Throughout his more than four decades playing jazz, pianist George Cables has been among the most sought after, dependable and talented players on the scene. Born in New York City on November 14, 1944, Cables cut his teeth barely out of his teens and hasn't looked back, appearing on hundreds of recordings. Whether a sideman for a timeless luminary, taking the lead with his own band or playing solo, Cables' aggressive, flowing style and distinctive sound have made him a favorite among fans and fellow musicians.
In November, 2007 Cables was dealt a severe medical blow when he underwent simultaneous kidney and liver transplants. The jazz community, including many of Cables' past band mates, rallied to support him a month later at Yoshi's in Oakland and New York City's Sweet Rhythm with star-studded benefits to help defray his medical expenses. Thankfully, Cables' convalescence is ahead of schedule and he has gradually returned to recording and live shows. He has just released a pair of new CDs and will share a solo piano bill with Cecil Taylor as part of the 2008 JVC Jazz Festival.
All About Jazz: The first thing I'll ask you about is your recent surgery. Last year you had a double transplant of a liver and a kidney.
George Cables: At the same time, yeah. They put the liver in and then my kidney team came in and put the kidney in. The procedure was about ten hours long but I didn't know it.
AAJ: How are you feeling now?
GC: I'm feeling fine. I mean, my liver's doing great and my kidney's working well enough so that I don't have to be on dialysis. But now I'm back on the kidney list. When I was transplanted I got the kidney because I was on the liver list. I got the two of them together. The kidney list is first come, first served; on the liver list you're weighted on the basis of need. I have a rare blood type and that worked in my favor because there are a lot of people in my category. Now I'm back on the kidney list and I may be in pretty good shape. I'm not at the bottom of the list, they put me back where I was.
AAJ: All right, let's talk a little bit about the music. [laughter] You've got a couple of CDs out now. You Don't Know Me (Kind of Blue, 2008) is a two-CD set of solo piano. Given today's market for jazz, to release a double set of solo piano is a bold move.
GC: Well, you know that was the executive producer, Roy Tarrant, that was his idea and the producer, Suzanne Severini, and he suggested the project to me. It seemed like a big deal and I'd wanted to do a solo CD anyway.
AAJ: Is Morning Song (HighNote, 2008), your other new release, a completely new CD release or was it released before in another format? It was done almost three decades ago. Why was this held onto for so long?
GC: It was recorded at The Keystone Korner live in 1980. And actually, this was the first time I'd heard it. When I was recuperating, [producer] Joe Fields called me and said, "Know what? I got some stuff of yours. You want it? I know that you're not working now and it might be a good idea [to have some cash] and you can make a deal and you can have a bit of an income as well." You know, that sounded okay to me. [Morning Song] wasn't something that I didn't want to release, I didn't even know that it existed. [Fields] must have gotten it through [live performance producer] Todd Barkan. He had the stuff in the can and said [he wanted to release it]. So that's how that came about.
AAJ: Many musicians consider you to be their favorite pianist and you've been in constant demand for years. What is it about your style that makes people want to play with you so much?
GC: Well, I'm glad to hear that. What I try to do is, I enjoy playing with people, you know and I try to play what they want. I try not to just play George, 'cause George is gonna be George no matter what. I have to play different ways for different people. I've played with a wide range of people, from Archie Shepp to Art Pepper to Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Bobby Hutcherson. For each person I play differently. [And] I don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything. And I try to do the best I can. I try to be myself, be true to myself and my philosophy and still be able to play with people. Sometimes people do ask you to sacrifice something. When Joe Henderson had a new band or another member of the band he didn't expect the music to stay exactly the same. He allowed the music to change by letting the musicians to be themselves.
AAJ: In July of 1977 you played a now classic gig at the Village Vanguard with Art Pepper which, fortunately, was recorded. What did he call you? "Mr. Wonderful"?
GC: "Mr. Beautiful." It's been some time since we played the music and I can't tell you exactly what we played, but I can tell you my general thoughts about it. I think this was the second time I had been in New York and playing the Vanguard was a big deal for [Pepper], it was a big deal for all of us. The original bassist, I think, was someone else, but he could be a little...well, nervous would be the word I'd use. But we decided to go with George Mraz and I think that worked out great. Some pieces were a little complicated; some tunes [Pepper] just liked to play. And it was very important that he felt comfortable. I remember every night there was something different. We always wondered what we were going to do, how we were going to play. All in all it was a great experience.
AAJ: Can you talk a little bit about playing with Dexter Gordon? It seems like he was one of the coolest men in jazz history.
GC: [Laughter] I think that's right. Dexter was a great jazz musician. He was like a history book. Somebody once asked Salvador DalÍ if he used drugs and DalÍ said, "Salvador DalÍ uses drugs. Salvador DalÍ is drugs!" Dexter Gordon played jazz, Dexter Gordon is jazz. He started with Lionel Hampton's band and he's influenced everybody through John Coltrane and just about everybody who's played the sax. He used to [say of] all the saxophonistsSonny [Rollins], Gene Ammons, Zoot Sims"That's my son."
Playing with Dexter was a marvelous experience. He wanted you to be aware of the history of the music. He would say, "You know, I think it's important to know the lyrics of a song so that you understand the song." That's why when he introduced a song he would recite the first eight measures so people would hear the lyrics. And people liked that anyway. They liked hearing Dexter do it in his voice. Dexter liked to tell me a story about how Lester Young once turned to his band [before playing a song], and people were asking, "What's he doing?" What he was doing was reciting the lyrics of the whole song to the band. That was very important to Dexter. And I'll tell you another thing. Dexter was steeped in the history but he was never afraid to learn something new. He'd be curious about something he decided he wanted to get into. Before I sign off, I just want to say thank you to everyone who communicated with me and sent their thoughts and prayers. It really meant the world to me while I was recovering.
I was first exposed to jazz as a child in Boston and at a Sun Ra concert.
I met Jaco Pastorius as a teenager in NYC.
The best show I ever attended was The Gap Band.
The first jazz record I bought was Heavy Weather.