Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
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.
About Alan Broadbent
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.