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David Hazeltine: Milwaukee's Best Becomes One of New York's Finest

C. Andrew Hovan By
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"Writing is not an easy thing for me. I spend a lot of time getting it exactly how I want it."

New York is a tough town. To be seen and heard among the scores of would-be jazz musicians you have to possess talent that is beyond the everyday and a voice that sets you apart from the crowd. Since settling permanently in the Big Apple in 1992, pianist David Hazeltine has done just that. He's consistently in demand as a sideman, works regularly with the hard bop sextet One For All, and leads his own ensembles to boot. Over the years, he's gigged with an all-star listing of jazz celebrities too numerous to mention, while racking up a solid body of work as a recording artist for a number of labels including Criss Cross, Sharp Nine, and Venus. As good-humored and fascinating as his music, Hazeltine willingly sat down for a recent telephone interview to converse about some of his most recent endeavors.

All About Jazz: Well David, your new record on Sharp Nine, The Classic Trio-Volume Two, again finds you working with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Louis Hayes. How did you hook up with those guys to form that trio?

David Hazeltine: We did a couple of sidemen dates together before the first trio record.

AAJ: Do you guys work a lot together as a trio?

DH: We get a chance to play. Between the trio and Lewis' quintet I'm around him a lot musically. Now Peter and I play with in other configurations, such as One For All. The three of us together don't play that often, I would say about once or twice a year other than the record dates. But it's such a high level of musicianship that it kind of all happens when we do it anyway. I mean, the first time we got together would not be all that different from the third time. Although, if we did play regularly over a period of time that would take it to a new level. But, I think with us used to working in so many different configurations, when we do get together, it's not apparent that we don't play together [very often].

AAJ: So, what are your thoughts about the new record?

DH: I'm happy with it. I actually like the material on the new one more than the first one. There were things on the first one that I had written a long time ago and had been playing for a long time, so it seemed like a natural thing to record them because I hadn't recorded them before. And this one is all new material and so that's always adding something to it, but maybe the last one felt a little more subtle because it was so familiar. But, the new one has new things. "What the World Needs Now" is one of my favorites on the set and the way that came about was because that groove that Louis plays is just tremendous. He's done that with some records that I've made with his quintet. He does it on the end of "Sweet and Lovely" on the first trio record. So I asked Louis, "What tune do you hear where you'll just play that groove the whole time?" He said, "Let me think about it." So, about a week later he called me back on a Sunday afternoon and said he had just finished watching some gospel show and they were doing "What the World Needs Now" and he said, "What do think about that?" So, I started working on it and I'll never forget when we rehearsed it the night before the record date. It just was exactly the way I thought it would be with Lewis playing that special groove that he plays. It's pretty amazing. It's a glorious pad to play on top of, like heaven.

AAJ: You have such a knack for taking pop tunes and turning them into viable jazz vehicles, such as the great arrangements you did of "I Say a Little Prayer" on Mutual Admiration Society and Earth, Wind, & Fire's "Reasons" from How It Is. How do you come up with those ideas?

DH: You know, I want to say that I grew up on those tunes and in a way I did. But I usually don't think of a tune from that time just to do a tune like that. But I'll hear a little idea on a part of it that seems like a good idea, and then I sit down at the piano and work it out from the idea. Like "Reasons" wasn't necessarily one of my favorite Earth, Wind, & Fire tunes, I mean it's a good song, but I heard something in it. I heard this little ascending bass line and worked it out from there. And "Betcha By Golly Wow" I heard this little bass line also on it that is carried throughout different parts of the tune.

Writing is not an easy thing for me. I spend a lot of time getting it exactly how I want it. I consider myself too picky sometimes. I throw a lot of things away. I've got a stack of cassette tapes full of the beginnings of tunes. Someday my dream is to cull them all and extract some of the things because I've found through the years that the real trick to writing for me is to actually invest time into the original idea and that is very difficult to do. On the other hand, I've written tunes at the last minute, like "We All Love Eddie Harris" for One For All. I wrote that in the car on the way to the date and during the whole date was writing out the parts.

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