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Soul Journey: Michael Weiss and the Art of Composition

By Published: October 2, 2003

AAJ: I think the first time I saw you was with Johnny Griffin and I know you've worked with a good deal of other leaders over the years. Tell me about some of the guys who currently keep you busy.

MW: Well, nobody keeps me busy, but I feel continuously blessed to have had the opportunity to work with people of the status of Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer for extended periods of time and where I can feel that my career has been built on those experiences and credentials. I always consider what I call these guys the last of "the truth" because when they're gone they'll be nobody that can take their place and really represent first hand the "real deal" and all the things that make up the tradition of jazz- all the things you can't write down, or notate, or write or talk about. There aren't words to describe how life experiences are expressed in a note, or rhythm, or phrase. These things will be gone with those people. It's unfortunate and I'm really glad that I came to New York when I had an opportunity to play with people like that. That was the real career track. There was no such thing as "young lions" and no one thought about being a bandleader off the bat. It was to get as close to the music and to develop experiences coming up through the ranks just like all the greats did and at that time there were a lot of bands to work with. Of course, it wasn't that easy to have an opportunity to play in those bands because the people that were playing were major longtime veterans themselves. I worked with Junior Cook and Bill Hardman, but at the time Walter Bishop and then Mickey Tucker were the piano players and then when they moved on I got into the band.

To get back to your question, having worked with those guys has been a tremendous experience. You know, when you play together, it's very intimate. Jazz more than any kind of music is an extremely intimate interaction with other people and you're kind of vulnerable when you're bearing your soul, and to be able to share that with guys of that caliber on a regular basis gives you an insight into the music that's unparalleled.

AAJ: So what's new on the horizon for you?

MW: The last several years my work has been a hodgepodge of playing as a sideman with a number of different people and then the occasional gig of my own. I'll be premiering a new extended work at the Brooklyn Conservatory in November that was a commissioned work by Chamber Music America. I also have some things coming up with Frank Wess and Lou Donaldson and the Vanguard Big Band.

AAJ: I've read that you do a decent amount of teaching. Is that pretty much college level stuff?

MW: Not exclusively; I've done a lot of clinics and residencies at the college level, but also I've worked with people of all ages and I've done some assemblies and workshops for children in our local elementary school. Sometimes I get more satisfaction in working with musicians who are on an amateur level than those who aspire to be professionals.

AAJ: How do you approach the whole idea of teaching jazz?

MW: I like to find the straightest path to a particular problem and to help the student to learn to think for himself or herself. That's the most important thing along with not being reliant on method books; that's the death of jazz. You have to learn how to go to the source so that it goes straight from the source to you through your own way of assembling and disassembling all these bits of information. So the method books and fake books and transcription books take away all the thought processes that you have to develop to learn to be an effective musician, because when you get on the bandstand you have to act instinctively.

There isn't a whole lot new that has come along in terms of the improvisational language, but it's how people have put things together along with maintaining high standards of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic interest that creates some of the more interesting music. For some years now I've been a very strong supporter of a lot of the music that Wayne Shorter has written, beginning with Atlantis and up to today. I mean that's somebody who's a great model of composer/improviser. To me, that's not commercial music. There me be some things that have a funky beat or rock beat, but there is so much going on there compositionally in those tunes. I slept on that music for so many years because I was so steeped in my little bebop world so that anything with a semblance of a rock beat would be considered 'that other crap' and I kick myself for missing out on so much great music. It's just a rhythm to use like any other rhythm you might choose. Like on that coda on the end of [Weiss's] "Atlantis." That beat is primal and strong and when you mix it together with slick harmonies and polyphony in the bass it's very colorful.

AAJ: Yeah, those records aren't about a head and string of solos.

MW: No, no, far from it. In fact, Wayne said once that composing is improvisation slowed down and improvisation is composition sped up, which is very true. And I find that all the things you want to express you can only do in limited situations, but if you create your own music you can do it and create the whole thing. That's why I can say with Soul Journey that I got a lot of 'me' on there. And it's not just confined to some piano solos. I got a hundred times more 'me' on that recording than anything else I've done and so that's really satisfying and Wayne has been a real inspiration for opening a lot of doors in my compositional thinking and awareness.

You know the first thing a beginning composer finds himself doing is always introducing new material and always looking forward without looking back and there's no glue to the piece. There's nothing that holds it together and you look at Wayne's pieces and how they're constructed and you see how the material is recycled in such creative ways.

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