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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.

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