David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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When I'm really contributing, I get into a space where I'm not thinking about anything else, I may not even be conscious of what I'm doing, but I feel that I'm taking the space that a jazz musician should take. —Jim Ridl, Pianist
The idea for this interview came to me when I became aware of two aspects of jazz as a creative, artistic process. First, unlike most other art forms, jazz creativity emerges directly in performance through improvisation. Every jazz performance is unique and comes together in real time while it is being played. Each moment is an original contribution, and not merely an interpretation. Second, it is clear that some musicians push the envelope more than others. They take necessary risks to explore new territory. Sometimes, they redefine the nature of jazz itself. While they appreciate their lineage, they are not satisfied with merely pursuing what came before them. I began to wonder what such musicians themselves think of their creative process. What leads them to push the envelope and expand their repertoire and approach?

align=center>David Liebman / Jim Ridl

David Liebman and Jim Ridl

The jazz legacy, not to mention the contemporary scene, is rich with individuals and groups who are inventive, thoughtful, and innovative. There are many I could have interviewed about their creativity. Two who immediately came to my mind were saxophonist David Liebman and pianist Jim Ridl. First of all, I know their work well—my record library is packed with their recordings and I've heard them in person numerous times. Second, pushing the envelope is part and parcel of what they do. Every performance and recording covers new territory and goes beyond what they did the last time. Furthermore, Liebman and Ridl are independent practitioners, so to speak, yet from time to time they come together to work on various projects. They are good friends and colleagues. So I suggested to them a conjoint interview, and they liked the idea. We met at Liebman's home in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania on a Saturday afternoon. The interview itself had all the spontaneity and color of a good jazz set.

As Ridl points out, jazz is a complex medium of expression. It calls for both musical intelligence and passion. The musician draws on multiple sources: music of all kinds, personal life experience, current events, history, and culture, and something intangible within the self, whether it be called soul, inspiration, the Muse, or the Spirit. This interview covers the gamut of what goes into making jazz at its best such a creative, inspiring, and self-generating endeavor.

Chapter Index

  1. On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope
  2. Sources of Inspiration and Ideas
  3. The Creative Process: Putting It All Together
  4. Getting to the Source
  5. On Improvisation
  6. Music on the Brain
  7. The Individual and Collective Unconscious: Freud Versus Jung
  8. Practical Matters, Goals, and Advice to Young Musicians

On Taking Risks and Pushing the Envelope

All About Jazz: Both of you are willing to take risks when you play. For example, I was listening recently to Ridl's Five Minutes to Madness & Joy (Synergy, 1999) and Dave's CD based on Coltrane's Meditations (Impulse!, 1965), and both recordings have a sense of adventure, of pushing the envelope, as distinct from those who stay "close to the shore" and do the traditional thing. So my first question is what are some of the sources in the jazz heritage, in your groups, and in life in general from which you find yourself drawing inspiration?

Jim Ridl: For me, I'm influenced by many, many things. In terms of musical styles, it's really across the board. That's why I'm so glad I'm in this art form of jazz. It can absorb all these different things into one person, who can express in a jazz way and a creative way what they have to say, even though they're influenced by anything from Rachmaninoff to a country tune to something Brazilian. And that's just in music; the influences can include literature, the visual arts, and so on. More specifically, when I started out, I was listening to all kinds of jazz music. There's enough complexity in what people are playing, but I'm not thinking intellectually about it. I'm just taking in that it's grooving, it has a blues thing about it, it has a complexity. So let's say I'm listening to Oscar Peterson, I'm not getting a deep philosophical thing; I'm getting this groove, and the complexity of what he's playing. Whereas if I listen to Bill Evans, I start to dream a little bit more, because maybe it's a certain impressionistic sound that I can relate to some classical things.

David LiebmanDavid Liebman: You bring up a few points, Vic, for example this notion of taking a chance when you play, which is not the norm. That's something I've thought about quite a bit. But regarding inspirations, I think the whole idea of being inspired, for any artist, is really the key for longevity in this field. Because when you're young you're going to be inspired by what's around you, and of course your own work. But after twenty or thirty years, it's a real challenge to keep inspired. It's not that you've seen it all and been around, you've had your love affairs, you've seen war, and so on: the things that make you what you are, and the music. But how do you accomplish what Duke Ellington did, or Picasso? That, for me, is the real deal of ageing, which is relevant to me now because I'm in my sixties and into my fortieth year in the business.

AAJ: Do you have some suggestions for musicians in later phases of their career?

DL: Yes—accepting that "forward" is not the only way to go. "Sideways" is valid, meaning that when I was younger, everything had to be "more" to be convincing, learning a new scale, a new influence, new Indian player, new painting, new book, etc. That run is over. I see that you can go backwards, taking a new look at something you've done before. Jim walked in and I'm working on Jerome Kern. Now, Kern is standard material that we have been through—everybody plays All the Things You Are," for example [Note: Liebman and Ridl jammed on that tune after the interview. Give a listen: here] We've been through the Jerome Kern literature, because that's part of the learning, the bebop literature, so to say. But now I'm looking at it in a new way, and that's what I call sideways and backwards. Something you didn't cover you might cover again, or cover it in a different way, and it might not necessarily be 'new' in capital letters, but new for you. Once you accept it, and get good at it, then you'll probably be good until the day you die, as far as inspiration goes.

AAJ: So in a sense the creative process itself changes and evolves in the course of your career.


Sources of Inspiration and Ideas

DL: Exactly, first you learn the language, as inspired by our masters, then by our contemporaries and those we play with. Then, if you're fortunate enough, you'll have outside influences from other artists, and if you're the kind of person who looks around you, then you're going to have inspirations from the trees, or from the Hiroshima Memorial, which I've written about, or the death of someone close, and so on. In other words, you're going to take everything you can and use it. Once you say you're an artist, your job is to take and use in order to give your feeling and your beliefs to the world. So you don't waste a drop, once you realize that this is your job.

AAJ: The two of you are making some interesting points. One is that inspiration can come from music and musicians, but it can also come from significant life experiences. For instance, some of Jim's compositions, like "Sun on My Hands," relate directly to personal images and memories.

DL: I would say that most of mine do also.

AAJ: To me, Dave, that's interesting, because your music is so complex, that one would imagine that you're focusing on the music as such, and using music theory most of the time.

DL: If I write a tune, it might be, say, about my dog Cleo who died, and I'm not being facetious here. But does that make a difference to the listener? The typical listener doesn't really care about such details. It took me a long time to realize that just because something inspires me, it doesn't mean anybody else is going to get that same feeling out of that tune. It's just that it's food for me.

AAJ: I don't quite agree. I think that the sources of the music are of interest to the listener, even though he or she might not experience it in the same way. The philosopher Georg Gadamer, who was a student of Heidegger, held that the "interpretation" of a work of art emerges from the dialogue between the viewer or listener, the artist, and the work itself. It's not an objective truth, but something that emerges between the participants. It's not a given.


The Creative Process: Putting It All Together

AAJ: Now, the next question requires a lot of ego, so you need to let go of any false humility [(laughter]. If someone were going to introduce you at a jazz education or jazz journalism conference, and they intended to introduce you as a genuinely original and creative force in jazz, what would you want them to say about you?

Jim RidlDL: Well, false humility aside, I would never deign to think that I've contributed on a major level in comparison with the jazz "fathers" whom I adore. On the other hand, I have made a contribution to my instrument, in my case to the soprano saxophone, which is really what I intended to do when I stopped playing tenor for a time in the 1980s. I've thought about the instrument and ways to verbalize my observations. Some of my books have made a contribution to theory and aesthetics. I'm proud of that. On the other hand, there are four or five great innovators of this music, and the rest of us are lucky if we get a little piece of it. Richie Beirach and I would say that if you could get a little pinky toe of Coltrane, you could spend your life on it.

JR: For me, I feel as if I'm still in the process of contributing. I've been composing and improvising since I was really young, but now I'm beginning to understand more of what I'm doing. In that sense, I believe that when I'm really contributing, I get into a space where I'm not thinking about anything else, I may not even be conscious of what I'm doing, but I feel that I'm taking the space that a jazz musician should take. Like when I work with Dave, he takes that space every time, meaning that's where the musician should be. So, OK, maybe what I'm doing is not all that innovative, but I'm pushing, I'm pushing something, I'm stretching it in a way that at times it's different enough, that it pushes the envelope. For example, these days, I'm more selective about when and where I play. I'm not gonna play every gig, but I'm going to do work where I can contribute to this art form—that's really important to me. I've always been creative, but it took me a long time to get to where I know that's what I'm about.

AAJ: To quote from Miles Davis, "I'll play it first, and tell you what it is later." That's the creative "space" you're talking about.

DL: A lot of times you don't know what you're doing initially, and then you codify it. In my case, for example, I recently taught my "chromatic approach" at the Manhattan School of Music, and they asked me, "How did you come up with that?" And I said, "Well the truth is, when I was playing with Elvin or Miles, I had no idea what I was doing. I never really thought about it. I was just hanging on for dear life! Then in the mid-eighties, I was teaching, and I had to explain what I'm playing." Actually, Miles and his generation didn't talk about these things at all. They were a little reticent or unwilling. There's a little bit of voodoo there—don't give it away, can't explain it, or we just don't explain it. In the current time, it's completely the opposite. I just came from the IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators] conference in Toronto, with all the clinics and symposia and books—jazz education has become a business. And I do think an artist should be able to explain how he got to the point where he is now.

AAJ: And that's one reason for this interview. Jim, apropos of this subject, it seems to me that one of your real contributions to jazz is bringing in various forms. Just as one example, your CD Your Cheatin' Heart and Other Works (Dreambox Media, 2005) turns country tunes into jazz, elaborating on the story each song contains, and then in Pianadelphia (Soulsearch, 2006), you did a takeoff on the Pat Martino tune, "The Great Stream," that was so far out that it sounded like it could have been written by Schoenberg or Shostakovich! Would it be fair to say that when you play, you're bringing in the rich legacy of music-as-a-whole in its great variety?

JR: Yes. I think I'm influenced my many things. Some of it is just by osmosis, but some of it is conscious. For example, I grew up on a farm, and that vibe is always coming through me in a certain way. Yet I can play much more complex things. I like both real "out music" and real "in music," and what I do is really a combination of the two. So in other words, I don't think I'm a "mutt," with too many things going on at once. I think I have enough cohesiveness to kind of hang and say what I'm supposed to say, whether it's a country tune or something a lot more 'out,' like twelve tone rows, or whatever. I don't feel funny about putting those things together—I think it's cool.

AAJ: There's something that runs through all of it—its not just a mish mash of styles.

JR: That's part of what's great about this art form. Like Dave draws from Puccini, Brazilan music, so many different sources. But it's always "Dave."

David LiebmanDL: Well, thankfully, eclecticism is now kosher. I'm a product of the sixties, which was a time of musical explosion on a mass level. You didn't have to be Charlie Parker to listen to Edgar Varese, or Indian music, but for a normal guy like me in Brooklyn, there was Folkways Records, UNESCO, the Bulgarian Girls' Choir, I mean I heard all this stuff, and it was all food for me. There was no distinction between Indian influence, or Beethoven or Puccini or James Brown. Of course, jazz was my avocation, so I put all my money in that ring, to develop myself in that way. But all the musical influences were valid. In the beginning of the sixties, it was the "Common Era" of jazz, so to speak. There was a common understanding of what jazz was all about. It was standard repertoire, blues, standard rhythm changes; people basically played the same language, which was why they became so good at it. Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Jackie McLean, they played the same music night after night.

And then in the sixties, due to the cultural changes in America, suddenly you could have everything on the plate. You could do rock 'n roll, you could do fusion, you could have an Indian guy on the stage. Miles was very influential in that respect. He made it valid. John McLaughlin, what he did with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then eclecticism became a style. Before that, eclecticism was a negative judgment—it meant you're dilly-dallying with too many things, without having a focus. I used to get that criticism with my first group, Lookout Farm, because we'd go from a rock tune to an Indian tune. Jim's generation is a little younger than me, and certainly now, it's not only kosher, but it's a prerequisite that you should dance around to different idioms. You can go from an Indian raga to Schoenberg in the same set. The listener expects that. So jazz has really matured in that respect, to become truly a "fusion" music. I mean it was always "fusion" in the respect that it brought in blues, European harmony, African rhythms, and so forth, but we could trace the three to five things. Now we have thirty to fifty things so to say. And the internet has only sped that up.

AAJ: So the vocabulary has vastly increased.

DL: Absolutely, and the requirements have vastly increased. And the challenge now for a young artist is that there's so much food on the plate, what are you going to eat? You're in New York and within three blocks of each other, there are ten different ethnic restaurants, let's say. So now we have to consider, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna be really good at something, or are you gonna be a jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing?

AAJ: OK. So let's try to focus now on the actual process of the act of creation, try to put a microscope on it. For example, a player comes up and says, "Let's do this tune." It's a Jerome Kern tune, or it's an original by one of the group members, and you can do what you want with it. Can you sort of take us in that room and in that space in your head, and give us an idea about how you go about developing that raw material into some format which then becomes a whole arrangement and, in a sense, a new, improvised composition' How do you go from the initial inspiration to what is fleshed out in the performance?

DL: This was a big lesson I learned from Miles, because that was one of his strengths. In the studio, he was the greatest editor of all time—he'd cut away all the fat from the meat. What I learned from him is to ask, first, what does that band do best? Not what you wish it were, but what are your raw materials? What does that pianist do best? Now you need a keen sense of perception or judgment for that. So, play to their strengths in your arrangement. Then the musicians are going to do their best, and they're going to be personally satisfied as well. So it's both psychological and musical. Secondly, with a group, you always want a sense of group construction. So I will always say to them, what do you think? I'd want the input of the guys who are doing it. Jim here is a pianist, so he knows chords. I'm a melody player. If he brings in a tune, and it's awkward, it's my prerogative to suggest a change. So we go to where the strength is.

Jim RidlJR: I'm in total agreement with that. I'd just add that, for my own group, or even if I'm bringing in my own composition to someone else's group, as a composer, I want to have my tune so together, that the musicians will be able to absorb it really quickly. As much as possible, I want to get all the awkwardness out of my tune. Even the way I write it out—I don't want the guys to get all confused—if they do, it's my fault. You want the musicians to play great, so don't get in their way. So, I sit down at the piano, and it's part of the creative process to trim all the fat and "BS," so it'll sort of lay out. The musician will be able to take it all in and say, "Oh yeah, that's what it is." And then, in a jazz context, I like to present the tune, and then I want the particular players to bring their particular thing into the music. I don't like to specify too much in advance. If the tune is good, it'll have a certain vibe in it, and that's sufficient.

AAJ: You both suggest that an important part of creativity is parsimony—getting rid of the excess, the fat.

DL: Clarity is everything. For one thing, things will go faster, and in this day and age when you make recordings, you have very little time to go over the tunes. And we don't have the six nights a week at the club to get the tune in shape. Coltrane could afford that time to fix things, and believe me, by the third night it was together.

AAJ: You're saying that we are in an era of instant creativity.

DL: Yes we are, by our circumstances.

AAJ: Jim said another important thing—that part of a good composition is keeping it open, so that your musicians can develop it. And that's what really makes for a great jazz arrangement. The guys can take it and use it—it's not just interesting in itself, but it inspires the players in their own creativity.

DL: Elasticity. I'm always ready to yield to one of the guys if necessary. Someone prefers another chord—he's got it. I'm not stuck on what I wrote—it's just a point of departure. Once we have a mutual understanding, we can go forward.

JR: Before you arrived here, Vic, Dave asked me to read through a couple of his arrangements, and I thought to myself, "If this had been eight years ago, I could have hardly read this," because I didn't know Dave's musical language as I do now. Now, I can take in his harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic sense, and I can get it much more quickly, and get to some more creative moments with it instead of puzzling over it.

DL: That what musicianship is, and Jim is a great musician. He can get to it pretty quickly,

AAJ: Jim is also saying that he internalized it, that he's incorporated a piece of you. So he has a template which he can use. And then he can just go with the flow.

DL: It's like being in a foreign country. The first time, you're at sea, confused. After a while, you know what you can do. Now you can start to use the new culture in a way that it expands you. In the end, it's language. It's communication.

AAJ: And music really is a language. Someone recently told me about a book about a tribe somewhere, where they literally sing everything! Their whole society is based on song!

DL: Perfect!

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