Jay Anderson: Driving the Bus
AAJ: From Woody Herman's Orchestra, you went on then to play with singer/pianist Carmen McRae. How challenging was it to play for her? Is it a different challenge playing for a singer?
JA: Playing with Carmen was amazing. I was 24 and didn't realize how lucky I was. I was playing with a legend. She was a tough cookie. She was great to me [laughs] but I saw her create a shit storm with club owners, stewardesses and others around her. The music was incredible. She would play "The Masquerade is Over" every night, solo piano. The groove and depth of her storytelling ability was unsurpassed.
Would I want to be playing exclusively with a singer the rest of my life? Probably not, but I enjoy all aspects of music making, so I try to focus on whatever situation I'm in, embrace it and try to sound as good as I can. As a general rule, I like more open situations.
AAJ: When you arrived in New York in the early '80s, you played and recorded quite a lot with Ira Sullivan and Red Rodney, two musicians who lived the bebop period and played with Charlie Parker. Looking back on it, are you glad you didn't throw yourself in with a more, let's say, hip or cutting-edge scene, which is what a lot of young musicians look for when they move to New York?
JA: That's an interesting question. I think a lot of it is just fate on one's path in life and in one's musical life. Both Red and Ira played with Charlie Parker. Red and Ira's group wasn't a bebop band. Ira played tenor, alto, soprano, flute, alto flute, trumpet, flugelhorn, and he would bring all of them on the road. Not only would he play trumpet, but he'd sound like Fats Navarro or Miles Davis or Lester Bowie. On flute, he'd sound like Hubert Laws or [James] Moody, and on alto, he could sound like Bird, Cannonball [Adderley], Eric Dolphy or Ornette [Coleman]. When I say he sounded like those players, I don't mean he was derivative or an imitation; he could play the entire history of the music in a personal, real way. He was so open. He kicked our asses every night on the bandstand. In a way, he and Red were like oil and water, but they admired one another, and it was a lot of fun.
I really learned how to play on the road. I think my generation of musicians was kind of in between a few others; you had guys who were a little older than us, like John Scofield, and then guys who were a little younger, like Wynton Marsalis. We were kind of in between, listening to Weather Report, Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Keith Jarrett and early electric music, and listening to Bird and 'Trane like everybody else, andOrnette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and Cecil Taylor. There was so much music out there. Red and Ira were my ticket to New York. I came to town with a gig, which was pretty rare in those days I guess. Aside from that gig, I was playing a lot of different music in NYC with my friends. I was doing the loft thing and playing completely free music for four hours and then going to other sessions where we played tunes. I don't really have any regrets.
When you look at my discography, it's pretty much all over the map. I remember one time coming off the road with Joe Sample, getting on a plane, and going straight to a record date with Paul Bleytwo completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but you just focus on the music, the joy, and the task at hand.
AAJ: You've also played and recorded with quite a number of people outside of the jazz spectrumpeople like Chaka Khan, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Celine Dion. Is that diversity something you enjoy, and does it challenge you in a different way?
AAJ: Very much so. Even doing a jingle or whatever, just trying to make the music sound good, I never look at any situation as being beneath me. I grew up with James Jamerson and Willie Weeks and Chuck Rainey, in addition to all the jazz masters, and it has certainly informed my playing. In pop music, it's more about what you don't play. There are so many seemingly simple options, but there is always that one that's right.
I enjoy all of it. Chaka Khan has always been an idol of mine. It doesn't get much funkier than that. That's not what we did togetherit was more of a big band standards project, but if I've got the bass in my hands, I'm down.
AAJ: Your playing is very melodic, but it also sounds highly intuitive. Whether you're playing with Paul Bley, Frank Kimbrough, Mark Soskin, Phil Markowitz, Vic Juris or whoever, it seems that they just let you get on with it without writing out you parts in much detail. Is that the case?
JA: I don't want to flatter myself, and I'm under no illusion that I'm the only person who could play the bass on any of these projects, but I know they call me not just because I'm holding a bass, but because of what I can bring to the music. With Vic, for example, we've had a long-standing relationship, and we rarely discuss anything. He brings the music in, we play it, and it's cool. The one person that really comes to mind is Maria Schneider; I've played with her since her first record. Not long after that record, she got a steady Monday night gig at Visiones in New York City, and I just wanted to be in the forest upstate, so I said I couldn't do the Mondays, which shows you what an idiot I was. Then eight or ten years ago, she was doing a record called Concert in the Garden (Artist Share, 2004), and she asked me if I would come back, and I said I'd love to. Her music is so beautiful, and she's such a talented musician and warm human being. She's also so appreciative of everybody that she makes you feel as if you're the one person that has to be playing this music. I still play with Maria today.
With her older material there's a lot of chord changes and it's pretty self- explanatory, but with a lot of her newer music there might be four pages with very little instruction, where you really have to come up with something; you can't just play a D note for 10 minutes. She writes the music for the personalities that are there, and fortunately she trusts me to do my thing. That is a gift. She just wrote a beautiful piece, a commission for opera singer Dawn Upshaw, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson and Frank Kimbrough were going to be featured, and she said, "Jay, I really need you there."
I said, "But there's a bassist with the orchestra."
I had been consulting with her on some techniques she could use on the bass and she said, "No, I really want you to be there and do your thing."
So now I'm doing that with her, and I'm highly flattered that she thinks I can bring something to the piece. It's a gift to feel that you're being called for who you are musically.