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Interviews

Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke

By Published: August 27, 2012
AAJ: But your playing has such a personal sound.

ML: I hope so. I'm glad to hear you say that, because you always wonder. I still listen to everybody, and sometimes I feel like one guy might be overshadowing. The moment you want to get to is where all the influences are just kind of flowing, and then it's you. That's the thing.



Now, let's face it, there hasn't really been an innovator, I don't think, since Herbie and McCoy and a couple of others—not a real innovator where after they're here, everyone tries to sound like them. Maybe it'll happen again, and if it does, it'll be out of some natural set of circumstances. It's not going to be through anyone trying to innovate. What I think you do as a jazz musician is you just learn as much as you can about everybody, and you copy the greats, and then, the way you put it together, that's you.

AAJ: You didn't mention Oscar Peterson.

ML: He was an innovator, because so many guys tried to sound like him—grew out of him, like Monty Alexander
Monty Alexander
Monty Alexander
b.1944
piano
and guys who I hear all the time that try and sound like Oscar. There's a whole Oscar cult. But I never particularly tried to sound like him. Oscar goes way back, and he's a top master. He had his own thing completely. He really came more out of Nat Cole than Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
. Everybody mentions the Tatum thing, but he really was a Nat Cole guy. And Nat Cole was another guy who was an innovator that nobody talks about. Earl Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
piano
was another top innovator. There's a similarity between Earl Hines and McCoy with how free they are. Earl Hines was the first McCoy, to me. He's that free in his thinking. He had no limits, no boundaries whatsoever. He'd just be exploding, and it was all just coming out all the time. He's the first pianist I ever heard like that. Art Tatum was influenced by him. You've got to be pretty mean to influence Art Tatum. And Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
piano
was influenced by him. Everybody—Nat Cole, too. Then you've got Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
piano
; he changed everything. And he's obviously an innovator.

But I say there are innovators, and then there are language changers— two different things. A lot of guys innovate certain things. Bill Evans innovated some things, but basically, when you get down to it, he was a bebop pianist. Herbie innovated a lot of things, but to me—maybe not today, but when he was with Miles, at the time he made his huge impact—even though he was expanding the harmony and rhythms of it, he was still playing bebop, basically, playing that language.

But when McCoy Tyner came up with his thing, and you hear "Passion Dance," and you hear the language—totally different. Nothing like it ever existed before. And that's a language changer. And then, after that, Herbie was influenced by him, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
, Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
Keith Jarrett
b.1945
piano
—everybody had to be influenced by him because he changed everything. There's not many of real language changers, when you look at the history. There's just a handful. There are guys who come up with stuff of their own that people try to imitate, and that's innovation, too. There are all kinds of innovation, but I'm always most impressed by the guys who change the language. Where do they come from? They change everything. How does that happen? I have no idea. I think it's a whole set of circumstances. With McCoy, he was with 'Trane. It was a special time, that era, and, boom, it happened.

AAJ: Is this something that you strive for at all yourself—to change the language?

ML: Everyone thinks about it. But I don't really strive for it. If it happened someday, I would be floored. In fact, though, I don't think you even know it when you're doing it. I knew a guy who played with Bird. He used to play with me on 54th Street when I played at Jimmy Ryan's. His name was Ted Sturgis, a bass player. He played with Charlie Parker in his very first group on 52nd Street with Dizzy—with Bird and Diz. He's the guy that Bird wrote the tune "Mohawk" for. Ted is Mohawk because he had Indian blood in him. He used to tell me how, when Bird and Diz and he were playing, they'd read all this news in the music publications, like, "These guys are changing everything. The bebop language is all new. It's never going to be the same." Bird and Diz were, like, "What? Who are they? Because we're just playing." They didn't try to do anything new. They just played, and it happened, and they were just playing their stuff. And then, suddenly, it was like everyone was saying, "Oh, my God! The messiah has come!" But they didn't think about it that way at all. Now John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, he really was searching, but I think he was just practicing and getting better and getting ideas. That's how it happens. You can't set out and say, "Yes, it's very important to change the language. I'm going to do it." You can't do that. And you don't have to. But if you get better and better, who knows? It might happen.


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