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Aaron Goldberg: Exploring the Now


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Aaron Goldberg is a jazz pianist and composer based in New York City. He's released five albums with his trio, featuring Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. His album The Now, recorded with that same rhythm section and featuring Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. As well as being very respected solo artist, Aaron has been a frequent collaborator with many of jazz's greatest names, such as Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Betty Carter to name but a few. He has a long-standing association with saxophonist Joshua Redman with whom he has toured extensively.

All About Jazz: Aaron, thanks so much for being here, how's it going?

Aaron Goldberg: Good, my pleasure, thanks for having me.

AAJ: You've got three concerts at the Sunset coming up, will this be your first time playing there?

AG: No, I've actually been playing on and off at the Sunset for probably fifteen years now.

AAJ: So you know it quite well?

AG: Yeah, it's a little home, a home away from home. It has a unique atmosphere because the audience is literally right in front of the stage, you can reach out and touch them and they can touch the pedals, tinkle on the end of the piano if you're not careful!

AAJ: Do you often come over to Europe to play?

AG: I do yeah, I've been coming more and more, it might be the main touring destination for most American musicians these days.

AAJ: You're doing three nights at the Sunset, you'll be playing with a percussionist, Leon Parker, and a Japanese bassist, Yasushi Nakamura. Have you collaborated with the two of them before?

AG: Yes, I started a collaboration with Leon about two and a half years ago, he's somebody that I played with in the early 90s, when I first moved to New York, and he was a major figure in NYC, he was performing with basically all the best jazz bands in the city, ranging from masters like Kenny Barron and Tom Harrell, to young up and coming people like Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman, Jacky Terrasson. So I kind of grew up listening to him and we played once back in the nineties before he moved to France. I tracked him down a couple of years ago for a concert and he had actually stopped playing jazz, yet he still found it magnificent. And now he's back, I kind of helped bring him back to New York.

AAJ: You got him back onto the jazz scene?

AG: Yeah, at least I can say I helped. Of course his musicianship has continued to grow all these years. He was mostly doing body percussion and vocal percussion work which he now brings into the context of the trio as well. So it's a little extra fun that we have [laughs]! We have a nice musical connection and it's a joy to see him rejuvenate his musical interests and his passion.

AAJ: You mentioned the trio, I'm quite curious about that trio setting because it seems like you favour the trio when you record and perform in your own name. Is there something about that setup that really suits your approach to music?

AG: That's a good question. I think that when I was growing up and learning this music, and when I first started to tour with various bands, it was always in a quartet or a quintet setting. One of the main skills you develop in that kind of setting is accompaniment and the ability to make a band really sound good, so you're one of many factors and you learn how to contribute to the overall group sound such that it's more than the sum of its parts. And that's a major musical skill that I think all the greatest pianists in jazz have had, for example people like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. They got their start playing, even before Miles and Coltrane, with other bands, so I think you learn so much from those kinds of gigs. I'm so glad that I had a chance to work like that for the majority of my career. At the same time, I was always aware that to lead a band requires a different kind of skill set, and to put the piano in the leading role, the trio is consistently the best opportunity. There are a lot of classic trios in jazz. I of course grew up listening to those as well. But it was more a matter of wanting to see what I could come up with as far as a group sound without another horn or another melodic instrument involved. I wanted to just put myself in that role. And over time, in an organic fashion, I developed my own sort of philosophy and aesthetic of how to play trio, and what kind of trio playing I really enjoyed. Because there's many many different ways to work a piano/bass/drums trio. For me it's a lot about the relationship between piano and drums. It's interesting to embark on a new kind of relationship, a new piano/drum relationship with Leon.

AAJ: The trio that you've recorded and played with the most is with Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass. Some of our listeners will surely know them from their work with the great Charles Lloyd. You recorded with them for the first time all the way back in 1999. Can you tell us a bit about the history of that partnership and what's special to you about playing with those guys?

AG: It might even have been earlier. I think that first album might have been recorded in 97 or 98. I actually met Reuben in 1992, the same year I met Leon. I was going to Harvard, he was going to Berklee and we were playing every weekend at a small club in Boston (Massachusetts, United States, not Boston, England [laughs]) called Wally's Cafe. So we've been working together for over twenty five years. Reuben is also a member of Josh Redman's band, so many of the gigs that we've done in our professional lives, we've done together. At some point we were joking that we'd spent more time together than either of us had with any significant other [laughs]. Eric I met in 1997 while I was playing with Greg Tardy, and I had an instant, strong musical connection with him. He had an original voice already, he was working on developing his own sound and I always had a lot of respect for that. He's a phenomenal drummer and drummers get excited about Eric, but he's also an all-round musician. He's an excellent colourist at the drum set, he has an ability to play with a very wide dynamic range. It was just a natural fit between Reuben, Eric and me, and that's why we've kept the trio going for so long. It's a little bit on the back burner now because I've been working more on this new project with Leon, but I think we'll come back together in the future as well.

AAJ: Plans to reignite that partnership any time soon or is it still pending?

AG: It'll definitely reignite, I'm not sure how long this new project is going to last, but it's interesting and change is good [laughs]. It's bringing out different sides of me. Leon, compared to Eric, is a minimalist, and that puts new focus on the piano. Everybody brings their strengths and I'm interested in exploring those as best I can and seeing what those bring out of me. I'm learning about new sides of myself.

AAJ: You mentioned Boston, the place you met Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland. You live in NYC now which is one of the world capitals of jazz, but you're from Boston and grew up there. It's famous for its great music schools, so I'm curious to know what kind of environment it offered a young musician like yourself in your formative years.

AG: Thanks for that good question. I grew up playing classical piano and then I got hooked on jazz in High School, courtesy of a jazz bassist named Bob Sinicrope, who was a musician by night and a math teacher by day. He would play around Boston, on the scene with various Boston icons. As soon as I started playing jazz I was aware of those local legends like Jerry Bergonzi, George Garzone and Bill Pierce. I aspired to play with them but I never thought I would get to that level. Through Bob I met Hal Crook, and I had some early playing experiences with some high-level musicians in Boston before I moved to New York. I spent a year at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, in 1991-92, and that's when I really got my ass kicked and I started taking music really seriously. Up until that point I was juggling many things, music being one. You move to New York and you're competing for gigs with Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, Chick Corea [laughs]. It just forces you to take your study to a higher level. Then when I made the decision to move back to Boston and study philosophy, I did it in part because I was looking for a place where I could continue to pursue music on a high level, hopefully as high as New York or at least high enough so that it would challenge me, but yet give me a little bit of distance from my New York experience such that I would actually be able to concentrate and study. I was afraid that if I stayed in New York, I thought about going to Columbia, I would be out every night playing in clubs and I wouldn't do any homework. So Boston had that magical mix, that really no other city had, of high level music school, high level young musicians and teachers, some local legends that I could aspire to play with, but also a little bit of an academic environment. Not just because of the good music schools, but good universities in general. So it turned out to be a very nice balance for me. I kind of lived a double life, I was studying like a normal liberal arts university student, and then I would go over to Berklee and play with musicians there. Berklee College of Music treated me as if I was their student, they gave me a home there, and even claimed me as an alumnus at some point. I would play on all the recitals with Berklee students, and go to the recording studio at three in the morning and record with Reuben and my other friends who went to school there. I'd play at Wally's with all the Berklee students. And I got to play with Jerry Bergonzi and Bill Pierce while I was in college, so it was a really fortunate place for me, in addition to having grown up there. I knew the city already so it felt like home. Besides that, it was the right balance of academics and music for me at that point in my life.

AAJ: Do you still go back to play there a lot?

AG: Yeah, I go back, my folks are still there, I go back to play and to do workshops. It still feels like home you know. I've been a New Yorker for twenty years full time, and twenty-five years since I first came to New York. I know in my mind I'm a New Yorker, but there's a little part of my heart that still feels like I'm a Bostonian.

AAJ: Let's talk about your album The Now, the last album you released as leader with your own trio. In your description of the album, you talk about that ephemeral, transient aspect of the music being created. You mention navigating what you call 'the dynamic plane of the present' which is the idea encapsulated in the title. Could you elaborate on that, and in particular how you feel you were able to translate that in the music?

AG: Yeah, my pleasure [laughs]! There's many ways I could try to answer this question, but I'll try to keep it as prosaic as possible and non-philosophical. The simplest way to talk about what I meant by calling the album The Now is just to return people's consciousness to the fact, the unappreciated fact, that all of the greatest jazz albums were improvised, meaning that if they had been recorded five seconds later, they would sound totally different. Each take of all those classic tunes, assuming there was more than one, sounds extraordinarily different from the last one. The songs are the same, the mood is the same, the solos are all different. And so what we love most about those albums, all those solos that we can sing along with, are just literally one moment in time. And they become definitive, they become canonical, but they're made in that exact moment of the unknown present. That's the nature, the magical nature of our art. I think it's very unlike all other forms of music. There are improvisational musics from all the world, but jazz is in my opinion the highest level of improvisational music. When it becomes recorded music, people tend to forget the improvisational element involved in making it. The art of making an album is very much tied up with how you go into the studio, with your band of course, and capture some kind of transcendent magic in what is essentially just one moment in time, and allow it to become the definitive version of whatever song you're playing. There's something a little bit artificial about a studio environment, as opposed to a concert environment, because we mostly play concerts. So the psychological trick is to put yourself in the mode of just going for it as if you were playing a concert, all the while in the back of your mind knowing that actually this is the version that you're going to live with forever. I was just wanting to prod people's memory. Serious jazz fans know this, but even jazz musicians sometimes forget it. We listen to these albums, and it's extraordinary that we would be singing along to completely different solos if they had been recorded just a few seconds later. I wanted to just hold that thought in front of people as they were listening.

AAJ: As you say, a jazz album is very much an instant in time, but it also builds on the musical influences of the people who are there, there's a heritage behind that moment in time. Which brings me to my next question about the musical influences behind the album, because they're quite broad. There's a clear Brazilian influence which we've already seen in some of your previous albums, there are covers of Djavan, of Chico Buarque. But you also play straight up bebop, there's even some Haitian folk music. Can you tell us a bit about how those influences came together and crystallised to form this album?

AG: One thing I've always been interested in and firmly believed is that a jazz musician's artistry is his improvisational voice. If you take someone like Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, or Stan Getz, you put them in any context and they make magnificent music, in any genre, any style. Somehow being themselves, bringing themselves to it, stamping it strongly with their creative improvisational voice. And yet being flexible enough to be a part of virtually anything. That's the jazz musician's skill par excellence. I don't think there's any other kind of musician that can pull that off. To me that's what makes us high level artists. So I've always been interested in approaching different kinds of material that move me for different reasons, and trying to put my stamp on it: do it my way such that, I hope, my albums sound like a coherent whole, there's a coherent stamp on whatever it is that we're doing. I've always been interested in exploring different modes, different moods, you could also call it different influences from different parts of the world, but I sort of see that as something that jazz musicians have always done. I continue to enjoy challenging myself in this way. It's possible that sometimes there's not enough internal stylistic coherence. I hope that there is, and I hope that I continue to refine that ability to do that, to take all these different kinds of material, and make them my own.

AAJ: You've collaborated with many different artists. I mentioned a few at the beginning but the list goes on, Al Foster, Nicholas Payton, Stefon Harris... Is there one particular collaboration or partnership that's had a real impact on you?

AG: Absolutely. I realise that there's something I was meaning to say in relation to the last question you asked. There's another way to answer that question. I fall in love with certain kinds of material for unknown, magical reasons [laughs]. I get moved listening to Lee Konitz, I get moved listening to Djavan, I get moved listening to Bach, I get moved listening to certain things. I'm never quite sure exactly why that is, which is part of what makes art and music great. It's not so much that I set out to explore all this different material, rather what I try to do is to play things that move me. Whether I wrote them, or somebody else did, I try to play music that emotionally moves me, and bring my improvisational skills and my artistry to that music. That music may come from Brazil, it may come from Cuba, it may come from Haiti, it may come from Omer Avital, it may come from Joshua Redman, it may come from my own hand, it may come from Kurt. I feel like the beauty is the mystery and the mystery is the beauty, and I'm exploring material based on what I fall in love with. It may end up drawing on a lot of different genres. Maybe that's a better way to answer your question.

My longest standing musical relationships are the ones that have influenced me most. For sure, my relationship with Reuben and Eric, and also Gregory Hutchinson, Ali Jackson, Omer Avital. Those are some of my oldest and longest musical relationships. You play with the people that you love and you also play with the people you grew up with. Those relationships that last are the really good ones. Finally I'd say the guy I've been performing with for the longest time is Joshua Redman. In addition to working with all those guys I mentioned before, in my own bands and cooperative projects, I have a longstanding relationship playing in Joshua's band. I've really enjoyed it and I've learned a lot from him. I discovered so much of myself through those concerts. I've learned so much about losing yourself in a larger whole and becoming one with your fellow musicians, falling in love with them as musicians, becoming selfless and generous serving the music. Joshua sets an extremely high level of creativity in his playing. I remember what it was like when I first gigged with him, thinking 'Oh my god, I have to follow that? He just played that?,' and just growing into that, learning how to deal with that high level of novelty and excitement, the unexpected and just being in the moment. Now Josh is a master of that. He was a young master of that, now he's a middle-aged master of that [laughs], and he continues every night to play to that high standard. As of course do most of those other guys that you mentioned whom I also worked with, it's just that I had the opportunity to play with Joshua for the longest time. And I've learned a lot about the subtleties of accompanying well. Of course, everybody likes different kinds of accompaniment, but I think Josh and I have always had a sound, a really nice musical relationship, partly because of the way that we play together. It's a joy to continue to work with him after all of these years, especially with Reuben and Greg in the band. We grow together, we're tight, but we don't play together all the time so it's still fresh.

AAJ: We're running out of time, but I'd like to ask you one last question. Just generally, upcoming projects? Is there an album in the making? Are you going to be collaborating with Leon on something?

AG: We have a new album, we actually recorded it and it's all finished. It's gonna come out some time in 2018, I'm not sure exactly what month yet. It's with Leon and the bassist is Matt Penman, another guy I've been playing with for twenty-something years, who went to Berklee in the early '90s. He's one of my best friends off the bandstand as well. We have a nice project with Leon and Matt that I look forward to putting out and hopefully touring as well.

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