Anthony and Me
When I was asked to write a column for All About Jazz, my question was what should I write about? I was told anything that was music-oriented.
I decided that being a professional musician for more than fifty years, I could write about the things I care about, know about, have strong opinions about based on my own experiences that might be worth sharing. In no way do I want the reading public to think this is about self-promotion. For me this is an opportunity to share my life experiences and hopefully they might, in some small way, help to understand this crazy adventure we're in called "jazz."
It must have been sometime in the '70s that I first heard the name Anthony Braxton. I had no idea who he was except I heard he was really different and different appealed to me. Being married at the time with two small children, I didn't have extra money to spend on records or even listen to the radio that much, but the few times I did, I heard "Ornithology" from In The Tradition(Steeplechase, 1974), with Anthony Braxton (contrabass and clarinet), Tete Montoliu (piano), Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (double bass) and Albert Heath (drums), and it was an awe-inspiring record, as was Five Easy Pieces (Arista, 1975). I immediately understood the direction he was going and it was a place to which I also wanted to go.
Many years passed. In fact, thirty years went by. By then I had recorded for Blue Note and, by the 1980s, I felt I was on my way to getting to the musical place I am today. It took hard work and I didn't play that way on gigs. I only played "out" at rehearsals with my then trioMitchell May on bass and Tony Lupo on drums. In the late eighties I met bassist Dominic Duval. Dominic wanted to go to the same place I did. We hit it off right away. We formed a trio but never worked. We did record for the fun of it. I had written a tune called "In A Quarter Tone," based on Duke Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone." I used an acoustic guitar with light strings so I could bend and make the quarter tones happen. For another free form piece I used the same guitar, but I put a rubber ball and some nails inside the hole. Obviously it was an old, beat-up guitar.
Without ever listening to the "God" of avant-garde guitar, Derek Bailey, I started experimenting early on. I just did not have a discography to trace my growth. I was also afraid to let loose in those days. It was hard enough making a living as a musician, but an avant-garde jazz musician? No way. If I wasn't married with children I would have gone that route, but fate had other plans for me.
After playing with Dominic for a while, we both went our separate ways. Years later I got a call to play with a small big band. To my surprise Dominic Duval was the bassist and Jay Rosen was the drummer. Through that meeting, Dominic brought me in to some of the groups he played with and introduced me to many of the musicians I play with now, such as Jay Rosen, Michael Jefry Stevens, Mark Whitecage, Tomas Ulrich and Blaise Siwula.
When I started to play with these, and many more musicians like these, I decided to "come out of the closet," so-to-speak, and finally play the way I wanted. I credit Dominic Duval, Jay Rosen and Blaise Siwula, who understood what I was about and encouraged me, but it was Jay who nagged the hell out of me to submit a demo to Bob Rusch of CIMP Records. I was reluctant because of my experience with recording companiesand, besides, I was very happy teaching Literacy Through Songwriting Workshops for the Board of Ed in New York City. At the same time, Blaise Siwula submitted to CIMP, and in February, 1999, I recorded Finishing Touches with Jay Rosen and Mike Bocchicchio and the following week, Blaise, John Bollinger and I recorded Dialing Privileges. Before you know it, I was back in it.
When do I write about Braxton? Now!
After forming my own independent label in 2001 (CDM Records) and recording what I wanted, I still didn't let totally loose till The Vampire's Revenge in 2006. With that record, I felt I had established myself as an avant-garde player and composer.
The recording engineer on most of my recordings is Jon Rosenberg. While at the studio one day and listening to a playback, Jon said he would like to hear me with Anthony Braxton. I was taken off guard by that remark because only a few days before I listened to Anthony on WKCR radio, while driving, and my thought was, "I would really like to play with him." I told John, "I'd love to play with Anthony, but I don't know him and I doubt if he knows me." Jon responded, "Believe me, he knows who you are. I'll talk to him." "What do you mean you'll talk to him?" John replied, "I do all his recordings." "Really?" "Yes."