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Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention

Paul Rauch By

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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.
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