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David Weiss: In Celebration of Endangered Species

Fiona Ord-Shrimpton By

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Theoretically I don’t think he (Wayne Shorter) would like this sort of project and philosophically, it's just not where I think he's coming from. —David Weiss
David Weiss and his mini big band of jazz chameleons are a ready example of how to concentrate at OCD levels to perfect musical things of beauty that stand the test of time, repeatedly. Many have focused a hell of a lot more than 10,000 hours to cultivate this sound, and some have overcome myriad adversities to present it. Playing the music of Wayne Shorter, in any way other than that of Wayne Shorter might burn a few eyebrows in the tradition—this band knows what it means to be trailblazers and these arrangements are for BIG sounds to highlight Shorter's music in the 21st century, all in the best possible taste.

Weiss stated in his press release, "I consider Wayne to be one of the most important composers in the history of this music and arguably the greatest living composer we have today in jazz. I also thought a composer of such breadth and scope should have an ensemble devoted to re-examining, expounding and expanding his music."

Endangered Species is a brass bold statement of presence, clearly cut and refined expression with the urgency you'd expect to hear from a sense of extinction. It packs a delicious punch.

I recently had the honor of speaking to David Weiss. For me a potentially daunting, cold-start first interview for All About Jazz was made inviting and warm by a free speaking Weiss, here is what he had to say.

All About Jazz: It's been a couple of years since you had an interview on All About Jazz, what's been happening to lead to this latest release?

David Weiss: I've been leading this band since around 2004-2005 with no plans to record it. It's an ambitious project that started with six or seven charts, many of the players (David Weiss: conductor & trumpet; Tim Green: alto sax; Marcus Strickland: tenor & soprano sax; Ravi Coltrane: tenor sax; Norbert Stachel: baritone sax & bass clarinet; Diego Urcola & Jeremy Pelt: trumpet; Joe Fiedler & Steve Davis: trombone; Geri Allen: piano; Dwayne Burno: bass, E.J. Strickland: drums.) have been in my other bands, the sextet and octet, so they've been through the wars with me.

A number of things led to this release. Wayne Shorter had a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center and they thought it would be nice to complement Wayne's appearance in their concert hall with some sort of band doing his music in the club Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. They were aware of my project and fortunately, they wanted me to bring it into the club in conjunction with Wayne's appearance in the concert hall. Sirius/XM radio always does a live broadcast from the club and records the band and if you like it, they will make the recording available to you if you care to mix it and release it. Motema Music, the label I record for, had already released a few CD's recorded live from Dizzy's so they were aware of the process and was willing to give this project a shot. We both thought it would be nice to pay tribute to this important composer and release something in conjunction with his 80th Birthday.

AAJ: Playing devil's advocate—people are still rushing off to find hit makers from Israel and Cuba, and that's cool so how do you match that pool?

DW: Jazz certainly reaches out to all corners of the world and we have musicians from all over the world endeavoring to play this great music now. I think that is a beautiful thing and as a result, a lot of great music with a lot of different perspectives is being heard. What frustrates me a bit is that this has become an overwhelming marketing tool and now it seems to get any attention out here, your music has to encompass all these worldly influences or it's not considered "of the moment." I know we live in an era where everything is about publicity and marketing and to get attention, you need a "story" or some sort of narrative to get attention and one of the easiest ways these days is to be from somewhere else and have your music infused with the music of your homeland or do music that has a worldly tinge to it.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the music itself. I just think music needs to be judged on it's own merits. Everything is about context and not content, and in that world the music suffers. Everything needs to be judged on its own merits and if it is excellent music, it's excellent music. It's as simple as that. The coverage of this music needs to be all encompassing I think. In the end, it's about the music, not where the musicians are from or what the "concept" of the recording is, just whether the music is fresh, vital and exciting and oh yeah, really good.

How do I match that? I'm still going to do what I do and do it the best I can. Looking at the scene, well the industry I guess, is just taking notice of the world I live in. It doesn't effect how I approach my music. I'm still going to just keep plugging away doing what I do.

AAJ: There's quite a spread of ages from Point of Departure to The Cookers, what's it like working with such an age range of bands?

DW: I work across the generations. The Cookers are mostly in their 70's and we generally play for older audiences but they are great audiences because they have been fans for years and heard these guys back in the day when they were with Lee Morgan or Max Roach or Art Blakey or Dexter Gordon. The Cookers are consummate professionals and know how to deliver. They bring it at a very high level every night and still have the power and verve of people half their age. Actually people half their age for the most part never played at the intensity level these guys played at and still play at now actually. It's been quite an experience for me to try to keep up with these guys.

The musicians in Point of Departure are in their 20's and I enjoy their youthful energy. Though the music I play in this group is quite different then what I do with The Cookers, I do want to get to that same intensity level. The band kind of rocks out a little more and is more groove orientated and I think I found the right young guys to go on this journey with me. Point of Departure is my concept and I'm trying to get these young guys to do things a certain way but also leave things open enough for them to find their own way and make their voices heard though this landscape I'm trying to create for them. With The Cookers, the group was my idea but the music has always been about them, their compositions, their voices as they are some of the most important musicians out here now and I just wanted to find a way to make those voices heard in the best possible context.

I see a big difference in the personalities of the old greats and the new generations that can be difficult for me to come to terms with sometimes. The older generation is quite humble. I think part of that comes from "the music will always be bigger then you are" edict. They have worked hard to perfect their craft and they are still working on it, always looking for ways to improve and push the music forward. They were around the greatest musicians this music has ever seen so the bar was raised quite high when they were coming up and they still approach this music as if that bar was still in the stratosphere. They have confidence in their abilities of course but they were around so many amazing musicians that I think they were never in the habit of wearing that confidence on their sleeve as it were as there was always someone to knock them down a peg if they got too cocky. I think they have a stronger sense of self-realization then this generation and that ability to look at themselves honestly is part of what motivates them to always strive to be better.

With the New Jazz Composers Octet, I am with my peers and they have worked with me for years and I've grown to know what to expect from them. We all came up around the same time listening to the same music for the most part and were influenced by many of the same things. We all had important learning experiences playing in the bands of legendary elders and could bring that experience to the table.

As for the younger generation, well, we live in different times it seems and the younger musicians were raised in these times. They have a lot of confidence, which can be a good thing I guess, but they perhaps lack some of that self-realization/self reflection that might help them on their journey a little. Most, of course, also think they know everything even though they have no real experience so you have to be, let's say, more creative about how you get them to do what you need them to do to play in your band and play your music the way you want it.

There are exceptions of course and that's why I have rehearsals to try people out, see how open and flexible they are, how much knowledge they have and see if they have great capacity for growth. There are some young musicians who really want to learn and have an incredible skill set and then there are others who are sure they know what they are doing and are making their own CD's and some don't even seem to have any interest in doing anything else. It's a different world out here now than the one I came up in.

Jazz has quite a history and sometimes that history can choke a musician to death and I see a lot of these young guys trying to divorce themselves from that history entirely in order to come up with something new or fresh. I understand that impulse/impetus but you have to be someone really special to make important music without coming to grips with at least some aspects of what came before. I think there is some interesting music being made but it perhaps lacks the depth of truly great music because to me something is missing. It's an interesting quandary but that's the fun part, solve the puzzle....

AAJ: To the uninitiated, talk us through how/what makes Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter a new spin on a grand design?

DW: I never looked at it as a new spin per se. I've never been a fan of doing someone's music but by trying so hard to put one's stamp on it, it becomes more about you and less about the artist you are paying homage to. I first got in touch with my style of arranging music this way when I arranged Freddie Hubbard's music for the octet.

First off, Freddie was playing with us and it was his music so my goal was more about enhancement, what could I do to bring out the beauty of this harmony more, how can I embellish this great melody etc etc. If I wrote new sections in the arrangement, they were written with the original melody in mind. I approached this project the same way.

Wayne Shorter is one of the most important composers this music has even seen. My goal was to use these extra horns to bring out the beauty of harmony more and enhance things, and to use this format to help everyone further appreciate the magnitude of Wayne. "Endangered Species" is the first track on the Atlantis album, and I think it's a fitting name because there aren't many left like Wayne Shorter.

I tried to present a well-rounded program that shows the diverse aspects of Wayne's writing career including his time with Art Blakey, ("Mr.Jin"), Miles Davis ("Fall") and Weather Report and from his own albums including The All Seeing Eye from his Blue Note period and later albums like Alegria and High Life. Not all of these tunes made it onto the CD, there is only so much space, but the live presentation includes music from every period of his glorious career. I included one of my tunes in the program ("The Turning Gate") because a snippet of a melody Wayne wrote (just 6 notes actually) was a jumping off point for me to write this tune.

AAJ: Has Wayne Shorter heard you perform Endangered Species? What would he say about the album?

DW: I don't think so. I know Wayne is aware of the group and is perhaps flattered by the endeavor but Wayne doesn't look back, so he might wonder why someone would want to do something like this. Then again, he does go back and re-examine and rework some of his earlier compositions but he doesn't look at it as looking back, he looks at his compositions as never being finished so there is always room to readdress them. So perhaps he is open to his tunes being re-examined but perhaps doesn't think that's a journey others would/should take with his music. Theoretically I don't think he would like this sort of project and philosophically, it's just not where I think he's coming from. Hopefully if he heard it, he would appreciate the musicianship at the very least.

AAJ: If a person had never heard a Wayne Shorter Track, which would you suggest they listen to so they can get a deeper understanding of where you're coming from on this album?

DW: Wayne's work as a sideman with Art Blakey and Miles Davis was trailblazing; his sound came out of a certain style, it had a uniqueness to it with a strong melodic sense and a harmonic progression that sounded in the idiom, but always had a twist to it that was challenging and different. My favorite record of his and what I think is actually one of the best small group records of all time is Speak No Evil. The All Seeing Eye was also a very important record to me as was The Soothsayer. Both these records influenced my own writing for sextet and septet. Of his later recordings, Atlantis is a favorite.

AAJ: What are your memories of Freddie Hubbard on the bandstand?

DW: Freddie Hubbard was one of the all time greats of this music. Any time you get to spend time with such an important figure who did so much for the music is a blessing. He raised the bar and when you were on stage with him you were quite aware of that and it could be a bit scary being up there with him. In this instance, fear is not a bad thing because it motivates you to get your shit together. You didn't want to sound bad or unprepared around Freddie Hubbard. He was very serious about this music and of course loved it deeply.

When I was with him, his chops weren't what they were and it of course frustrated the hell out of him but he loved the music and wanted to still be out there playing it. He liked the idea of the octet writing arrangements of his music and performing it with him. He felt it was a good way for him to still be out here on some sort of significant level and I think he appreciated our efforts to make that format work for him. It was very intimidating to play Freddie's melodies in front of him and challenging to try to play them as musically as he played them and with the same ease. It certainly made me a better trumpeter and musician and he was very supportive, which meant a lot to me. I think he was very appreciative of what I was able to do for him so he might have tempered his feedback to me about my playing. He could be rough at times and that was fine as I knew he could have been a lot rougher.

AAJ: In a previous AAJ interview with you there is a Miles Davis like quote of yours, "You can't get to a higher place than you've been without trying all the time. You can't really change the world if you're happy and content ... You have to go for it." Have you found your optimum level of discomfort to make good music? What does that entail?

DW: I still agree with the quote, Miles had a point about not getting too comfortable; some of his bands (I'm mostly talking about the band with Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams here) were so great you can't really hear when they're fucking up unless you are very familiar with the music and their cueing systems. They were always open to trying new things, always working it out in the moment. Their 90% is still better than almost every other bands 100% and that 90% is because they tried some things and on that particular night they missed a few times. But on most nights, taking those risks is what raised that bandstand to some of the highest peaks this music has ever seen.

You have to take risks and not be afraid to fall on your face every now and again. It's how to grow as an artist. I think that quote also might have had something to do with how I look at the world today and the people in it including, of course, musicians. I think sometimes that people might be just a little too happy with themselves and as a result might not push themselves as hard as you really have to push yourself if you are going to make a difference as a musician. There is a lot of talent out there but I think I also see a lot of contentment and in the long term that can be an issue. I'm glad people are happy and content. I'm glad that's true for that particular person but I also can't help but think if someone is really that happy and content that they also might be a bit delusional but that's just the cynic in me perhaps...

AAJ: Your 'as producer' list is impressive, what was it like producing for Freddie Hubbard? And Robert Glasper?

DW: The producing thing kind of grew out of the transcribing and arranging thing. I was just in the studio a lot and learned my way around it. I'm always curious about these sorts of things and the process involved, so I paid attention when I was in the room. When you write all the arrangements for a date, you already have something to do with the direction of the album so producing is just the next natural step.

I started producing in earnest when I was recording for Fresh Sound Records and he thought I had good taste in choosing the members of my octet and wanted suggestions as to who else to record. I suggested Jeremy Pelt, Marcus Strickland and Robert Glasper and was also asked to produce the dates. All three of them came into the studio with a clear idea about their music and how it should sound and their conceptions were all very strong. I was just there to help them realize their vision. All three as you know are excellent musicians having wonderful careers and I'm happy/proud of each of them. I was glad to help in my small way to get them started. That's how we approached recording for that label. It was to get their feet wet with the recording process and making their first CD and have it be their calling card for their next step. It worked out for all of them.

Producing Freddie was just another aspect of what I was already doing with him. He was playing with my band and playing my (and Dwayne Burno's) arrangements of his music so I knew the music and knew how to make it sound right and how to integrate Freddie into this mix in the best way possible to put him in the best possible light.

AAJ: How do you go about choosing band personnel? How do you shape the band?

DW: A lot goes into choosing band members especially if your goal is to really have a band and not just have a group of guys accompany you while you do your own thing. The first thing is that person has to be on your wavelength. They have to approach the music the same way you do. You only find this out by playing with them a bit. For all my bands, I have had a few people in mind at the beginning (sometimes they were the reason I was putting the band together in the first place) and then I just have rehearsals and invite different people down until I find a combination that works.

This is not as easy as it used to be as younger musicians think they should only do a rehearsal if a gig is involved or something. They don't really know what it takes to be part of a real band or let's just say most of them don't. I hope that changes because that sort of environment is not conducive to changing the world musically. That thought process does make it easy for me to eliminate people though because if they are not willing to put the work in, they are useless to me.

I think I have a vision about how this music is supposed to go and each of my projects is a unique vision to me and they all take time to grow into what they are going to grow into. It's an organic process and it's what it takes for me to get to what I'm trying to get to. If you don't hear it or don't think this is the way to go about it, fine, I'll get different musicians. When you find the right guys, things just click and you just go on that journey. Of course I think I have good taste but I think the fact that most of these guys have gone on to have significant careers might bear me out a little.

Dwayne Burno was the penultimate of what I'm talking about here. He was a very creative and supportive musician. On top of that he was well studied and knew pretty much everything about this music so he knew all your reference points and that of course helped him make well informed choices about where to take the music. He could hear where you were coming from in your writing, in your group conception, in everything basically and find a way to make it all better because he had this deep understanding of the music. Musicians like him are invaluable to this music and like most of his ilk, they are usually unsung and under-appreciated. He will be sorely missed by me as he was one of my closet collaborators and a good friend on top of that and losing someone that close to you at such an early age makes the loss all the more profound and painful.

AAJ: What about the background of the horns and rhythm section and how they all sit with each other on so many of your projects?

DW: As I said earlier, each band has it's own personality and it's own reason for existing. My first band, The New Jazz Composers Octet was more of a collaborative effort. I had done some arranging for octet and I like the possibilities of the 5 horn front line compositionally. I thought this was enough horns to really go someplace compositionally but also small enough where it still had a small group conception and feel. The idea of this group was to give these young writers (Myron Walden, Xavier Davis, Greg Tardy and Dwayne Burno) I believe in so much a vehicle to explore their compositional notions....a chance for them to flex that muscle and have a band (that also included Nasheet Waits and Jimmy Greene) that would make it sound great. They all came through with some amazing music and I still think that was a great band and a great idea. This band started in 1996 and I think we did our last gig in 2009.

The sextet came around for a couple of reasons. First off I was writing a lot because of the octet but I began writing music that didn't really fit the conception of the octet and was really more suited for three horns, not five. I had also met the Strickland twins (Marcus and E.J.) and heard them play and was very impressed and they also seemed to have a dedication and hunger to play this music. I put the band around them and recruited some of the octet guys and started rehearsing (I think we started in 1999). This music might have been more formal (for want of a better word) then the stuff I wrote for the octet and the soloing was more about a theme and variations kind of thing (as a lot of the melodies were in the bass and left hand of the piano and the soloists soloed over said melodies) then a head/solo/head kind of thing but this still had to be combined with a looseness and openness and this was only achieved by having these great musicians interpret the music. We played it enough where the freedom within the structures developed organically and really grew into something, to me at least.

I'm really proud of our 2nd CD, The Mirror. After about a ten year hiatus from recording, I just recorded with this band again last month and it was great working with these guys again. I wrote a bunch of new material over the past year or two and it was written specifically for sextet. I toyed with the idea of starting the band anew with just retaining the Strickland's to see what would develop from having some fresh blood but that idea got no traction and I went with the tried and true.

Point of Departure came about because frankly as a trumpet player, I didn't really like soloing over my own tunes. While I liked the tunes I wrote, I found soloing over them a bit too constricting and wanted to form a band that was more a vehicle for my playing and would be a lot more open and experimental while still retaining a certain harmonic sophistication and a band that had a groove. I drew on the music of the late '60's as it was music that had this openness and freshness and I thought it would be a good jumping off point. As with my other bands, I started having rehearsals and trying out guys and after a while, settled on a bunch of promising young players (JD Allen, Nir Felder, Matt Clohesy or Luques Curtis and Jamire Williams) and we began a 6 month residency (in 2006) and developed the material and got a real group sound. We still play at least once a month but the personnel has changed over the last couple of years. I got some new young guys who are great. This band is a lot of fun and I wish it had taken off a bit as I'd love to tour with this group.

The Cookers are just a dream band to me. I put this band together for different reasons but the approach to finding the right personnel was the same. This band had a few different incarnations before we settled on the personnel we have today. Simply put, Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart are some of the most important jazz musicians alive and it's just a joy to be on the bandstand with them. It's also one of the biggest challenges I've ever had in my life as well and this group has a lot to do with me coming into my own (if I have indeed come into my own) as a musician. Sharing the stage with these guys shows me how high the bar can be raised and has me striving to reach for that peak myself. This is of course an invaluable experience for me. I thought putting all these guys in one band and showcasing their music and really making it a band would help show the world how great these guys are, how important I think they are, and of course just having them play all this great music. These are true giants and my goal in this band was to give them another vehicle to show what masters they were and also to showcase their great compositions in the best possible light.

AAJ: What do you have in the pipeline after this project?

DW: As I mentioned earlier, I just recorded a new sextet CD that will be released in May on Motema Music. The band on that recording was Myron Walden, Marcus Strickland, Xavier Davis, Dwayne Burno and E.J. Strickland. Also The Cookers have some gigs coming up and we are preparing material for our next release. We will record in the next month or two and I believe that CD will be released in September.

I'm also working on another amazing Wayne Shorter project with Wallace Roney. Wayne gave Wallace some large ensemble scores for some music he wrote for Miles Davis that were never recorded and with one exception never performed either. These are amazing large scale works that need to be heard. I helped get the music together and I'm conducting the orchestra.

One of my main goals in 2014 is to get this music fully realized and recorded as it is simply one of the heaviest projects I've ever been involved with. Unearthing these scores is a major discovery and should be setting the jazz world afire but for some reason, that hasn't happened yet. I'm fully confident it will soon enough though, it has to.

This interview is dedicated to the memory of bassist and friend Dwayne Burno.

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