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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.


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