Jorge Rossy: When Rhythm Becomes Harmony

Marta Ramon By

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Jorge Rossy arrived at Berklee College of Music in 1990 to study trumpet, despite already being a professional drummer. In Boston, the front line musicians—most of them were his teachers at the school—would hire him to play important gigs. Even with this brief anecdote one can get an idea about the Spanish multi-instrumentalist's special charisma and faculties.

Since then, he has played with lot of fine musicians around the world, including saxophonists Mark Turner, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake and Joshua Redman, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel—in a career spanning more than 25 years. International recognition came when he took the role of drummer in pianist Brad Mehldau's Trio, a formation that was completed by bassist Larry Grenadier. Rossy was a member of this trio for ten years, time that gave him the opportunity to tour around the world with two greatly admired musicians and friends. Rossy smiles when he remembers all the experiences he has shared with Mehldau and Grenadier, and even though there is not nostalgia in his words, some emotional feelings can be read in his eyes, as he stares to make sure that the important message behind his long dialog arrives with no doubts.

Jorge Rossy is a mystical kind of man, quiet and balanced, as is his playing on both drums and piano. Yes, he quit playing with Mehldau's Trio to restart his career as a pianist and composer. This direction change was almost ten years ago, when he decided to come back to Spain to focus on piano. Perseverance and hard work are the factors which define his extraordinary talent, something all his colleagues know and prais.

Rossy has just released his third album as a band leader, Iri's Blues (Moskito Records, 2012), with a renovated quintet, visiting Valencia, Spain to play with saxophonist Javier Vercher and bassist Masa Kamaguchi. It wasn't too cold outside, but he preferred to sit inside the café. He took off his jacket but kept his white kerchief and a black woolen hat on- -two details that define his appearance. With a croissant and a café latte, he started to talk about the piano life without realizing that he was moving the spoon in his cup the way he moves the brushes on his drums.

All About Jazz: How did you start your adventure as a pianist and bandleader?

Jorge Rossy: I am gonna tell you a kind of a long story... but I'll try not to make it too long. Pianist Albert Sanz is maybe the one who put me out of the closet as a band leader. I really am a fan of his, I really love him as a musician so he was the one that, in a way, convinced me to have my own trio. I had a gig and the bassist couldn't come, so I called Albert Sanz to play the Hammond organ] and we had a great time. After that he asked me to do a gig in trio with drummer RJ Miller, and I loved his playing from the first session. And I was very flattered because he wanted to play with me on piano.

When I started playing piano, I already knew a great musician who I played drums with, but I didn't want to use any of them because I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I would be playing with somebody just because he's my friend and he loves me, but maybe doesn´t like my piano playing so much. So, for me it was very important to feel accepted; I wanted to play with people that wanted to play with me for musical reasons, not just for friendship.

Jorge Rossy—Iri's Blues JR: AAJ: Why did you choose a trio formation with the Hammond?

JR: I like that if you have a piano trio with bass and drums the piano is often in charge of most of the melodies, but with the Hammond it is different; in some ways is nearly like a quartet because it can have some melodies. It's more like a band thing and I really like that, too.

AAJ: Your first CD, Wicca (Fresh Sounds Records, 2007), was with that formation, and then you increased it to a quintet with your son Félix, a trumpet player, and saxophonist Chris Cheek to record your second album, Ivlianus Suite (Contrabaix/Karonte, 2010).

JR: Yes, Chris Cheek is one the musician who I love the most. When I was comfortable enough playing piano I called him to play my music. We did a tour and it was a great feeling. I wrote for a quintet, which, in certain ways, was like a kind of a sextet because of the Hammond, it was like another voice. That was why I was going for a more orchestral, fuller sound. I just wanted to write the music and have a band with which the music would succeed the most, more than to feature myself as a pianist.

AAJ: And now, on Iri's Blues , you have exchanged the Hammond for a bass. What's the reason?

JR: Whenever I have been playing piano, mostly it has been with other harmonic instruments: with guitarist Jordi Matas, pianists Albert Sanz and Guillermo Klein. To have an another harmonic instrument in the band is great, but you have to be very careful to not get in the other's way, because you're sharing a role. And I really was hungry to have that space, to really feel full of sound. Anyway, I am very careful since I feel that, as a pianist, I am pretty far away from being a virtuoso. For me taking the piano seriously after playing ten years with Brad Mehldau is not an easy task [laughs].

AAJ: What is the most remarkable step forward in your compositions in Iri's Blues ?

JR: The way it feels for me is in my writing and my playing, I tended towards to a kind of melancholic bit, slow; in the other two records I wanted to make sure that every note made sense, I felt like I didn't have the facility to play a lot of notes so at least I wanted to make sure there wasn't any unnecessary stuff. And this album is a step further in that direction; there are a few more happy tunes. There is a big generalization in modern jazz, but I think it is true: you find this kind of deep moody stuff, slow balance, dark harmonies, and if you have something more energetic it tends to be more towards the cerebral, the aggressive. When you compare it with records made in the '50s or '60s, you just have the "happy tunes" with an intense beat, but not aggressive, so I am trying to get some of that. What makes me proud of this record—and in general with the band—is that I feel that I am at least trying a direction that is not overplayed now. I don't think I am doing anything new, but I am doing things that were done and have become forgotten along the way.

AAJ: And what about your playing?

JR: I think I am taking more chances than before. I think that I have come out from the closet as a pianist.

AAJ: Do you think you have as recognizable a sound on piano as you do on drums?

JR: I do [laughs]; It's funny—I actually think that a big part of your personality is your limitations. So since I have many more limitations on the piano, I have more much personality [laughs]. It's true; your limits define you. When you have a lot of possibilities, you can't hide. Everything we do is very transparent. If you don't have many resources, and that's what I feel with the piano, you give what you have. So yes, I think I have much more personality as a pianist and composer than as a drummer [laughs].

AAJ: How do you face the compositional task?

JR: Most of the tunes I just write in the class where I am teaching. The idea is to have some premises so you can start writing without waiting for the inspiration. The calypso on my new CD, for example. Since most people—and I definitely don't have this problem—try to find a really interesting harmony to reinvent the wheel, I just think "what about writing a calypso with the most simple chords?" And it is a great exercise, so that is the premise. I write at the same time as my students and what I say to them, and to myself, is that you don't have to write something great, you don't even have to write something you like, you just have ten minutes to write [laughs]. So that is how it works; I write my tunes in an unconscious way, I just go for it. And I am the first one that becomes surprised by how it comes out. What I mean is that the thing that lights the fire, the match, is a cerebral, conceptual thing, and that's only an excuse to start writing.

AAJ: It can't be that easy...

JR: I would really like to feel that anybody could enjoy my music. Anybody who has a sensibility and is opened, I write for them. I don't believe in the idea that jazz is very sophisticated. What I mean is that sophisticated is great, but it doesn't have to be complicated. For me, the more direct, the better. I would like the sophistication to be something that is not even perceived.

AAJ: So that's your secret, the unperceived sophistication is your sign, your design.

JR: Yeah, could be. For me, a big goal of my music, in any performance I am playing with an audience, I want to reach everybody who has ears and has a heart. That's what I wanna go for.

AAJ: Iri's Blues has a very diverse repertoire.

JR: Yes, I feel the repertoire is very diverse and maybe jumps a little bit stylistically and is weird, but on the other hand, you know, I don't give a shit. I don't care too much for conceptual records, anyway. And I feel even if I think that there are a lot of different things, all coming from the same guy, and probably from a pretty predictable motherfucker, anyway, it's pretty limited and predictable [laughs].

AAJ: And, like always, the good taste about the sound is the most important.

JR: The sound is out, and everything is there. When you play music, what you are doing is making sound. In the sound production, in the moment that you play that note, everything is there. The same thing I said before: we can't hide. Anything we say, and the way we say it, is really telling what's behind it.

AAJ: How did you arrive at this concept?

JR: I remember one of my first professional gigs. I was nineteen, I went to the airport and [trumpeter/vocalist] Chet Baker was there. We took the same plane and when we arrived I realized that he was going to play at the same festival I was going to, 899because we took the same bus that came to pick us up at the airport. He came to me in the bus because I was carrying a flugelhorn—at the time I was a drummer but I was already playing trumpet so I had my flugelhorn with me. And he came to me and said, "Hey, is that your flugelhorn? Could I use it tonight? Someone stole my trumpet in Italy yesterday." And I was like "Wow!! I would be honored!." I had a lot of nerves and I said "Of course, you can, but could you just to give me a little lesson in exchange [laughs]?

I had no shame! Shame is a motherfucker [laughs]. And he said "Yes, yes, later I'll give you your lesson," and then he went back to his seat. It was a big bus, so at some point along the way he came to the place where I was and he sat in front of me and he said: "Alright man, here is your lesson: whenever you play make sure that you make a really beautiful sound because if your sound is beautiful, first, everything you play it will sound beautiful and if your sound is ugly doesn't matter what notes you play, they are gonna sound ugly. But, also, if you really like it, and you take pleasure in that sound, then you will always hear a continuation of that idea and the music will play by itself."

I've never forget that, and it now helps me when I play piano in the way I don't need to play a lot of notes, I've gotta make sure that my heart is in the sound production, just to make sure that the way you attach that note, the intention behind it has meaning, it is something that you love and you have emotional connection to; you are in it. Then you can bring everybody into it to tell a story and the music will come to you.

AAJ: Does this idea about the sound explain your balance?

JR: I try to find beauty and meaning, trying to capture some essential thing.

AAJ: That essential thing you talk about is intuition. Intuition is something that jazz musicians usually take for granted, something that is taken as a fact, but from a conceptual perspective there would be a lot to talk about.

JR: Yeah, I totally agree. Intuition first, even a side of jazz or a side of music, is the best we have. Intuition is the wisdom of the moment and it is when we really feel that we are alive and that we are learning. It's very true that unfortunately in jazz music, a lot of young musicians find all these formulas in order to avoid their fear of improvisation. You find guys that have developed a lot of facility with their instruments and have studied harmony, the scales, and they transcribe their solos and they sound OK, but there is not too much story.

The connection with the music is somewhere in the back, so I like the opposite: intuition. That's the beginning: to trust all the things we have learned at music school. Your intuition knows that, and you just have to trust it and go and see what happens. In that sense it is good to feel that the older I'm getting, the more I can afford to be like a child and play as I used to play at the very beginning. With a pure ear.

Selected Discography

Jorge Rossy, Iri's Blues (Moskito Records, 2012)

Brad Mehldau, The Art of the Trio: Recordings 1996-2001) (Nonesuch, 2012)
Jorge Rossy, Ivlianus Suite (Contrabaix/Karonte, 2010)
Jorge Rossy, Wicca (Fresh Sounds Records, 2007)

Brad Mehldau, House on Hill (Nonesuch, 2006)

Brad Mehldau, Anything Goes (Nonesuch, 2004)

Photo Credit

Juanjo Ferrer

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