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Interviews

George Cables: The Pianist’s Dedication to the Group

By Published: October 14, 2013
AAJ: You could say that Dexter was a game changer for you. When you think back, were there any others who had a similar transformative influence on you?


GC: Well, with Art, as well as Frank Morgan
Frank Morgan
Frank Morgan
1933 - 2007
sax, alto
, I started playing duets. And that helped me a lot to grow and develop. And Art started me thinking on how to play ballads. His idea was that when you play a ballad, you don't double up, you don't bounce, you just stay with the tempo that you started with. He thought of a ballad as a contrast to the other tunes that swung or had a bounce. So that idea stayed with me. And then between Art and Dexter, and also Miles, who I never worked with but always listened to, I developed a concept of playing ballads.

AAJ: Now, you have often stated that you listen to groups more than you listen to pianists, which is certainly the case with your desert island selections!

GC: There was a time I listened to pianists. I listened to O.P.—Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
—and Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
, but the majority of my listening was to groups. And I would listen to the pianists in the groups, like Wynton, or Red Garland
Red Garland
Red Garland
1923 - 1984
piano
, or Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
with Miles' groups, and McCoy with Trane. And I'd listen to their concepts, but what was most important to me was that these guys were playing as members of the group. The music was made by the whole group working together. And Miles was the captain of the crew. Or Trane was the captain of his ship. And I also noticed how each man made a specific contribution. When a band changed a member, the music changed! And the great band leaders did a great service to the music by allowing it to change with the new band members. With Miles you could really hear that when he got Herbie, Ron [bassist Ron Carter], and Tony [drummer Tony Williams.] That rhythm section did a whole new thing for Miles, or actually extended his ideas.

So what I really liked and listened to was the way the band worked together. The music, the dynamics, the direction, the colors, and so on. When I played, I would think not only in terms of chords, but in terms of the colors, the sounds. And I got a lot of that from Miles. It seemed that he was painting a picture. When you heard them in person, you got the feeling there was magic happening right in front of your eyes. And with Trane it was the energy and the sound colors, that Trane or McCoy would lead you into, like sometimes McCoy'd play the piano like a drum. And all those colors, not like this is a B-flat minor chord, but there was more than that. You could hear that center, but you'd also hear all the colors around it. So of course I could hear the piano, but it was the overall band that interested me most.

AAJ: Speaking of Coltrane, in his late career, he started going very far out musically. I'm interested in how musicians vary between those who stick pretty much to traditional modes versus those who go outside the canon. You seem to stay within the tradition, while being quite inventive and creative. You did some time with Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
, who was into free jazz and other modalities.

GC: I worked with Archie, but the way I heard him, he actually went back to basics, back to the roots. He would go back to the blues. I mean, he would play "Giant Steps," but where some guys would be dealing with the trees, so to speak, he seemed to be dealing with the forest. Sometimes I'd wonder if it was my imagination what I'd hear him doing! But he wasn't into Ornette's kind of free jazz so much.

AAJ: Do you know what makes a musician stay close to the shore as opposed to going out into the vast ocean of musical possibilities?

GC: I personally do like to experiment with colors and sounds, but I'm always thinking of the tonal center. But, still, I can step to the left or the right or make the music more chromatic, like V to I with a flat II to I, that's just a beginning. But I always wanted to play against the chords as well as within them. Woody [Shaw] was really one for that! I always like playing against the chord with Woody, but he would often ask me to "stay home" [stay with the original chord] because he felt his contrasts could be heard better that way. But I still like to go in and out of the chord, against the chord. It also depends on the group. If I'm playing with The Cookers and they're playing "The Core," I vary playing outside the chord or with the chord. With harmony, it's not just the chord itself, it's things that the chord can imply. It depends on the context, how you're getting from one place to the next. Another good example is Sonny Fortune. When you play with him you step outside, and it's a way to stretch your concept, like seeing and hearing things in a different way. It gives you a different perspective, and that's exciting. I like that.

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