Bunky Green: Urgency and Continuity
From left: Bunky Green, Rudresh Mahanthappa
BG: The Apex story started in Chicago in 2009, when we played in Millennium Park together. Rudresh wanted me to play with him and called me to ask. At first I said, "I don't know."
But he was pretty persistent and said, "I just want you to do this gig with me. Come on, you can do it."
So I agreed and we did it. I realized when you're on the bandstand with Rudresh, you better come to play. Oh yes. And that's because it's so intense from the moment you start to the moment you walk off the stage.
We heard the recording of the performance and said, "Wow, we need to record this." Rudresh took it from there. In terms of the material, there was never any problem because I've got material going back, stylistically, using those Eastern scales, all the way to the '70s, when I recorded for Vanguard Records. There are a bunch of albums I did for Vanguard with Elvin Jones and others, including Summit Meeting (1977) and Time Capsule (1977). On my own personal recordings for Vanguard, I did a thing called "East & West" that was in that vein. That was on an album called Places We've Never Been, from 1979. I also wrote three tunes for Elvin Jones' Time Capsule, and those were kind of in that vein as well. So it was always there. And when you go back and really listen to my stuff, you can hear that I've been playing like that. You can't find someone playing "outside" without consistency and knowledge. They can do it because they've been doing it for a long time, and they can do it naturally.
People ask, "How can a person Bunky's age play so young?" That's been the game lately for the last few years. It's like people rediscovered me. And every time, I have to say, "Wait, have you thought about going back and listening a little bit? Put some time in, and you can really see I've played like that throughout my career. You'll also see it was picked up by some other people after they saw where I was going."
So when Rudresh and I got together, everything was fine. There's a kind of continuity between what we do together and what I did before. I tend to be more harmonically oriented than Rudresh, because I have an entire history coming up through Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.
We just sat down and said, "Okay, let's compose this stuff, construct this thing architecturally and do what it takes to make it work, because it's already there. All we have to do is go down and rehearse with the appropriate people and do it." Jason Moran was marvelous, because he's so flexible and able to relate to wherever you're going. Not only that, he'll take you some other places. Jack DeJohnette has always been the type of player he's been. He plays the history of jazz and goes into the future. So Apex was set up for some degree of success. And apparently, the album has been very successful.
AAJ: Were there any challenges you and Mahanthappa faced when putting the album together?
BG: It was a unique situation, in that the only challenge was getting everyone together so we could map things out, architecturally speaking. We said, "We have all the pieces. Now how shall we put them together as a consummate whole?" It all came so fast, it was incredible. I brought my music in, and the rhythm section absorbed it immediately. We would run through things a couple of times and have it. By the third time, people were just playing the tune. It was a very natural thing. Rudresh and I quite often run so close that we sound alike, and it's hard to differentiate sometimes. [Laughs.] That shows you how compatible everything is. This is an ongoing collaboration, and we're going to see where it goes.
AAJ: Places We've Never Been is considered an underground jazz classic. Mahanthappa points to it as hugely inspirational to him. How do you look back at it?
BG: I think it was apocalyptic, really, because there it was: Eastern echoes in that kind of playing. You also hear them in the stuff I did with Elvin Jones. During those sessions, I was just playing what I wanted. I didn't have someone breathing down my neck. The record company wasn't saying, "We want this kind of product." On those sessions, it was more or less the product I wanted it to be. Places We've Never Been was far reaching, stylistically, in terms of what I was doing as a player. That's what interested Rudresh. The way I approached the harmonic fabric was suggestive, rather than just playing the harmony as it was. I created a lot of tension and relief by going against standard harmony and then ultimately resolving it with continuity. That's the whole bag. You can play so many things. You can play whatever you hear, but it has to have continuity for it to all hang together.
AAJ: When you were with Vanguard, you had a deal in which they let you make Places We've Never Been in exchange for doing several albums their way.
BG: [Laughs.] Exactly. And even doing one album your way wasn't really always the case for most people. It was something the person handling me at Vanguard let me do. His name is Ed Bland. He was the producer and knew where I was coming from. If it had been someone else, I don't think I would have been able to get that album out. I knew I really needed to document it, and he gave me that opportunity.