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Alan Pasqua: Keys That Unlock Many Doors

Jim Worsley By

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There is a reason that jazz is no longer popular in our country... if parents are just playing Ariana Grande for their babies, then that is what the child is going to gravitate towards. —Alan Pasqua
Recently, and just a few days before Thanksgiving (2019), I was thankful for the opportunity to have two separate conversations with renown pianist Alan Pasqua. As generous with his time and candid commentary as he is talented as a musician and composer, both conversations crashed the one-hour mark. For you non mathematicians, that is over two hours of discussing, recounting, and engaging into a wide range of topics.

With that in mind I will keep this intro brief and get on with it. Pasqua is refreshingly frank in sharing his thoughts and opinions on our declining jazz culture and what we need to do to remedy it. He offers engaging insights into the careers and personal traits of legends Tony Williams, Bob Dylan, and Peter Erskine, among others. We, of course, discussed the many, and I do mean many, aspects of his accomplished and now lengthy career. There are also a lot of laughs along the way. It was a very enjoyable and enlightening conversation (well, actually two, but we've been down that road). I hope you enjoy the good speak as much as we did.

All About Jazz: Alan, you have compiled an impressive body of work over the past few decades. Most notably in a wide spectrum of jazz genres, as well as fusion, rock, and pop. Also noteworthy is that you excel and never seem like a fish out of water on any of it. I'm not a big fan of labels, but having said that, I suppose my question is, do you at your core, or in your heart, feel that you are a jazz musician that also stretches into other genres, or do you take it all in at an equal measure?

Alan Pasqua: I think I take it all in equal proportions. I grew up as a young boy in New Jersey and studied classically as a kid. I played in rock bands in high school. I was interested in jazz at an early age. Being exposed to all of that music early on, it became sort of a natural transition from one to the other. The reason that I have been able to retain some level of success is because I knew which hat to be wearing for which gig or which occasion. The best example is after I left college and I played with Tony Williams. My first gig in L.A. was from the producer for the two Tony Williams Lifetime albums that I was involved in. I believe it was Bruce Botnick. He was, at the time, a staff producer for CBS Records. He called me and said that he had been assigned a new artist, was producing his record, and asked if I wanted to be involved and play some keys on it. I said sure and went on over to his office. In his office was this guy named Eddie Money. Bruce had prepped him on what I had done. So, the first words out of Eddie's mouth were, "Okay Al, I don't want to hear any of that jazz shit."

AAJ: (Laughing) That's classic.

AP: (Laughing) Yeah, so you know, I just got it. There was a little piano in the office, and he played "Baby Hold on to Me" and "Two Tickets to Paradise." Then he said, "Man, can you play that?" I just sat down and played them exactly like he did. He said. "Okay Al, you got the gig." So, I have always embraced any rock or pop gigs with the same fervor as jazz gigs.

AAJ: Let's talk about your early music influences and which artists you were listening to as a kid and teenager.

AP: In classical music, I liked impressionistic music. I liked Baroque. I liked Bach and Ravel. I was especially interested in some of the Russian composers, such as Rachmaninoff. By no means was I a great classical pianist. I could read, and I could certainly play, but that is really a pretty diverse spectrum. It has wholeheartedly been applied to my jazz work.

AAJ: How old were you when all this started?

AP: I started playing piano at age seven. So, it's been sixty years now. As far as jazz goes, oh man, early on it was big band recordings and the Oscar Peterson Trio. One record in particular, by Horace Silver, called Blowin' The Blues Away (Blue Note, 1959). That's a great record. My dad was a musician, a bassist. We used to go to Cornet, which was kind of like Target. They had a big record section. We would go buy vinyl.

AAJ: Wow, I remember Cornet. I hadn't thought of that store in forever.

AP: We got home one night and had a record called Jazz Track (Columbia, 1959). I didn't pick it out and my dad said that he didn't either. But I think he kind of tricked me on that one. It was the 1958 Miles Davis sessions with the sextet. John Coltrane, Cannonball (Julian Adderley), and Bill Evans. I put it on, and I heard the intro to "On Green Dolphin Street." One side of this record was that song "Stella by Starlight" and "Put your Little Foot Forward." The other side was the soundtrack that Miles wrote for that French movie (Ascenseur Pour Lechafaud). It was really dark and really cool. But I remember hearing the piano intro on "On Green Dolphin Street" and thinking, "What the hell is this?" That was the first time I ever heard Coltrane. His solo on that still raises the hair on my arms. That record changed everything for me. In rock, I was not a Beatles guy so much, but I liked a lot of the British bands. I liked the Dave Clark Five, a song like "Glad All Over" and The Byrds. Then the heavy kind of organ bands like Spooky Tooth, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Who. I didn't like Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Yes.

AAJ: Not so much into the prog rock stuff.

AP: I really like the heavy stuff. Steppenwolf and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.

AAJ: That's cool that you took in all those genres.

AP: Well, I think that is why I was able to play on so many rock and pop records and get in on a lot of tours. Playing with Santana was cool because there was actually a lot of improvisation. I played a lot with Bob Dylan. That was very cool. I felt right at home with all of it.

AAJ: Being so versatile opened up many opportunities for you to play. I was going to ask if you grew up in a musical family. You have pretty much already answered that in stating that your dad was a bassist.

AP: My grandpa was a piano builder for Aeolian Pianos in New Jersey. Then my dad was born in Newark and became a bassist. My older brother, Mike, also played the piano. So, music was just around.

AAJ: If you weren't playing it, you were listening to it.

AP: Yeah, exactly. We had all the Frank Sinatra stuff and Basie (Count Basie) and all the big band stuff. Then when I went to college, luckily, Thad Jones was one of my teachers my first year.

AAJ: Wow, what a way to start out on that journey.

AP: It was incredible.

AAJ: Jazz was so much more a part of our culture back then. I had the same experience growing up with the big bands and the Oscar Peterson Trio on my parents seventy-eight rpm records.

AP: I have always maintained, and I know I'm right about this, that the reason that jazz is no longer a popular music in our country, but it is in Europe, in Asia, in China, in Japan, is because they play the music for children. Kids hear it and they respond to it just like we did. The first time I saw live jazz I saw the Buddy Rich Big Band at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I just remember, like, "Holy crap, what is this?" It was so exciting and fun. I was maybe about seven years old. That's where I got hooked. If parents are just playing Ariana Grande for their babies, then that is what a child is going to grow up and gravitate towards.

AAJ: That's so true, and very well said. It has been a topic of concern for me for some time now that America's music is popular, respected, and appreciated all over the world, except for here in America.

AP: The fact that jazz can't even be represented on live television on the Grammys. There is just something wrong about that.

AAJ: Oh yeah, that really pisses me off.

AP: Yeah, me too!

AAJ: Steve Gadd finally wins a Grammy and it isn't even mentioned. I mean, what the f... is that?

AP: Yeah, I just don't have any time or patience for any of that nonsense. I've always been outspoken about it, and I really don't care what people think. I know that what I say is the truth.

AAJ: It is the truth.

AP: This country would be in a much better place if they would prioritize the arts in school as much as they do literature and math and all these other skills. It has to start in the schools. We can't rely on the parents if they are illiterate about it. They're not going to go out and buy a copy of Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and give it to their kid and say, "Here Junior, check this out, we hear this is good for you." That's never going to happen. It could be something as seemingly insignificant as an assembly at an elementary school that has jazz artists playing. It might just touch ten kids that would not normally be exposed to that culture.

AAJ: Yeah, well I appreciate you speaking out on this. I think it's important that jazz doesn't get lost for future generations. As it stands now, it is just part of what is referred to as the dumbing down of America. Let's move on and talk about your college days.

AP: I graduated high school in 1970 and went to Indiana University for two years. That's where I met Peter Erskine. We were roommates in 1971 in a farmhouse out in Bloomington. So, we go back that far. We played in a few different bands together and hung out and did a lot of stuff together. We had a great connection very quickly. He split and went on the road with Stan Kenton and I transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I had met the great Jaki Byard. I spent an afternoon playing with him in Boston and he encouraged me to come to Boston and study with him. I saw that as an incredible opportunity. I went there for two years and studied with Jaki and Thad Jones and George Russell. George introduced me to Sheila Jordan. We also did one of his commissioned pieces called Living Time (Columbia, 1972), for small big bands and the Bill Evans Trio. An incredible suite of music. He wound up getting a performance at Carnegie Hall and brought some of us college students down with him to supplement the New York orchestra. I was fortunate to be one of them.

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