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Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.
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