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Art Lande: Revealing the Infinite

Florence Wetzel By

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Born in New York City on February 5, 1947, pianist and drummer Art Lande has been a font of creativity throughout his long and multifaceted career. Lande grew up in Long Island and started studying piano at age four; he attended Williams College, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969. During the early 1970s, Lande played electric piano in a jazz quintet with bassist Steve Swallow, and from 1973 to 1986 he recorded for ECM with his group Rubisa Patrol and with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Gary Peacock and multi-instrumentalist Paul McCandless. In addition, Lande has played with a host of jazz luminaries over the years, including trumpeter Chet Baker, bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonists Joe Henderson and Ravi Coltrane. Altogether, Lande has appeared on over 70 albums and composed over 250 songs, plus collaborated with a broad range of dancers, visual artists and poets, including Beat legend Allen Ginsberg.

In addition to Lande's prolific recording and performing career, he is a masterful jazz educator. He has taught in a wide variety of settings, including several European schools, the Cornish College of the Arts, Naropa University and the University of Colorado Boulder, and he counts among his students notables such as pianists Fred Hersch, Kenny Werner and Myra Melford. Since 1987, Lande has been based in Boulder, Colorado, where he is helping raise the next generation of musicians. In saxophonist Danny Meyer's comprehensive 2011 interview with Lande ("Art Lande Interview: Part 1"), Meyer says: "Students of Art Lande include keyboardist Erik Deutsch, drummer Colin Stranahan, members of Kneebody, drummer Mike Thies and just about every other great musician to come out of Colorado. Moral of the story: If you're in Colorado, take some lessons with Art Lande. Seriously."

In his recordings, performances and classes, Lande combines an incisive, wide-ranging musical knowledge with an openhearted approach to music and musical relationships. His generous spirit is reflected in his sound, which cheerfully evades all boundaries and welcomes all listeners.

Chapter Index
Sectarian and Nonsectarian Music

Playing Piano and Drums

Writing About Music

Proud of All of Us

Music and Love

Sectarian and Nonsectarian Music

All About Jazz: Can you define the difference between what you call "sectarian" and "nonsectarian" music and perhaps talk about your journey with the two?

Art Lande: Sectarian music is about style-based music, and nonsectarian music comes out of the individuals or the relationships between the players themselves. These two kinds of music are a little different, and there is also a place where they meet.

Sectarian music, or style-based music, would be saying, "OK, there is a tradition of jazz standards, or there's a tradition of salsa music, or there's a tradition of blues," or whatever. There are people who go really deep into these styles, and maybe that's all they do, or maybe they get really interested in different kinds of music at different times. I have done this, too; when I was playing in salsa bands, then it interested me more to go into salsa. I don't think I ever played salsa totally pure, because I already had my own ideas of how I wanted to hear the music, and as an improvising musician, I was always encouraged to contribute beyond what was exactly typical.

I think there's a lot of music where people get really good at a certain way of playing, and they do a lot of typical things, and maybe they add a little bit of their own self. To varying degrees, the people they play with invite or encourage uniqueness or individuality—or what I call "contributions"—to that kind of style matrix. You can feel when people are welcoming of that or when they're not so welcoming. It can be a specific club or audience or record label or player or composer. They're saying, "Now this music has to be done in this way. You would never do that in this kind of music. Oh, you're playing too many notes here." Or sometimes nobody even says anything, but you can feel whether you're invited to come out of that matrix and express yourself in that world and maybe add other things that are not usually done in that world. You can also feel when it's not so welcome. So you kind of learn through association. You play with people and you go hear music, and you realize, "This is bebop, and it's going to sound like how bebop sounded in the '50s," or "This is funk jazz, and they're not going to play any tints that don't have that backbeat in it," or whatever it is.

For me and for a lot of people in my generation, we've played and listened to a lot of music and a lot of styles. This is becoming more and more true nowadays because people have access to every kind of music, and there are musicians who are conversant in quite a lot of styles. Some people go really deeply, whether they're from Mississippi or Bulgaria and therefore know how to do that particular music, or they've just immersed themselves in that particular style. They're deeper into it sometimes than the people who originated that style.

What interests me more for my own path is to connect with people who maybe are conversant with a lot of different styles, but are more interested in their own personal music and are not style based. The styles can change from piece to piece, or even solo to solo, or moment to moment. Or there's a lot of things in the music that are ambiguous, that are not about style, and therefore it's what I call a "nonsectarian music," which is very personal. It's like: Well, what kind of music is it? It's the way I'm playing, or it's the kind of music that me and him and her are playing—which is no kind of music. It's about how we relate; it's just a style of relating.

If you play this way, the music has a sound or a way of functioning, but to me it's wider. This can be something very specific that happens for a certain tune or a specific period of time. Maybe you can't even talk about it, or maybe you can: "Oh, this is a certain world that we visit that works like this." It can sometimes be hard to pinpoint: Well, is that southern manners, or is that New York stand-up-for-yourself relations? Maybe it's discussed, and maybe it's not, but the music evolves more out of personal being-ness and out of connections with others and your experience of these different worlds of style.

So in a moment I could be more relating to Bach and then in the next moment to Jimi Hendrix, but I'm not really thinking about that. I'm just being open to the moment and being open to the connection. And if some drummer does "Ptooh!" and then I'm not so solidly in the Jimi Hendrix world, it's because something they did triggered an association. So that's how I see it.

I think there's a lot of both kinds of music going on, and then there's a lot of gray. I actually don't like it so much when people say, "Well, play it like Elvin [Jones] and 'Trane would play it." It's like, I will touch on things like that for sure, especially when I'm playing a John Coltrane tune or a McCoy Tyner tune or a tune that I wrote that has some sort of similarity to that. But I want to find my own things. I don't want to show that I know that style, and I don't particularly want to live right in the center of what somebody would say is that style. I just want to come out from it and let it reference me how it references me. This includes my friends; I don't tell them, "Play more like that" or "Play less like that." Maybe they don't know that style so well, or they hear it in a different way. I like that.

So nonsectarian music is subtler, not as easy to define, not as good for commerce. People ask many of the bands I play with: "What kind of music is that?" It's no kind of music. It's maybe a certain type of piece or feeling of the section or a certain way of sharing, a kind of interdependent way of sharing. The choices are made not so much as: Well, I better play this like this, 'cause it's what that style base needs. It's more: What do I hear now? How do I want to play this piece at this point? This can include a little or a lot of some style memory or understanding. So that's more how it functions for me.

It's useful that people have learned a lot of different kinds of music. I feel happy that I'm not uncomfortable to go into very stylized music: "Play this gospel tune" or something like that. If you listen carefully, you'll know that I don't really know it as well as somebody who goes to church every Sunday and plays in a band in a gospel church. There's no way that I know the little ins and outs of that, and I'm not trying to pretend that I know it. But the style has an effect on me to some degree.

I think for me, the thing that replaces this stylistic kind of "Who's good at it, who's not so good at it, who's authentic, who's not authentic" is principles of music. So to me, I'm interested in melody; I'm interested in harmony; I'm interested in rhythm; I'm interested in space; I'm interested in texture. So that actually goes beyond jazz or any stylized things.

In fact, the players I like to play with are curious about these things, too, whether they come more out of rock music or jazz or bebop or jam-band world or whatever it is—it doesn't matter. They will make a melody; they will make a rhythm that they care about. They will use dynamics, and they will care about whether the piece is short or long. And they will sense a spacing or a way of interacting that gives room for a forum. It might be dorky to somebody or funky to somebody or authentic or real or whatever, but to me it's just that they're coming out of those principles. It's not just the drummer does this; the bassist does this; the pianist does this—which often happens in stylized music. There are conventions about how you're supposed to function, and if all those things function well, it sounds really good, but it's still that style. For me, I'm more interested in everybody finding their way from their own sense of these principles, rather than saying, "Don't play that."

There are people who come to study with me who want to know stylistic things, and I can tell them that. I know a lot of these stylistic points, and I can communicate about them. If somebody wants to study how to play this ballad in a certain kind of modern jazz style, I can say, "Here's some of the parameters." But I like when they expand the parameters. All the great players took those conventions and did things that nobody else would do. Thelonious Monk didn't play rhythm the way other piano players did. Charlie Rouse did not play melodies the same way that other sax players did; he had his own way of using arpeggios and doing different things that nobody had done. Same with textures; same with everything. Paul Motian did not play the drums the same way everybody was playing when he came up. That's what makes people interesting to listen to. These musicians knew full well what the stylistic expectations were; it was just like, "But I'm hearing this." It's not a sign of disrespect or not caring, and it's not even ignorance.

Some people say, "Well, you have to learn to play the totally conventional way in order to expand it." I don't totally agree with that. How much do you have to know it? How long? I mean, do you have to play completely like that for 20 years, and then you're allowed to actually contribute something? There are many attitudes and thoughts about this, and people have the feelings that they have. It's a whole interesting question.

These stylistic points are interesting, and there are things to learn from them. But finally, I'm more interested in the pure principles. If it's rhythmic, and the person is sensing the rhythm in a really intentional way, then it interests me. If we're playing and it's like: He really wants that rhythm! What's he trying to do here? How do I work with that? How do I work with it, even if it's awkward within the stylistic thing? So that's more interesting to me; it stimulates me more to work from the principles of the elements of music than these very set ways. For me, it gets down to the principles of musicianship and the principles of sharing space with other beings in any form, whether music or anything.

AAJ: The kind of approach you're speaking about seems almost to be an attitude of inner liberation. When you were younger, did you feel more like, "OK, I'm a jazz player, so I play this," and then you opened up to other kinds of music? Or did you always have an open attitude?

AL: It's part of my personal nature. A lot of the East Coast and New York "good-bad" and "right-wrong" stuff was in my house and in my school and in everything. But I think that somehow—I don't know what it is—I wasn't interested in being good at something or being better at something than somebody else.

It's funny, even in sports it was like I had my little quirky ways of doing things that contributed, but they weren't so typical. So I think that maybe I've realized that I'm not a cookie-cutter kind of person, and that I will always feel uncomfortable and not fool anyone if I try to say, "I'm a conventional three-point shooter." I was not; I had a funny way of doing it, but it was my way. And it worked. People either accept it or they don't accept it.

So I think it was pretty early on that I had this nature. It just seemed more interesting than always fighting to achieve this perfection or this acceptance of the society. Rather than fit in the society, it's like: Well, here I am. Can we share something and find our way? You be you, and I'll be me, and let's see what happens. And we know what we know.



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