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.
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