Jon Cowherd: Mercy, Mercy Me

Ian Patterson By

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I like to arrange standards for singers but if I’m going to create a statement as a player then I want to write my own music
—Jon Cowherd
There's more to pianist Jon Cowherd than meets the eye. Best known for his fifteen-year tenure in the Brian Blade Fellowship—with whom he has recorded four outstanding albums—Cowherd has also played and recorded with singers such as Rosanne Cash, Cassandra Wilson, Iggy Pop and Joni Mitchell. Though he's led his own small groups in New York for years he's only now stepping out with his recorded debut as leader.

The music on Mercy (Self Produced, 2013) was recorded three years ago, but it's fair to say that the period of gestation was even longer. In fact, in 2001 Cowherd took up classical piano studies that lasted eight years to sharpen his technique with an eye to recording his own material. He knew that he'd be ready when the music presented itself.

Mercy is a highly impressive debut, hardly surprising given the company Cowherd keeps on the recording: drummer Brian Blade, double bassist John Patitucci and guitarist Bill Frisell bring all their considerable resources to the table and play as if it was there was no tomorrow.

All About Jazz:It's taken a long time for you to step out as a recording leader in your own right; when did you first think this was a direction you wanted to take?

Jon Cowherd: This record was recorded three years ago. Maybe five years ago I gathered a few tunes that the Fellowship didn't play but that I played with my own groups around New York. I started to get the itch to do it and started trying to put together a band of guys I'd love to play with. Of course, I'd been playing with Brian [Blade] for many years and I'd been playing with John Patitucci for a few years too, and I'd always wanted to play with Bill Frisell. It took a while to get times when everybody was available.

I really waited. I started classical piano lessons about ten years ago because I really wanted to get more technique and control of the piano before I did a solo record. As far as making a record as a leader goes I wanted to be a little more prepared as a player. After I'd taken lessons for a few years I felt more confident to really give it a shot.

AAJ: Had the four of you ever played together before the recording?

JC: We never had. Everyone had played with each other in different situations but never as a group.

AAJ: There are obvious advantages in having such jazz heavyweights on your debut album but was there ever a temptation to work with less known and less distinctive musicians, if that makes sense?

JC: It makes sense but it was never the case. I've been blessed to know Brian [Blade] since 1988. Even before we had a band if I had a new composition I'd play it for him and we'd play it together, so he was always the drummer I would call. John [Patitucci] and I got to be really good friends and he was always supportive in trying to encourage me to make a record so he was an obvious choice. And because of his years playing alongside Brian with [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter I knew it would be a perfect fit. I never really considered anyone else.

AAJ: What was it like working with Frisell in the studio?

JC: It was great. He's so creative and so quick to dial things in. He was intuitive. He knew what I wanted and I think he knew what was best for the music right away. He understood the music. He was so easy to work with. He's a great guy and so humble. A piano and guitar, two chordal instruments can clash sometimes but his ears are so attuned. He's so sensitive as a musician. I felt like we played together really well.

AAJ: From the first notes of "Columns" and throughout the album you and Frisell are in very close unison on the heads and melodic motifs; was this an idea that you had at the composition stage or did it just evolve once you were in the studio?

JC: Pretty much from the composition stage. I love that sound of a piano and guitar in unison and a lot of the things I wrote were for us to play together.

AAJ: There's one odd track, odd in the context of the album as a whole, which is the very Frisellian tune "Seconds"; what was the idea with including this track?

JC: That actually came from sessions that we did with the Fellowship for the record Season of Changes (Verve Music Group, 2008) and on the day we were loading out I started messing around with it. It was kind of in bad condition so we didn't try to use it but I thought what the heck? Let's see what it sounds like. I started playing and Brian had a digital recorder and he came running in and held it up. The mics had already been taken down in the room. He and Tucker Martin, who was the engineer on that session and a really creative genius in his own right, they took those mellotron recordings and made these little loops. Brian sent me a CD of it and said here's some stuff you might want to use. There were more of them but that one seemed like the best one.

AAJ: Was there a time when you thought about making Mercy more experimental along the lines of "Seconds"?

JC: Yeah, I was thinking of making it more of a mix, with some experimental electronic things. In the end I decided not to use more of the mellotron stuff.

AAJ: You've played with a quite diverse range of singers, like country singer Rosanne Cash, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and even rocker Iggy Pop; were you tempted at all to have a singer on Mercy?

JC: Not this record. I'd love to make another record with a singer or maybe a line-up of singers. I've been really fortunate to work with some great singers and I would love to do a record of originals—maybe get together with four or five singers and co-write songs. I'm not a real lyricist but I love songwriting so I need someone to collaborate with to write the words.

AAJ: What singers could you envisage singing to your music?

JC: I have a few in mind but I'd have to speak to them.

AAJ: You were musical director, along with Brian Blade for the Joni Mitchell tribute concert—"Joni: A Portrait in Song"—in Massey Hall,Toronto, which seemed like an amazing event; can you tell us about that project and that evening in particular?

JC: It was an amazing week. We had done a tribute to her, or rather a tribute to a period of hers where she used a lot of jazz musicians on her records. We had done this in L.A. but she wasn't able to make that as her father was turning 100 the same week. The excitement was that she was going to turn up to the one in Toronto so we expanded it to included music from her earlier records.

She was involved in the rehearsals a little bit. She hung out a bit and she was going to do one poem that she had written. She was going to recite it with some jazz improv. We'd just do some free improv behind her. Well, one of the singers got laryngitis and had to drop out the day before the show. We said, Joni, we have four arrangements of yours that we have no singer for; do you want to try it? She said, yeah, let's try it.

She ended up singing three extra songs each night. That was a dream come true for me. I'd met her before and she'd sung on a Fellowship record [Perceptual (Blue Note Records, 2000)] and hung out but I'd never played her music with her so that was an amazing time. The audience at the Luminato Festival was just shocked and so excited when she started singing. They didn't know that was going to happen so it was just a great night. There was electricity in the room; it was just amazing.

AA: There's a short clip on Youtube, which somebody recorded on a camera for a couple of minutes of "Furry Sings the Blues" before being clobbered by the security but it shows that Mitchell at 70 still has it. She sounds great.

JC: Yeah, she does. She was concentrating on painting for a long time and not singing and I think she was putting her toe in the water a little bit those nights. She really enjoyed it and I'm hoping we're going to do it some more.

AAJ: Working so closely with Joni's music that week, did you learn anything new about her music?

JC: I did. Transcribing some of the tunes and writing out the arrangements I got a little more insight into the marriage of her music and lyrics and how thoughtful it is. The tones kind of paint with the words.

AAJ: You've worked with Cassandra Wilson for a couple of years and it's always struck me that there's a little bit of Joni Mitchell in her singing; do you sense that?

JC: Yeah, I do. She has that same ability to really deliver a lyric with emotion. You really get a sense of the song. With Joni, I think she's almost like a jazz singer. Joni has a freedom in her singing that's like jazz.

AAJ: Coming back to your own CD, Mercy, the three-part "Mercy Suite" is particularly striking, yet there's a great continuity to the music as a whole on the CD, with the exception of "Seconds"; did you think about doing a longer suite?

JC: No, not really. I wasn't even planning to write that suite but I had a piece of music called "Mercy Wind' and I thought it didn't feel complete. It felt like part of something. I started writing some other things and realized how connected they were to "Mercy Wind. That gave me the idea to write a suite.

I like a record to have continuity like that. People have said of Perceptual that the whole record is suite-like. I wanted the music to sound like it's a story.

AAJ: The melodies on Mercy Wind are very strong and it's always surprising to think that nobody has ever thought of that melody before; is the creative process a mystery to you or is it 90% hard graft and 10% inspiration?

JC: it's more of a mystery in a way. Some of those things were kind of improvised. The melody at the end of "Mercy Wind" was totally improvised and I wrote the tune around that. I tend to write tunes from the back to the front. I often write things that sound like the end of something or the last section and then I try to write a melody that's related and that would come before.

I know that sounds really odd but that's what happened on the third movement of the suite. It is a mystery in that ideas tend to drop out of the sky sometimes. Then I have to graft to make it make sense. Maybe it's 50-50.

AAJ: Brian Blade, as always, plays beautifully throughout, especially on "Baltica" and "Newsong." You probably know him as well as anybody; what does he bring to any musical setting?

JC: Firstly, he brings an immediacy, an in-the-moment feeling like this might be the last time we ever play and I'm going to give it all. He's been that way ever since I've known him. He's very respectful of people's compositional ideas. He's really a team player as a drummer, and a leader. Drummers have a lot of control in terms of the dynamics and he's so intuitive in that sense. He knows what a song should be. He's not someone who just plays a groove through the whole song. He really makes a composition sparkle. [guitarist] Peter Bernstein once said that playing with Brian is like Christmas every time—he just keeps giving you gifts.

AAJ: Live with the Mercy Project you usually play with Blade, Patitucci and [guitarist] Steve Cardenas but I saw on your gig list that you played the Mercy Project with guitarist Mike Moreno, trumpeter Matt Penman and drummer Rudy Royston at Dizzy's Club in the Lincoln Centre; was that a one-off line-up?

JC: It kind of was. WGBO, the local radio station approached me. They've been doing these monthly shows where they feature someone who's putting out a record and they said "We know you have Mercy coming out and we'd like to give you this night." It was a great chance to get some exposure and play. Brian, John and Steve are really busy doing other things so I knew it was important to have another band. I've been playing with Mike [Moreno] a lot. I hadn't played with Matt [Penman] in a while but I love his playing. I'd been playing with Rudy [Royston] in different situations.

They did a live broadcast on the Jazz at Lincoln Centre website and WGBO streamed the concert for a week to give people a chance to check it out. I'm hoping to get out there and play more, not mattering who the sidemen are necessarily.

AAJ: A singer you work a lot with is Rosanne Cash; some would describe her as a country singer; how do you see her?

JC: It's definitely not just country. She knows so much music and really loves punk music and rock music, R&B and soul. I can hear that in her singing and her writing. She's inspired by so many things. Her husband John Leventhal is also a well known pop producer. They're really into roots music, the blues and early rock 'n' roll. John can imitate the sound of all these guitar players. He knows all the musicians on all the records. He's like an encyclopedia and it's been great to be around him. I've learned a lot and heard a lot of great stories. They're great musicians and good people.

AAJ: There's a new Fellowship album coming out next year; can you tell us a little about the music we can expect to hear?

JC: Some of it is music we've been playing for a couple of years. Most of it is Brian's compositions. A lot of the songs are personal to Brian. We do a cover of "Shenandoah," the folk song. We captured some really great moments with the band and that's hard to do in the studio. We recorded it down in Brian's brother's new studio down in Shreveport and I guess because we weren't in a New York studio it felt very relaxed. The tunes are really strong and I'm excited about it.

AAJ: Neither in the Fellowship nor with your own bands do you play jazz standards; do you think that maybe they're beginning to sound their age?

JC: I like to arrange standards for singers but if I'm going to create a statement as a player then I want to write my own music. I have nothing against standards, as long as it's played sincerely. And they can be played in any style. I like it when people play a standard and it sounds as if they've checked out the lyrics.

It's rare that I play standards but I did a gig the other night where we were just calling tunes and it felt really refreshing. In a jam the other day someone requested a really old song called "I Don't Want to set the World on Fire," which is an amazing tune. In a lot of ways they don't write them like they used to and I love that about standards.

AAJ: There seems to be an ever-growing number of musicians from all nationalities going to New York and to Boston to play and to study; do you think New York is becoming more open to jazz musicians from other countries?

JC: That's an interesting question. It definitely is open. I don't know if that's a new thing. Maybe jazz is becoming more popular in other countries. I know a lot of musicians from all over the place and they're down at Smalls [Jazz Club] I think musicians are always open to other musicians if they can play and it doesn't really matter where they're from.

AAJ: Is there a growing awareness in America about contemporary jazz from Europe, Australia or South Korea?

JC: Yeah, I think so. I'm learning more and more about other bands and musicians. There are more European labels now than there used to be. I think it's grown a lot.

AAJ: Is the old distinction between American jazz and European jazz for example as strong as always or do you see a change in the way people view the music?

JC: I think the lines are blurring with the younger players, for sure. It's definitely becoming more like a One World sort of music. I love hearing all these cultural influences. But I think that study of the tradition is important. I hear piano players from Israel and they've really checked out bebop and [stride pianist] James P. Johnson and [composer Bela] Bartok and [singer/pianist] {{Ray Charles}] and all of that is important, even if you bring your own identity and your culture to it too.

AAJ: What are your up-and-coming plans?

JC: I would love to make another record but I've been sort of putting off writing. I've been traveling a lot, so I haven't had a lot of time. I'm going to take some time off around the holidays to go to my parents' house in Kentucky. They're both musicians and they have a nice Yamaha Grand Piano and I get inspired when I play it. I'll spend a few days there just to try to write.

I also want to tour a lot with one of the Mercy bands. I also want to write some new things for the Fellowship. We've got a week at the The Village Vanguard coming up [Dec 10-15] and I vowed I would write something new to bring in so I've got to do that in the next few weeks. There's a lot going on and I'm pretty excited about it all.

Photo Credit
Page 1-2: Todd Chalfant
Page 3: Caroline Rutland

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