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Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

PART I: COMING UP AND BRANCHING OUT

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.

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