Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition


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Adapting and Driving

AAJ: At what point do you start adapting yourself to everybody else and trying to anticipate everything they're gonna do harmonically, rhythmically, melodically? It seems you have to think so much and yet at a certain point it becomes non-thought. But when you're learning how to do it in the beginning you have to be concerned with it.

DI: There's always a lot of trial and error but as far as making choices, anticipating—I realized early on the importance of trying to make dynamics work and having the right balance of elements; maybe this is left over from the classical scene. There were times when I would play with a group that was really on the outside. I would feel obliged or by instinct to play things with more focus like simpler bass lines or even if I were playing out of time to play more repeated notes or play structurally to bring some kind of clarity instead of adding to the chaos. Other times when I'm playing with guys with some kind of rhythm, some kind of swing going, but like chopping wood...

AAJ: ...it frees you up.

DI: I would try to do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, to keep it just so that some listeners would have a little fragment of something to hold on to.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: But you're listening to it from the outside, not just from your own point of view. So it's not just balance, you have an idea of what the band's supposed to sound like.

DI: That gets back to your listening background or performance background. That's why I feel very lucky having my older brother around, he's actually my main man musically. He was a big influence. We listened to records together. It's just from our listening background, from growing up hearing what makes a pleasing performance.

AAJ: So if something doesn't strike you right, your first thing to think about is "What can I do to make this better?"

DI: Or to balance it out and keep it from bogging down.

AAJ: But later at some point you think about what you can do psychologically to move people into a different space. That comes later?

DI: It comes off and on. There are some gigs you look forward to because you know you're gonna be able to interact in the band and get different things to happen if you're with cats that are receptive to it. And then other gigs that you don't really dread, but you kind of go to them knowing that things are gonna be kind of cut and dry in terms of interplay that night and chances to contribute the kind of thing you're talking about.

AAJ: When did you realize you have the ability to affect the feeling within the band at a particular moment?

DI: Probably from seeing Ali Jackson do it. Saw Wilbur Ware once; saw Jimmy Garrison twice, Slam Stewart quite a few times. That's just strictly on the bass. You can tell from any instrument when there's something you can do to enhance the clarity and lightness....But a lot of times when you try to wield some influence when it's uncalled for you end up screwing things up. You get rambunctious whether it's just for a phrase or two and blow a whole tune or end up making the whole set kind of get off on the wrong foot, trying to force something that's not called for. And then there are other times when you get positive reinforcement. You say, "Well, let me try this, something a little different here. Let me halftime this or change the octave or play more lightly or play more heavily, try to get something happening if it feels lazy."

AAJ: What I get from what you've been saying is that the psychological aspect of sound isn't something that necessarily comes first or last in your own development or in how you make a contribution to the band. It's the whole part of playing. It comes hand in hand with learning how to play as part of a band.

DI: That's actually the part that's most important. But before I had any wherewithal to even think about changing the music I learned a lot from seeing what strong performers could do.

AAJ: Speaking of strong performers, I'll take you back to Betty because I'm sure she was someone that taught you. Being old school, she was an old school rebel. Being raised up in Hamp's band, having the professionalism if only to rebel against it, she had her own kind of...

DI: ...agenda. I didn't play with her long enough. I got some lessons but even the four months that I was involved; we only worked about 8 weeks at the most out of that time. Two weeks at the Keystone. I never worked in New York with her. A week in Boston, three weeks in Europe. I didn't get fired. I didn't even tell her, I just kind of told Hicks to get somebody else for the weekend that he had trio 'cause there was some other stuff I wanted to do and I knew I wasn't making a strong enough contribution. I was really kind of timid about what I was doing solo-wise, ensemble-wise. It was my first experience getting a different sound playing in different rooms, auditoriums every night. I didn't really know enough about what equipment to use. I didn't know what my sound was yet. Playing Betty's book—she did all the standards that I thought I knew, in different keys. I found myself needing to read the book. Very few tunes I felt like I had memorized enough to close my eyes through the whole performance. There were a lot of little codas. She does stuff in different keys and some standards that looking back now, I thought I would have known by the time I was 25.

AAJ: She was doing a lot of standards then?

DI: "If I Should Lose You," "Body and Soul." But it was the same thing with Mose [Allison] and Jackie Paris, just getting the singer aspect of things in terms of how lyrics touch an audience.

AAJ: But she was already playing with the time a lot too, right?

DI: Yeah, doing a lot of her own tunes, putting vamps, coda endings, some fast blues. One of my favorites with her was "Swing Brother Swing," the Billie Holiday thing. She would do it at a really fast tempo. For our instrumentals we played some of [John] Hicks' tunes or some Charles Tolliver tunes. John had some nice bossa nova arrangements. We played "Repetition" sometimes. So I really learned a lot but went away from it determined to get stronger in my own sound. Betty's known as a taskmaster but a lot of what she needs in her ideal rhythm section player is what guys need to be learning anyway or at least to have as part of their background.

AAJ: Like what?

DI: Playing tempos and plucking the string with the index finger when walking. One night after a gig at Ronnie Scott's (in London) she says. "Listen, babe, it's getting' uneven." She played on her arm with her single digit. She said to look at these old pictures of Ray Brown, Pettiford, Mingus, even their solo stuff. Paul Chambers and LaFaro were the first cats to (solo or play with two fingers). Also, getting comfortable at an icily slow tempo with long exposed bass notes, to know how to do the right thing on a ballad without itching to try to make it move.. To be comfortable with the fact that it's not moving. Tone production, volume, intonation. And years later that's what people like Griff and Mel and Scott Hamilton and some other people would say, talking about how to play a ballad and just keep it there, to be comfortable with it. Chet Baker too. Maybe it's from Betty I got the first glimmerings of what was required to do it, even though I didn't feel I was doing it...From Betty I think I got the first inkling that there a lot of miles to be gotten out of staying slow when the song is slow.


Art Blakey

AAJ: Well her thing was the mood of it too.

DI: The mood, the slow mood, keeping the tension, keeping meaningful tension—actually that's what it got be about— being strong enough to be relaxed while you're participating in creating tension. And there were times when I wasn't strong enough, whether it was dramatic or musical or pure sound tension. Having detachment, seeing yourself doing something you know you're not really involved in.

Playing with Art for three years after this woman had just said that this is not what's happening [her criticisms], I got with Art and I'm saying, "Art, when it goes from the intro to this other thing, the 6/8 back to 4," he'd say, "No, don't ask me that shit, I don't know what the hell I'm doing either. Just relax and play your instrument baby." That's what Bu would do and he put the beat right down the middle. Betty set this high standard of emotional tension, musical tension, dynamics, and having the strength to carry that forward the way she would with her long notes and I just didn't feel I was holding up my end of the bargain....I just let her get somebody else. I would stay in New York and work on the stuff that she pulled my coat to for a minute. And just four, five weeks later I joined Art. I'd been playing at the Gate with McNeely and Adam (Nussbaum). We were like the backup band.

AAJ: Where was this?

DI: Downstairs at the Gate.

AAJ: Who did they have downstairs?

DI: Stanley Turrentine for a couple of weekends. Blakey when Cameron Brown was doing it with Bill Hardman, Schnitter. I didn't really meet Art; he didn't know who you were until he ran into you a few times, but he'd be giving hugs around. You'd get a good feeling. He was encouraging everyone that he would hear or run into. And about five weeks after one of those times playing before Art, I got a call from Adam. It was a Saturday morning, none or 10 o'clock. I was in the loft where I was living with Slagle, Billy Drewes and Keith O'Quinn.

The phone rings and he says, "Art is looking for a bassist. They're gonna make a record soon and go to Brazil right after that." Matathias Pierce was the guy that was doing it at that time but Art wasn't really happy with him. Chris Hamburger and a few guys had kind of come in and out. Cameron Brown just thought he was taking a sabbatical to have a baby, thought he was gonna get the gig back. But you don't do that with Art. Once you're gone, you're gone. Adam had Art's phone number and I called up Art. "Who? Oh yeah, well, bassist? OK well, call Jim Green"—his road manager, buddy. I call up Jim Green. I get "Call Walter Davis." So I called up Walter and said, "Walter, I'm the bassist you know, when you, a couple of months ago came down to Albert Dailey..." "Oh yeah, how you doing baby? You gonna bring the bass over my pad and we'll play some."

So I took the bass down to where he and Ronnie (Mathews) were living around the corner from Sweet Basil's. Hudson Street. I went down there, he had his piano and we played. He asked me if I knew "Moanin.'" I said, "I think so" and "Blues March" and played through them. I just read the bass lead sheet down. I guess I did a good enough job at it because he called up Art and said, "Let's rehearse Monday afternoon, we got a bassist." It was Saturday night.

AAJ: So Walter was in the band then?

DI: The first six months I was a Messenger, before James Williams. That was why it was so heavy. Walter was much more vocal about what it was like playing with Bud and Bird, being around Monk. Art would talk about it but you'd kinda have to get him into a certain mood understandably. We were all pumping him with questions. I played "Glass Enclosure" with Walter. Those five solid months with Walter and Art—we would do 8 or 10 weeks in Europe, Chicago, California, Vanguard.

AAJ: So you had two very strong people to deal with.

DI: It was a great learning experience, playing "Glass Enclosure" with him, "Just One of Those Things," really got the feeling of Bud, the spirit of Fatgirl, Charlie Parker and Monk. Monk was still alive then but he wasn't performing much. I guess he'd already quit altogether by then.

AAJ: I think '77 was one of the last times he was out.

DI: Art kept saying, "We're gonna get Monk to come over and rehearse. We're gonna work on his tunes. He's gonna knock you cats out. He's gonna love you guys too." But he never quite hooked that up.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: So other than the spirit of Bud, did you get anything specific that he would show you or tell you?

DI: Well, one thing that really made my ears grow was having to learn "Glass Enclosure" without any music and without watching his hands. Because every sound check and rehearsal we did, he would just keep playing it over and over again 'til I finally got the bass notes right. I would move closer so I could hear but he didn't want to write me out a part, the way he had learned it from Bud, the way Mingus would do it, teaching by rote so once you have it you really have it....Art would join us for "Just One of Those Things."

AAJ: Was Walter picky about what he wanted?

DI: He was very encouraging—wanted you to find your own voice. He and Art both kept telling us how good we sounded. It really was a great support. You felt like giving your best every night and you realized at the same time you were part of some jazz history that went back 30 years before we had started to play.

AAJ: Did Art give you any specific advice?

STRONG>DI: He talked about going after something, go after it strongly instead of hesitating. If you hesitate in midair you're gonna screw up anyway. He talked about a lot of his best stuff coming out of mistakes. He was really self-deprecating. He made himself feel like he's still a little kid trying to figure out why he was playing the drums, why he enjoyed it. Every night to him... a lot of his rhythmic fragments, people would say that's the same stuff as the Birdland record 30 years ago. But it was the immediacy that he brought to each night. I think he loved playing for people that never heard jazz before, making it real. Making it true and meaningful every night.

He never played routine. I never got tired of "Along Came Betty," "Moanin,'" "Blues March," all those tunes which we played over and over again. The same as playing Thad's music Monday after Monday— I don't get tired of it at all because to do it, to come up to the ideal of how it can really sound when it's swinging, there's no way you can get complacent with that. It's a challenge every time to bring it to life for the people that are there that night.

AAJ: Well when it's played right it has such a lift. The music is very special.

DI: One of Walter's things—Walter was getting a lot of sound from the piano, didn't need any mikes or anything and had that feeling that hits you in the chest. Playing with him and Art was like walking down the sidewalk between 2 guys with long legs and my feet weren't reaching the ground, but their shoulders were holding me up. I was along for the ride but I wasn't contributing much to the forward motion. The depth of their beat.

AAJ: But it had to be the best experience even just to be along for the ride and not being left behind.

DI: That's what I'm saying. Encouraging. A couple of times to feel I was getting it right—and then when Walter left the band I realized it was my job to show somebody else.

AAJ: You could play as hard as you could play and it would on a good night match Art at his lightest.

DI: Art was so relaxed in his strength; he was just toying with us.... I played with Al Haig for a short little tour. From Al I learned another thing about dynamics. Even when I thought I was playing softly he would say, "Well, get softer." "Well, OK, the amp's off." "No, a little softer." Playing "Star Crossed Lovers" just duo. Zinno for a week, a month in England, Gregory's... But playing Ellington, Strayhorn, playing Monk and Bud, playing Ahmad Jamal, Al Haig had a complete scope. We played "Tempus Fugit" and "Un Poco Loco."

I'd go to his house and he'd still be trying to make sure he had the right bass line, listening through the fuzz of those old recordings with the really fast left hand. And also, he'd play a lot of Chopin, Debussy, Ravel. And he had that touch. He could make me see even when I think I'm really soft, "No, you take it down further and then come back up." He did "Round Midnight" in D, did "Confirmation" in D. He'd been playing all those tunes for so long he had some slants on 'em. Al Haig played "Holy Land" and "Bolivia." He liked Cedar Walton and Cliff Jordan compositions. We played a week trio with Frank Gant one time. And that's where I met Chris Anderson. Chris came and subbed for a night, wow!

I had been playing with Chet Baker off and on through that time too. Phil Markowitz and Leo Mitchell were in the band. I'd known Leo a long time. It was a week with Chet at the Vanguard that Mel and I first played together. Mel sat in on Leo's drums and about 2 weeks later Mel called to see if I could do a gig with the band with no rehearsal. So for a while I was a sub, gradually getting into the band. Steve LaSpina had something else to do I guess. A couple of different guys—Marc Johnson, Steve LaSpina, kind of a floating infield for a while until I became the steady bassist.

Dennis IrwinIn 1986 I got involved with Johnny Griffin. I played with him the first time in Montreal through Michael's (Weiss) and Kenny's (Washington) recommendation. We just hit with no rehearsal. Kenny and Mike rehearsed me here in New York. I met Johnny backstage before we went out to play in Montreal. I knew about his fast playing but it was the two ballads we played that night at the gig. It was his sound on the ballads, like steppin' down into a warm lake, what the beauty of a long note was. I could see it was gonna be the beginning of a different relationship with and appreciation for guys like Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Dexter, Lockjaw, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray, all these guys that to some extent were a little of a jumble in my mind and where their sounds fit in and where they were in the history the music. So I've somehow started doing more close research, stuff I should have been doing years before.

AAJ: Well you were looking to see who the people were that influenced him and the whole Chicago school and where he fits so you could do your job right.

DI: But he was very encouraging too. I remember it was my sound that he complimented me on. That's what he heard and liked. It made the rhythm section have a fullness with the tone, whether it was a ballad or a fast thing. I didn't play any knockout solos or anything but just tried to have the right amount of support.

As far as solos go, it's funny. Sometimes you'll hear one little record that will set you off in a whole other way. I went through a lot of playing Bird's "Milestones," just playing the melody, not even taking fragments and working them in. Just trying to learn that melody correctly and getting it fast. And that opened me up a lot of different ways—a new language to solo from. Take this from Pettiford, solos off records, took a lot of choruses of some different blues. Took some Hampton Hawes solos, some Charlie Parker. I realized at a certain point I didn't have much material to work with solowise. I was still playing these kind of primitive drum solos on bass. Albert Dailey had told me to play more melody.

AAJ: It gets intuitively into your solo.

DI: You have more options.

AAJ: You have more lyrical fragments inside of you.



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