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Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz


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The purpose of my performing is to communicate things that touch others emotionally, and sometimes it might become a work of art.
—Alan Broadbent
Pianist, composer, and arranger Alan Broadbent doesn't just "dig" jazz. He has a deep and enduring passion for it. Growing up in mid- 20th-century New Zealand, he quickly went beyond piano lessons to reading musical scores and learning jazz standards. Then, when the Dave Brubeck Quartet came to his relatively isolated hometown of Auckland, his love of jazz escalated to an obsession. Soon he got a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, studied with Lennie Tristano in New York, and in the decades since then has devoted himself to two career tracks: pianist and orchestral arranger, often for top singers like Natalie Cole and Diana Krall.

In this interview, he emphasizes that he sees jazz as an art form and takes virtually every note to heart, seeking to express something that captures the essence of musical expression. From Tristano, he learned the importance of jazz timing and rhythm. Broadbent sees rhythm as the most important quality that a musician can express on his instrument. He also has an abiding interest in classical music, especially Gustav Mahler's symphonies, which has strongly influenced his work.

Broadbent is a serious thinker, but not without a sly sense of humor. He is also a good story teller. In this two part interview, he weaves between stories of himself and his cohorts and insights into music and life. He seems to be gripped by jazz, as if it is what gives meaning and significance to his existence -and he pulls no punches in saying that any musician who doesn't feel that is missing the mark. All About Jazz contributor Vic Schermer gave him twice the time he usually reserves for interviews because he felt that Broadbent has something very important to say that can't be said quickly. Here, Broadbent generously and authentically provides an intimate look at a musician and his work. The first part of this interview concludes around the time he worked with Natalie Cole in the 1990s. The second part brings us up to the present. Both are filled with fresh insights about the music and the musician.


All About Jazz: Let me start out by asking you the desert island question. Which recordings would you take to that desert island if they were the only ones you could listen to?

Alan Broadbent: I would definitely take the Charlie Parker Savoy boxed set. I would take Lennie Tristano's album called The New Tristano (Atlantic, 1962). To this day, it's one of the great solo albums. Lennie had the tension of jazz time perfectly placed between his rock solid left hand lines and his flowing right hand. Whereas many pianists play on top of the beat, just straight up and down, with Lennie there was a magnetic tension of opposite forces. It's a very difficult thing to do. Even now, a lot of other pianists try to do it, but they don't have the feeling for it. I can confidently say that I do have it, ever since I was sixteen or so.

Another album would be The Amazing Bud Powell, Vols. 1 and 2 (Blue Note, 1952, 1956). And then I would bring along recordings of the music all the symphonies of the one and only classical composer Gustav Mahler. He was composing and conducting at the turn of the century when in Vienna and Paris, with Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky, there was that flowering of musical discovery. I would take all of Mahler's symphonies. I would take the scores rather than recordings because I can hear them just by reading the notes. I live in a world of orchestral music. I would take things with me that I can learn from, where listening is also a learning experience. So I've gotten got the desert island list down to Bird, Lennie, Bud, and Gustav Mahler!

AAJ: Would you say you're still learning from Bird and Bud?

AB: Oh, yes. But it's not as if learning to me means copying down the a solo and analyzing it. No, it's immediate, as if Bird is speaking to me and saying, "I've got something that you need to hear."

Coming of Age in New Zealand

AAJ: To go back to your childhood, you grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. What were your earliest exposures to music there?

AB: When I was six, I studied piano with the nuns in the Catholic school I attended. They didn't have a lot to do with my musical development, but I practiced dutifully and learned the scales and so on. Then, when I was around twelve, I found myself dissatisfied with what I was being taught. I wanted to compose, and I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I also knew I would never master difficult pieces like the Chopin Etudes because, although I loved the music, I didn't have that kind of discipline. I could never be like the great concert pianist Yuja Wang, for example. I love the way she plays. She is an interpreter who transcends the written note to reveal the soul of the composer. She is one of the living greats of our century, and I'm glad to be alive to experience her transcendence. But, for myself, I also knew I wanted to be more of a musician than a pianist.

My dad had a lot of the sheet music, which I would sight read and select the ones I liked best. New Zealand was a very backwoods parochial country at that time. It was isolated from everywhere, including Australia. We had little more than the BBC radio programs. I had no at home access to orchestral music, so I went to the library, and I discovered some things I loved. Then at thirteen, I remember discovering some scores, like a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, which I studied, even though I couldn't get a recording of it.

So I had that kind of developing interest in music and the ability to read scores. I was a pretty good sight reader, playing all those standard tunes I listened to on my dad's phonograph, and I would pick out the ones that were most musical to me, that had something a little different that appealed to me. For example, I've always been moved by musical intervals. When most people in pop culture talk about music today, they equate it with the words of a song, and they'll sing the lyrics for to you. But what about the music itself? Much of it is pretty jejune. So, I would play through these tunes and make my own little arrangements of tunes like Paul Whiteman's "Whispering."

In addition, my friend's brother was a bassoonist in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and he became my personal contact with the music world. Around that time in 1961, I heard Dave Brubeck on the radio doing Paul Desmond's "Take Five." I got the 45 rpm record and played it on our console. My parents didn't like it, but I found it intriguing, especially how the bridge had those lovely harmonies with Desmond's intervals in them. So I found the sheet music for it. And then, a big thing happened: my friend got tickets for a Brubeck concert when he came to Auckland in 1961 as part of a world-wide tour. His brother, the bassoonist with the NZSO, had gotten us great seats. I remember that Brubeck wasn't allowed to use the Town Hall's piano because they thought he would smash it to pieces playing jazz on it! They gave him an old Steinway grand from their storeroom instead. But it was mind-bending for me!

Dave came out and sat confidently at the piano. Paul positioned himself on the curve of the piano, and they played "Tangerine." I already knew it from my dad's collection, and the intervals appealed to me, especially when it went to A major. I thought that was beautiful. And I found I understood the harmonies completely. And then I heard Paul Desmond playing as if he were singing. I never knew you could do that with an instrument. I dug the way Desmond played, and Dave's comping. But there was this other thing going on with me. Besides my mind and heart being moved by the sound, there was this feeling, this pulse. Even with Dave Brubeck and his thumping away, there was this pulse that I couldn't get out of my body. The jazz rhythm brought my intellect and feelings up on an equal level in a way I had never experienced before.

So, very excited, I went and found the transcriptions that Dave Brubeck's brother Howard transcribed from Dave's solo album called Brubeck Plays Brubeck (Columbia, 1956). I couldn't get the record, but I started sight-reading the transcriptions, and it was like every chord, every progression was a miracle to me. I soaked it up, and I loved every minute of the time that I spent with that music. But the thing that I had to get right when I played it was the rhythmic feeling, and that came very hard. As I'll explain, I finally got it right after working at it on my first gigs.

Shortly after the Brubeck transcriptions, I saw an ad in the paper that some guys were forming a jazz group, and they wanted a pianist. So I sat in -it was the first time I ever played with a bassist and drummer, and it was a lot of fun. Then, when I was about sixteen or so, I got a serious call from the "big boys." We have two famous down under jazz pianists: one is Mike Nock and the other is the phenomenal Dave MacRae. Dave had played with Buddy Rich and many other greats, and was an amazing pianist. And Mike was, and may still be, the Dean of Jazz Studies at Sydney (Australia) Conservatory. And he was in a group in San Francisco in the 70s called "The Fourth Way" with Michael White on violin. Anyway, Mike's and Dave's great drummer Tony Hopkins called me for a gig, and I started working with him.

When we played clubs, Tony would get all pissed off because frankly my time was un-swinging, and he would get all frustrated, like, "This kid was supposed to be a whiz!" Finally, he told me to go home and start listening to Wynton Kelly and Red Garland, because their eighth note time was so engaged. The time was in the music itself, not like a metronome or classical playing. Their playing is almost a thing of the past now, because there's a straight-eighth fusion kind of style out there today. But I wanted that thing that made my body move. So then I started to put accents in very relaxed places, sort of like leaning back a little on a chair with the drummer and bassist balancing you so you don't fall. And then Tony would go forward, I would lean back, and the bassist would be in the middle of the beat. And that experience finally created that feeling that had been a mystery to me, that elasticity, the sense of time that the great jazz musicians have. And I looked over at Tony, and he's smiling, and I knew that I got it. I realized that the rhythm had to come first, and then the music is built around it.

From there, I began listening to Bud Powell, the epitome of all pianists at the time who had that feeling. But even more, I also learned so much from horn players. I learned to phrase and breathe from them.

AAJ: You haven't mentioned any horn players so far other than Desmond. When did they take on importance for you?

AB: I did play with a couple of horn players in New Zealand, but more importantly, I was listening to recordings. I guess it was Charlie Parker, of course, who I'd listen to over and over. And then I found Lee Konitz, loving the way Lee phrases, and his beautiful sense of time, even deeper than Paul Desmond, and that feeling of unpredictability. I could tell that Lee was hearing things for the first time every time he played. I aspire to that too. It's a very dangerous way to play because you don't have anything to fall back on. Every day is a new day for me. Right now, I'm waiting for my bassist friend, Don Falzone to come over. I don't know what's going to happen when we start playing! But that's what you have to be vulnerable to in order to express this feeling. The great thing that players like Louis Armstrong gave us is this spontaneous outpouring of beautiful music. So I'm this kid ten thousand miles away from the jazz scene suddenly feeling this music. That's how it all started, and I've been ruined for life! [Laughter.] And along side with that, I was developing my love for the orchestra.

AAJ: Parenthetically, I wanted to ask whether you were exposed to any Maori music in New Zealand.

AB: Very little. I listened to some Polynesian, and Maori music on the radio, but most of it has westernized harmonies and I don't feel any connection to it. It belongs to their own cultures. I grew up in a very white Christian Protestant environment. I had a couple of Maori friends, but I later lost contact with them. The 1950s in New Zealand was quite backward, still a lot like it was in the late 1800s. Even Mark Twain would back me up on that. When he visited New Zealand in the late 1800s, it was even further back in time. When I was growing up there, there was no free trade. TV was in its infancy even in the 1960s there. There were no new cars -you had to buy a used car, the technology was backward, and it was a very prudish society. Playboy magazine was banned. The wonderful British actress Diana Dors came to New Zealand and was railed upon because of her supposed promiscuity. I remember an uproar over a visit by the great Eartha Kitt, for God's sake. It was a very closed society, except for a few "insurgents" whom I was lucky to meet.

Berklee and Lennie Tristano: The Weekly Commute

AAJ: By contrast with what you grew up with, the jazz world is very earthy and very multicultural. How did you come to make that huge leap half way around the world to Berklee and a whole new life?

AB: The jazz I know is an art form. And that's what I as a boy of age fourteen got interested in. Pursuing that art form was what got me to the famous Berklee College of Music in the 1960s. When I was eighteen, I received the Downbeat scholarship to go to Berklee in Boston. There, I was able to really develop my skills more seriously. For one thing, Boston unlike Auckland, had a lively jazz and classical music scene. Right away, I got a student ticket to go to the Boston Symphony concerts. I heard Ravel and Stravinsky for the first time live. I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct, and sat very close to the podium. I remember standing up excitedly after Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe's section called "The Sunrise" and everybody looked at me like I was strange because it just wasn't the proper time to do that! And besides all that, within half a mile from Berklee, down Boylston Street, was the Jazz Workshop nightclub. Within my first few weeks in Boston I saw they had Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley. And Lee Konitz!

AAJ: At the school itself, with whom did you study?

AB: My arranging teacher was Herb Pomeroy.

AAJ: Many of the best composers/arrangers, like Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider were mentored and inspired by Pomeroy.

AB: I also studied with Ray Santisi, but that was interrupted by the fact that I was going to New York every Monday to study with Lennie Tristano.

AAJ: You studied with Lennie already while you were still a student at Berklee?

AB: At my first summer break, I made contact with Lennie through a friend. I called him, and at first he turned me down, but my friend said, "Keep at it. Call him again." After a couple of calls, he agreed to teach me. So every week I'd take a plane from Boston to LaGuardia Airport and study with Lennie. It was in 1967-68, and he was living not far from the airport at the time in Flushing, Queens.

AAJ: Did you take formal lessons, or was it more like mentoring?

AB: It was a personal connection. I was sort of a lonely kid, and he was a father figure to me. Musically, I could swing. My technique was somewhat lacking, as it still is, but Lennie refined my ability to play what I hear. For example, he would have me transcribe Lester Young solos, not by writing them down, but by being able to sing it back from memory. They were solos from LP re-issues of Count Basie's 1938 records, tunes like "Lester Leaps In," "Taxi War Dance," and "Lady Be Good." The way Lennie instructed, I would put the LP on at half speed, listen to a phrase, and try to sing it back. And when I learned the whole solo, I'd go and sing it for Lennie. And then, when he felt I was ready, I'd go to the piano, put on the metronome, and play it as if I was improvising it myself.

AAJ: Wouldn't the pitch change if you played it at half speed on the record player?

AB: It would be an octave lower. Lennie felt that even at half speed, Lester's intensity remained the same. The same was true of Bud Powell: the intensity and engagement with the time was there even at half speed. This is an important point. If you listen to some other pianists at half speed, you can hear that the music isn't embedded in the time the way it is with Lester and Bud. Bob Brookmeyer said that if you can't "feel" the time, you can't get membership in that special club of those who can. It's a very special ability. And we musicians all know when we play together that that feeling is of paramount importance, because if one of us is not engaged in the time, then it all just goes to hell. But if the group of us are all embedded in that feeling of time, then we can communicate it to our listeners. I could make a comparison to a sailboat, where to catch the wind, everyone in the boat has to lean the same way to the sides. If someone isn't leaning, we're screwed!

AAJ: Listening to a group, you can feel them leaning the right way into the time. It's hard to explain, but it really has to happen for the music to be great. And some musicians can never get that, like some classical players can never swing.

AB: Even Leonard Bernstein didn't quite get that feeling. [Broadbent sings the "Jets" song from West Side Story, mocking the halting rhythm.] I have all his show scores, and they're great, but his jazz writing, even his virtuosic "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," is just an imitation of the rhythm and not the thing itself. They don't quite have the jazz rhythm.

AAJ: I thought that Bernstein really picked up on the jazz idiom.

AB: No. Well, he got the notes and the phrasing of jazz. But the "time" is different. It's that special feeling of flow that only some musicians can get. Bernstein got as far as Dixieland music with that part.

AAJ: So, Tristano really instilled that flow, that special feeling in you, by having you sing back solos that exemplified it.

AB: Tristano taught the two things that Oscar Peterson said were really important to learn: sustaining the long line, and getting the time right. In an interview, Oscar said he's interested first and foremost in the time. And then the long line. Together, they create the elastic thing that's supposed to happen. Bud Powell really had that sense of time at a very deep level, but Oscar got it from a different source, an older feeling than from Bud's, Peterson had more of a Coleman Hawkins feeling.

AAJ: Getting back to Berklee, did you play gigs while you were there?

AB: All the time. I played at the Hotel Vendome, which later burned down.

AAJ: Your bio isn't clear what you did right after you finished Berklee. What happened next?

Woody 'N You

AB: After Berklee, I needed a gig. At the time, Jake Hannah and Nat Pierce were scouting around for players, and Herb Pomeroy told them to go hear me at the hotel. They liked what they heard and asked me if I wanted to join Woody Herman's band. I listened to Woody's album Light My Fire (Cadet, 1969), liked it, and joined Woody's band as pianist and arranger. It was three years on the bus. I had to unlearn everything I learned from Pomeroy because it didn't work with Woody's band. I wrote extravagant, over the top charts like "Variations on a Scene" and other such nonsense, still not knowing how a big band was supposed to sound. I just wrote piano music, and then tried to figure out what each of the instruments would do. That started ten years of learning how to write for big bands, eventually culminating in an album called America The Beautiful (Jan Matthies Records, 2014) that I'm very proud of, featuring my original tunes with the NDR big band in Hamburg, Germany. They're a wonderful group. It was recorded four years or so ago and produced by my dear friend Jan Matthies. But for me big bands are a bit one-dimensional and loud, and I'm not so interested in writing for them too much anymore. It's a case of been there, done that.

Anyway, being on the road was stressful. I did three years with the band. At one point, we did eighty one-nighters in a row—imagine eighty one-nighters on a bus, "ghosting" (doubling up, to save money) in hotels, sleeping on the bus with bottles of Nyquil and three pillows, feeling every pothole bump of the bus. It was a personal hell for me, and I just sort of fell off the bus in Los Angeles and settled in there. I didn't work too much at first. I couldn't bring myself to make phone calls, I was shy about socializing, and I was going through personal problems. I was living in a crummy little apartment and then when one day I got a phone call from a wonderful guy named Tommy Shepard. He asked me if I had a tux or a dark suit (I had a sort of dark suit), and said to come down to the Sheraton Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. "We start at eight o'clock" I said, "O.K."

Nelson Riddle

I go there, and as I'm walking to the stage, I see it's for a big dance band, and there are all these older guys. I sit down at the piano, and as I'm looking at the music, I see Nelson Riddle coming towards me! Imagine me, playing with Nelson Riddle! I figured that his regular pianist needed a sub for that night. At the time Riddle had his own big band without strings, and he had a young woman vocalist who sang his charts in the same key as Sinatra, which I knew from all those wonderful Sinatra recordings. Riddle liked to do a dance gig every once in a while. He had all these guys he enjoyed working with, like Willie Schwartz, Harry Klee, Alvin Stoller, wonderful guys whom I still remember fondly.

Nelson liked players who could sight read well and had that correct feeling with the time that I spoke about earlier. He felt I could do that well, so he got me to do some of his TV shows (this was long after his work with Sinatra). I came to the studio at 8 am. I had no idea what to do, so I asked Willy Schwartz, "What am I supposed to do?" He said, "When you hear the click, count to eight and play!" [Laughter!] But it all worked, I figured out how to do it. What Nelson particularly liked to do after the session was to have the rhythm section play some "source music," original tunes he wanted to use for some purpose, say, the guy in the TV show turns on the radio in his car as he hurtles down the Pacific Coast Highway. So there I am swinging away with Nelson sitting beside me. "Okay," he'd say, "Let's try this one." Precious memory. So for a while I worked in the L.A. studio scene, but then synthesizers came along, and I hated them. To me, synthesizers are built to replicate sounds, not feelings, and I never could get anything out of them that I felt about the music.

Working With Singers: Irene Kral, Natalie Cole, Others

AAJ: Did you work in clubs at all?

AB: At that time, there was only one club of any note in L.A.: Dontes.' That's where I met Irene Kral.

AAJ: The first exposure I had to your playing was her album, Irene Kral Live (Just Jazz, 2000, recorded 1977). I was really impressed by your comping for her, which supported her singing more than most pianists would. That stayed with me for years. Then a few months ago, I was poking around the web, and found out that in the intervening time, you became famous, one of the top pianists around! But your playing on that album really stuck with me for years.

AB: To your point about me being famous, "famous jazz musician" is an oxymoron, really. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Oscar Peterson and I guarantee you'll get puzzled looks. And I'm not even close to his or Herbie Hancock's league. Some musicians know of me and my work, that is all. But Irene was a special talent and we hit it off right away. Our first LP is a bit of an underground collector's item and I'm very proud of that recording, Where Is Love (Choice, 1975). Even though my technique was wanting, my musicianship is evident. Irene was the sister of Roy Kral of "Jackie and Roy" fame. I would celebrate the holidays with her and her family and that gave me a sense of home. I remember the day she died. [Irene Kral died in 1978 at age 46 after a prolonged struggle with breast cancer. -Eds.] Roy and Dennis (her boyfriend at the time) called me to say they wanted a little break from sitting with her at the hospital and could I come over for a little while. So I was sitting there alone with her. She was in a coma at this time. The room she was in faced out into the visitor's area where there were a couple of TVs going. It was a football game. So I'm quietly sitting there, and there's a roar of the crowd as somebody must have made a touchdown. And I'll never forget: Irene started getting up, rising out of her sleep state and wanting to acknowledge the applause! I tried to keep her from getting out of bed when, luckily, Roy and Dennis showed up to take over. That's my last memory of her.

I also worked back then with Sue Raney and did a little work with Carmen McRae, which was a real education. I was honored that Carmen compared me to her favorite accompanist, Jimmy Rowles. Later, in the 1990's, I worked with Natalie Cole. The story behind that is that she was in the process of doing the album Unforgettable (Elektra, 1991), and she was dissatisfied with the pianist who did the takes on "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Route 66." I was playing in Donte's at the time, and Natalie Cole came in with Andre Fischer, Clare Fischer's adopted son. I of course knew of Natalie's father, Nat King Cole, but I never heard of Natalie. After the set, they called me over to their table, and she invited me to come to the studio the next day and do some takes on the album. All I knew was how great her father, Nat, was as a pianist as well as a singer. I always felt he was the reason jazz pianists learned how to sing on the piano. He influenced Bud Powell that way to the point where, if you watch a video of Bud playing, he even sits at the piano like Nat. So when Natalie heard me, she liked it, and I was pianist on some of the tracks on the album.

That worked out well, and after that, I started touring with them. While doing that stint as pianist, I studied all the scores the band had of Johnny Mandel, Marty Paich, and Michel Legrand. And I also over the years had collected many classical music scores to study their orchestrations, but never could figure out how to apply that knowledge to a standard song. So now I could see how Johnny Mandel scored "Smile" and how Michel Legrand orchestrated for strings. I took all the scores on the bus with me, and while I was touring with Natalie, it became a nightly discovery of how to orchestrate for a studio orchestra.

Then Natalie told me she was going to do a second album, and she casually asked me on the bus if I would arrange the tune "Crazy He Calls Me" for her. I of course knew it from Billie Holiday. It turned out really nice, but I still had trouble with the orchestration. But Natalie really liked what I came up with and put it on the album and asked me to do some more, which I did. My arrangement of "When I Fall In Love" won a Grammy award, thanks to her support of me. However, after my work with Natalie, unfortunately for me, the whole scene of using a full orchestra on recordings was declining because record companies were already objecting to the cost of paying for so many musicians. But I did go on tour with Natalie, and that was also my first time in Europe.

Charlie Haden Quartet West

AB: Soon after that tour, I got a call that totally surprised me. A guy called and said, "Hey man, I heard your music on the radio. I came home, and I called the station to ask who it was. It sounded beautiful, man. I just moved to L.A. and I'm trying to form a group here. I'm gonna call the group "Quartet West." It was Charlie Haden! I freaked out. He asked me if I knew the saxophonist Ernie Watts. I said, "Ernie and I went to school together at Berklee." And Haden had his old friend, Larance Marable, playing drums. And that's how the next phase of my life, with Charlie Haden's Quartet West, began. It was pure serendipity, which has happened repeatedly to me. Things just happen, and I go with them. We started touring together, and I was also working on a new recording he was making at the time.

AAJ: I think of Charlie Haden in connection with his "free jazz" period with Ornette Coleman. Given that you really haven't pursued avant-garde jazz, how were you able to synchronize so well with Haden?

AB: What people don't realize is that Charlie was the foundation of that group with Ornette. He was the rock; he held it all together. Haden had phenomenal ears. But apart from his time with Ornette, he was a relatively conservative musician. He grew up with bluegrass. His family members were all radio stars in the Midwest. So he had that bluegrass tradition in him. He actually didn't like it when I played too far out! However, it usually worked well between us because we found a niche with what came to be called film noir jazz or something like that. So we did well together. I composed pieces for the group, and we began touring all over.

Pushing the Edge of The Mainstream

AAJ: When you play, much of the time, you are very careful and disciplined in staying within traditional harmonies, but at times you stretch the limits. Your recording of Ornette's "Lonely Woman" in your solo piano album Heart to Heart (Chilly Bin, 2013) is groundbreaking. Doing standards, you sometimes insert less traditional harmonies. So I wonder what your feelings are about avant-garde music and the remarkably expanded variety of genres and styles that jazz players are doing today?

AB: Yes, jazz is very much expanding. For me, however, what I play is determined by what I'm doing at the moment. There's no contrivance; it just comes out at the moment. I'm not trying to be conservative or avant-garde or whatever. If I do go out beyond the expected harmonies, it's not contrived. It's just what I feel at the moment. All those different definitions and genres of jazz mean nothing to me. I just follow Duke Ellington's axiom, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." You can be as modern as you like if it's feeling like it's supposed to feel. Despite his new approach, Ornette had that basic idea. He was very musical. He had an eccentric way of playing that Charlie Haden was able to lock into. But all this world music, fusion music, and so on, doesn't interest me. I want that feeling of "swing." Some say it's old fashioned, but I don't believe that, because everything that's lasted in jazz has that feeling and it is what separates it from all other music.

A Love of Mahler and Classical Music

AB: In my free time, when I just listen to music, I listen not so much to jazz but to symphonies, Mozart, Elliot Carter, John Adams. I love Schoenberg, Ravel. But it was on one of those Nelson Riddle Universal Studio TV dates when I'd be driving there in my car early in the morning, I'd have the classical music station on, and I'd pull into the Universal parking lot, and then I heard Gustav Mahler's First Symphony, "The Titan," for the first time. It was music that all my life I wished I had written. This would have been 1978 or so, just after Irene died. Mahler was speaking to me through his music. From that moment on, I've spent years studying Mahler, and I have all the scores and a lot of facsimiles of his music. And Leonard Bernstein came along with his video recordings of Mahler which had a big impact on me. I already had all of those, along with my Stravinsky scores, my Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, I have them all. I love Webern and Alban Berg; to me they're like Mahler distilled.

With Mahler I could open a random page to anyone of his scores, pick out a phrase, and I go "When you do this [in the score], you get that [sound]!" Especially with Mahler, the connection between his feelings, the notes, and the sound that he chose for those notes, create that deep, artistic epiphany that's the same as what Bud Powell does to me when he plays. It's the same thing: the truth. Not Bud Powell's truth or Mahler's truth. It's the truth of the art, the humanity of it.


The Fine Art of Jazz Rhythm

AAJ: Let's try to bring your career up to date. When I reviewed your sets at the Deer Head Inn, you said something that really struck me as a very powerful statement about your goals as a musician. You said, "The purpose of my performing is to communicate things that touch others emotionally, and sometimes it might become a work of art." I'd like to know what that means to you personally. And what comes to your mind about music from the history of jazz that fulfill those goals and which for you are examples of jazz as works of art?

AB: For me it's when the emotional aspect of music -the capacity to communicate through notes what you can't express verbally -and the intellectual aspect -your musical knowledge (what you know verbally)—become like one. It's the opposite of what Nelson Riddle called the "no, no pianists." They play a chord, and they move their head back and forth from left to right as if they're saying "no." [Laughter.] They bang out notes without a purpose. That's not my thing. I want to think and feel something important when I play.

Bud Powell used to insist on a seriousness of purpose. There are magnificent examples of such purpose in the history of jazz. Like the Tristano album, Lineup (Atlantic, 1955). And his "Requiem" (Lennie Tristano: Requiem, Atlantic, 1980, recorded 1955), which he composed and improvised after Dizzy Gillespie called and told him that Bird had died. Lennie went to his upstairs studio and recorded the "Requiem." I much later had the honor of orchestrating it for strings with Charlie Haden (Charlie Haden Quartet West: Now is the Hour, Verve, 1996). And then in 1956, Lennie goes into a very controversial overdubbed blues, like solid blues, and he starts to improvise over the top of it like Bird. After his introduction, Lennie plays the blues, controversial at the time because he overdubbed himself three times, a first in the history of jazz (Lennie Tristano, Atlantic 1956). Another example, perhaps Bud Powell's greatest, is his solo on a tinny old piano on "'Round Midnight" from Charlie Parker: One Night In Birdland (Columbia, 1977; recorded 1950), where all of Bud's phrases come together in one astonishing burst of expression. And of course Bird's solo on "Lester Leaps In" from the album "Bird" Is Free (Collectables, 1997; recorded 1951) is one for the ages. Those to me are the some of the most magnificent improvisations that I know, and I put them on a par with the greatest symphonies, yes, even including Mahler!

What makes these compositions and performances art is the immediacy of it. Early Bill Evans achieved that artistic level. There are some incredible moments that Bill plays on New Jazz Conceptions (Riverside, 1957). He's not quite the mature "Bill Evans" yet, but he's on the road to getting there. He has a sense of self discovery as the lines unfold. I can feel that he is discovering them for the first time. It's not some lick that gets him through; it's an actual musical statement that is new. And it goes onto another new thing. And it keeps propagating itself. And it has a curve, a beginning, middle, and end.

Another way to understand the artistic difference that I'm talking about can be heard say, if you compare the singers Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. They were both great singers. The difference is that Billie has the "secret" of Louis Armstrong. Whether starting out at age 18, or at the end of her life, when compromised by drug and alcohol use, there's still her glorious unique way of singing. Growing up as she did around musicians, she learned how to place each note at the exact point in time where it belongs. It pushes the phrase forward, swinging and passionate. Billie herself said, "If you take away my voice, it's Louis Armstrong." In many ways, Lena could sing rings around Billie. But she doesn't have the sense of jazz timing, the swing that Billie has. There are so many singers who try to swing, they call it back-phrasing, but it's not the same. The art that Billie Holiday, or Carmen McRae, or Anita O'Day had is the art of rhythm.

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