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Jeremy Pelt: A Man of Honor

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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For the younger generation of jazz musicians, those in their thirties today, the path is not always as smooth and easy as we may think it is. Nobody likes to live in anybody's shadow. Jazz is populated with giants who left their mark and those who look up to them in order to be able to move on. They listen; they internalize; they create something new. That is what jazz is all about: the thrill of the unknown. Comparisons are just a waste of time and a disrespectful and rather pathetic way of unsuccessfully pointing out that nothing original can ever come out of a horn again, because everything has already been said and done. Isn't jazz an evolving form of music anyway? Let's just be thankful for those giants of the past, and even more thankful for those who stand up today and keep the music playing, in their own terms.



Just like Nicholas Payton before him—who had to hear the endless comparisons jazz critics and fans kept throwing at him with Louis Armstrong (a New Orleans association of ideas, since Payton never phrased like Pops, nor did he ever need to) and even Clifford Brown—Jeremy Pelt has had his share of endless name throwing as well, as if his breathtaking creativity wasn't enough to satisfy the soul, and his music needed to be explained in terms of old glories and their innovative times; when the truth of the matter is that listening to him is almost like listening to jazz for the first time. Yes, the influence of others never goes unnoticed; but rather than listening to a new version of Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan , we are faced with perhaps the way any of them would have been able to sound, had they the ability to beat time and old age, and grow with the music that gave them their immortality. Jeremy Pelt is Jeremy Pelt, and he is here today. As simple as that.

The idea of a lasting quintet lineup is almost like a thing of the past today, and yet Pelt can't wait to demonstrate that jazz can still rely on chemistry and mutual understanding to create a sound, unique in its form and recognizable to the ear—not to mention what that can do to the spirit that listens, amazed and speechless. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen, bassist Dwayne Burno, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Gerald Cleaver are Pelt's Men of Honor (HighNote, 2010)—possibly the best excuse we may find to embrace the way jazz sounds today, without ever denying the fascination we will always feel for the way it sounded yesterday.

Allen's "Brooklyn Bound," Cleaver's "From a Life of the Same Name," Grissett's "Without You" and Burno's "Backroad" complement Pelt's own compositions for this album to an extent that allows the album to be enjoyable without a willing interruption, with an energy that is in constant rotation. It's a classic feel, a beautiful experiment of sounds and feelings ("Milo Hayward") that co-exist and travels from point A to point B without messing up the vibe. Pelt's phrasing is clean and direct, and reaches the height of greatness more often than not, blessed as he is with the certainty of doing what he is supposed to be doing in life. Grissett's piano keys are alive ("Illusion"); Allen's tenor sax sounds are beyond gravity, as if his notes were meant to survive away from the instrument ("Backroad"); Cleaver's drums are a perfectly balanced, elegant and sophisticated addition to the band ("From A Life Of The Same Name"); and Burno's rhythmically delicate bass playing approach is rather breathtaking ("Without You").

Five men of honor and a common ground made out of imagination and music. The rest is called jazz.

All About Jazz: Talk about the beginnings.

Jeremy Pelt: Well, I didn't start with the idea that I was going to be a classical or a jazz musician, or any other kind of player. I was just playing instruments that you were required to play. But then I started to really get into it, and I suppose it started off with classical music. As far as I can remember, and I have to go back about 27 years, I've always wanted to do it; I've always wanted to play music. And I was very interested in getting better at it, but not in a competitive way. I was never a competitor. I just did what I did, and usually I was among the best in the class. But as far as the instrument is concerned, it wasn't until I got into high school, because they had a jazz band. I remember quite vividly wanting to do jazz but it was not a devastating kind of happening. It's not like, "Oh man, jazz is coming now, classical is gone!" I still love listening to it.

It was just that I really felt like putting my all into jazz at that point. So what I mean to say is that there was nothing devastating that happened, to where it was such a radical change. Plus I had at that point decided to really make a full commitment: I wanted to play trumpet. I was really into classical music, but jazz, when it came around, it was something that it appealed more, something that took all the excitement right away.

AAJ: Is there a change in musicians today, as opposed to 60 or 70 years ago?

JP: Well, I think they studied the music even more back then, from an analytical point of view. If you look at players like Charlie Parker, they were studying a lot of classical composers. If you listen to Pops, one of his earlier solos, "Potato Head Blues," he was quoting "Nutcracker." It's not such a strange thing.

From left: Dwayne Burno, Danny Grissett, Jeremy Pelt Gerald Cleaver and J.D. Allen

AAJ: But they were not scholars going to Berklee College of Music or Julliard...

JP: No, in that capacity, no they were not.

AAJ: Why trumpet?

JP: Trumpet looked the easiest [laughs]. And really, almost through high school, I had a nearly perfect attendance record in school, and I was absent the day that the students got to choose their instruments, so by the time I came back the next day, everybody got their instrument, and I basically got a choice of either the clarinet or the trumpet. And that's what I mean by the trumpet looks the easiest because I was looking at the trumpet and it had three keys on it, and I looked at the clarinet and had so many keys on it, and I was like "I ain't gonna play that, let me get the trumpet...," and the rest is history in the making.

AAJ: Did your family have an influence in you as a musician?

JP: Not directly, I come from an actor's family. But my uncle played the trumpet in the military band and he was really into jazz. But I didn't grow up with that side of the family, so I didn't find this out until like maybe four years ago, so it wasn't really an influence.

AAJ: So why Berklee and not Julliard?

JP: Well, because at that particular point in time Julliard didn't have a jazz program. There were only a couple of schools that did that I was interested in going to, and I should clarify that I didn't go to Berklee for jazz; I went for film scoring. I still have reservations just about jazz education in general and the collision with the environment, but that wasn't what I went to Berklee for.

AAJ: So why not for jazz?

JP: Ah...because I was just really interested in film scoring, real simple. I knew that I wanted to play, first and foremost, but I wasn't sold on the concept, "Oh, I can learn to play in this school and I can be a master in four years..." It takes a lot of time, so that wasn't convincing enough for me but what was convincing enough was being able to go some place where it had a curriculum that I was very interested in.

AAJ:Why aren't you doing film scoring?

JP: Well, it's not like I said, "You know what? I am much more interested in being a musician. I don't want to do film scoring anymore," that's not the process. The process in being a film composer is even more difficult than trying to make it on the scene as a jazz musician. But it is not like you just wake up one day and say you don't want to be something. You have to really be in an environment, number one, and immerse in the environment for that to happen. For the record, I haven't given up on hope on doing some films—that's still in there—but my main focus was on being a jazz musician when I moved to New York. And I knew I wasn't going to move to L.A., I never want to live there again! I'm a person that feeds off of the energy of the music and being surrounded by it, and the vitality of the city and everything, and L.A. doesn't have any of that.

Sometimes you have some energy out there and the weather is good, but I've never been too concerned about weather either way. So as far as my profession and what I do and accessibility, New York was the place and still is even though clubs are closing down and it would seem like such a sad state. There weren't even as many clubs as there were when I first moved in, but still, by large, it is the place you want to go. If I was going to do film scoring and I was just interested in doing that 100 percent, then I would be living in L.A.

Film scoring, like with any kind of creative art where you feel like you want to be in a certain class of the art itself, definitely is going to take a lot of time and a lot of patience and a lot of development. Of course, there are occasions like in jazz where somebody might get signed to a big label, and they get all the money and all the label support, and they're stars within a year or two, you know what I mean? But it may not be as plentiful to the next person. That's just the way it is. Perseverance is important, more than anything. You get into film scoring because you love it but you have to find somebody that is able to work on several scores a year.

AAJ: What has changed since "The Mingus Big Band," as a musician and as a man?

JP: Why the Mingus Big Band in particular?

AAJ: Because when it comes to your career, the MBB always seems to come up.

JP: I think this band was one wild involvement and I gained a lot of experience, traveling and playing that music. The thing about the Mingus band, which was so great, was that you had a lot of different cats in the band that were obviously more advanced in years and also more connected in the scene, just by the fact that had been there longer. So once they heard me, a lot of cats were able to link me to other gigs. So the thing about it was that the Mingus band was like a link, kind of responsible in a six degree separation sort of way, of me being in Louis Hayes' band, so it is an interesting concept. I knew I was supposed to be doing that. I have never been in a situation where I was nervous, or scared because I was playing with such and such. I always knew that if I was there I was supposed to be there.

I remember the first gig I got when I moved to New York. I was playing with the The Skatalites, and I never even heard of it until I got called for the gig ...and that was nerve wracking because you're playing with the band that started that kind of music, number one, and then they have a dedicated fan base that gets younger, so it's not even like you have a bunch of old people that'll forgive you if you miss the part because young people, they get really angry if you're messing up the groove because you're screwing up the music ... So that was nerve-wracking for like two weeks, because I was trying to internalize the music but as far as jazz is concerned, every gig that I was on it was cool to be there.
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