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Conrad Herwig: There's Nothing Else

By Published: February 25, 2013
AAJ: And Orrin is also an alumnus of the Rutgers jazz program.

CH: It's the Rutgers family. I consider Orrin to be one of the most creative improvisers on the planet. He's so spontaneous, and he's just very empathetic as a pianist. When Ralph and I are playing, it's so great because Orrin knows what we're going to do before we do it. There's just a lot of love and a lot of joy when we're together.

AAJ: Kenny and Ralph go back a ways, back to the Out of the Blue group that Blue Note Records put together in the '80s.

CH: They do. And there are all kinds of other close ties we have with each other. Kenny has been playing forever with Ralph, and Kenny and I did a tour together with the Mingus Big Band. All of us have played hundreds of gigs together with different bands, maybe two of us together in different combinations. We have this relationship we have with each other and this mutual vibe, we don't even have to plan ahead. The spontaneity is just electric. And these guys are great, virtuoso players.

I always say to be a virtuoso jazz musician, you have to be a virtuoso musician. That's something that I think the average public doesn't understand. People listen to jazz, and they think jazz musicians just put on their sunglasses, snap their fingers and say, "cool, baby," winging it all the way. We're talking about musicians who have spent thousands of hours on musical fundamentals and on classical music, too. They're great sight readers, have great ears and have studied in major universities and conservatories, although they sound like they're organic jazz musicians. But all that is part of what makes the music so special, and it's very special, too, that we have that in common.

AAJ: And the compositions on the album are all your originals, with one exception, correct?

CH: Yes, the only exception is a re-working I did of "All or Nothing at All." I think Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
once said, "You make the originals sound like standards and the standards sound like originals." That's what I was aiming for. That's something important for Criss Cross also. Gerry Teekens, who's the founder of Criss Cross, always talks about the tradition, jazz, blues and standards, and trying to make it personal, while at the same time doing something fresh.

AAJ: You're quite prolific, really, as a composer and an arranger.

CH: Well, it's just something that I've been doing since I was a kid, even in high school. I was blessed that I had music theory and composition in high school. And then when I went to North Texas State, I kept doing it. And a lot of my friends are composers and arrangers, guys like Bob Belden
Bob Belden
Bob Belden
, who's now very successful. It actually goes back to when I was in elementary school. I used to get in trouble because I'd get bored with the parts for my classical wind ensemble in sixth grade. And I would try to make up my own parts so that the band director couldn't tell whether or not I was playing my part. Then I would get in trouble. I remember one time the band director asked me what I was doing. And I said, "I'm just kind of messing around in F." And he said, "Well don't mess around in F. Just play what's written!"

AAJ: Is there something in particular that these compositions on the album have in common, or are these just your latest compositions?

CH: Sometimes I'll write music, and it's almost like an extended suite. All the tunes on the CD were written in a six- month or one-year period. I do a lot of reading and thinking about philosophy, and the ideas behind these compositions go back to the poetry of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic. His poetry is beautiful, and I tried to take some of his poems and write up my own musical interpretations of them.

I've done that a lot in different projects. I'll be reading the Tao or oriental philosophy or Indian philosophy and try to use some of that as motivation. Or I'll go to an art museum or watch a Kurosawa film and listen to the score by Takemitsu. It's important for music to be a reflection of a broader part of yourself rather than just another slice of jazz. I think it might have been Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
who told me—he probably won't mind if I say this—that if music is a reflection of life, you have to have a life first.

AAJ: And the title of the album—A Voice through the Door—what's the significance of that?

CH: "A Voice through the Door" is one of Rumi's poems, and it has to do with motivation. Let's imagine there's a doorway and something either moves you to walk through that door or to walk away. It has to do with the overarching principal of wanting to keep growing and to pursue a path—what motivates us to move forward. It's about staying motivated and being optimistic. It's maybe a metaphor of our life, that we're constantly going through doors and continuing to move on.

AAJ: With The Tip of the Sword, there's a connection to Taoist philosophy.

CH: There is. Each of the compositions on the CD ties to a quotation from Zuangzi, a Taoist philosopher from the fourth century. And they also tie in with preparation in the martial artists. There are thousands of years of history behind these things, pre-Samuri, that have to do with effortless effort, control and inner sincerity. My sons and I were studying Shaolin Kung Fu for a while. We learned that the master never uses his art. We were studying with Phil Sant in Brewster, New York—he's a great Kung Fu master. I asked him, did you ever have to use Kung Fu in a real-life situation? And he said, "No, I just look someone in the eye, and they realize that there's no use confronting me." That's the inner sincerity that comes across—there's this power.

Jazz is not a martial art, obviously, but there's a kind of synchronicity to it, and it's an art of freedom through discipline. You do have to put thousands of hours of preparation into it. And with a great master like John Coltrane—who's a real role model for me—he had a sincerity of effort with such purity it was monumental. So I see a lot of connections between jazz and philosophy.

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