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Charles Pillow: Sound Crafter

Victor L. Schermer By

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Charles Pillow is a musician's musician who works with diverse ensembles from jazz to pops to classical, small group to large ensemble, straight-ahead to avant-garde. He grew up in Baton Rouge, La., and studied music at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, before eventually settling in the New York City area as a working professional.

He has worked with groups, vocalists, and leaders as varied as Dave Liebman, Michael Brecker, Jay Z, Broadway pit orchestras, Mariah Carey and Maria Schneider. He plays soprano and alto saxophone as well as flute, bass clarinet and alto flute. He is one of a handful of reed players who have mastered the oboe as a jazz instrument. Musicians, listeners, and critics value Charles Pillow for his professionalism, skill, inspiration and creativity.

Pillow ventured into forming his own groups for recording with the 1997 release of Currents (Challenge Records), featuring Tom Harrell. In This World (Summit, 2001) provided hints of things to come with an inventive set of ensemble work that were striking in the way tunes were altered to suit Pillow's various creative purposes. Not long thereafter, he ventured into unique recordings in which he took extended compositions from the standard classical repertoire, such as Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Holst's The Planets deconstructed them, and constructed new improvised structures all his own. His way of composing is as old as antiquity and as new as postmodernism. Like a sculptor of sound, he takes whatever material is at his disposal and shapes it into a structure, which in his case also allows himself and his players to improvise at the moment of creation, which is the essence of the jazz tradition.

Pillow is a soft-spoken individual, a Thoreau-type figure, plying his trade, rowing his home-built canoe, and spending time in the library with his son and daughter, where his most recent project, based on Vincent Van Gogh's "Letters to Theo," was inspired. In a laid back way, Pillow is pushing the envelope of jazz by re-thinking the structural basis of the music.

AAJ: Let's start with the desert island question. What recordings would you take with you to that desert island?

CP: That always changes. I'd say Keith Jarrett's Nude Ants (ECM, 1979) is definitely one of them. Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew (Columbia, 1970). Anything by Wayne Shorter. In classical music, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder is one of my favorite pieces.

AAJ: I gather you grew up in the South.

CP: I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that's about 80 miles from New Orleans.

AAJ: Are the two cities similar culturally?

CP: Yeah. Cajun French, Southern hospitality sort of vibe. New Orleans is a bit more cosmopolitan than Baton Rouge, which is a little more "country."

AAJ: Any Carribean influence?

CP: Not so much in Baton Rouge. More in New Orleans, as can be heard in the music.

AAJ: What were your early musical exposures?

CP: My high school band director, Lee Fortier, had been on the road with the Woody Herman band in the late '50s or '60s. He had a great program and made it somehow cool to be in the band. We had one of the first jazz bands in the state. And at the time, I was listening to some records, like Dave Brubeck's double album with "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall, Columbia, 1963), Paul Desmond was one of my first heroes. And right after that, I discovered Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and it just blossomed from there.

AAJ: Was any music played on the radio or records in your home?

CP: My parents had a record that I really liked called 101 Strings. It was really beautiful—Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and so on. There were a number of records they had that had an impact on me.

AAJ: So what happened after high school?

CP: I then went to Loyola College, where you have to study some classical saxophone as an undergrad. I ended up playing the soprano saxophone part on Ravel's Bolero with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, which was really great; but, actually, I wasn't into the classical repertoire that much, but studying it helps you become a better musician. I was exposed to a lot of music in New Orleans. There were, of course, a lot of clubs, and musicians from New York used to come down, like the Brecker Brothers, Dave Liebman, Tom Harrell, Eddie Harris. At that time, the Marsalis brothers were still down there, and Ellis Marsalis—Wynton's dad—drew some of the top jazz players down there.

AAJ: Can you give us a time frame for that?

CP: I was in New Orleans from 1978 to 1982. Then I moved to Rochester to go to the Eastman School of Music. I was there until 1986. Two years of school and then two years of just hanging around and practicing a lot.

AAJ: Did you study composition at Eastman?

CP: I took some composition and arranging classes. It was only later than that that composing became more important to me. At Eastman, I was mainly playing saxophone and oboe.

AAJ: Did playing oboe help your chops with saxophone or make it more difficult?

CP: For me, it's all the same. What's important is that you're practicing.

AAJ: The embouchures are different for sax and oboe, right?

CP: The embouchures are different for every instrument, but the fingering and moving around the instrument is what's important. Lately, I've been playing a lot of flute, and it all comes down to the same thing: you're working on something, the overall thing is you're working towards making music, and the most important thing is that your head and your brain are working. And you're thinking of this note, this sound, this vibe, this idea, and so on.

But embouchure-wise, you do have to do a bunch of maintenance of your chops, and playing different reed instruments might make that task more difficult, but you do what you can.

AAJ: You're not one of the guys obsessed with the instruments themselves and all the nuances of the bore, the different mouthpieces, etc.

CP: It's very possible to be compulsive about it, trying every mouthpiece, but I'm not into that. My high school band director always told us, don't be a "tryer." Just stick with one thing. That is really great advice.

AAJ: Your resume is incredible and covers so much. Tell us about some of the highlights of your career thus far.

CP: Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I've been fortunate enough to have played and recorded with many of my idols, like Dave Liebman. I discovered him in high school. Heard him on the radio, and thought "This is incredible!" Forgotten Fantasies (A&M, 1975), the duo album with Richie Beirach. I played with Michael Brecker on his next to last album. He was just unbelievable. David Sanborn was one of my idols, and I worked with him quite a bit. It's been my dream to play with some of these people, and it's been my good fortune to do so.

AAJ: You also have played with some pop stars.

CP: Yeah, those were great projects. The recording with Jay Z a couple of years ago was very interesting. His producer made a really imaginative use of the horn section. I've also worked recorded Mariah Carey and found that experience very interesting.

AAJ: Let's talk about your own groups.

CP: Well, I have the "Pictures at an Exhibition" band. We do my composition based on Mussorgsky's work, and I use pretty much the same personnel at each performance. My new "Van Gogh Project" also requires a different set of players, though.

AAJ: Are the same players on Pictures as on your version of Holst's "The Planets?"

CP: Well, some are the same: Jim Ridl on keyboards and Chuck Bergeron on bass, but it's different drummers. The two pieces were also recorded in different ways. The Planets was recorded more like a pop record, that is we tracked the drums and bass in one studio, and then did all the rest of the tracks/instruments somewhere else, adding all these layers. The guitarist did all his tracks at his apartment. I overdubbed my stuff, too. By contrast, Pictures was done live in a studio. We used two or three takes for each movement and that was it.

AAJ: Do you prefer either of those approaches?

CP: I like both ways, depending on the music. However the situation presents itself, you can make creative music either way. You can get the most out of the music whether you're playing live ensemble or not.

AAJ: How do you choose players for music that requires specialized talents or abilities? Do you have a list of people you know? Do you give a lot of forethought to finding someone?

CP: You have some people that you already know are able to do certain things. For example, I knew the drummer for The Planets, Graham Hawthorne I knew he had a studio we could work with. I have a small circle of friends and colleagues I can reach out to and grab their talents. I work that way. There are so many fine musicians in New York anyhow, it's pretty astounding!

AAJ: You live in New Jersey and work mostly in New York, and yet you seem to know a lot of musicians around Philadelphia and Pennsylvania like Jim Ridl, who worked around Philly for several years, and Dave Liebman, who lives in the Poconos. Recently, I reviewed the Dave Liebman Big Band at Chris' in Philly, and you and I touched bases during the intermission. How did you get involved with that group, and what's it like working with it?

CP: I got involved with Liebman through his musical director, Gunnar Mossblad. He has a saxophone quartet group that did a project of Liebman's music called "The Seasons," based on a Liebman recording by that name, not the Vivaldi piece, but Lieb's original music. So we did some gigs in New York, and around that same time, Dave decided to form the big band. And it made sense that I should be in the sax section. That was around 1999 or so. That's also when I met Jim Ridl. He played in Liebmans' big band and I thought, "the next record I do, he's gonna be on it!"

AAJ: What gives those band members such rapport, even the pickup sidemen who come in for a single gig, as some did at Chris'?

CP: The saxophone section was pretty much intact for that gig, but several of the trombonists were from Philly, and the same for the trumpets. They all did a great job, pretty much sight reading the charts.

AAJ: So what else are you up to these days, performance-wise?

CP: I'm doing a week at the Jazz Standard with Maria Schneider's band. She's been doing a week-long residence at the Standard every Thanksgiving week for seven years now. Looking forward to that, it's always a great week. It's a really fantastic band, and her music is quite incredible. It's really great when you can play five nights in a row, which doesn't happen that often any more. Also, I'll be working with John Fedchock's big band, and also with the big band of Charles Tolliver, a composer from New York. There's a whole bunch of leaders that have contacted me to play, so every month there's something creative happening. I also have a busy life as a Broadway musician.
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