Alan Pasqua: Lifetime's Aglow, A (non) Antisocial Interaction

Phil DiPietro By

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Books and Personal Favorites

AAJ: Are these books you've written out of his concept?

AP: Not really. They're just stuff that I've formulated and discovered over years of playing and thinking about music. One of them is called The Diminished Cycle (Charles Collin), which shows how to use different harmonic concepts on chords than what you normally would. It's using a lot of the diminished scale, but then not using it in a linear way, because when you play it in a scalar way you know what it is after three notes. But if you break it up and play it intervallically and jump around, say the way 'Trane did, all of a sudden it doesn't sound diminished—it sounds like, "What the hell is that?" It sounds very elusive. That always piqued my interest. So the book is about finding places where you can plug this concept in and how to alter the chords to fit.

The other book is called The Architecture of Music (Charles Collin). I think it's really fascinating—it's like a philosophy almost and a way of life and how you approach pieces of music that you're writing, learning to play, or playing on. During the time I've spent teaching I've noticed one thing about students, each year that they all have in common. The student coming in is dealing with the minutiae of playing on chords and maybe very well, too, but they're still executing stuff on chords. My book is about kind of taking more of a horizontal approach. Instead of looking at every chord, which is like, the local train, let's look at the express train, which is going to stop, maybe once every eight chords.

AAJ: That's a great analogy

AP: Yeah. Then you can kind of see—if you look at music it's kind of like you can rise above it and look down on a piece of paper and say, "Well, I need the first chord and I need the last chord and I need the first chord of the bridge, and probably the last chord going into the bridge. Now what else do I need? What can I remove?"

Alan Pasqua It's almost like a house. What wall can I knock down and leave the structure still intact? There are weight-bearing walls and if I mess one of them up I'm in deep water. It's the same thing with a song or any piece of music. Some harmonic parts of that song are essential and other parts are not, so I like to find the parts that are not and omit them—remove them. What it does is create space—harmonic space—it buys me time to create and think in a bigger piece of a tonal center and I don't sound like I'm just jumping all over the place. You can do it with anything. We did it on "Giant Steps," which typically is a song that will kick your ass because it moves so quickly in certain ways, in a non-traditional harmonic way.

AAJ: Yeah, that would be an example of a local-train tune.

AP: Yeah, that's how 'Trane wrote it and how he played on it, but if you had Lester Young playing on it it'd be a whole different story.

AAJ: What do you feel are some of your best compositions and solos that have been documented on recordings? What would you point people to?

AP: It's an interesting question. I did two acoustic records in New York in the mid-'90s with a label called Postcards; they were called Milagro and Dedications.

Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland were on Milagro with Michael Brecker, then Dave and Paul Motian were on Dedications with Randy and Michael and Gary Bartz, who I just love.

Milagro got really great reviews in Down Beat and they really loved the compositional work on that record. That was kind of a hybrid for me, of like the Claus Ogerman influence, and more George, and [Herbie Hancock's] Speak Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968) kind of stuff. But now I was playing acoustic piano and the Bill Evans references are pretty apparent.

The next record, Dedications, was more overlooked. I don't think Down Beat even reviewed it, but it got high marks in JazzTimes and Jazziz. I was really happy with that record, with my playing and, in particular, a composition called "Ellingtonia," that's a tip of the hat to Duke. Dave was terrific and so helpful in the studio. He totally mentored me, man. Dave and Jack and Paul all got to me in a different way.

Dave was kind of like the big teddy bear that saw this nervous kid in the studio. He told me this story: "You know, man, when I first joined Miles' band, John McLaughlin came over to me and said, 'Hey man, it's a big stage.' And I said, 'Yeah.' Then he said, 'Carve a piece out for yourself.'" Which was basically saying you're here because you deserve to be here and you belong here.

AAJ: On the other hand, it must have been impossible to keep working with those rhythm sections.

AP: Well, I used them on the record because my label had a nice budget to give me and it also helped me go from, "Who the hell is this guy?" to "Who the hell is this guy and wow—look at the guys he's playing with!" So it gave me some instant credibility.

AAJ: I see. But that's a theme for you. Again, we can make the argument that these guys should be trying to make the hang with you!

AP: Well, years later I would certainly feel more comfortable in that department, but that was my first go around. Paul Motian was amazing, too—just a beautiful spirit and amazing concept-maker. This guy made more music out of cues that he didn't get. On certain tunes we recorded. I'd say, "OK, this is how this tunes going to end." And he'd come to the end and he would just keep playing. I would be like, "Oh, shit," but of course I'd keep playing because the tape's still rolling. Then, by the time it was over and we'd listen back to it, I'd just look at him and go, "I can't believe you did that!" And he'd say, "I know man, I'm sorry." I'd be like, "No, what you caused to happen was unbelievable. I couldn't have thought that up in a million years." Just conceptually he was so great.

AAJ: And he continues, every so often, to work with new players on the scene.

AP: Wonderful, wonderful cat. Y'know, I chose to move to California a long time ago. Had I stayed back east, I would have had a lot more chances to make music with those guys. But I got to do a lot of other things.

AAJ: Yeah five or six pages worth of discography, in small font! You have years here where you're listed on twenty different albums.

AP: I've done a lot of different things—a lot of pop and rock stuff. It's important to me that I did that because I enjoyed it, too.


Back to Electric, Part Two

AAJ: You've done all that, plus you've managed to carve out careers on the acoustic trio type path and the electric band path.

AP: But realistically, the last time I played fusiony electric kind of music full-time was Velvet Darkness.

AAJ: I just assumed you kept doing it all along.

AP: No, you know why? Because fusion, or what they call fusion, took a turn. And it took a turn, for my money, for the worse. It got really misinterpreted by a lot of musicians. It became this really technical bullshit music that was not what it was in the spirit of. Too many chops and "Big Me" type music. I mean, Miles started it with Silent Way and [Filles de]Kiliminjaro (Columbia, 1968)—there's nothing "Big Me" about that—it's all ethereal and cerebral stuff and textural—it's textural not technical. Along the way people like Chick and Mahavishnu put more chops into it but it was still really textural music. All of a sudden, it just got...I don't who started it, but...chops became more important than the content of the music.

Alan Pasqua / Peter Erskine

So when Jeff Gauthier approached me to do a record and said he didn't want it to be acoustic, that's why I was so, like, "Oh!" I was like, "You want me to do an electric record? Listen, man, if we're going to—if I'm going to do an electric record—it is not going to be typewriter music!" I mean, I played "Snake Oil," which I think was about the fastest thing that the Lifetime band ever did. That wasn't about chops, or maybe it was when it was time to solo, but the content, the thematic music, the sound of the band absolutely wasn't that. That's why Miles' music and all that early stuff, Herbie's and Chick's, there was a lot of soul, a great deal of soul in that music, and that kind of all went away. That's why I stopped playing it—I just said, "I don't want to play this shit. This is boring."

AAJ: You continued to appear on Allan Holdsworth's recordings though.

AP: Oh, yeah, he would call me and ask if I'd play on a tune, or some tunes on his records, and of course I would. But the thing I was highlighting was, I wasn't playing that music live or at other sessions. That brings up a funny story. I actually forgot to show one day. Allan called me for a session and I was busy in the studio doing some other stuff, and I had gotten in really late the night before, but I agreed. The next day, I was asleep and the phone rang like at 10 o'clock and I said, "Who the hell is this?" And it was him and I can just hear him now, he said, "Oh, man, I don't blame you. I wouldn't want to play on this shit either." [laughs] And I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I totally forgot." And he says, "Oh, no man, this shit is awful. Don't even bother coming down." And that was Atavachron (Relativity, 1987) or Metal Fatigue (Relativity, 1985), which were great records.

AAJ: That seems to be his deal. Putting himself down.

AP: Oh, totally. He's very self-deprecating.

AAJ: You are also on another classic recording that is a very different thing in the jazz world, the Michael Brecker orchestral recording with Claus Ogerman, Claus Ogerman Featuring Michael Brecker (GRP, 1991).

AP: Yeah that was amazing. That started out as just the orchestra. Brecker was an afterthought. It's unbelievable. Claus wanted it to be like piano trio type Bill Evans stuff and then the label made him redirect. It worked out well.

AAJ: In terms of your keyboard stuff, is there somewhere for people to go to check that out—you know the tech end or the harmony end—like something more technical in Keyboard Magazine?

AP: Funny thing—the marketing guy from Crypto checked that out. In the late '80s I was in this rock band called Giant on A&M records. They did a big feature on me back then because I had blond hair and had a B-3 that was painted like an M.C. Escher painting in black and white. They said, you know, it was the coolest thing since French toast. Now, they're not responsive, which really pisses me off because now I feel like I really have something to say. I feel like I could actually make some contribution to their magazine but...[laughs]

AAJ: Our gain. You seem like an expert on not only the obvious harmony and theory, but also sound architecture.

AP: I've had my moments. I attribute a lot of it to the engineers I've worked with in the past. They've taught me a great deal. For me, getting the keyboard sounds is like—hey, I spent thirty years learning how to get a good tone on piano. I just can't spend it getting a good sound on synth. I maybe instinctively know what's good and what isn't. I just move on when something's no good.

AAJ: I went to your website to figure out your rig and didn't find much.

AP: That's because it's really nothing. I'm playing acoustic and the Nord and I had a Korg CX-3 that I was using on the road with Holdsworth, and I've played B-3 on some stuff. It's funny because when I went on the European tour with Allan they got me the wrong CX-3, an old model that sounds awful, so I told them I wasn't going to use Korg and not to even bother getting me another one. I decided I was going to do the whole thing on Nord. I had more fun making sounds from effects, like throwing Leslie on the Rhodes and taking the bottom end off of it and making it distort. All of sudden it sounds like somebody clearing their throat. It's like, man, this isn't even an electric piano. It really morphs so quickly into something so unusual and then it stands up on its own


Alan Pasqua: Educator

AAJ: Tell us about the teaching you do.

AP: The teaching thing came out of nowhere. I was called by a buddy of mine that teaches over at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] to sub for him, for one day, in his jazz improvisation class. I asked, "Do you want me to do anything special?" He said, "Just do whatever you want." So I went in and I think I gave them a lecture on Coltrane, something I was listening to and really interested in at that moment in time. At the end of class a bunch of students came up to me and said things like, "Man, that was the greatest class we've had in a really long time." They gave me so much positive feedback that it just kind of made me think that I was having a really good time, too.

I enjoyed it so much that I was encouraged to contact the guy over here at USC here in LA; his name is Shelly Berg, and he's the head of the jazz Department. I told him I might be interested in teaching some piano lessons if there was any interest. They gave me four students and it went very well. The next semester they brought me back and asked me to run one of the ensembles. The following year he said to me, "Look, I want to bring you on board on the faculty and have you teach jazz improvisation here." The cool thing was that it was two days out of my week and was still able to travel and tour and do other things.

He basically gave me no guidelines as far as the curriculum was concerned and told me to put it together and to "Teach how you think it should be taught." They gave me a lot of creative freedom to get it together and now it's seven years later. Now I'm upper level faculty and hopefully about to get tenure this year. It's been a really rewarding experience—it's made me a better player and improviser and it's made me more thorough as a musician because I've had to explain myself over and over and make sure people understand it.

Alan Pasqua AAJ: Well, it sure sounds like you're taking all the positives out of it.

AP: I'm lucky, too, because the students that come in are very gifted and I get to work with very talented people. Otherwise I couldn't do it. It would take too much out of me.

So now, if I'm out on the road, like with Holdsworth, I'll do a master class. In Scandinavia, I went to three different universities over there and did a week's teaching in Copenhagen. It's kind of really made me more global.

AAJ: Speaking of which, let's end with what's coming for you in the next year or so and anything else you want to add.

AP: As for this year, it's interesting. I'm just kind of staying put, hunkering down, not traveling. I'll be doing some work at school and composing and maybe in the fall something will get put together with Allan and myself. I think actually, everybody in that band wants to do a record—it's just that everybody lives in different places, but I think we'll record relatively soon.

As for anything else, thanks for doing this and let's make sure the discussion about the new record straightens out all these people that think I ripped off Miles. In fact, I'd like to refer them to a little something about that very subject over at the Crypto blog.

Selected Discography

Peter Erskine/Alan Pasqua/David Carpenter, Standards (Fuzzy Music, 2007)
Alan Pasqua, The Antisocial Club (Cryptogramophone, 2007)
Alan Pasqua, My New Old Friend (Cryptogramophone, 2005)
Alan Holdsworth, Against the Clock: The Best of Alan Holdsworth (Alternity, 2005)
Peter Erskine//Alan Pasqua/Dave Carpenter, Badlands (Fuzzy Music, 2002)
Peter Erskine//Alan Pasqua/Dave Carpenter, Live at Rocco (Fuzzy Music, 2000)
Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, Smokin' Section (Windham Hill, 1999)
Alan Pasqua, Dedications (Postcards, 1995)
Lee Ritenour, Alive in L.A. (GRP, 1997)
Alan Pasqua, Milagro (Postcards, 1993)
Claus Ogerman, Claus Ogerman Featuring Michael Brecker (GRP, 1988)
Stanley Clarke, Hideaway (Epic, 1986)
Carlos Santana, Havana Moon (Columbia, 1983)
Santana, Zebop! (Columbia, 1981)
Bob Dylan, Street Legal (Columbia, 1978)
The New Tony Williams Lifetime, Believe It (Columbia, 1975)

Photo Credits
Bottom Photo: Willem Klopper, courtesy of Alan Pasqua
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Alan Pasqua


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