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Bobby Zankel: The Inside Story of 'A Change of Destiny'

Bobby Zankel: The Inside Story of 'A Change of Destiny'

Courtesy Michele Lyu


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Saxophonist, bandleader, composer and arranger Bobby Zankel has been making jazz in many ways with diverse cohorts for over a half-century. He has found his own way to create music that is both advanced and very listenable at the same time. He is loved and revered by the many musicians who have performed with him and by his audiences and fan base, especially as a result of the recordings and performances of his Warriors of the Wonderful Sound Big Band, which thrilled audiences at the Tritone club, the Painted Bride, the University of Pennsylvania, Montgomery County Community College, and other performance spaces in the Philadelphia area. Over the years, Zankel has appeared on many recordings as a sideman and leader, mostly with smaller groups, including those with musicians from the Warriors ensembles.

Bobby Zankel and the Wonderful Sound 8's powerful new recording A Change of Destiny (Mahakala Records, Sept. 22, 2023)) once more illustrates his remarkable ability to bring together top musicians with a creative idea and a distinct focus, while giving each of them ample room for individual expression. The band for this album consists of musicians of diverse backgrounds and experiences but all familiar to Zankel: alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, trombonist Robin Eubanks, violinist Diane Monroe. pianist Sumi Tonooka, bassist Lee Smith, drummer Pheeroan AkLaff; and vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. On the album, Zankel adapted music he had originally composed for "Spirits Break to Freedom" a multi-media project created with visual artist John Dowell and dancer/choreographer Germaine Ingram in response to the discovery of slave quarters in George Washington's President's House—the first White House, located in Philadelphia.

Partly because of its origin in story, photography, and dance, this album is rich with musical ideas, images, and metaphors. It provided ample opportunity for All About Jazz to get together with Zankel and ask him to share how the album came about, and what it meant to him inwardly as he seized the opportunity to put it together at a studio near Philadelphia. What comes through is his gratitude for producer Chad Fowler's offer to subsidize and distribute the recording, his deep love and appreciation of the musicians he chose, his concern for Washington's slaves as if they were alive today, and the fascinating influence of Zankel's long-time practice and knowledge of Buddhism. In recent years Buddhism has become a source of sustenance and inspiration to many in the Western world, and in particular jazz musicians, such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, who studied the same school of Buddhism as Zankel. So, read on as Zankel shares his creative process and innermost thoughts.

All About Jazz: It's been several years since the music for this recording was composed and performed. What made you decide at this point to come back to it and make an album?

Bobby Zankel: Actually, I was originally looking at a recording that I did in 1997 with the great pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Hamid Drake. We recorded a concert at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Oak Park Unity Temple in Chicago. The sound was absolutely incredible and so was the performance. At the time, I just put the recording aside, but a year or so ago, I listened to it. It was absolutely wonderful, great playing. So I called up William Parker and asked him if it would be okay to put it out, and he referred me to this guy Chad Fowler who is a saxophonist and a record label owner. Chad listened to the recording and liked it, and then he started listening to other things in my body of work. He was very open to different genres and approaches, and he seemed open to getting some of my music out. My first thought was that as good as the Crispell recording was, if I had the option, I'd much prefer to make a new recording.

So then, as I was going through the music in my library, I rediscovered the dance piece. It was a recording of the music that was made during the actual dance performance. It was incredible. But because it was accompanying a choreographed dance, we musicians didn't stretch it out the way we would have if we were just playing the music on our own. I thought to myself, "This could be a great album!" I thought of what would be my dream band for such an album, top of the line musicians I've worked with, and I approached Chad about it, and he was willing to cover the cost and allow me to pick the studio I wanted. So Chad is the man who made it happen.

Putting It All Together

BZ: The recording site I chose is in Conshohocken, just outside of Philly. It's called Elm Street Studios and is owned by the guys from the Hooters band from back in the day. Our pianist Sumi Tonooka had recorded there with a large group a couple of times.

I took the original pieces from the dance and reworked them. I reshaped the music to express where my mind is now musically, creatively, and spiritually. I let go of all the constraints that tied it to the dance piece.

AAJ: Could the music on the recording still be used for the dance?

BZ: I don't see why not.

AAJ: How did you go about choosing the instrumentation and the specific personnel?

BZ: In the original dance version, the instrumentation was drums, bass, and piano, and the front line was trombone, me playing alto saxophone, and a tenor player. For the recording, I preferred another alto player, and I went for Jaleel Shaw, whom I've known since he was only thirteen years old! And we played some great shows with my big band together in the past few years, and we were in a saxophone quartet celebrating John Coltrane. Jaleel is a wonderful guy and a great musician. Right now, he's on the road with Dave Holland.

AAJ: Jaleel is great. I've heard him a few times with you. How old is he now?

BZ: He's about 40. 41. So that was Jaleel instead of the tenor. My first choice for the trombone was definitely Robin Eubanks, whom I've known since he was in high school, and we've practiced Buddhism together, which has kept us connected. The only time we performed together was at a special event in Town Hall where he played my music. Robin is one of the top first-call trombonists in the world today. He was a member of Elvin Jones' group. He's a member of Dave Holland's and of Steve Coleman's groups. Plus he's a brilliant composer and he has his own groups! And our practice of Buddhism together gives us a special bond and understanding.

Diane Monroe and I have been playing together for 20 or 30 years. The way she plays my music is so great and so supportive of what I do. We did a concert a couple of weeks ago with just two drums, a bass, and piano. When we play lines together, it's just uncanny. It's like Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry. As long as I play something, she'll make it right. And having a violin was a good fit for the ensemble. It could fit with the trombone, the saxophones, the bass. The violin has its own unique role.

Sumi Tonooka has been my favorite pianist for a long time, and we're really hitting new heights playing together. She was one of the people I first met when I moved to Philadelphia in 1975. She played on my first record (Seeking Spirit (Cadence Records, 1992). Like Diane, she has a way of playing my music that's wonderful.

Lee Smith is of course the very best bassist. He's a great guy, and you can totally depend on him in any context and situation. I've played a lot with Lee with Odean Pope for two years, and also the work we did with bassist Jymie Merritt. Lee also played with my big Warriors band for the last few years. He really knows my music, and he's a sincere hard worker, a true artist, and a great composer too.

Drummer Pheeroan AkLaff is someone I've not worked with before, but I always admired him with pianist Anthony Davis' group and with Cecil Taylor. I've heard him play with saxophonist/flautist Henry Threadgill and in many other challenging, creative situations. He's a great creative musician and a wonderful guy, and he fit perfectly.

Finally, vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd. I worked with her bands in the mid-nineties, and I did four records with her. We did countless gigs together, and we have a great friendship, and she's one of a kind. She brings so much feeling and understanding into everything. She's a world-class scholar, and one of the pieces we did, "To be a Human Being," has the words from a speech by Malcolm X. She spent years studying his work and brought a deep understanding and power to it, which she always does. She's also on "Spirits Break to Freedom," and she does a recitation on "Naming Names."

We also had arranged for Monette Sudler to be on the record, but sadly she passed away while we were beginning to rehearse, which was a great loss to us and to all of jazz.

I think that covers the whole band.

The Implications of Washington's Slave Quarters

AAJ: The dance piece and the album both relate to the story of the slave quarters in George Washington's Philadelphia home as President. From what I understand, Washington's conduct of his slave quarters goes against the grain of the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment philosophy that the country was founded upon. Tell us about how that comes into play in the recording.

BZ: Shortly before I conceived the dance piece, excavators had recently discovered the slave quarters in Washington's house. My own interest began with the great photographer and graphic artist John Dowell who at the time was telling me that he had taken photos of the excavation site. He was in that big office building near Independence Square and was doing photos around the house and slave quarters, a couple of which will be on the CD cover. He's a very spiritual person and was really touched by the lives of the slaves.

AAJ: How did you personally get interested in this subject matter? Obviously, slavery was part of the society at the time, so why did it receive your attention?

BZ: Well, this was a particular situation. First of all, George Washington was the first President of the United States residing in Philadelphia. Philadelphia was a "free city" at the time. You had to set your slaves free after three months in the city. And he would get around that by bringing them to his farm in Virginia and then after two months bring them back to Philadelphia! That was very devious! That's certainly not the usual picture we get of George Washington. Who cares that the chef could sell his goods and had beautiful clothes! Slavery was oppressive, unconstitutional, and an abomination. What is very incredible and inspiring to me are myriad forms of resistance. There were of course far more uprisings and rebellions than we know. The development of a singular magnificent African American culture from the large numbers of tribes and ethnic groups with distinct languages religious practices, music, dance, diets, agricultural customs is maybe the miracle of this continent. We need to remember and celebrate those fathers and mothers of our country. AAJ: Jefferson had slaves, but he freed some of them. What you're saying is that Washington valued slaves so much that he didn't free them when he was legally obligated to do so.

BZ: Right. And they were real people with real names, hence my piece "Naming Names." One of them was Ona Judge, and she escaped to New Hampshire. She was Martha Washington's handservant. And for twenty years after she escaped to New Hampshire, Martha Washington was still trying to bring her back from her family there. It's a little known and horrible part of our country's history. Germaine Ingram, John Dowell, and I were all trying to use our respective art forms to make a statement about it.

Buddhism and Human Destiny

AAJ: How does the album title, A Change of Destiny relate to those events?

BZ: For me as a Buddhist, my desire is to make the world a better place. I felt that this work should have a vision that can see something bright in the darkness. So each of these people in the story has a life, a destiny. Buddhism says that every moment of this life is part of the endless flow of life, not just this life but those that came before and will come after.

For example, Wayne Shorter, who was himself a Buddhist, just died. He was very sick, and he said, "I will die and get a new body so I can continue my mission." He emphasized carrying his purpose into a new life. So that means that whatever circumstances a person is in, he or she created it in some way. That might seem cruel. It sounds like a random world but if it wasn't true then the universe would be upside down in my opinion.

But at the same time, that means that in every present moment you have a chance to change your circumstances! You can have "A Change of Destiny." So the issue is that if you look at the present you can see it as the result of what happened in the past, but you can also see it as an opportunity for change. The future is unlimited, and I can do something good and expect my circumstances to improve. Originally, I wanted to call it "Parallel Destinies," but the last phrase of the first track "Destiny" as sung by Ruth Naomi Floyd says, "My destiny belongs to me." But then there's a coda, the most beautiful part, and it says, "A change in the destiny of a single man can change the shape of a nation or even the world. Each life so grand, winning the battle inside, live with the hope of peace for mankind." That's from the writings of the Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda in a multi volume work, (The New Human Revolution (30 volumes), Santa Monica, California: World Tribune Press, 1995). A change in the destiny of a single person can change the world. In Buddhism, everything and everyone is interconnected. And we try to live that way.

AAJ: Even in the worst conditions there is still hope.

BZ: Yes. And people feel so disempowered and hopeless. If you don't have hope, you have misery.

The Tracks on the Album

AAJ: Let's talk about the music itself.

BZ: Let me pull up something to read to you. It's from the press release I wrote for my website.

"The opening track 'Destiny,' based on a Jymie Merritt-inspired cross rhythm, asks the question 'Why have we been brought here?' and proclaims, 'My destiny belongs to me!' 'Spirits Break to Freedom' is an epic journey from rainforest hocket rhythms to Afrobeat groove, 21st-century urban angularity, and freedom. 'Naming Names' is an Ornette Coleman-influenced praise song in which vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd intones the names of 'our nation's nine founding mothers and fathers whose forced labor made the President's House functional. The gospel ecstasy of 'Ring Shouting' and the Billie Jean groove of "Rituals of Resistance" express two cultural revolutionary modes of joyful freedom, while 'To Be a Human Being,' constructed over a 14-beat rhythmic mode, features the powerful self-declaratory words of Malcolm X."

I've been composing for a long time, and I've really developed a harmonic language, a rhythmic language, and an orchestration language. Others including yourself have written or spoken about the consistencies in my style. All I can say is that they are my own ideas coming from what I learned from Dennis Sandole, Jymie Merritt, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and many others who had a profound influence on me.

AAJ: The story about Washington's slaves of course goes back to the late 1700s. Suzanne Cloud and Diane Turner in their book of historical photographs and commentaries, Philadelphia Jazz (Arcadia Publishing, 2023) discuss precursors of jazz in Philadelphia going back to the early 1800s before the Civil War. It was music meant for marching and entertainment. Your good friend, pianist Dave Burrell, in his compositions about the Civil War, utilized early music from freed blacks in Georgia and other parts of the South. Was there any of that kind of influence?

BZ: I had one piece, which I didn't put on the album, called "Market Street Rag," which had a lot of that kind of early influence. And the one piece on the album, "Ring Shouting," is clearly based on church music that goes back a long way.

AAJ: Do you have some other things you'd like to share about the recording.

BZ: The recording engineer was a wonderful guy named John Senior. He was so supportive, so present, and so skilled. Working with him was really a pleasure.

AAJ: As William Parker says introducing his interview with you in his book, (Conversations IV, RogueArt, Paris, 2023), you've had a long and incredible career as a saxophonist, composer, and band leader, interacting with some of the best progressive and avant-garde musicians, making groundbreaking performances and recordings, and always going your own way, maintaining your independence and your own sense of things.

BZ: When I look back, what stands out to me is just the variety of the people that I played with and the diverse approaches to the music that they each brought in. I'm aware that I've been very blessed to have had these people and these experiences in my life. The other day a group of us drove back to Philly from Erie, PA, where we had a gig, and on the long trip back, they wanted to hear some of my music. I have a lot of what I've done stored on my iPhone, so I plugged it in and we listened for a couple of hours on the way home. I have stuff going back to my performances with Cecil Taylor in Carnegie Hall in 1974. I felt some of it was great, and some of it was a real long time ago and I didn't feel that good about it.

Ornette: "Music is Not a Style; It's an Idea"

AAJ: Your career goes back fifty-plus years. Your music seems to transcend categorizing. Do you have any way of putting a label around it?

BZ: I can't say what others might think, but I had my own experience of it, writing and playing and so on. My wife often says to people who comment on her, "You don't know me." A critic might hear one of my records and comment on it in a certain way, but they can't come close to what I heard as the composer, leader, and improviser. And the musicians in my groups take the music to such a high level.

AAJ: I agree. There's certain collective beauty in what you do. Sometimes, like the best of all music, it reaches the level of great poetry, sounding great but also communicating something important and universal.

BZ: The good point is that my music doesn't fit in anybody's pocket. It's hard to a say just what it is. To me, that's quite a compliment, but the critics and the fans often favor particular genres and schools, like "I like these guys, but I hate these guys." But my music includes all the guys, but it doesn't fit into any one of them or any specific approach. Ornette said, "Music is not a style; it's an idea." That's very deep. I don't come from a specific style of music. I am trying to develop certain ideas within a framework and vocabulary that I've developed over time.

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