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Hal Galper: Adventures In The Zone

Photo credit: Daniel Sheehan

Paul Rauch By

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What happens in the zone, stays in the zone —Hal Galper
The career of Hal Galper has earned the pianist acclaim as both a performer and educator. Perhaps most importantly, it has drawn attention to his contributions to the music as a true innovator. While other pianists of his era gained more recognition, Galper sought out a career path where acclaim would be genuine among his peers and his audience, and not measured by the value of his name and the balance of his bank account.

Now at the age of 82, Galper can clearly see that his aversion for the business aspect of music was justified, as the demonetization of the recording industry, and the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on live performances makes life extremely difficult for his fellow artists. He can sense, as he always has, that the profit motive and art are strange, and often fatal bedfellows.

"The music business is not a business-it's legalized thievery. I'm still pissed at the fact that your art is defined by how much money you make for a lot of people. I resented being put in that position. The profit motive and art do not mix, it kills the art. I didn't want 'a name,' I didn't want a manager telling me what to do, and taking money out of my pocket for it. The question was if I could have a career and not have 'a name.' That's what I did. I've played on 106 albums, written two books with a third in the making. With the release of Cubist (Origin, 2018), I realized at that point, I had achieved every goal I had set for myself, it was a shock. I was hanging out with Chris Botti, he took a few lessons from me. He asked why I didn't have a bigger name. I told him I wasn't interested in building marquee value. I didn't want to get involved with that world," says Galper

Sequestered in his Sullivan County home in upstate New York, Galper could never play another note, or write another word, and still maintain a legacy within the music itself that is rare and exemplary. Yet, he is working on his third book, and pulling gems from his archive to release. Unable to go out on the road for health reasons, he was playing a weekly gig pre-Covid, in the small town of Callicoon, at last scoring a true "home gig," in the rural setting of the Catskills just north of New York City.

"I've been living up here in Sullivan County for forty-five years, and in a small town near me called Callicoon, there's a little club called Rafter's. I ended up getting a once-a-week, Sunday night, hour-and-fifteen-minute concert set at this club-a home gig. I couldn't believe my luck, it's something every musician hopes to have— a one-night-a-week gig in the same place, steady. I'm two hours from any musicians, but they come to play with me, which is nice. I even bought a piano for the club," says Galper.

After a career that has seen him perform with the best of the best, both as a leader and a sideman, the draw for Galper to play a local tavern gig at his age, at this stage of his career, is the same as it has always been—the music itself. He has done virtually everything he set out to do in music, yet the allure of playing music with long-time musical acquaintances still burns bright within him.

"You go to the music because it pulls you to it. and I did it. I got everything I wanted from it. I got to play with the greats." he muses.

Galper began playing classical piano as a child, eventually turning to jazz and the Berklee School of Music in 1955. He took in the grandeur of piano genius in the 1950's, spearheaded by the likes of Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal.

"I started out with George Shearing, then John Lewis, then I fell in love with Red Garland. Once I got into Garland, I got into all others like Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, and Erroll Garner-they were all my influences. But Ahmad Jamal was my greatest influence," he recalls. The Salem native eventually worked his way into the fertile Boston jazz scene of that era. He would become the house pianist at Herb Pomeroy's club, The Stable, where he met and performed with such artists as Jaki Byard and Sam Rivers. His association with Rivers would especially open musical pathways that would impact his maverick approach to jazz in all its forms, through all its twists and turns.

Galper's experience in Boston led to a steady gig with jazz giant Chet Baker, and as an accompanist to vocalists Joe Williams and Anita O'Day. When the '70s rolled around, jazz was experiencing an identity crisis, as rock music and Motown dominated the airwaves of the times, and jazz became less popular. He would experiment with electric keyboards, best exemplified in the early part of the decade by his albums The Guerilla Band (Mainstream, 1971), and Wild Bird (Mainstream, 1972). With Galper leading on electric piano, the band managed to contribute to the fusion movement of the times, without succumbing to its commercial tendencies. Galper was clearly attempting to take the music to new places utilizing the different format and instrumentation. Many acoustic jazz artists were struggling to find an identity with modern, electric sounds, while others were simply trying to stay relevant and survive the onslaught.

The band included trumpeter Randy Brecker, and his younger brother Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone. Randy Brecker was much like Galper in his attention to artistry, and eschewment of commercial forms. He had given up the trumpet chair in the popular pop/jazz band, Blood, Sweat and Tears, to hit the road with Horace Silver. Brother Michael was on his way to saxophone stardom, with the brotherly twosome eventually falling into success with the Brecker Brothers.

Soon thereafter, Galper replaced George Duke in the band of alto saxophone legend, Cannonball Adderley, playing mostly electric piano, and learning the fine art of being a bandleader from one of the true masters. In the three years of his tenure with the band, Cannonball never mentioned music once to his pianist.

"I learned things from the masters, mainly from just playing with them, and observing how they did it,' says Galper. "Cannonball never talked about the music. Only once, Nat asked me for a few more ones. I said, 'Sure Nat, how many?'"

With the wisdom of time, Galper looks back at his role in the Adderly band, both as a pianist and composer.

"I think I played the gig wrong. I went in there with a kind of Chick Corea approach. That was a blues band, I should have been more blues oriented in my composition, and written stuff specifically for that band. The main thing that I got out of the gig was a big beat, which is a dying art. That was a big beat band, you don't hear that anymore, it's dying out. Jimmy Cobb was one of the last ones. It put me in a funny position, because now I can play anywhere on the beat, and subdivide it. People think I'm wrong, they don't know— people with less, smaller beats, think I'm doing stuff wrong. There aren't many people with big beats, that was a prerequisite. I was lucky later on with Jeff (Johnson) and John (Bishop)," he says.

After his stint with Adderly, Galper envisioned a different way of playing, a path that included his refocus on playing acoustic piano. The Hal Galper Quintet would be a touchstone event in Galper's career, and one of the most dynamic acoustic jazz bands of the most turbulent and uncertain decade in jazz history. Randy and Michael Brecker would rejoin Galper, along with bassist Wayne Dockery and drummer Bob Moses. The band is documented by the studio effort, Reach Out! (Steeplechase, 1977), and the live date, Speak With a Single Voice (Century, 1979). The band performed with unrelenting energy, sparked by Halper's aggressive, symphonic playing, and modernist vision of time that would eventually lead to further conclusions and innovations.

Currently, Galper is working with Origin Records for an early 2021 release of a 1977 Quintet concert recording at the Berlin Philharmonic with said personnel. It captures a moment in time when Galper formed the perfect band to play the way he envisioned, to push the envelope as far as the band possibly could. The recording will add still another remarkable achievement in the career of the visionary pianist.

The release is the result of Galper going back through his career portfolio, and hearing new things he hadn't noticed before, including in the studio or on the bandstand of the performances themselves. As in his recent trio release of a 2016 live date, The Zone: Live At The Yardbird Suite (Origin, 2019), he found a special cohesion between the musicians that was relentless and often vulnerable. A certain fearlessness pervaded the bandstand.

"We had one live performance recorded, which was Speak With a Single Voice. But that was tightly controlled— nobody has really heard the band like it was recorded on this tape. Free-wheeling, faulty, chance-taking, devil-may-care, spaced out, manic. I'm a warts-and-all kind of guy, I'd rather live with my mistakes, because the spirit of the music is always just in the first take. I'm not doing it to be perfect, I'm doing it for fun. It's the process, not the end result I care about. This shows the band extended, and the longest Mike Brecker cadenza in history on the ballad, 'I'll Never Stop Loving You'" he remarks.

While the Brecker Brothers launched their careers in meteoric fashion following their time with the quintet, Galper retreated to the piano chair of the Phil Woods Quartet, a gig he would hold down for ten years. For a musician who had been through the fusion wars, and had just finished a stretch leading one of the most inventive jazz bands of the 70's, a return to bebop was seemingly a backward step. That notion would be, of course, absurd, considering the deep space that is the mind and playing of the ever explorative Woods. Galper, who had been working for years since his last bebop gig on perfecting pentatonic improvisation, experienced a revelation on his return to the form.

"One of the ways I dealt with problem solving was to start my own bands. Almost all of my bands were an effort of problem solving, or learning how to play something else. In other words, I try to create an environment in which I'm forced to play a certain way. Then I had to study to play that way. It took me fifteen years to finally figure out all the components of pentatonic improvising. When I started in Phil's band, I was still playing that way, with all that intervallic stuff. One night while we were playing at the Bottom Line in New York, I was sitting at home having coffee after my nap, thinking about this conundrum that I'm not fitting into what was going on. I realized I had a preconception, that I was approaching the bandstand thinking 'I was going to play this way,' which in this band was not good. I was thinking of how I was going to beat this, to get rid of this preconception. I decided I just had to go up there and press the little black and white things down, and see what happens. So that night, all my bebop playing came out—it was as if I had been playing it for fifteen years, that was the amazing thing. It proved that changes in the brain are always global, the pentatonics had improved my bebop playing, I couldn't believe it," he recalls excitedly.

Galper left the Woods quartet in 1990, to pursue his own trio with drummer Steve Elkington and bassist Todd Coolman. His playing had been greatly influenced by the trio playing of Jamal and Powell. He had witnessed first hand the intuitive, conversational approach of Bill Evans, where the three players are equal partners. He was searching for a musical environment where the playing was not a cohesion of three or four musicians. He wanted the music to achieve a oneness that avoided those degrees of separation. Galper articulates the feeling by stating, "It's not looked at as separate parts, it's looked at as a whole. If you have a quartet, it's not four pieces, it's a whole. The amount of information that's being transmitted among the musicians, both overt and covert, is awesome."

Galper's time with Woods didn't stop the ever curious and inventive pianist from exploring his own musical conceptions, including those concerning the liberation of time to facilitate freedom in the playing of himself and his bandmates. Bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie spent a week with the quintet during this time, and Galper benefited from Gillespie's views on subdividing time and the resulting rhythmic iconoclast. For the then veteran pianist, the idea of performing with a true pioneer of the jazz language was still a thrill. Gillespie never relented from pushing the boundaries of his school of thought, or his approach to playing. The genius Diz had acquired was experiential, and highly accessible from a musician's point of view.

"Dizzy said, 'The magic is not in the notes, it's in the rhythm.' I got to play "Con Alma" with him seven nights in a row, just duo. The last night was one of my best recording experiences, except on Dizzy's cadenza at the end. For some reason, I couldn't wait anymore, I came in and hit a wrong chord. Dizzy made it right, and he never said anything, but what bothers me is my last chord with Dizzy was wrong! I have to live with that! He was the perfect example of the oral tradition," recalls Galper with a hint of nostalgia.

Galper's new trio began to shed the notions that had become rudimentary attributes of the jazz piano trio. His personal vocabulary contained the voicings of Powell and Jamal, and his approach to trio playing was much like that of Bill Evans in that he viewed it as a threesome of equal parts. But Galper had a tendency to push the envelope in terms of time, conceiving a sense of elasticity at certain points. Bassist Johnson was definitively clued into Galper's notion, a quality which would help plant the seeds of Galper's rubato revolution. While so much was new and different about the sound, his approach to music certainly had not changed from his early encounters with Baker.

"That has been my focus, to maximize my growth every minute I'm playing. I'm going to push the envelope. I'm not going to sit back," he points out.

Fully reaping the benefits of the conception, and creating truly pioneering art would take time however, accelerated by the arrival of drummer Bishop to the trio some fifteen years into the experiment. Bishop's ability to follow the movement of the music was indeed unique, and vital to the flow of the music that while seeming outside, was in reality an open-ended, and open-minded view of standard time signatures. Most importantly, the trio still could swing like mad. Bishop's drum and cymbal work seemed to put the finishing touches on Galper's vision. Then approaching his seventies, Galper was indeed continuing to push the envelope, unwilling to rely on his past successes to maintain his visibility as an artist.

"You have to take your cues, and then you have to run with it. When I realized how much fun I was having, how free it was, and still swung, I thought great, let's see where this takes us. It was an adventure into the unknown from the beginning," he reminisces.

Galper had created a revolution of time, pushing the boundaries of the music in his distinct rubato style. An open and interpretive concept of time where the musical continuum achieves a high degree of elasticity constituted the single most significant innovation in the piano trio form since Evans' conversational take that established a community of sound between three participants. The trio found a home at Origin records, now a legacy of seven albums beginning with the 2007 release, Furious Rubato (Origin, 2007).

"The last thing I thought I would ever be able to do is innovate, it's so rare. So I didn't think of it in those terms. Other people told me it was innovative, and I said, 'Oh really?' But that wasn't in my mind at all. It was a total surprise to me that people considered it revolutionary," he recalls.

While major players such as Keith Jarrett, have shed light on the piano trio over the past half century, Galper's succeeding releases on Origin turned the form on its collective ear. It highlighted the trio playing with one-mind intuition, and at its best, entering a state of focus Galper refers to as "the zone." A parallel is easily drawn with athletes who as well use this conception and terminology to express the feeling of performing in harmony with teammates with an elevated sense of oneness. "I was playing with intent, mainly trying to find my own voice. When Jeff (Johnson) joined, it really started to loosen up, and eventually, what happened was the music took us. Starting with Furious Rubato, we had finally achieved all of us in the zone at the snap of a finger. Airegin Revisited (Origin, 2012) was the album where we all went into the zone at the same time. We were not imposing ourselves on the music-we were letting the music take us wherever it wanted to. That's the only time I've experienced that in my career. It's a very special thing to trust your intuition, and let it take over, he says.

Of course, Galper is frequently asked how a musician attains the conscious prerequisites to enter "the zone." As a listener, and more so as a writer, it is difficult to verbalize the feeling of music that has entered this conceptual realm. Never one to back down from an intellectual challenge, Galper takes a pretty sound shot at it.

"The key is your ego, and that's where the problem is. As long as your ego is there blocking you, as long as your sense of self is there. In eastern religions you have to spend years getting rid of your sense of self, practicing this and practicing that. Music in the zone goes to the same place. I get the same feeling from it, as if I had been practicing meditation for twenty years. The place comes from way back in the early brain. There's an overriding, compulsive desire to want to know how you sound when you're playing. You can't do that while playing and get to the zone. You can't give a shit how you sound and what you're doing. You have to shut down the critical, frontal lobe, basically. There is a neural pathway from the ear that bypasses the frontal lobe and goes directly to the early brain, which is where all the work is being done. That's where the processes are. If you're thinking, 'how do I sound.' you're screwed. You have to give that up," he says.

Like a traveler who arrives at his or her destination, remembering little of the journey there, the trio has had moments where the music became such an elemental result of collective consciousness, that precise memory of the performance was replaced by an overriding feeling of deep connection to the music entirely separate from place and time. Galper recalls such an experience performing at Ithaca College in upstate New York. "We were playing a concert at Ithaca College. Here's how it felt—we went up to the bandstand and then we walked off. I said to John (Bishop), 'Didn't we just play for an hour and a half?'" What happens in the zone, stays in the zone.

Galper knew, in terms of the rubato concept and his career as a whole, that his vision had come to complete fruition with the release of Cubist (Origin, 2018). Adding tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi to the mix added a new dimension, the quartet format created a new dimension to the rubato feel of the band. Recorded in an open session format before a small audience, the music has an overwhelming emotional honesty, and visionary artistry. The quartet seems to match musical character and personality perfectly between the four participants. For Galper personally, it felt like his musical child was now mature.

"I was really happy with the way Cubist came out. I got to the point after that album that now I was to the point Bill Evans talked about, which is being in competition with yourself," he recalls.

Last year, Galper and Bishop came across an exceptionally good recording of the trio's November, 2016 run at the Yardbird Suite club in Edmonton. To Galper's ear, the playing was so immense that he literally did not recognize that it was his own playing.

"I didn't recognize it. Because none of us played anything that we had played before. It was all totally in the zone," he says.

The two made an immediate decision to release the recording on Origin, and to appropriately entitle it, The Zone. In many ways, the recording brings the rubato style of playing full circle, performed with a sense of ease that removes all prohibitive boundaries to creative freedom. There is a profound sense of enjoyment in the vibe of the performance, as they dig into compositions from Galper and Johnson.

While Galper himself received an education in music from Berklee College of Music, much of his learning was gained through the oral tradition. Jazz music has traditionally been taught this way from generation to generation, a notable achievement considering the sophisticated nature of the music that rivals European classical music, and then some. In modern times, there is great difficulty in finding the balance between learning jazz in an institution of higher learning, and gaining the necessary experience learning the craft on the bandstand. Galper was a foundational force in the creation of the New School in New York City. Retiring from his 14 year stint at Purchase Conservatory in 2014, he has never bought into the concept of learning jazz in the classroom, and then taking it to the bandstand and expecting to have positive results. There are inevitable mistakes and embarrassments to experience at jam sessions, and on the bandstand in general that are unavoidable, and highly teachable. Balancing the oral tradition and western institutional learning is the challenge young prospective artists face in the 21st century.

"There's the western approach and the African approach. I don't think the two are opposed," states Galper. "I have a thorough theoretical education from Berklee. Guys have asked me how I can play with all that knowledge. I tell them I just put it in my back pocket and play. Most of the colleges are using an informational approach. Here's the information, you have to figure out how to use it. That's fine. The oral tradition is just as difficult as the western. There are 6,700 non-western languages, each of which has its own completely distinct oral tradition. No two of them are the same," says Galper

Inevitably for any jazz musician, the eternal pursuit is to achieve a sound that is original, and provides a vehicle for self expression. While one acknowledges that pursuit of finding "the zone" is a zen-like aspiration akin to spending decades shooting arrows at a single target for an unassuming master, many find the tools quickly and enter the zone via a chanced upon individual identity that allows an egoless transition into a collective consciousness with other musicians. Those tools are gathered through experiences and explorations within the oral tradition.

"Why do self-taught musicians always have such incredible identities? You can always tell who they are. It's because the primary goal of the oral tradition is to develop your own voice. Period. Not to absorb information and play it on the bandstand. Individualism is the basis of the oral tradition. That's what's remarkable about that approach, because it really brings you, the individual out," says Galper.

Galper's collected musical wisdom has been sought out now by several generations of young musicians. According to the master however, the real learning, the real gathering of his collective wisdom is best accessed by hearing and watching him play. That's the base value of the oral tradition.

"The beauty of the oral tradition is that you learn about the music from the playing of it. It teaches you. You want to learn all the theory you want? Just copy, if it sounds good that means the rules were done right. The only way to get better is to play a lot," he says.

As jazz gravitates more towards western educational concepts to teach future generations of students, Galper has growing concern of the western presumptions, and indeed biases, getting in the way of the African, oral tradition that has been a huge part of what makes jazz music unique and sustainable.

"A major concern is the typical western, white prejudice against things they don't understand. They try to destroy what they don't understand. That's where we are now in jazz education," he states wryly.

Back in the autumn recesses of Sullivan County, the normally reclusive Galper is feeling perhaps not quite as out of place as some of us during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, there is that weekly gig at Rafter's Tavern in Callicoon he is missing, and the hang that accompanies it. The piano Galper donated to the cause there sits vacant, no longer vibrating with the thunderous playing of Galper, who throughout his career has never been shy about giving the keyboard a solid workout during a performance. He feels nonetheless fulfilled, having achieved everything he set out to do in his career. Of course, as he has stated, he has done it without having a "name," an easily recognizable brand as do same generation pianists Herbie Hancock, or McCoy Tyner. Galper laughingly states that he has never really had name recognition in his chosen musical home base of New York City,

"I have no reputation in New York City after all these years, because I was always on the road, and I was always playing. That's the only reason how I got to where I got. Now those gigs where you could play in a club for a week or two, are all gone. You go on a ten day tour, and you spend three days getting your chops back," he muses.

Galper does have a name, and a legacy well familiar to those who are in some way immersed in this great art form. Musicians to this day seek his advice, and see him as the innovator that he certainly is. Jazz fans and musicians alike marvel at his remarkable facility, that can at times be ferocious, and at others, cerebral and even melancholic. His insights as a master of the form will continue to influence generations to come through his recordings, and books he has authored. His late career rubato innovations changed music in terms of form and approach, and are etched into the history of the revolution that is jazz music. Through all of the ruminations of his long and significant career, he carries the same attitude to the bandstand at Rafter's that he has carried to the most famous of stages in the jazz universe.

"My basic goal is not to play the perfect solo, it's to have fun. That's the only reason I go up there," he says. Yes sir Mr. Galper, we get it. That's why we're listening, and have been through sixty years of brilliance.

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