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Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention


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Bill Anschell strikes me as a man with boundless curiosity. You perceive this in conversation, in his sense of humor, the patient manner in which he listens on and off the bandstand. You sense it in his inventive compositions, the rhythmic complexity, and the musical conception that lyrically imprints an authentic sense of melody. His work in his standards trio highlights his musical empathy in deep, spontaneous conversation with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer D’Vonne Lewis, and paints a more complete image of the inquisitive nature of the veteran Seattle jazzman.

With the release of his ninth album as a leader, Rumbler (Origin Records, 2017), Anschell has shown yet another unique tonal aspect of his musical adventurism. His work sheds light on the thriving and inventive jazz scene in his native Seattle, a community Anschell departed from in 1989 for a day job in Atlanta, and returned to in 2002 after establishing himself as a pianist, composer, producer, and musical director, most notably with Grammy nominated singer, Nneena Freelon.

Sitting and talking with Anschell, as I have done many times before and after performances at Seattle's iconic jazz spot, Tula's, reveals a man with tremendous musical insight, a refreshing open mindedness, and a subtle, dry, and at times ominously dark sense of humor.

All About Jazz: Your roots are in Seattle, tell us about growing up there, and the creative influences that led you to jazz, and the piano.

Bill Anschell: Growing up here had almost nothing to do with me getting interested in jazz. I didn't grow up in the Garfield, Roosevelt era (Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools in Seattle that have won multiple times at the Essentially Ellington competition in New York). I went to Mercer Island High School, we had a stage band, and an alcoholic teacher. I think I can get away with that, because it's true. I remember playing written out solos on tenor saxophone. I had no jazz awareness at all.

AAJ: You played tenor sax in school?

BA: Yes. Clarinet, and then tenor sax. I had clarinet lessons with a guy in the Seattle Symphony, and was pretty serious. I entered at least one festival and did pretty well, and auditioned at Oberlin Conservatory for classical clarinet, and didn't get in. But I was serious enough to believe I could. I would go home and pound out pop tunes that I heard on the air by ear on piano. So clarinet was what I was being serious about, but piano was what I had fun doing.

I went to Oberlin, but not in the Conservatory because I'm not a classical player, took a ton of music, wasn't all that happy there, and took a year off. At that point I was feeling progressive rock was the best music out there, I was devoted to that as much as anyone you would meet. But how do you take progressive rock lessons on piano or synthesizer? So I took jazz lessons just thinking that there's a lot more knowledge involved, and a lot more technique involved. Maybe learn all that stuff, and go back and be like Rick Wakeman or something. When I got into it and started working real hard at it, I just decided I liked jazz more than anything. So that became my focus.

So Seattle didn't have much to do with my getting into jazz. When I took a year off I took lessons here. I studied with Randy Halberstadt first, first piano lesson I ever had, I was nineteen. Then I studied with Art Landy, who was living here at the time. Those were my earliest teachers. Other than that, I just took some scattered lessons. The thing about jazz is, once someone teaches you how to practice, you don't necessarily need a whole lot more lessons. You can figure out what interests you, and how to get at it, how to make it part of what you do. I still consider myself mostly self taught.

Even though I've had piano lessons, and had a ton of theory and everything, I put it together myself. After I went to Oberlin, I transferred to Wesleyan in Connecticut, where I could major in jazz and get a degree, unlike Oberlin at that time. Bill Barron was my adviser, Kenny Barron's older brother. Back then, teaching had not been codified like it is now, so it wasn't like learning what scales to play over a 2-5-1, or superimposing triads and stuff like that. Partly because Wesleyan is a very progressive school, the knowledge was more abstract. So I still had to put my own thing together. I never got to play these notes on these chords with these scales. Nobody ever taught me that, which is the essence of the way they teach it now.

AAJ: You worked for a time with vocalist, Nnenna Freelon. Your compositions and piano accompaniment were featured on her Grammy nominated album, Shaking Free (Concord, 1996), and her albums Heritage (Columbia, 1993),and Listen (Columbia, 1994). How impactful was this experience in terms of your evolution as a pianist, and music director?

BA: There's something to be said for the ability to play in high profile situations, without getting to warm up. When I play a gig in Seattle, I practice a lot and warm up before. One of the things that's weird is you go to these festivals, you may not have played for two days, you get on stage and you just have to hit. And I would actually feel that I would go out on the road and come back and my chops would be down, because there is nowhere to practice. You play an hour set, and Nnenna's shows were pretty tight, so most of the solos were not usually more than a chorus. So not a lot of stretching out. As far as my playing goes, that was when I was playing the least, when I was on tour with her. There were some pressure situations.

AAJ: Being cold, having bad monitors.

There was one time we were playing the Monterey Jazz Festival, and it was all of that. We hadn't played in a few days, the monitors were terrible, but multiply that with the fact that Sony was recording it for possible live album, and we couldn't hear each other. It was just one of those things, the sound check wasn't very good. I looked out and the group Five for Phineas were there. They had just played and they all came over, all these piano players just sitting there checking me out. It was Geoffrey Keezer, Mulgrew Miller, James Williams sitting there, and I thought, "Well, it's never going to get more pressure cooker than this."

AAJ: How different is your approach as a pianist when accompanying a singer, as opposed to playing in an instrumental context?

BA: It's different. I've always considered myself better at accompanying than soloing in a lot of ways, because I can hear and know what notes are being played. I can respond to them right away, and I like that. It's guaranteed spontaneity because you're dealing with what is being presented to you. Playing with a singer, if you play things that clash with what they're singing, it's harder for a singer to sing through weird harmony, notes that don't match their notes, than a horn player to play through those. In that way, you have to be more sensitive working with singers, be aware of the lyrics, and the mood they're trying to convey, and all that. The arrangements I did for Nnenna, and I did quite a few, I arranged the way I wanted. I mean, I could hear her voice, I arranged them around her voice, but I was able to do my thing. So it's not that different than when I'm doing it for my own group, just as far as the writing goes.

AAJ: You have diverse influences as a composer and musician, that you access as a jazz artist. For example, you studied South Indian rhythmic theory with T. Ranganathan. What musical and cultural crosscurrents outside of jazz have impacted you the most inside your approach as a jazz pianist and composer?

BA: Definitely the rhythmic aspect of Indian music. I studied that for two or three years at Wesleyan, it's incredibly complicated. Westerners have no idea how complex that stuff is, the real traditional Indian classical music. Rhythmically, it's insane. Now there are people online who are trying to explain it, more people are getting into it, but I would just take the exercises the teacher gave us. The way I studied it was vocally, not singing, it's called Sollkatu. I would take the exercises he would give us, and turn them into piano pieces, basically. I could practice them, be working on piano, be creating music that didn't sound like anything else I knew, it served several purposes for me at once. I have used that stuff, it's affected my approach a ton, because I love superimposing one meter on top of another. Some would say to a fault, but it's my favorite thing. There are pieces on many of my CD's that either are those exercises that I turned into music, or that use some of the concepts from them. That's always been a big part. It's the tip of the iceberg. That shit is way deeper than what I use is, but even just grabbing stuff from it that interests you is plenty. I think that if I have a unique way to play or write, it's more due more to Indian music than anything else, even though I don't consider myself a scholar of it.

AAJ: There is a part of the Seattle scene that sees itself as playing more on the outer fringes of jazz, and some of those players do not care to be referred to as jazz musicians. Considering the history of change and multiplicity of jazz forms within the genre, it seems a moot point. The music is supported by the community, and engaged by jazz radio, and media. At times I sense something missing from the music, sounds that I hear in the more post bop world, the Latin scene as well as the straight ahead jazz part of our community. Ultimately, it feels like a bit of a disconnect from the blues, and drawing from that well of emotion and commitment.

BA: I think that's fair to say.

AAJ: We had Ray Vega in town last week in a two trumpet band with Thomas Marriott. He's a legendary Latin player, as well as a great player in the bop tradition, but his sound comes from a very deep place that resides in the blues.

BA: I think music tends to lose meaning, if the people that were writing it, weren't hearing what they were writing, but were writing stuff that they know works based on their training. You can use these notes over these chords. Sitting at a piano choosing notes that they aren't necessarily hearing in their head, coming from the instrument. I think when people aren't hearing what they're writing, for the listener, there's nothing to grab onto. If I hear a melody in my head, and I write it, I write a piece around it, then hopefully other people hear that melody too.

AAJ: I listen to a lot of new recordings that are well conceived, immaculately performed in terms of arrangements and soloing, that are just not memorable thematically. The melody is lost in my head when I listen for a second and third time. Melodies from classic jazz composers like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Oliver Nelson become etched in your mind and soul.

BA: I feel like that's not unique to this generation, but if I were to have any reservations about what's being cranked out and put out into the market by jazz schools, it's that, the lack of connection to melody. I feel like the old man telling people to get off my lawn, but now that people can bring an iPad to a gig, and find any tune they need, in whatever key they need, the whole ear training way of learning tunes, to be able to hear and play them in different keys, is not part of their upbringing anymore.

AAJ: You are a fellow All About Jazz contributor. In fact, your piece "Careers in Jazz" is the all-time most-read story there, with more than 330,000 hits. It has been translated and posted in multiple languages, and was the centerpiece of an article in the Wall Street Journal. In 2014 you were the recipient of the inaugural Paul Desmond Award, allaboutjazz.com's celebration of the funniest jazz artists. Did you have any notion this piece would garner this kind of interest?

BA: No, I wrote it for fun! Nobody paid me. It's just something I did. I started writing these little pieces about jazz. Do you know how families do these Christmas newsletters? I had one I would send out to my friends that was longer than most, and I started putting in little jazz stories, and people liked them. The jam session story I wrote, I was getting emails with it from friends that didn't know I wrote it. It had a huge Internet life, so I just kept doing it. Except for the people that hate me for it, people like it. It's pretty dark. I've taken some shit for it, from people whose feelings were hurt. It's dark humor, I think it's funny, my friends think it's funny, but if you don't have an appreciation for the dark, and have the ability to laugh at yourself, then like some people you probably don't think it's funny.

AAJ: That's too bad, because it's pretty darned funny.

BA: I'm going to write another one soon. The thing that kills me is, based on the number of hits here, and being in the Wall Street Journal, I think it's fair to say that I'm better known for my writing than my playing. It's not something I take seriously at all.

AAJ: One of the very unique things about your music is your ability to find interesting pop songs to bring into the jazz standards repertoire. How do you spot these, and decide what would make for good jazz material?

BA: One thing about me, I didn't actually get into jazz, or take any lessons until I was nineteen or twenty. I think there's something to be said for the music that imprints on you when music is most important to you. I think for most people, that's high school, that's when music hits them the hardest, and forty years later it's the music they remember the most. Has that been your experience?

AAJ: Yes, absolutely the truth, and not just with music. It's when so many doors open for you, and you don't forget the doors you walk through.

BA: Exactly. So I didn't imprint on jazz, I imprinted on the music that was on the radio at the time, progressive rock. All that music is in my head. I could sit down and play hundreds of pop tunes right now. That's why I like to record them. I like to look for ones that are either harmonically interesting enough to make it worth listening to for a jazz listener, or that there's something about them that will allow me to make them interesting. The thing I don't like is just taking a tune, and putting a swing beat to it, sort of like lounge music. To me, most of the pop music from that era, unless you do something to it, it can sound really cheesy played by a jazz group. Anyone who is a really good jazz player, can play almost anything. Jazz prepares you in a deeper way for other kinds of music, than any other music form would because you have to be able to improvise in often difficult situations. That can make other forms of music pretty easy to adapt to.

AAJ: You have two long term trios, one with bassist Chris Symer and drummer Jose Martinez, and your Standards Trio with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer D'Vonne Lewis. What's the tradeoff between getting new ideas from new musicians and really understanding and communicating with a core group that is very familiar with each other?

BA: It's funny, when I moved to Seattle, Atlanta was a very fluid situation. The reason for that is that there is so much more work than there is here, that people have to sub out their gigs all the time. I had a trio, but you could not expect to get the same people every time and there was the mentality like you mentioned, that the more fresh inspiration you can get from other people, the better. I still think that's true, you can in a sense grow more by playing with as many different people as you can. The understanding you can develop, like with Jeff Johnson and D'Vonne Lewis, the conversation is three way. I mean, I probably provoke things a little more than they do, but what I really like about it is we listen to each other so hard that you can't fall back on patterns, and licks. When I play with those guys I'm thinking of what I can do next that's not what you expect me to do next. Where can I try to steer this where we've never been before. That's why I like to play in a trio with simpatico sidemen, you can feel like a team that's taking all these day trips into different territory, and do them together. It's amazing.

I don't know if it always translates into recordings, we're going to give it a try. It's my experience that it's more difficult in the studio to be as loose and creative as on a live trio situation where you basically drop all pretensions and you drop all plans and just see where you can go. People aren't used to hearing mistakes on records. So that's the challenge, to be that loose, but unlike live, try not to make any mistakes, or mistakes that you can't turn into something good and new.

AAJ: How do you perceive the relationship between composition and improvisation, how do they impact each other in your writing, and your approach as an improviser?

BA: I have a tendency to write quite a bit, meaning, I don't just write a lead sheet, like a conventional blowing vehicle with a new melody on it. I tend to write a lot of interludes, introductions, endings, various ways of breaking it up. Partly because of that, and partly because when you write an original tune, it's not in everybody's head, it's harder to be the kind of improviser you are in a standards trio where there's a frame of reference. You all know it, you all do things in regard to that frame of reference, you can hint around and explore all these different places. When you write a tune for people and it's not using conventional chord changes, they have to look at the chord changes and it changes things a little when you're reading instead of just playing out of your head. We try to memorize things as much as we can, but I have a tendency to write pretty hard stuff. So I would rather have people judge my improvisations based on what happens in a trio playing standards, than what happens in the context of my own tunes, which are largely about presenting the composition. Even though there are big improvised sections, what makes it unique is usually the composition itself.

A lot of times I simplify the chords for the improv section. If I write a harmonically complicated melody and chord changes, I will do what I can to make them easier to improvise the solo sections because there's nothing good about obstacles to improvisation, and you try to keep them out as much as you can.

AAJ: Jazz is gaining respect within higher institutions of learning, with improvisation being bestowed the same respect as composition. Universities, and schools such as Juilliard, and the New England Conservatory, bastions of classical music education, now offer jazz as an equal partner. Jazz mentorship has largely been relegated to academia, as opposed to the traditional mentoring on the bandstand. How do you see the modern jazz musician's role in mentoring young students outside of academic institutions?

BA: In the old days, again, get off of my lawn, when people didn't look at things while they were on the bandstand, where you had to play by ear, it engendered a little more camaraderie. It made it easier to take someone under your wing, when you're already dealing with the same music in your heads, and playing out of that. Part of the reason there's less mentorship now than in the past is because there are so few touring units that have consistent personnel. A lot of mentoring took place in big time bands, like Art Blakey's band or something. That doesn't exist much anymore.

AAJ: Your most recent release on Origin, Rumbler (Origin, 2017), features trio, quartet and quintet treatment of mostly originals. Guitarist Brian Monroney gives the music a sonic texture, both on the record and in live performances. You have recorded solo, duo, trio and larger ensembles in your prior recordings, demonstrating a wide variance of style and concept. Take us through the process of recording Rumbler from writing, to the studio, how you conceived the unique sound of the album.

BA: I wrote most of the music for it on the road. I like to write on the road, not at a piano, because it makes me generate melodies that I can hear. To me, writing away from the piano makes me create more melodically.

AAJ: So you're writing music directly to paper that you're hearing in your head?

BA: Yes, all the parts. I can do that, that's one good thing I can do. For some reason I can't do it at home very well, because there's all these distractions. If I'm in a hotel room, or an airplane, with nothing else to do, I can concentrate enough to hear all the parts. For whatever reason, it's not hard for me to write music that way. Even complicated music. So most of the music on the record was written that way. A few of them were pieces I tried recording before, but didn't have a version I liked enough.

Probably the most unique thing about how the music sounds is Brian Monroney's contribution to it. As somebody who loves textures, a guitar player like Brian who has nineteen effects pedals, knows how to use them to get whatever sound he wants, that's perfect to me. So it's not just finding someone with a burning lead sound, but someone who can play orchestral kind of textures the rest of the time behind the soloists, or during the head. I actually had a guitarist who is coming from the same ballpark on my second album, A Different Note Altogether (Accurate, 1998). I like the sound of guitar and tenor together a lot.

A lot of the music is rhythmically challenging, that's what I like. Jose Martinez just has no problem with that, and some of his solos are incredible. The personnel had a lot to do with it, it worked both ways. I chose some tunes because of the personnel I was going to have, and I chose some personnel because of the tunes I had written. The personnel shifts around. Hans Teuber plays on three of the tunes, playing alto flute, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone.

AAJ: Richard Cole plays some tenor.

BA: Yes, and Jeff Bush plays some percussion, there's a Peruvian influenced tune that he plays on.

AAJ: Duke Ellington's "Reflections in D" is a largely forgotten composition of the master, which you interpreted beautifully on Rumbler. This has always been a favorite of mine, and was thrilled to see it on the record. How did you arrive at the decision to include this solo piece? You mentioned there is no chart for the tune, and you had to transcribe it.

BA: Really, I didn't transcribe it, I just listened to it enough that I knew it.

AAJ: Certainly an underappreciated Ellington gem. So many people are completely unfamiliar with it.

BA: If you look on YouTube for it, there's only a few versions, Bill Evans recorded it, Ellington, Roland Hanna.

AAJ: I'm most familiar with the Duke Ellington solo piano version in 1953.

BA: Tierney Sutton recorded a vocal version of it, that's what got it in my head. The reason I learned the tune was I subbed for Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, their Sacred Music concert. There's a tradition that the pianist always plays that song. My version is probably more abstract and ethereal than most.

AAJ: It's enough like Ellington's version though, in terms of conveying a true reflection of introspection. When I reviewed the record, I listened to his solo version, and though different, I found both captured that same conception of unity and spirituality.

BA: I listened to his the most, because he wrote it. It was so easy though. My CD was hard, I wrote a lot of hard music, it was a strenuous couple of days in the studio. Then I went to David Lang's, where I was mixing all those tunes, and I sat at the piano for a half hour and played a couple of tunes I knew, and that was one of them. It was so easy.

Another thing about Rumbler, I recorded a lot more tunes than I used. I chose the best ones for the CD. I'm at the point now that I'm trying not to write music, because it's what I habitually do when I'm not at home. But having all this music and not recording it, and playing it is frustrating. I don't need more tunes at this point.

AAJ: What musical curiosities are bubbling to the surface next, or in the future?

BA: I'm hoping to do a standards trio recording. After that, I hope to finally do a record that's basically jazz trio plus electronics, where I would make electronic pieces, and then go into the studio with a trio, and we would replace the piano, bass, and drum parts, so that there's live interaction going on, but also with atmospheric electronics. That's my plan, it will be very long in the making. It's kind of my retirement plan.

Photo Credit: Earshot Jazz

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