Worlds. Here, then, is the man and his music.
All About Jazz: What was it like growing up in Boston as a musician, has it helped?
Aaron Goldberg: Boston has a good jazz scene because of all the schools. Lots of young people come to Boston to learn how to play and basically it's a city of jazz pedagogy (we have Berklee and the New England Conservatory), and there are a lot of teachers who teach privately around Boston that also teach at Berklee, like Jerry Bergonzi, who I studied with. Some people move to Boston in order to teach and they also play around Boston in all the clubs. The club scene is pretty happening.
There are also people who move to Boston to study and obviously they never leave. There's a large contingent of people who come to Berklee from places like Portugal, and then they go back. Then there is another large contingent that comes to Boston from places like Portugal and move to New York. And then there is yet the third contingent of people that move to Boston to study and then stay. There are a lot of musicians in Boston. There aren't necessarily that many places to play, considering the huge number of musicians.
AAJ: Why is that?
AG: Boston suffers from the fact that most often the best and most ambitious musicians move to New York. The number of musicians is extremely high and the level of musicianship is extremely high compared to other places in the States, but not compared to New York.
There are two top-tier jazz clubsScullers and the Regattabar. They both had great artists coming to town when I was growing up so I was able to sneak in. I was too young to really get in legally, but I had some friends who worked at the door of the Regattabar. Actually, a good friend of mine, who subsequently got married to Ravi Coltrane used to work at the door of the Regattabar. I was sixteen and I would go there with my high school friends and she would sneak us into the corner. I remember sitting next to Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron, hearing all the greatest pianists. I was just a kid in the corner. They wouldn't serve many drinks but they let me in.
AAJ: So what you are saying is that growing up in Boston affected your attraction to jazz.
AG: I think if I hadn't grown up in a city with a sizable jazz scene I wouldn't have been fortunate enough to hear all those great musicians at such a young age and stay inspired. Also I never would have discovered jazz if I hadn't gone to my high school, because there was a guy who studied at Berklee, Bob Sinicrope, who was a math teacher at my high school and then started to teach jazz classes. I feel it is a great stroke of luck that I am playing music for a living and, if circumstances had been different, I might may be doing something completely different.
AAJ: You started studying piano when you were seven years old. What kind of piano?
AG: Classical piano.
AAJ: You weren't thinking about jazz by then?
AG: I didn't know anything about jazz, I had never heard a note of jazz. My parents liked classical music and they had a piano in the house. They both played piano when they were kids. The piano actually belonged to my grandmother, and my father played on and then when my mother's parents died they got their piano. Studying piano was just something like a little family tradition for two generations.
AAJ: And I guess you weren't certainly thinking about becoming a professional jazz musician.
AG: I know that my parents never imagined in their wildest nightmares or dreams that I would become a professional musician and I think it was just one of many things that I was interested in when I was a kid and one of many things that they were interested in me pursuing when I was a kid: sports and music and all the things that a lot of kids do.
AAJ: Were you a disciplined piano student?
AG: I was a good piano student but I certainly wasn't passionate about it. I practiced, my parents told me to practice, and that was the right thing to do. I think that I liked the feeling of accomplishment that came with learning pieces. At some level I think I appreciated the music but I surely didn't understand the classical music that I was learning when I was eleven or thirteen years-old. I didn't understand how songs were written, I didn't understand the relationship between symphonies and sonatas, I really didn't know anything about classical music but I knew how to translate dots on the page into sounds. That was a skill that I had acquired. It wasn't until I studied jazz in high school that the whole world of music opened up to me and I started to feel an emotional connection to the music I was playing.
AAJ: In Portugal we don't have jazz classes in high school. How does it work in the USA?
AG: In fact in the States it's very much the same. Again, it was just a stroke of luck. If you look at the ranks of professional jazz musicians in the United States, the Americans that went on to become professionals at high level, about 75 to 80 percent of them all came from the same fifteen or twenty high schools around the country, and those were the high schools with the strong jazz programs. The majority of high schools don't have jazz programs at all; they may have a little bit of music instruction but it's usually something like a concert band or maybe a small orchestra. The number of schools that have jazz program is very small and the number of schools with excellent teachers is just a handful in the entire country and consistently these high schools produce top level professional jazz musicians.
All my friends went to the same high schools in Houston, Saint Louis, Seattle, Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Chicago or Boston. There is a tradition at those high schools where the younger students look up to these older students who then go on to make CDs and become famous and so they know it's possible to do that. Eric Harland and Robert Glasper both went to the same high school in Houston. I'm giving lessons to a drummer from Houston, who went to that same high school as Eric, and there is a tradition of drummers that go to that high school and they all become professional musicians and talk to each other and learn from each other. I asked him: "Why there are so many good players from this school? I expected him to say because there is a great teacher but really the answer was because there is a good teacher but also the tradition of musicians teaching each other.
AAJ: What is the role of Bob Sinicrope in teaching jazz at your high school?
AG: Bob Sinicrope is one of the greatest jazz teachers I have ever met. He just won an award from IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education]the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year Awardand I was so ecstatic about it because he really deserves some recognition for his hard work. His efforts have gone into teaching students to love jazz, not to become professional musicians because most of the students that go to my high school go on to become doctors and lawyers, urban professionals of all kinds.
AAJ: You were the lucky exception.
AG: I was the exception not necessarily because I was betterin fact of the musicians that I started to study jazz with I was by far the least experienced and in some ways the most hopelessbut I just fell in love with the music, maybe more deeply than some other people did, and I had the courage to take an alternate career path from some of my friends who I am sure would have loved to continue to study music, but it wasn't really in the realm of possibility. For me, I forced it into the realm of possibility.
AG: I spent a lot of time playing as a sideman with a lot of great musicians and I learned a huge amount from that. I would like to continue to do that, but I also would like to grow as a bandleader. Every time I play a gig with my trio or any other trio as a co-leader I feel like I learn something about myself and I always have something to work on and that's the great challenge, to raise the level of my playing as a leader to the level of my playing as a sideman. Also that would motivate me to write more music.
AAJ: Last night the audience at the Hot Clube de Portugal was absolutely thrilled with your music. Is it something that happens everywhere you play or it depends on the audience?
AG: Recently I feel like every time I play a trio gig people are happy, which is very encouraging in the sense that we are doing something that moves people and that's part of why we are out here and also it's encouraging because I feel we are getting better. This band with Ali [Jackson] and Omer [Avital] and I has a certain kind of magic that comes from our long friendship and the fact that those guys are great musicians with very strong personalities and we have a lot of fun and people can hear that we're having fun and they respond to that. The same is true with the other trio with Reuben [Rogers] and Eric [Harland]. We love each other, we go back a long, long way and we respect each other and try to give each musician equal space. I'm not interested in having a trio with sideman; I'm interested in pursuing musical projects where everyone is an equal. So I think the answer is: fortunately yes!
AAJ: Do you find any difference between audiences in the States and in Europe?
AG: Every country in Europe has a different feeling and the venue has a huge effect. I think even more important than the country is the feeling of the venue, some are cold, some are the opposite, like the Hot Club [de Portugal]: just walking in there feels good, creates a certain energy, you can feel the audience very strongly.
It's true in the States too, there are certain venues where you know you're gonna have a good concert, you can feel the audience. The sound on the stage makes a big difference, even more than national differences. But that being said, Japanese audiences have their particular feelingthey respond in a particular wayNew York audiences tend to be the most discerning in a certain sense, when it's good they know it's good and they respond; when it's not they know it's not and they don't respond. In a certain way it's like playing for an audience of your peers, the musicians are always the harshest critics.
People in New York, they hear all the best musicians all the time so they take it for granted. You really have to be good to impress them, which is maybe the way it should be. That being said this week in Lisbon alone you have Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Madeleine Peyroux, Wayne Shorter, us... This feels like New York in Lisbon!
AAJ: If you hadn't been a jazz musician and since you graduated in history and science, what could you be doing by now? Do you imagine yourself working in something else besides music?
AG: When I was younger I never thought I would become a professional musician. There was a period of time in high school when I thought I wanted to be a poet. I was as interested in writing poetry as I was in playing music. When I was really young I wanted to be a professional tennis player but I think I woke up to the fact it was never going to happen. I'm happy that I did but I still have dreams about playing professional tennis. I think that I probably would have ended up in academia doing research and maybe teaching or maybe writing poetry.
Lately I have been gaining more interest in politics. I feel like there are so many problems in the world that are addressable, if you don't address them, if you don't work to try to fix them we may not be here for much longer, which is a sad thought, as much as I feel like art is a necessity and when I doubt it people remind me, people that hear our music, remind me not to stop doing this.
I believe music has been handed down to me by all those other great musicians I have played with: Al Foster played with Miles and he handed the music to Al, Al handed the music to my generation, to me and my friends. Even people like Wynton [Marsalis], who is just one generation older, he is always talking about "this music is in your hands, you're going to be the carrier of this tradition, don't let it die. I feel a certain responsibility to this music, I'm not going to let it die and I'm going to pursue it all my life but there are other times when I wonder there are a lot of things we need to do in this world in addition to moving people with art and music.
There are a lot of very practical problems that we need to try to solve. So I'm interested in figuring out a way to do both, to try to pursue my arts, my music and give it to people and make it as great as possible and also not forget about the other aspects than need some love and attention.
AAJ: What was the turning point in your musical career? Was it your work with Betty Carter?
AG: The real turning point was going to the New School after high school. That was the moment when everything came to a peak with my parents, my relationship with my family. They didn't want me to go to music school, I didn't want to go to university right away, I wanted to do something different to kind of escape, to get off that path that was taking me towards being a lawyer or a doctor. I was starting to fall in love with music and it took a certain amount of courage and also just a certain stubbornness for me to actually end up at the New School, because everything was pushing me away from it.
If I hadn't done that when I was seventeen, first of all I never would even consider becoming a professional musician because when I made that decision it wasn't in order to play music professionally, it was just in order to get off the path that I was on, just to be free, to leave my parents, to be in New York, to have some adult experiences. But because of that year that I spent at the New School, being around people who planned to become professional musicians and who challenged me and hearing all the great musicians you hear in New York (I was at the New School at the same time as Omer Avital, Avishai Cohen, Roy Hargrove, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein), I improved a lot to the point I was just starting to play gigs in NYC.
AG: First I had a passage into the scene through all the musicians I already knew and I had the good fortune of meeting a good saxophonist, named Greg Tardy, who had just gotten a record deal at Impulse!. I joined his band and I recorded with him and through Greg I got introduced to a lot of people on the scene that I didn't know. I hardly knew Mark Turner and I had met Joshua Redman casually.
I guess through Mark Turner I met another large contingent of musicians and I think Joshua heard about me because I was playing in Mark's band. We kept running into each other and saying we should play sometime but years and years went by and finally I got a call from him, he came to my house, we did a little jam-session with Reuben Rogers and then a few weeks after that I got a call from him to sub for Brad Mehldau on his tour and I did a couple of gigs that Brad couldn't do. Then that tour ended and Josh put together a new band and invited me to join the band.
After that I spent some time with Al Foster. I met Al at the Hot Clube, I was playing there with John Ellis and Al happened to be playing in town and he came by the Hot Clube and he took my number and he asked me to join his band soon after that. Then I served time with Kurt Rosenwinkel's band. Basically I have had the good fortune to be on the road most of the time since 1997/1998.
AAJ: You worked with Wynton Marsalis in 2005. How did you meet him?
AG: I basically met Wynton playing basketball. I was in Australia playing with Joshua Redman and Wynton was on tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and we had a big basketball game. Ali Jackson has known Wynton since he was a young child and he wasn't playing with Wynton's band but they would do occasional gigs together. At that point I was playing with Ali at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, which is the new club at Lincoln Center, so Wynton started to come down and play with us and after a few weeks he took me aside and said "Look I have some gigs... Eric Lewis is leaving the band I wonder if you want do them? I said yes, please, and for six/seven months I played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and I played in Wynton's Quartet.
AAJ: Sounds quite challenging but also demanding...
AG: It was a crazy six/seven months playing two gigs which were both very intense and very demanding. Completely different styles. It was a good experience to try to do both but practically speaking it was just impossible. To play Wynton's music well you have to devote your entire musical energy to his projects. The music that we were playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra ranged from the music of the Paul Whiteman Band, George Gershwin, music from the '20s and the '30s, Jelly Roll Morton music, stride piano, through swing, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, through music of the '40s, through bebop, through modal music, Coltrane, through hard bop, through Ornette Coleman music, free music, into Wynton's own music of the '0s and '90s.
I mean, eighty-to-ninety years of music. Plus he has forty-five albums of music he wants you to learn to play in the quartet. I would love to play with him again in the future when I have more time.
AAJ: How would you describe Wynton Marsalis?
AG: In addition to being the spokesperson for jazz music, an amazing salesman for jazz music and someone who loves jazz more than anyone else, a great politician, a great sociologist and a brilliant man, he also happens to be one of the most innovative trumpet players in terms of his musical vocabulary and his ability to play the instrument, which is something that people forget because he is such a polemicist and he has musical projects that not everybody agrees with. People forget what a total master of his instrument he is, what a total master of the improvisational language of jazz he is, and how unique he is and how instantaneously recognizable he is.
Aaron Goldberg with Wynton Marsalis
AAJ: What did you learn from him?
AG: I learned not only the stuff that I expected to learnwhich was music of the '30s and the '40s and some historybut I also just soaked up a certain amount of mastery and was inspired on a nightly basis just listening to him improvise. I hope to attain a similar control over my instrument, mastery of the idiom and individual language that he speaks. His particular idiom, his particular dialect of the jazz language, his particular voice is very, very unique in a way that I think most people do not understand and do not appreciate.
AAJ: What was the biggest challenge playing with Wynton?
AG: The biggest challenge was accompanying him. He has very high standards for pianists in general. The piano chair in his band is one that revolves constantly because he is never satisfied with any pianist. In my opinion he has not been fully satisfied with a pianist since Marcus Roberts, so every pianist that has followed in the footsteps of Marcus Roberts has struggled with the fact that Wynton has never really been satisfied.
I think that's in part because of Marcus Roberts' own mastery and skill as an accompanist in particular and his control of the whole history of jazz music, but also the fact that Marcus really studied Wynton's playing deeply for years before he joined the band He knew all the records and basically he could predict everything Wynton was going to do and he knew Wynton's playing inside and out much better that anyone that followed him. He was able to really get inside of Wynton the improviser with his accompaniment in a way that nobody else has been able to. It was a challenge for me to try to figure what he wanted, to try to figure how to be myself and give him what he needed and wanted and what the music deserved, what the music asked for. I don't know if I met the challenge or not. I did my best.
Of course the other challenge was playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and learning all these styles but in a way that's where I expected the challenge would be. I didn't expect the other challengeI thought that the quartet music and accompanying Wynton was going to be the easy part and the hard part was going to be learning all the stylistic stuff, but the challenge of accompanying Wynton was actually even a greater challenge.
AAJ: In 1999 you released your first album, Turning Point (J Curve); two years later Unfolding (J Curve) comes out and now you have Worlds. What's the main connection between these works?
AG: The most obvious connection is the band. Reuben [Rogers] and Eric [Harland] have been recording with me since the beginning, so we have grown a lot both as individuals and as a band over the course of those seven years. There is a certain connection in the sense that all those albums, conceptually, are focused on my original music spiced by my approach to the standards repertory, trying to show that, in fact, those worlds are the same, they are one.
In fact, there is really no distinction between my music and the so-called standards music. I hope that the records feel that way. This last record is more different because it has a little bit more of a conceptual focus and also the trio itself has reached a higher level where we have a singular artistic voice. It doesn't feel like me and Reuben and Eric, it just feels like our music.
AAJ: What about your first and second records?
AG: I actually like the first record. There are a lot of great things about it, considering I was so young and it was my first record. My voice was not as developed but it has a good feeling and as individuals everyone plays great. I still love the songs. The second record I feel like I wish I had put more time into the preparation aspect of it. It's really different to make a trio record then to make a quintet with Mark [Turner] and Joshua [Redman] and I think that the trio hadn't developed to the place where it's at now. It was good that I took a few years in-between Unfolding and Worlds, just to allow the trio to develop.
AAJ: There is a clear Brazilian influence on Worlds, through songs like "Lambada de Serpente, "Modinha, "Salvador and "Inútil paisagem. What's the story behind this passion for Brazil?
AG: That was a product of the music that I was listening to at the time when I recorded it, and that was because I spent a lot of time in Brazil performing and I had an ex-girlfriend who lived there. I spent a month soaking that music in Bahia, buying every Djavan and Caetano Veloso album I could find, and it just entered my body and my music. I wasn't interested in making a Brazilian album, I wanted to make an album that reflected my jazz background, my personality, my jazz voice and most important the voice of the trio. Our band is not a Brazilian or even a world music band. We are a jazz trio in the strictest sense of the word, but I wanted to show that it's possible to take music from all over the world and put it in a jazz context and have it sound just as natural as the standard jazz repertoire or our original jazz music. In fact all music is linked.
AAJ: What is your composing process?
AG: I basically wait until I need to write some music which is something I would like to change. I do not consider myself a great composer. I wait until I have just a deep need to write some music. It could be for emotional reasons, it could just be because we have a project we have to do and it's always different. Sometimes a song comes out in half an hour, fully formed, other times I get stuck and most often I start something, I get stuck and, if I'm smart, I write down what I've got and I come back the next day and problems eventually solve themselves. Sometimes it takes years and sometimes it takes many, many performances of a song until it becomes clear exactly what the final form is gonna be, exactly what works the best. So it's an unfolding process, it could be quick or very long.
AAJ: Is there any song you have composed that pleases you most?
AG: That's tough. I like this tune I wrote for Omer, called "Oud to Omer, in a certain way it's the most ambitious one, but I also like this very old song I wrote, called "Sea Shantey [from Unfolding], which is one of those that came fully formed. It just kind of emerged to the world.
AAJ: What can people expect from Worlds?
AG: First of all I hope that people can appreciate the level of my compatriots. The quiet brilliance of Reuben Rogershis support, his feel, his bounce, his pulse, his swing, his groove; the subtlety and the dynamism of Eric Harlandthe fact that he doesn't sound like any other drummer on the sceneand the way that we play together, which I couldn't describe in words but I think is our own way of speaking, it's our own form of communication. I hope that people fall in love with the songs and find that the music sounds like jazz but that they can't put their finger on anything in particular. I hope they want to return to this record because it has a unique quality to it.
AAJ: How difficult is it nowadays to find labels interested in recording jazz?
AG: It's difficult to get a record deal with a record company that will invest a lot of money in youor even any money. Unfortunately you need a little bit of a financial push these days to make the jazz industry pay attention to you and it's a very small world. Both bands and major festivals are very intimately connected with the few large labels that support jazz so if you are in an independent label, no matter how good it is, the challenge for you is much greater; nothing is gonna be handed to you. You need to find a good manager, a good booking agency in the States and in Europe, you need to have a connection with somebody in Japan and in South America, you need publicists, you need radio promotion; you need a lot of little pieces to the puzzle. If you are fortunate enough to have a record deal with a large label all of those pieces in the puzzle kind of fall into place immediately.
AAJ: For you everything seems to be going quite well so far.