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Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention

Paul Rauch By

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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.

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