David Weiss: Writin', Arrangin' and Playin'

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.
David Weiss has been on the New York scene for a while now, writing and arranging, producing albums, organizing an outstanding octet. He's known for all that.

He also plays the trumpet. Quite well, in fact. Although he's played with the likes of Jaki Byard, Frank Foster, Craig Handy, Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath and a great many others, people may come to know this more via a new group the ever-busy Weiss has put together. For Weiss, its time to play more horn. He's not disregarding other activities, because his name first got around because of his composing and arranging talents. But it's time to play.

One of his main groups, the New Jazz Composers Octet, has two new recordings out in 2008, actually. The Turning Gate (Motema Records) is another outstanding disk by the band of compatriots he put together in 1996. The group was set up to bring fine writing to the fore and it has done so superbly throughout its existence. Along the way, the group occasionally backs trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard, back on the scene after health problems lessened his gargantuan trumpet chops, but not his spirit.

Backing Hubbard, the band recorded On the Real Side (Times Square Records), which was also released this year. It features arrangements by the Octet members of some of Hubbard's best compositions, over which Hubbard plays flugelhorn. The band gets plenty of solo space as well.

Both recordings are produced by Weiss.

And in the hopper, so to speak, is a live recording from a new band assembled by Weiss, called Point of Departure. The group has already recorded music from sets at the New York's Jazz Standard nightclub and will be surfacing at some point. That music is looser, more free, more about taking chances.

The Octet

"The octet has been my flesh and blood for 12 years now," says Weiss. "It always will be important, as long as the guys keep writing and as long as still do some gigs with Freddie Hubbard. It'll still be there... I look at it more as—I'm schizophrenic and I have many personalities I have to keep happy. But a couple years ago, I said enough of this, I need to be a trumpet player. Whatever band-leading skills I have are still in there somewhere. But (the new band) is a lot more about my trumpet playing than anything else I've done."

In addition, recent years have seen him in Charles Tolliver's big band and with a group of strong veteran jazzers called The Cookers, that includes Billy Harper on sax, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, George Cables on piano, Billy Hart on drums and Cecil McBee on bass. So it's a busy time for Weiss.

The Turning Gate is the third album for the Octet, (not counting two discs with Hubbard) which doesn't do a lot of touring. It has done gigs over the years with Hubbard, and has appeared elsewhere on its own when the opportunity arises, but Weiss finds it difficult to book the eight pieces around New York City. That has not tempered his enthusiasm for holding the group together. The band consists of Steve Davis on trombone, Xavier Davis on Piano, Dwayne Burno on bass; E.J. Strickland and Nasheet Waits have played drums; Jimmy Greene, Myron Walden and at times Craig Handy are on alto and tenor sax; Norbert Stachel is on baritone sax and bass clarinet.

"The Octet is a unique thing. It's not something I want to let go," says Weiss.

He feels that writing is what has changed jazz over the years, and he is justly proud of the writing that goes into the New Composers Octet. Even though the paths of jazz history are marked by major soloists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and so many other greats, "it's composition that has changed it. It sets up the context for these guys to do whatever they're going to do to change the earth. Charlie Parker changed the planet, but he also wrote all that music that put it in the context of what he needed to do to be that amazing soloist. Ornette (Coleman), the same thing."

The band members write straight though the American jazz tradition and continually come up with fresh, interesting choices that make compelling compositions. Weiss says coming from that vantage point is important. "There's this malaise around the music now and people are looking elsewhere. Everything has to come from Israel or Cuba or Africa or anywhere else. It seems like the press, the powers that be, are looking everywhere else because the model that worked seems to be gone. Or you can't write about it. I don't know. A variety of reasons for where we got to where we are today. But writing is key. Writing is what changes it. As long as these guys feel like writing and the group's developing this thing, I want to keep it going. A: To keep the guys going and keep the group together. And B: Somebody's should be doing this. And that was the idea all along."

As usual, the writing on The Turning Gate is strong throughout. The rhythm section maintains a looseness, but arrangements carries the day. When the players step up to solo, they are fiery when the piece calls for it, or haunting and moody if that's the bent of the composition. It all comes together. Xavier Davis's compositions sparkle on the disk, as he contributes "New," a vehicle for Steve Davis' rich tone on trombone; the swinging "David and Goliath," and the extended "The Faith Suite," made up of four parts.

"Xavier's suite, that was a grant suite from Chamber Music America. That music got him another grant. So he's got another suite of that length that we haven't recorded yet," says Weiss.

"Part of getting a band recorded right is the ninth member, the recording engineer and the recording studio," in the case of the last two CDs it was Systems Two in Brooklyn, engineered by Joe Marciano. "The guy knows what we sound like. He knows what I'm going for. He works with me because I do a lot of the mixing myself. I know what the arrangements sound like and I know how I need to hear the five horns balanced and stuff like that. That part is still a lot of work. It's a lot of mixing work to get it to sound like that. It's not easy with that many horns... with five horns you have to be very precise about the balance of everything. It takes a while if you really care."

With Freddie Hubbard

On the Hubbard disk, Weiss, Burno and Steve Davis did the arrangements of titles familiar to fans like "Up Jumped Spring," and "Gibraltar." Lesser known, but strong tunes, like "Theme for Kareem," "Take It to the Ozone," and "Skydive," show not only the group's fine interplay, but excellent solos. Hubbard, once known for fast and furious trumpet work that has influenced legions of players ever since, no longer plays like he's on top of Mount Olympus. But he picks his spots with the flugelhorn and splashes in melodic runs of style and substance. Craig Handy guests on some cuts and Russell Malone plays a funky guitar line on the title cut.

"Freddie, obviously his chops are down. But he's always been a very melodic player," says Weiss. "It was good to get that group with Freddie because we'd been playing on and off for so long. That record captures the feeling of the group better than the first one (New Colors, Hip Bop, 2001)."

"Freddie's not 30 and can't blow the roof down anymore, but he was a great composer, is a great composer. This band has always been about the presentation—Freddie bringing out this band of young guys playing his great music. Freddie doesn't get that pass, unfortunately. It's kind of a sad thing. He played so well. It makes everybody else realize their own mortality. When Superman can't be Superman anymore. They're human too. Nobody wants to give Freddie a break and let him play enough with this presentation to keep his chops up where he can be consistent. He still plays well, he just doesn't play like that anymore. He doesn't have the energy for it. Nobody would.

"Nobody's played as much as he has on trumpet. Nobody's played that long, that hard, that fast, that high. It's ridiculous what he did. He can't do it anymore. But, fortunately, through our collaboration, he can present a great show. He wrote all this great material that's now flushed out in bigger arrangements. He's got a great band behind it. The bonus is, when he's on a great night he'll shock everybody. When it's not so great a night, he'll still play some nice stuff and he has a great band behind him."

He adds, "He's still legend and he's found a way to get himself out there in a significant way, I think."

Finding an Instrument

A lot of players get their reputations by first playing around the city, maybe getting a gig with an important jazz figure, then waiting for the word to get around. Not so with Weiss, a Queens native. He didn't plan it, but it turned out that writing and arranging is what mostly got his name into the important music circles.

Then again, growing up, Weiss didn't have a clue that he would end up as a musician.

"I grew up in Queens where everybody wore denim jackets or sweatshirts with Kiss and Aerosmith patches on them. I grew up listening to Kiss, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. I was always passionate about music. It evolved. I got curious myself. The rock stuff begat more progressive rock. Gentle Giant and whatever. European rock bands that had influences beyond rock and roll. King Crimson. I actually went to art school for photography first. The European stuff got more out and out. Then I got into avant-garde jazz. Cecil Taylor got me because he played with so much intensity."

Weiss started playing piano as a youngster, but preferred sports and obeying the parental edict to practice his piano was a chore. He wanted out, and suggested drums. That didn't cut it with the folks. Electric bass was another option. The situation was eventually worked out.

"The problem with the story is, I don't know how trumpet came up. I know it wasn't my idea. So I guess it was them. I think how they sold me on it, was that I was an athlete. Trumpet's a wind instrument and it will help me to run faster. I remember after my first trumpet lesson I ran down the street seeing if it made me run faster," he says, chuckling. "I guess that's how they sold me on it. I don't remember that pivotal moment of how trumpet got into the equation."

Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis were his first influences.

Weiss was taking lessons and playing in school bands, but not hearing jazz. His friends were listening to the electric rock of the day and he bought a synthesizer to play in rock bands in high school. "I'd bring the trumpet with me, just in case. But there was nothing to do with it."
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