Charles Pillow: Sound Crafter
AAJ: What gives those band members such rapport, even the pickup sidemen who come in for a single gig, as some did at Chris'?
CP: The saxophone section was pretty much intact for that gig, but several of the trombonists were from Philly, and the same for the trumpets. They all did a great job, pretty much sight reading the charts.
AAJ: So what else are you up to these days, performance-wise?
CP: I'm doing a week at the Jazz Standard with Maria Schneider's band. She's been doing a week-long residence at the Standard every Thanksgiving week for seven years now. Looking forward to that, it's always a great week. It's a really fantastic band, and her music is quite incredible. It's really great when you can play five nights in a row, which doesn't happen that often any more. Also, I'll be working with John Fedchock's big band, and also with the big band of Charles Tolliver, a composer from New York. There's a whole bunch of leaders that have contacted me to play, so every month there's something creative happening. I also have a busy life as a Broadway musician.
AAJ: My trombone teacher from the 1960s, Alan Raph, still does a lot of work for Broadway musicals. In fact, I had a reunion with him a couple of years ago, and we met after a matinee there.
CP: Oh, I know Alan. In fact, Maria Schneider's band was up in Connecticut, near where he lives, and Alan came to the gig.
AAJ: Like yourself, Alan is an incredible musician, did some composing like you, and finds himself just about everywhere in the music business: union leader, studio work, symphony orchestras, Gerry Mulligan, Les Elgart, and Paul Whiteman bands, shows, whatever. Are there any particular shows that you're doing now?
CP: Right now, I'm doing The Adams Family. Doing shows gives me a good financial base for my other work. I also do some recording work in New York, did a session this week for a singer. To me, the name of the game these days is trying to be flexible. There are various circles of energy, and if you're known, say, as a tenor saxophonist, or a flautist, and so on, you get known in different circles. It can create problems in that if you're known as an oboe player, some people don't realize you can play saxophone as well, so you might lose some opportunities.
But that's OK. Liebman used to play flute, soprano and tenor. Then at one point, he just played soprano. Now he sometimes plays on wooden flute. But he has a strong voice that's recognizable immediately. So, even if you play several instruments as we do, you can still have a singular voice with the different sounds. And if people hear you enough, they start to hear who it is behind the instrument. So I'm not as concerned with it as others might be about having one sound.
For example, if a tune I'm writing calls for a particular sound, I'll play it on alto flute, oboe, or soprano sax, whatever is called for. I'm not worried about whether I'm recognized as the player.
AAJ: And as you say, the voice is heard regardless of the instrument. While I would imagine that it is a bit more difficult to have a distinct voice on the oboe than the saxophone, even then some oboe players, like Richard Woodhams of the Philadelphia Orchestra have palpably distinct voices. Let's now turn to your own CDs. Can you give us a rundown on each of your CDs, with the highlights and what you were striving for in each of them?
CP: The first CD I did was called Currents (1997), on a [Dutch] label called Challenge, and they asked me for a couple of standards and some originals. It's somewhat schizophrenic, and there's quintet stuff with trumpeter Tim Hagans, coming out of a Miles and Wayne bag, that was my take on that. And a rhythm section featuring Ben Monder on guitar. The schizophrenic part really came out on Coltrane's "Giant Steps," which I did on oboe in a duo with drummer Matt Wilson, who substituted for Adam Nussbaum for that number. I arranged a rubato intro, and then we played the tune.
That was a young record, and I was playing tenor sax mostly. After that, I did a recording that had a lot of oboe on it. That record was called In This World (2001), for the Summit label. It has more of a straight-eight feel, no swinging eighth notes on it. I'm on the oboe, bass clarinet, tenor soprano sax, and English horn in various tracks. You could say it has a world music flavor.
It was really fun to make that record, because Peter Erskine played drums. He was one of the guys whose straight-eighth playing I really liked. And he played very quietly, which was what I wanted, especially in the tunes with oboe. Peter can do anything, and it was really great to have him.
And that CD opened the door to do the following projects, like Pictures at an Exhibition (ArtistShare, 2001).
The way Pictures came up was from my idea of taking something familiar, and then "de-orchestrating" it. It's analogous to taking the parts of a car engine apart and putting them back together in a different way. Some of the melodies were used right from the score, but used as a bass line instead of a melody. So I deconstructed much of Mussorgsky's composition. However, some of it is recognizable from there.