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Alan Broadbent: Intimate Reflections on a Passion for Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

PART II: A LIFE OF IMMERSION IN MUSIC

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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