A Fireside Chat With David Weiss
“ He [Freddie Hubbard] is still an amazing player, even diminished, the lines still come out. His harmonic conception is almost unlike any other trumpet player. ”
David Weiss is one of the founding members of the New Jazz Composers Octet. Three years and counting, the NJCO is one of the hippest things going in the Big Apple these days. Including a saxophonist who is el fuego, Marcus Strickland, Elvin alumnus, Xavier Davis at the piano, Roy Haynes and sometimes Dave Douglas bassist, Dwayne Burno, oh and Myron Walden on alto, Nasheet (I am part of the best piano trio in the land) Waits, and Weiss on trumpet (and he plays a mean trumpet), the Octet has record two session for the Fresh Sound label. And if that weren't enough to bow down and chant, 'We're not worthy,' Weiss also is credited by the legend, the man, the myth, Freddie Hubbard, for bringing the ex-Blue Note trumpeter out of a self-imposed retirement of sorts. So Weiss wears many hats, but wears them well. Ladies and gents and children of all ages, David Weiss, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
David Weiss: In high school, where I was growing up, I grew up in kind of a rock and roll area, I guess, and I was listening to Aerosmith and Kiss and stuff like that. I just played piano because I had to and I played trumpet in the band, but I never heard music that trumpet applied to. I actually went to school for photography first and then I started hearing some jazz music and just liked what I heard and heard something that actually applied to trumpet and then I started playing trumpet again and went from there. So it was kind of a long route, but I was a kid. I was like twelve and wanted to play football and basketball and wanted to stop playing. My family wanted me to play something and I wanted to play bass or drums, but all that was nixed, so I chose trumpet. I started playing trumpet and took private lessons and was playing in the band in the orchestra at school. I was playing it everyday, but I wasn't hearing any music that applied to it. By the time I was thirteen and fourteen, it was all Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra and stuff like that. Again, I was hearing stuff for keyboards. I had a little synthesizer and I played it in the basement and stuff and then I got accepted into art school and there were horn players there and they started turning me onto different jazz stuff. It was mostly free jazz like Cecil Taylor and Henry Threadgill, Air, I guess it was then. Then I started hearing music that I hadn't been exposed to before. It was kind of evolution. I started hearing some Miles Davis and Eddie Henderson was making some fusion records back then that were really hip and that's the first time I heard trumpet applied to anything. Then I got a wah-wah pedal for my trumpet and started playing that in a fusion band too.
FJ: Forward thinking.
DW: I'm from New York. I'm from Queens. The high school I went to, everybody had leather jackets and Aerosmith shirts. I always had a great curiosity and love for whatever I was listening to, even Aerosmith. After the fusion stuff, I started looking at more European bands too. There was a lot of European fusion bands that had more jazz influences or classical stuff. I remember taking the train into the city and buying black light posters and going to the Village and looking in all the stores and stuff like that from when I was like twelve. Even film, I'm a film buff and until I went to art school and started seeing all the art films and foreign films, I didn't know. It was strange how it happened, but certainly whatever I was getting into, I still remember going into this one store in the Village that had old records for $3.50 or $4.00 or something like that and buying Billy Cobham records. I just bought the same one again. Some of that stuff is pretty hip. I go back and see what my taste was really like. Was I just like a na've kid or did I like something that was pretty decent?
FJ: How was the work?
DW: I went to North Texas State and then I moved back to New York and with that background, I didn't know any jazz people when I moved back to New York except those I met coming through Texas when I was in school. But I knew New York and I knew how to live so some things were comfortable. The one thing that I remember is I didn't realize how diverse I would get. I move to New York and I study hard and I would get hired by Horace Silver. Within one year of playing here, I had played in every type of Latin band, rock band, top forty band, wedding band, any kind of world music type of thing, Haitian bands, and so it was diverse stuff, but I had no idea I was going to get into that. Within a year, I was playing in all these bands, but I was making a living at least. Some of those bands were actually kind of fun.
FJ: Let's touch on Breathing Room (Fresh Sound).
DW: Yeah, it is weird, Fred. Actually, I had a scary experience with it recently. When we work with Freddie Hubbard and we drove to Boston and back last week, I guess he had read the review in Down Beat and he kept asking me about it and I wouldn't play it for him (laughing). So the whole way up we were, Sony is starting to reissue some of his crossover dates. So on the way up we were listening to them all and checking out the bonus tracks and seeing how the sound way and everything. On the way back, he was like, 'Alright, listen. Put your record on.' I was scared (laughing), but now I can listen to it. It is weird. Anytime you make a record, like that record, it was just a weird time. The band grew out of, I don't know, I was writing more and things weren't exactly expandable to octet. The twins, Marcus Strickland and E.J. Strickland, I started having sessions with them and playing with them. That is sort of how it works for me. I kind of hear a couple people that I like and I build a band around them and start writing for them. So the tunes I was writing kind of lent themselves more to that, kind of a sextet sound. It didn't really work for octet. They were not as dynamic. They were moodier. It is just a different vibe. It works with sextet. It works with those specific guys.
FJ: Marcus plays some killing tenor.
DW: Yeah, his new record is coming out too and it is killing.
FJ: And Craig Handy.
DW: I went to school with him and so have always collaborated together. We had a band in school together and we had a band when we first moved up here, but we certainly both moved in different directions. Musically, we think alike. It is just he is better than me (laughing), so he has certainly worked more in one certain aspect. But when things come up like that, he played alto in that band. He did it for a while. And as you can see, he is guesting on alto on the new Octet record too.
FJ: And Dwayne Burno.
DW: Dwayne is on everything. Dwayne is a founding member of the Octet, him and Myron and Xavier Davis. Those are the founding members of the group (New Jazz Composers Octet) and those are the writers. That is why the group was put together, so the four of us could write. I don't know how to put it without sounding too self-centered, but there is a certain type of thing I need from musicians. They need to have the harmonic knowledge of bebop and hard bop and all that stuff, but they still have to have a certain looseness and openness about it, so that anything can happen and those guys do it. There is a few others I guess, but that is why they are on all my records. They just seem to do it the best for me. It gets kind of rough when they are not around to get subs. There are a lot of good musicians out there, but these guys seem to be the most flexible. It is still a vibrant music. I still need guys who look at it that way, who try things and they are always experimenting even if it is within a certain context.
FJ: And Nasheet is on every record hitting store shelves these days.
DW: (Laughing) Yeah, that is a funny thing. When we put the band together, Nasheet could not buy a gig. Nobody appreciated Nasheet and even a couple of guys in the band. The drummer was the last chair we filled and we tried about five or six guys. And finally, we brought Nasheet in and to me, that was it, right away. Some of the other guys were not too sure, but I knew it was definitely him. It is democratic society unless I don't agree with you (laughing). So he was always around. I don't know what gig, I guess Jason's gig kind of, and Andrew Hill, between those two, I guess he started getting heard more. But he always brings that flexibility. You will never sound pat with him.
FJ: And Joe Chambers is featured on Walkin' the Line (Fresh Sound).
DW: The Chambers thing grew out of when we played with Freddie. I was a little hesitant to throw too much at Freddie. Not that he couldn't handle everything, but he likes his music a certain way. I know from who he has told me his favorite drummers are that he would want a more in the pocket drummer. Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones are his favorite drummers. He wants somebody to expand upon that, but he wants somebody rooted in that. I always wanted to play with Joe Chambers and I actually have a gig, so we called him up and did it and the same with bringing Craig Handy in. Craig plays in a certain style that really works with Freddie's music. So we had a couple of ringers when we first did stuff with Freddie.
FJ: The growth is audible from the first record, First Steps into Reality (Fresh Sound), to this one.
DW: Yeah, the only thing I still love about the first record is Myron's compositions because Myron didn't write anything for this one. It just turned out that way. Those, to me, are very long developed pieces and they are very interesting and to me, that is my favorite part of that record and that still holds up. The rest of it is, well, we're OK. We were a little young, but the concept is still strong and it is still there. It was like three years ago now, so we are light years ahead of that. I guess that record holds up in the overall scope of things, but to me, I think this one leaves it in the dust. We have all just grown so much and played together so much. Also, our growth as composers and players, there is no comparison.
FJ: I had to practically do a Where's Waldo thing to track down Freddie and that took me a few years.
DW: (Laughing) Yeah.
FJ: I heard you were the one to bring Freddie out of a self-imposed retirement (see New Colors on Hip Bop).
DW: Yeah and no, he says that on stage and yeah, OK, if you really must say that. Yes and no. If I want to take credit for any part of that, it is just finding the context for him to work in. The idea of, we talked about this for a couple of years before we actually did this, because I actually did a couple of arrangements on a record that he did in '93 or '94. That is where I met him. It was also part of the impetus for me putting the Octet together because I liked the sound, the arrangements I did for Freddie. All trumpet player diminish. I have certainly heard the argument enough. It is a little noticeable with Freddie because nobody soared to the heights of Freddie Hubbard, just pure physicality and we don't even have to talk about the musical part of it. Nobody played longer, higher, harder than Freddie Hubbard for that many years. Whatever anybody says about what his other habits or lifestyle choices or whatever, which people tend to focus on, there has still been nobody else who has done that so that somebody could say that this is what would happen to a lip if you did that, that long. It would happen anyway.
People want to blame supposed drug use or real drug use or whatever for all of Freddie's problems. It's not true. That much abuse on a lip, it is going to give out no matter how correct you play. In that context, all trumpet players do something else. Miles went electric. He still made brilliant music to me, but he certainly wasn't playing as much. Just about every other trumpet player sings. They all do something else. They play less or they sing. They change up their thing to electric. Dizzy was playing electric the last five years of his life or even longer. Freddie told me of nights when they did that United Nations band where Dizzy could hardly get a note out and the next night, he would just play ridiculous and show everybody he's Dizzy Gillespie. But trumpet is a difficult thing like that, it is just the lip. No matter how correctly we play, it is going to deteriorate. It is a very athletic thing. Most athletes retire when they're forty. So my thing was Freddie ain't going to sing. Freddie ain't going electric. Freddie is known for balls to the walls hard bop playing. That's what he does.
So how can we still present that in a way and take some of the heat off Freddie so he doesn't have to work as hard because he is sixty-five now. That is why I think the octet works. I arranged his tunes, so the stuff still has some impact and Freddie still has some good nights. We just played in Boston and he played about the best he's played since we been doing this. It is shocking when his stuff starts coming out. He is still an amazing player, even diminished, the lines still come out. His harmonic conception is almost unlike any other trumpet player. His time and his feel, he is definitely weaker, but all that stuff is still there. That is what I would take credit for if anything. We found a way for him to get his music across in a powerful way still because when he played quintet, it would put too much pressure on him. It was too much for his lip at this point in his career.
FJ: You can't take away Freddie's place in history.
DW: Yeah, but for whatever reason, Freddie became the poster child for all of that. Pretty much every jazz musician has done a drug, until the last twenty years. Every classic, Charlie Parker, Lee Morgan, they all had drug issues. They just happened to die. Every time someone mentions Freddie, it is always in the context of some drug joke or something. He has become the poster child for that because I guess he is still alive. They attribute his diminished ability to that. I can't name names, but I certainly know musicians who lived longer than him and were doing drugs up until the day they died. I saw them. I was there. It has always been there, but whatever reason, Freddie gets it. He is trying. He has had heart trouble. He has chilled out, but sixty-five, that is a lot of wear and tear. Plus, just traveling, if you have ever been on the road just playing music, you don't get a chance to warm up. Sometimes, you are just flying in and going right to a stage and trumpet is not conducive to that kind of lifestyle. You need to warm up. You need to take your time.
FJ: I have seen concert footage of Miles in his later years where he plays three notes.
DW: Yeah, but again, it is creating a context for it. He had all this electronics going around. Freddie doesn't have that aura Miles Davis had. Again, it is finding the right thing that he can function in. We did a record and maybe Freddie's playing wasn't up to par, but it is still a good record. It had good arrangements and we had some good soloists, but he has raised the bar so high for himself that it doesn't seem like people are ready to forgive or whatever. So it can be pretty rough, but we just play. Most audiences love it. They are so happy to hear him and they love the band. It is really fun being out there with him. It also helps being out there with a legend. It is good for my band to be scared of somebody.
FJ: On behalf of Freddie fans everywhere. I owe you a debt of gratitude.
DW: Thanks, Fred.