Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition


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The Lure of Jazz

AAJ: Other than North Texas State can you touch on any other fundamental playing experiences in Texas? What about Red Garland?

DI: The jazz program there, I was in a bunch of different kinds of bands, but 6 nights a week for a few months I was in a band in Fort Worth where we would work on all the jazz tunes we could but it was mostly electric bass with a singer. At the same time I was in other bands and I was enjoying just still playing free, coming out of Coltrane's later bands, Pharoah Sanders. McCoy [Tyner], what Alice Coltrane was doing.

AAJ: And that was one of the first things you were checking into?

DI: Yeah it was satisfying just to listen to for one thing but even from the playing standpoint maybe more so. It was easier just playing an ostinato, something like Cecil McBee or Garrison would be doing—to keep that going and feel that I was still making a contribution. It's like playing a drum line on a bass instead of a series of chords that I might or might not execute as strongly. I was identifying with Malachi Favors, Richard Davis, Gary Peacock, Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy. I was listening more and more to that stuff before I realized how much I needed to do, going back to the earlier '60s, going through the '50s and '40s and farther back.

AAJ: So you started listening to freer music first.?

DI: I was drawn to it. I was listening to everything. I didn't have any decades or centuries kind of blocked off, that I wasn't into. I was interested in anything that somebody would put before me. Wayne Shorter, later Wayne, later Miles, got hard into, Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Elvin, Cecil McBee, Gary Bartz. I was pursuing that kind of stuff before I realized even who Percy and Pettiford were.

AAJ: Where did you play with Red Garland?

DI: Red played at the Arandas Club in Dallas, out in south Dallas. It was his steady gig. He was still there with his mom just before his Galaxy record resurgence.

AAJ: Who was the drummer?

DI: Walter Wynn. Red has interesting things to say about the function and responsibility of the bass. He liked the bass to play with a little stronger bottom because some guys sounded like they were thinking too much about their solo that was coming up after the piano solo. I also saw Red Garland at a place called the Woodman Auditorium in Dallas and that's where I also saw Cedar Walton for the first time. 1973 or '74 Sunday afternoon concerts at the Woodman and Cedar was probably playing with Red's rhythm section.

Dennis Irwin / Joe Lovano

Back in Texas I was so curious about learning what to do to make things right when I played with people that were really strong and sure of what they were doing—Jimmy Zitano. He used to have us over to his house and played Jaki Byard records and had us sing along with Tadd (Dameron arrangements), you know, "Stop, Look. Listen" all the Philly Joe stuff. First time I played with him, he played with us college guys; I could tell from the lift he had on the drum set how much effect one person on their instrument could have to focus everybody's energies. Like Blakey's lift. JZ had that same thing, drew the sound out of the drums. I didn't feel that feeling again 'til I played with Blakey years later. I remembered JZ all of a sudden—it was like a foretaste of glory divine.

I spent years seeing the effect of a strong personality or a selfless enough personality. To be in situations where someone showed me without saying anything. That's what Mel did. When I first got in the band Mel taught me the book from the drums instead of "Be sure at letter C, you're gonna do this and that." He just had the little noncommittal look on his face that I could tell when I was kind of doing the right thing. (That look told me) "Check this, listen to him, listen to that, let's see what's happening. Don't forget we got to go all the way from letter C to letter J." That's what I keep trying to tell John Riley and some of these others: "Say man, this blues is gonna be 12 or 14 minutes long. We got a long ways. Wait 'til the band has sent Ralph [Lalama] off for his second time through "The Second Race"]. You already started with the muted trumpet solo. You already playing as crazy as you need to be playing...

AAJ: ...at the end.

DI: You gotta take the long look, give yourself some room to grow.

AAJ: You work yourself into a situation and stay there for awhile, let the audience enjoy the great quality of absorption and relaxation that comes from a feeling of continuum going on for awhile. Then when it changes the audience can hear it, adjust and enjoy it. You have time to enjoy every moment and every quality. I know I learned a lot about variety and texture from listening to that band—so attuned. There was pace, pace within the tune as well as within the...

DI: ...set. That's one thing I learned when I first came to New York and worked with Jackie Paris and Anne Marie Moss, getting the set to work, having pacing in the set and no fooling around. They went from song to song. They were doing a lot of the Basie/Hendricks type of repertoire, so it was fun to play those tunes with somebody that was connected to the source. I played a lot with Albert Dailey during that time. I was in Albert's quartet which was a jam session on all through '75, '76.

AAJ: Where was the jam session?

DI: Folk City [on Bleecker Street]. Albert was really generous—Harold White on drums, Carter Jefferson on sax. Later sometimes Adam Nussbaum [drums]. Bob Bodley took my place when I went out with Betty. That's where I first heard Walter Davis and Kirk Lightsey. Walter Bishop came down. Victoria Spivey came and sang a tune with us once. A lot of different people, Joe Bonner, Woody, Billy Hart, Bobby Watson—the first time he played in town he and Rufus [Reid] came in and played "I'll Remember April" at the jam session. Albert was a master. We did a lot of rehearsing at his place. He showed me how to deal with getting lost when the rhythm starts to overlap and stagger—suspended harmony, stuff that McCoy and Elvin do, with multiple "ones." There are a lot of traps to fall in if you mistake "1" for "1 and" and Albert really had a lot of patience with "Well, OK, that fell apart. Sit down a minute, take a deep breath and let's try it again." We didn't work very much, just the jam session and a couple of little skirmish gigs here in town. He recorded a tune of mine ["Mimosa"].

AAJ: What label?

DI: Catalyst. (The record was called Renaissance).

AAJ: When did you go with Betty?

DI: November '76 was my first trip to Europe for three weeks with Betty on a George Wein tour. We played Yugoslavia twice, played in Berlin. Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Muddy Waters, Betty Carter. I was with Betty for four months with John Hicks and Cliff Barbaro. She didn't work steady then.

AAJ: How did she find you?

DI: Cliff Barbaro, her drummer. She was in between guys. Dave Holland did a week at the Vanguard with her, that's why I learned the book 'cause I was going to hear Dave every night. I didn't really know Hicks but I think having been with Albert was a reference. He said, "OK, well have him come over to Betty's and play some." So she offered me a little bit of work. I was working with Mose Allison already then too; that was with Stan Gage on drums. And Mose had been one of my favorites before I'd even come to New York so it was a treat to play with him. I was already involved too with Dom Salvador.

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