Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Billie Holiday's sidemen often said that her timing, her placement of the notes, was exceptional. They loved working with her because of that.

AB: A lot of singers don't have that special timing, and so the harmonies of the next bar get mixed up with the previous one. To a seasoned jazz musician, that's very unmusical. Jazz to me is the art of rhythm. Play the rhythm first, and then the notes come. When I have the great honor of accompanying Sheila Jordan, it's a different experience, because a singer like Sheila is really relating to the rhythm section like a horn player, and we can feel her engagement with our time. And it's exhilarating at any age!

AAJ: Another quality of Billie is that she sang with the most natural expression of emotion which many singers and instrumentalists have tried to duplicate but few have been able to accomplish at her level. To me, that's also her art. Perhaps the emotions are related to the rhythm.

AB: Yes it is, because the rhythm creates the intensity of feeling. Billie's intensity doesn't come from acting out the words. It is the thing itself and it comes from that placement of the notes in the time. And that's the great contribution that jazz has to the art of music. Not everyone can achieve it.

AAJ: The philosopher Henri Bergson wrote about time as we experience it, as a living force in our lives, as opposed to the clock time of the physicists. I think you're talking about jazz rhythm as we feel it and experience it as distinct from the strict beat of the metronome. Time in this sense is very personal and carries the past and the future within the moment.

AB: And it's elastic, too.

AAJ: I would also say that when a jazz group is really in a groove with the rhythm, that is when we listeners derive the greatest pleasure from it. There's a real communication taking place between the musicians and with the audience. Ingrid Monson, in her exceptional book, Saying Something (University of Chicago Press, 1996), documented how the interpersonal relations among the musicians affect what they play. She took a recorded and transcribed set led by pianist Jaki Byard, interviewed the musicians intensively, and showed how the music was related to the verbal and non-verbal exchanges between them. The relationships fuel the music. Rapport has a lot to do with it. For example, your bassist Harvie S seemed to be interacting with you very intensely at the Deer Head performance. Can you say something about the nature of that interaction which seems to affect, among other things, the rhythmic pulse?

AB: Yes. We know within two bars whether another musician in the group is listening. Again, it's a little bit like all of us being in a sailboat. If one guy is sitting in the middle of the sailboat, arms folded, while we're all trying to find this balance to catch the wind so we can go, there are going to be problems.

AAJ: The wind is the rhythm, and everyone has to be in synch and connected to sail with the rhythm instead of just beating time.

AB: When we're all connected and listening to one another, it really feels like catching the wind. We're all trying to capture that moment so that we don't have to be aware of ourselves. We're caught up together in the music.

AAJ: When the whole band is connected together and catching the wind, then the music really flows.

AB: The music takes on a life of its own. We're not so much aware of ourselves as we are of each other, and we start to trust each other to take us where we want to go.

AAJ: Does that rhythmic flow explain why jazz is the most fruitful medium for improvised music that ever existed?

AB: There are other wonderful forms of improvised music, like India raga, for example, but most of them don't have the endless variety that Western harmony has that I need and that special relationship to time that Armstrong invented.

AAJ: So can we say that there is something about that time element in jazz that stimulates and facilitates very complex improvising?

AB: Yes. It's hard to explain, but the notes actually come from the rhythm. Something about the jazz rhythm stimulates the ability to improvise.

AAJ: If you take Tristano, or Dave Liebman, who studied with Tristano, or yourself -the improvising is so complex, has so many ideas and turns of phrase in just a few bars. Rock 'n Roll has a strong beat, but it doesn't get the players into as many unique improvisations. I suspect that one of the reasons you got into jazz is that you could do so many things with it -the possibilities of what you can do with a simple tune are infinite. Armstrong was one of the first musicians to improvise with that level of complexity.

AB: If you want to hear that, all you have to do is go to YouTube for Armstrong's fast paced performance of "Dinah" in Copenhagen, 1933. His band is playing in the rhythm of his generation, very stilted, straight up and down, but the minute Louis starts to play, he's pulling, he's stretching the time, like a boxer bouncing off the ropes. That feeling from Louis is where the greatness of jazz music begins. Then, with the beginnings of bebop, Charlie Parker bounced around the ring with a few thousand more notes! But he still had the right rhythmic bounce. Similarly, the way Red Garland or Wynton Kelly or Hank Jones play those eighth notes, they have a certain skip and a bounce to them. It's very profound to me. Keith Jarrett has that feeling, whereas in my opinion Chick Corea does not, or at least won't.

AAJ: And that rhythmic bounce, as you call it, created an opening that allowed musicians to create all kinds of unbelievable improvised lines. In my opinion, something happened that was a breakthrough in musical history.

AB: Yes, and I think Lennie Tristano had the best insight of all, that jazz is not a style, it's a feeling! That idea encapsulates everything that I'm trying to say. Within that feeling there are many styles: Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan each have their own unique styles, but they all have the deep rhythmic feeling of jazz. Lennie felt it was a life force, innate in all of us. The things that last forever are the things that have passion and intensity to them. I have to work hard and practice every day, because that special feeling is something that dissipates if you don't use it. This special elasticity of time dissipates if it's not used.

AAJ: So I get your sense that it's this lived rhythm, what you call elasticity, that allows you to get into the feeling, and the feeling allows you to create all the magnificent variations that you do. It's like someone gives a great painter the right paintbrushes and canvas and a particular kind of paints or acrylics, and they can produce a masterpiece. The medium facilitates the art, the medium allows the message to happen. Once you get the rhythmic sense going, it frees you to invent creatively around the melodies, harmony, and so on.

AB: Exactly. Remember the metaphor I used before, of the rhythm being the wind in the sailboat. If you catch the wind, you can steer the sailboat in any direction you want to go. Without the wind, nothing happens. Or, if you like, the surfer who finds the sweet spot in a wave that will take him to shore.

Broadbent's Career Since the 1990s

AAJ: Earlier, in Part I, you took us up to somewhere in the 1990s, working with Natalie Cole and so on. Can you bring us up to date on your career, some of what you've been doing musically over the past couple of decades since then?

AB: Well, in truth, I'm mostly waiting for the phone to ring.

AAJ: You're too modest. I can't believe that you just sit around waiting for someone to offer you an occasional gig! I see you all over the web with indications that you're working on this project or that composition or this recording! I think of you as going non-stop, like you can't get off the train. You seem like the busiest man on the block.

AB: No, it doesn't work like that. What you're seeing on the web is a list over a long time period of time. But it actually amounts to only two or three major gigs a year. And all this time I've had to front the costs of my CDs. It isn't like people think it is. During my Natalie Cole period in the 1990s, for which I am very grateful, I was on tour all the time, and the record company paid for the full orchestras needed for my arrangements. But after that, I've tended to lay back and not pursue gigs. I'm not someone who goes after things. I did tour with Charlie Haden Quartet West between the 1990s and 2015 or so as well, but it was difficult traveling and not much money, although I learned a lot and very much enjoyed working with Charlie.

After that, I've done an occasional arrangement. I'm very fortunate that I know Diana Krall. When Diana was only nineteen, she called me. She was studying with Jimmy Rowles. She called me looking for a different take on things. So she studied with me for one summer in the 1980s. That was a lovely experience. I taught her what Lennie Tristano taught me, to sing along with Lester Young solos. Then I got to conduct on the road with her after her first album came out. Sometimes, when I'm conducting, she will quote Lester Young, look over at me and give me a wink.

What I regret is that I wasn't as well prepared for these gigs as I should have been. I just learned as I went along. When it I came to conduct for Natalie Cole and then for Diana, I learned by practicing conducting as I listened to the Mahler symphonies on recordings. I didn't study formally, I never could afford it. I got offered a conducting gig, so I said, I'd better learn to conduct! By the way, I wrote some of the string charts for Diana Krall's album Turn Up the Quiet (Verve, 2017) just prior to the one she just did with Tony Bennett.

AAJ: In a way, even though you've been working as a pianist all along, your career sounds more like that of a conductor and composer than a working jazz musician. You get offered conducting and arranging jobs, and take what comes, which often turns out to be great. Most of the musicians I know work their asses off to get gigs at clubs, work on their own compositions on the side, teach some students and maybe at a college. They're very actively in pursuit of work, and when things are going well, they have a lot of jobs they have to juggle. It's partly just to make enough money to survive and thrive, but also they love playing for an audience as much as they can.

AB: I don't put myself forth as a sideman; it's not my usual thing, although I love to comp for horn players. I've got my trio, and we play a fair amount of gigs, mostly for the "door." But I have certain needs and expectations now, and if that's not happening, I'm very unhappy, and that comes across to others, unfortunately. But with my trio, I can go to that special transcendental place, and that means everything to me. A few months ago, Harvie S, Billy Mintz and I did some home recordings at my place. We chose a few takes we liked and made them into an album. I'm pleased to say that High Note Records has offered us a two album contract, the first of which should be released around the time of this article's publication. It's my first partnership with a bona fide record company in years and I have Harvie to thank for this.

AAJ: So you're really concentrating on your trio and not taking gigs as a sideman just to get work.

AB: Right. I teach one or two days a week at NYU. And I'm always playing the piano at home. The best gigs come looking for me rather than the other way around. Like it was out of the blue that I did the whole note string arrangements of for the Paul McCartney album, Kisses on the Bottom (Starbucks Hear Music, 2012). Tommy Lipuma was producer and Diana Krall was pianist and co-producer. And it was through them that I got to write the arrangements for McCartney. They gave me what they had, the completed vocal and rhythm tracks and my job was to enhance them with a string orchestra.

AAJ: So you get some great gigs that come up out of the blue, but it's not like your phone is ringing all the time.

AB: Yes, it's different for me because I love to write music. I can enjoy the orchestration aspect of it, and finding the technique needed to get the sounds I'm hearing. I can't do that as a working pianist. My piano is reserved for that jazz feeling. When I play jazz it's a completely spontaneous thing connected to the feeling of the moment, and my trio is strictly for that purpose. There's a wonderful guy named Steve Tyrell who is a fine producer and singer. Every once in a while, he'll get a gig and ask me to write for it. My most recent Grammy nomination was from a recording he produced with Kristin Chenoweth. Steve wanted her to sing standards to get her away from the Broadway belting thing. So we did the album, The Art of Elegance (Concord, 2016). One of my favorite own arrangements is "Skylark" on that album. It's on YouTube, if you want to listen to it. But the song for which I received a Grammy nomination was "I'm a Fool to Want You." And Kristen just sings the shit out of it. And now we have a new one coming out, so that's great.

The Developing Story CD

AAJ: Browsing the web, I was really taken by seeing blurbs about your most recent album, Developing Story (Eden River/Universal, 2017), which I've since listened to and greatly appreciated. There you combine orchestral conducting and arranging with exceptional piano work. You could call it your magnum opus, because it's your conception in all respects. And it's exciting to know that it was recorded at the famous London studio, Abbey Road. Could you share with us how the album came about, and what the whole process was like for you?

AB: As I said earlier, I think of songs as notes, not words. I often think of the notes, not as the story- line of a movie or something, but how the notes that go with a particular orchestration relate to each other. I'm trying to create the "noble phrase." For me, that's where the depth of feeling in a song comes from. There were orchestrations I wrote, things I heard and wrote down thirty-five or forty years ago, but didn't have the technique to really develop them. So I just put them away in my files. Then, four or five years ago, I got a call from the producer Ralf Kemper. When he was young, he had heard an album I did many years ago: Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd with the Houston Symphony Orchestra: Children of Lima (Fantasy, 1975) So I get this call from Ralf. He says to me "Hey, I always loved the stuff you did with Woody. Do you have any more?" He was living in Dusseldorf at the time and had made his reputation as a writer/producer of jingles in Germany. So I said, "I have a whole closet full of old arrangements waiting to be heard that I haven't used." Then he asked me, "How big an orchestra do you need?" "About sixty or so musicians." "OK. Let's do it, and we can record it at Abbey Road." And I could hardly believe it. But we did it. And what a great orchestra! The London Metropolitan Symphony. It was a fantastic experience. That recording was Developing Story (Eden River Records, 2017).

For me, orchestrations like I did in Developing Story go back to Mahler. When he feels something, it comes out in notes. What I also learned from Mahler, in my own humble way, was how to express myself with an orchestra. That's the magic that some musicians have. In music, our experiences are evoked as feelings. That's what Developing Story is about, and it is held together by a few ideas that recur within and among the movements. The woodwind and string interludes, between the second and third movements, generate the whole piece. It becomes, subliminally for the intelligent listener, an emotional experience.

AAJ: It comes across in the recording. Also, I remember how, when I heard you at the Deer Head Inn, everyone there was entranced by those feelings as you and the trio played.

Broadbent's Latest Project: Reworking Brubeck Plays Brubeck

AB: Now, I have a new project I've completed with Ralf Kemper. It's a solo album called Brubeck Plays Brubeck (Columbia, 1956), utilizing his brother Howard's transcriptions. I've always wanted to do a tribute to Brubeck, because those books are where I got all my jazz harmonies from as well as my feeling for jazz compositions. So I told Ralf I'd really like to do that with my trio and a big string orchestra. Ralf got all excited, and he said, "Oh, yeah, let's go, let's go! Let's do it!"

AAJ: Like you, Brubeck loved to write for larger ensembles. When he took breaks from being on the road, he composed some really remarkable music, like a chorale for a piano jazz quartet, solo vocalists, and two choruses using the poetry of Langston Hughes. It is called Hold Fast to Dreams.

AB: I wanted the music for my Brubeck project to be harmonically true to the originals, which in themselves are astonishingly still new and fresh to me.

AAJ: So for the recording, did you improvise on the piano as well as write the orchestrations?

AB: Yes. And I'm very proud of the project because I think there's nothing quite like it in jazz. I admire Andre Previn's beautiful albums like A Touch of Elegance: The Music of Duke Ellington (Columbia, 1961) with his trio -Red Mitchell on bass and Frank Kapp on drums -and a string orchestra he was using on his movie recording dates. I learned a lot from them. But they are not that harmonically interesting to me. Andre plays a bit like Oscar Peterson, wonderfully so, but it's all a bit superficial.

I feel like in my Dave Brubeck project I've taken that approach to another, deeper level. And I've always wanted to give Dave a tribute like this. I would read the transcription when I was fourteen of "In Your Own Sweet Way." It had incredible voicings, different from Miles Davis and the others who were also creating new approaches. The actual recording wasn't available to me in New Zealand. Years later, in midlife, in my fifties, I found the an old scratched up vinyl of it in an old a record bin in L.A. Then I was surprised to hear that the chords and passages which I would linger over, Dave just kinda threw away. I would linger over the chords of this particular version of "Your Own Sweet Way." The way they moved from chord to chord was precious to me. So I tried to capture that seriousness I had even as a boy to the seriousness I have now about the art of music. For similar reasons, I also love Brubeck's "Strange Meadowlark" (Time Out, Columbia, 1959) which I was able to realize through the great beauty of my project's violinist/concertmaster David Juritz's virtuosity and which became my own vision of a meadowlark. But my version of Broadbent Plays Brubeck won't be released until 2020 to coincide with Dave's centennial. I wish it would come out sooner.

AAJ: Brubeck studied composition with the French composer Darius Milhaud, who he often noted had a big influence on him.

AB: Brubeck had a vision, and Paul Desmond helped him achieve that vision. When I first heard them as a kid in New Zealand doing "Tangerine," it was Paul's playing that I was most interested in. It was Desmond's beautiful long lines and his singing quality. But it was Dave's harmonic inventions and his compositions that had the most lasting impact on me. And, as Paul Desmond said, "If you want to really know Dave, listen to the way he comps."

Personal Life

AAJ: How do you spend your time when you're not doing music?

AB: I have a big poodle, and I have a small cockapoo tiny little poodle, and I hang out with them. I love to go over to the South Mountain Reservation -I might go there this afternoon if it stops raining and do a two hour hike. As a young boy in New Zealand, my escape was to go to what we called "The Bush," a place that was full of native plants and other wonderful things, and where I found my way to a beautiful isolated beach. It brought a certain amount of peace to me, an escape from "the great noise of unreflective contemporary life."

When I can afford it, I like to go with my wife to Alison to experience a nice gourmet restaurant. And I have an eighteen year old son who, besides being a budding guitarist and electronic music composer, is a six feet tall body builder. He obviously didn't get that from me! He'll be starting up at Essex County College next week. He has a car and a girlfriend, so, sadly I hardly see him any more. My wife and son are the most important people in my life. And if it weren't for Alison, I'd probably be a derelict living under the Brooklyn Bridge or somewhere! She's given me so much in so many ways.

AAJ: Does she like jazz?

AB: Not so much. A little bit. She likes Paul McCartney, the The Rolling Stones, the music she grew up with. And she likes to dance, which is lovely to see. But I never could dance, so I don't get that much enjoyment out of most pop music to be able to share her enjoyment. And when you dance, you can't concentrate on the music.

AAJ: When and how did you meet her?

AB: We like to say that she picked me up at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in L.A. when I was playing there one night. She sat at the bar with her girlfriend, and we struck up a conversation. I happened to mention my man, Mahler, and she really dug him, loved his work. That really hooked me. And, of course, that was it.

AAJ: I have an impression of you that you have a heightened awareness of the quality of life, that you're sensitively aware of what's going on around you, and that you care a lot for people, even those you don't know well.

AB: We live in difficult times. And I have the same feeling a lot of other people do. I see homeless people on the street, and I feel compassion and empathy for them, and I feel badly that I can't do very much to help them. I do seem to be more aware of some things than others are. I sometimes walk from Penn Station down to NYU, and within one or two blocks in New York City, there's every form of human life that you can imagine. I really feel for them. I'm very aware of people around me and that we are all going through something, struggling or suffering in some way.

AAJ: Do you have an overall philosophy of life, an understanding of the deeper meaning of existence?

AB: I don't think I have some any particular viewpoint or approach to life. I get a feeling of peace from hiking. I'm a "born again atheist" if you will. I consider myself a survivor of Catholicism -I never was happy with that part of my childhood. In the end, no matter what my personal regrets, my strife, my worries, all the things we all go through, I find in the end that when I'm improvising or composing it's some kind of act of love, and that's the only way I know how to respond. Hopeless in the face of it all, I suppose, but I press on with a smile.

AAJ: Despite the troubles of the world, there really is something heartening about the best music.

AB: Yes. I mean I can't live without my Mahler symphonies. Also, I should mention that I've not always been as relatively content as I am today. Alcoholism was in my family, and I succumbed to it in the 1970s, which was when I had to get off the road. I became quite depressed. A little later on, someone turned me onto cocaine, and I spent three or four years trying to get off that, all the while managing to sober up during the day and doing my gigs at night, which is about when I met my wife. Somehow, I stopped drinking and using and recovered. I think I may have learned something about what's really important in life from those difficult experiences.

Message to Young Musicians

AAJ: I've observed that a lot of young musicians today are struggling with how to pursue a career in music. They're very talented and well-educated, but many graduate from music school in the dark about how to sustain a career as a jazz artist. Having negotiated your career over many years and knowing the joys and struggles, what would you tell a young musician about how to pursue the practical business of a career while maintaining a sense of individuality and commitment to the ideals?

AB: Regarding maintaining the ideals, one of my first questions to my NYU students -I say to them, "When you go home, and shut the door and leave the whole world behind, what's the one piece of music that you will listen to that will open up your spirit and make you feel connected to the history of your art and the history of humanity?" And they're stunned! They don't know what to say! In effect, I'm asking them, "Why do you want to do this music? Why are you a musician?" That's my question. "What is it that propels you?" If you want to be famous, jazz is the wrong business for you. Do you want to be a great technician? A lot of them say yes to that. But none of them say, "I want to feel something deep inside me that the music brings out in me." For me, and many of the jazz musicians of my generation, I could tell you from the word go, even as a child, I knew that I could never not be this! That's what I want to hear from a young person: "I'm doing this because I can't help it."

AAJ: You're talking about the passion for expressing yourself in jazz. But many of the young students I've spoken with have that passion, and they have all the technique as well, but they don't know what to do with it. In the past, you just started playing gigs, you'd get those phone calls or sit in with an established group, and you get gigs. But today, there aren't enough gigs to go around. You have to find a way to make contacts, get noticed, hook up with a group that gets plenty of work. And you have to make a living at the same time. Do you have any suggestions to the young musicians about how to finesse all those complications?

AB: I don't have any off the cuff advice for doing the business end. What I can say is that the best way to start out -the proven way -is to hook up with the more experienced guys, listen a lot, and get your on the job training from them. Find all the musicians who are willing to give you a leg up. It's harder to do that than in the past, but it really helps when you can get it. And by your hard work people will eventually come to you and want what you do. Also, there's a difference between being gifted and talented. The gifted musician has it from the start. The talented person has a lot of what's needed, but they have to work hard to achieve some sort of mastery, but in the process never stops growing. At 71, I'm still doing that.

AAJ: It took John Coltrane over a decade to find his groove, and even then he continued to practice all the time and keep reaching for something new.

AB: That's what it's all about. And it's difficult, because you're always never quite there where you want to be!

AAJ: Like Sonny Rollins, who took a year off and hung out playing on the Williamsburg Bridge so he could find himself musically, even when his career had already taken off. Do you think something like that can still be done?

AB: It has to be done! Whether you can manage it financially is always a question. The point is that if you're passionate about this music, you have to find something in your inner self that keeps you going regardless of your situation. I'm still discovering myself as a musician. I'll open up a page of a Mahler score before I go to bed, and there are little things in there I hadn't noticed before, and there's this wonderful sense of communicating with a master. Same when I hear a phrase of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell. It's a constant lifelong searching and learning how to do it. But along with that comes the gratification of understanding, in a profound way, the healing power of the art of music.

AAJ: It reminds me of T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets:

"We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time."

You seem to be saying to those starting out to stay open to possibilities, be creative and passionate about both life and music, and don't become rigid or caught up in the rat race. Perhaps they could follow the examples of guys like yourself, Charlie Haden, Max Roach, and the others who were always growing and learning, going back to the beginning and knowing it in an entirely new way.

AB: Yes, and always to be listening to what the guys around you are doing. Charlie Haden was always listening. If he heard something interesting in what I was playing, he would let me know all the time. He was fully involved and listening in everything that he did. That to me is what makes a great musician. According to Ruth Cameron, Charlie's wife, he asked for me on his deathbed. I loved this man dearly.

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