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George Cables: The Pianist’s Dedication to the Group

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: And of course you've worked for many years right up until now with another great drummer, Victor Lewis. You've highlighted the drummers. Are they the center of interest for you when you perform?

GC: I play a lot with Victor, who is a very creative player and into dynamics. We worked with Dexter back in the day, and often since then right up to the present time. I feel very comfortable with him. I do think that when I play the piano, and I'm comping, I have a close relationship with the drums. The piano is a percussion instrument, so I learned very early to work closely with the drummers.

AAJ: Let me ask you about Art Pepper, whom you worked with extensively. First of all, was Pepper part of that scene you've been discussing?

GC: No. What happened was, I moved to California, where I worked with Freddie Hubbard. He was amazing. It seemed that whatever he wanted to play, he could play. He had a lot of fire and integrity. Great sound and facility. He also played very good piano, which helped him with his concepts. And while in L.A., I worked with Art Pepper. I had previously met Lester Koenig, the founder of Contemporary Records, when I worked with Joe Henderson just before Freddie. Orrin Keepnews recorded Joe, and we did At the Lighthouse (MIlestoone, 1970). Lester was involved on that record, and he also recorded Woody Shaw's Blackstone Legacy (Contemporary, 1980) which included me on the gig. And then he got me together with Art Pepper, and we did a record called The Trip (Contemporary, 1976). And that was a milestone for me. It was the first time I got to play with Elvin Jones and David Williams and Art Pepper, all together, at the same time!

AAJ: I had no idea that Elvin worked with Art Pepper!

GC: Oh, yeah! One record we did, Live at the Village Vanguard (Contemporary, 1970), was Album of the Year in Japan. Elvin Jones and George Mraz were on that one.

AAJ: I recently listened to a CD of a concert you did with Pepper in Japan (Live in Osaka, 1979, and it blew me away! I think Billy Higgins was on drums, and Tony Dumas on bass. Incredible performance.

GC: I spent a few years with Art, and some of them overlapped with the years I spent with Dexter. I worked with Art when Tony Dumas and Billy Higgins were the rhythm section with drummer Carl Burnette. And bassist David Williams and Carl were in the rhythm section. At the time, another pianist would sometimes play with Art, a guy from Bulgaria, Milcho Leviev. I think Art may have done some work with Stanley Cowell. I remember Hank Jones also worked with Art.

AAJ: Did your first work with Dexter occur after he came back from Europe in the late 1970s?

GC: Yeah, it was around '77, and he had already done the famous record Homecoming at the Vanguard, which had Woody Shaw and his band on it. Ronnie Matthews was the pianist. Woody Shaw and Todd Barkan recommended me to Dexter. So when Dexter came out west and played in L.A. and San Francisco, I played with Dexter at the Keystone Corner in the latter city. We hit it off, and that was probably one of the greatest musical relationships for me. I think of Dexter as my musical father. For me, Dexter and jazz are almost synonymous. He represents what jazz is. That is what inspired my album, A Letter to Dexter (Kind of Blue, 2006).

AAJ: That's quite a compliment, even for Dexter! So what was it like to work with him?

GC: It was just fun, because he wanted to be leader and also just wanted to play. He was very creative and arranged our choruses. We had a quartet that really developed, with Rufus Reid on bass and Eddie Gladden on drums. Dexter had a few specific things he wanted, and he would tell you that, but he would also just roll with the band. We became an incredible group because we were really tight. Dexter finally felt he had his own group that had his own voice. The rhythm section really worked well together.

I remember that one day he gave me a piano solo on a ballad, and the band suddenly stopped playing! I had no accompaniment, and I just started playing my solo piano, and I wasn't used to doing that, but I kept finding things to play and really stretchin' it out and being fairly free, and playing rubato, and out of tempo. And Dexter encouraged me for taking that risk, and I'm grateful for that because he helped me find out what I can do playing solo.

AAJ: That's interesting, because you had already been playing for many years with some of the greats. But something clicked in, and you got into a new groove.

GC: I had been playing with Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard using electronic piano and keyboards, so with Dexter, I returned to playing acoustic piano, which I really liked.

AAJ: You could say that Dexter was a game changer for you. When you think back, were there any others who had a similar transformative influence on you?


GC: Well, with Art, as well as Frank Morgan, I started playing duets. And that helped me a lot to grow and develop. And Art started me thinking on how to play ballads. His idea was that when you play a ballad, you don't double up, you don't bounce, you just stay with the tempo that you started with. He thought of a ballad as a contrast to the other tunes that swung or had a bounce. So that idea stayed with me. And then between Art and Dexter, and also Miles, who I never worked with but always listened to, I developed a concept of playing ballads.

AAJ: Now, you have often stated that you listen to groups more than you listen to pianists, which is certainly the case with your desert island selections!

GC: There was a time I listened to pianists. I listened to O.P.—Oscar Peterson—and Wynton Kelly, but the majority of my listening was to groups. And I would listen to the pianists in the groups, like Wynton, or Red Garland, or Herbie Hancock with Miles' groups, and McCoy with Trane. And I'd listen to their concepts, but what was most important to me was that these guys were playing as members of the group. The music was made by the whole group working together. And Miles was the captain of the crew. Or Trane was the captain of his ship. And I also noticed how each man made a specific contribution. When a band changed a member, the music changed! And the great band leaders did a great service to the music by allowing it to change with the new band members. With Miles you could really hear that when he got Herbie, Ron [bassist Ron Carter], and Tony [drummer Tony Williams.] That rhythm section did a whole new thing for Miles, or actually extended his ideas.

So what I really liked and listened to was the way the band worked together. The music, the dynamics, the direction, the colors, and so on. When I played, I would think not only in terms of chords, but in terms of the colors, the sounds. And I got a lot of that from Miles. It seemed that he was painting a picture. When you heard them in person, you got the feeling there was magic happening right in front of your eyes. And with Trane it was the energy and the sound colors, that Trane or McCoy would lead you into, like sometimes McCoy'd play the piano like a drum. And all those colors, not like this is a B-flat minor chord, but there was more than that. You could hear that center, but you'd also hear all the colors around it. So of course I could hear the piano, but it was the overall band that interested me most.

AAJ: Speaking of Coltrane, in his late career, he started going very far out musically. I'm interested in how musicians vary between those who stick pretty much to traditional modes versus those who go outside the canon. You seem to stay within the tradition, while being quite inventive and creative. You did some time with Archie Shepp, who was into free jazz and other modalities.

GC: I worked with Archie, but the way I heard him, he actually went back to basics, back to the roots. He would go back to the blues. I mean, he would play "Giant Steps," but where some guys would be dealing with the trees, so to speak, he seemed to be dealing with the forest. Sometimes I'd wonder if it was my imagination what I'd hear him doing! But he wasn't into Ornette's kind of free jazz so much.

AAJ: Do you know what makes a musician stay close to the shore as opposed to going out into the vast ocean of musical possibilities?

GC: I personally do like to experiment with colors and sounds, but I'm always thinking of the tonal center. But, still, I can step to the left or the right or make the music more chromatic, like V to I with a flat II to I, that's just a beginning. But I always wanted to play against the chords as well as within them. Woody [Shaw] was really one for that! I always like playing against the chord with Woody, but he would often ask me to "stay home" [stay with the original chord] because he felt his contrasts could be heard better that way. But I still like to go in and out of the chord, against the chord. It also depends on the group. If I'm playing with The Cookers and they're playing "The Core," I vary playing outside the chord or with the chord. With harmony, it's not just the chord itself, it's things that the chord can imply. It depends on the context, how you're getting from one place to the next. Another good example is Sonny Fortune. When you play with him you step outside, and it's a way to stretch your concept, like seeing and hearing things in a different way. It gives you a different perspective, and that's exciting. I like that.

New Projects

AAJ: Let's try to bring it up to the present a bit now. In the last couple of decades, you've been very productive. And despite having had some serious medical issues, you've recently made a number of recordings as a leader.

GC: Yes, I've been excited about that. I have had some health issues that made things seem more urgent. I've been fortunate all my life to have been able to play with some really great musicians. More recently, I've been writing more as well as exploring some of the things that I've written before. So my last record, My Muse (HighNote, 2012), which is dedicated to my late partner Helen, is a trio record, and pretty topical and lyrical at that.

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