sort of a shy person, but we had a common friend, the trumpet player Amir ElSaffar. So, one day I was at a rehearsal with Amir, with Cecil's band in New York, and he suggested I go hear Rudresh that night. Rudresh was so nice, he gave me his CDs, was respectful, and knew a little about me. Of course, I noticed his technical facility, and the uniqueness of his language. But what really struck me was the emotional force in his music. A lot of the younger guys seem to lack what we used to call "fire," and Rudresh has that in great abundance. The more we talked, the more we found we had many things in common, and we formed a really simpatico relationship.
So, then I wanted to do something with Rudresh, and I thought of the Philadelphia Music Project grants program. I had made The Warriors a 501c3 non-profit organization in order to obtain funding for it in 2004. We're basically a cultural organization that supports modern music. I already had applied to PMP for a grant as part of the memorial to the 40th anniversary of Coltrane's death. We were gonna have it at the Church of the Advocate which Trane attended, and we were going to have Sonny Fortune be our special guest. Sonny had played with Trane at the last concert he did in Philadelphia, which was at the same church. A great idea, but unfortunately the grant was rejected.
Rudresh with Zankel (seated, on left)
So, after I met Rudresh, I thought maybe I'd do better with someone from New York and very popular like Rudresh writing the music and performing it with The Warriors. So we did thatyou reviewed the concert at Montgomery County Community College.
And next year, I'm doing it with Steve Coleman, whoand I think Rudresh would agreeis the Charlie Parker of our generation, and he's gonna do a piece with us to be performed next April. He and Rudresh both play the alto saxophone, they have a musical connection to each other and to me, and at the suggestion of Matt Levy, the director of PMP, we'll call them "The Wizards of the Alto Saxophone."
We ended up with a two-year project. Actually, I just exchanged emails with Rudresh yesterday, because I also got money from the Aaron Copland Foundation to perform his piece in New York. So it's a very exciting time for me and The Warriors. And it's great for me at this stage to keep learning and growing through work with these guys. And Rudresh's thing is so unique. He's been able to incorporate music from India with his jazz thing so beautifully. And to be with Steve is of major importance.