Larry Goldings: Versatility of Keyboards... And Music

R.J. DeLuke BY

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Eventually Maceo Parker heard me and hired me in his band, and that's when I really started getting experience on the Hammond organ. I literally learned on the gig.
Pianist/organist Larry Goldings is a player whose name has turned up more and more over the years on projects with some of the top names in the music business. His own projects, largely his organ trio, have always been artistic successes.

He continues to stretch, exploring opportunities to grow and explore his varied music interests. He's still being called by top-flight musicians to join a tour, or a recording session, and at the same time Goldings keeps his fine trio working. His reputation is the result of a long road of studying, working jam sessions, and getting involved with great professionals at a relatively young age.

He has developed as one of the more skilled players, but isn't just a technician. He approaches music with an open mind and an affinity to look at things in different ways, with equal parts freedom and tradition, as can be witnessed in his latest CD, Quartet, a departure from the organ trio setting. The 11th record under his own name, it's a sharp disc on which some outstanding and varied musical minds develop a synergy that carries the day. There are different feels through the 12 offerings, and all of them carried out in fine fashion.

The recording starts out with Goldings on piano, ("Singsong") laying out a simple melody that the band carries in a loose, yet structured fashion. The trumpet of New York City veteran trumpeter John Sneider is melodic and uncluttered. Matt Wilson's drums create the right underpinning and Ben Allison's bass is weaves in; unhurried and strong. "Au Bord De L'Eau is an interesting, moving jazz line giving Goldings room to express his fondness for melody and harmony. It swings. And the CD goes on from there, with splashes from Goldings' pen, and plenty of contributions from the others. They take on Monk and Bjork in the process. And the old "Hesitation Blues, with the delightful Madeleine Peyroux —herself a breath of fresh air on the current music scene—is deliciously cool. Sneider's trumpet fills are on the mark and Geldings' organ is expressive. It holds interest throughout.

Goldings is pleased with the CD, and glad to be taking music in a directions away from his organ trio—with Peter Bernstein on guitar and Bill Stewart on drums—which itself has provided some fine music for over a decade, particularly The Intimacy of the Blues (Verve, 1991) and Sweet Science (Palmetto, 2002).

He's known for his work on the Hammond B3, an instrument that was rejuvenated a decade or so ago and is being put to good use by several players nowadays. It has perhaps surpassed his notoriety as a fine pianist (though that may be changing, as his opportunities on the acoustic instrument grow). But the Boston-area native fell into it the instrument slowly, even unintentionally, after leaving music school in the late 1980s.

"Around 1988 or 89, I started playing a portable version. I never really had experience at that time with a real Hammond B3. But I was interested in organ-type of keyboards. I started the group with Pete and Bill probably around '89 or '90.

"As a kid when I was first getting into jazz, I tended to play baselines on the piano. Somehow I gravitated toward that. Probably because I had a love for a pianist by the name of David McKenna from the New England area, says Goldings. "His approach was always with a walking baseline. That's how I approached it. I think there was a connection between that and actually wanting to walk baseline on the organ. I was pretty good at it. It had pretty good independence in that way. I like the control factor or something.

He says among the records he enjoyed growing up were Billy Preston and Aretha Franklin R&B, and Wes Montgomery with organ legend Jimmy Smith. He continued to play the instrument, and "eventually Maceo Parker (a stalwart of soul legend James Brown's horn section) heard me and hired me in his band, and that's when I really started getting experience on the Hammond organ. I literally learned on the gig. Then through Maceo's producer, I made my first record (Intimacy of the Blues). Ironically, at least to me at the time, it was an organ record, even though I barely knew it. That kind of got me on the map as an organ player. It was totally not my intention, but that's sort of how it happened.

His organ trio became very well established in the 1990s, and is one Goldings is not going to drop any time soon. "It was, and still is, the truest group of mine; the most comfortable group situation I've ever been in, he says.

Goldings grew up listening to pop music of the 1970s, but seemed to always have a fondness and feel for interesting harmonies. That is still quite evident today.

"I was listening to Billy Joel. I learned a lot about harmony by trying to learn Billy Joel songs by ear. That was the beginning of it, in a way. Things that were a little more harmonically challenging. It was probably people like Steely Dan and Billy Joel that led me to jazz, because of the harmonic aspect of it and the more crafted-song type of writers. That led me to standards, American popular songs and things like that.

The first jazz artists that influenced him were Oscar Peterson and McKenna. "Then somebody gave me a Miles record with either Wynton Kelly or Red Garland. That stuff was really the beginning. I was also listening to a lot of fusion early on, which now I don't. But there was a more harmonic thing going on that I liked.

Goldings says once he got farther advanced, he had to go back and fill in the "holes in my listening, digging Monk, and the works of other jazz musicians recommended to him by teachers and colleagues. Among his early teachers were Ran Blake and Keith Jarrett. In 1986, he left the Boston area to enroll in the New School for Social Research in New York City, which was in its infancy.

"By the time I got to New York and college to go to the New School, I was definitely more of a purist, into bebop, says the keyboardist. "Along the way I've become eclectic in my taste. A lot of world music. classical music, primarily because of just loving harmonies and the way so many classical composers develop ideas and stuff. To me it's all the same. It applies to jazz, it applies to the craft of trying to build on an idea and expand on it.

"At the time it was both great and frustrating because it was a totally new program, he says. Some students may have wanted more formal structure in those years, but the way it developed was fine for Goldings. "I was literally in the first graduating class. There was a good deal of chaos when I was there. Very unstructured. Arnie Lawrence started it. He was a great guy. Not experienced in the organized curriculum approach. That was why it was such a refreshing school. He had his street-smart way of approaching things, but they didn't have the balance together between that and the more legit.

"For me, looking back it was great. You'd be in a class and Arnie would bring in Art Blakey. The door would open and he'd say, 'The rest of the day is devoted to Art Blakey.' Then Art Blakey would come and tell stories and play and usually I would get to play with him, and a few others. It was just fantastic. Also, Arnie Lawrence really took me under his wing. He was responsible for getting me a gig at the Village Gate as the house pianist for a jam session there every Sunday. That led me into the scene, knowing musicians and people getting to know me. He would always choose me to play with the guests that would come through the school.

Jim Hall was among those who taught there and ended up hiring Goldings. "Nothing but great things came out of it, though I kind of feel sorry for other kids who were there at the time who weren't really ready for that kind of approach and needed a bit more structure. But it was great.

"And it was New York, when there were more clubs, and you could get into Bradley's (once a renowned piano bar). You could drop in and see a who's who of jazz piano. I could probably name 10 people who have passed or who don't play anymore who were still at the top of their game then. It was the end of an era. I caught a great glimpse of it. As a kid who had just moved to New York it was ridiculous. You could still hear Tommy Flanagan and Roland Hanna. All these guys were approachable people. A lot of them came through the school and I met them there.

He met a lot of the younger generation of jazz musicians through the Village Gate exposure, and the club ended up hiring him to play in the evening. "I started working pretty quickly and learning by doing that and growing at a fast pace, he says.

He was also asked to tour on with jazz singing legend Jon Hendricks, a collaboration lasting almost three years. A regular gig at Augie's became a place where he worked out on the organ, which led to gigs, and eventually the start of his trio. His link-up with Maceo Parker provided Goldings a chance to explore his love of funk music, as well as gain him plenty of exposure. He went on to play with people like John Scofield, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, and even James Taylor.

Things continue to grow for Goldings. His organ trio is still cooking, and he tours with Madeleine Peyroux regularly. He gigs as a sideman with some of New York's other fine musicians and records with them. This year, he's on the road with Scofield again, this time with Jack DeJohnette on drums in a band called Trio Beyond.

"I'm still playing a lot of creative music and making a living at it, so I can't complain, he says.

Goldings had this to say to All About Jazz about his new recording:

All About Jazz: The new CD is called just Quartet. Why is that?

Larry Goldings: It comes out Jan. 24... Usually I try to find a tune on the CD that seems to some how sum up the idea behind the record. But this time, I think the thing that sets it apart most from my other records is that it's not my organ trio. All my records have been with my organ trio with Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart. I thought this would be the most direct way to set it apart.

I'm playing a lot more piano on it, rather than just organ. I wanted to make that clear from the start, in a way. That was only after weeks of trying to get a decent title. But it seemed to the point. I never really thought too much of the significance of titles.

AAJ: You've played with (drummer) Matt Wilson, but why this group. Why (bassist) Ben Allison, John Sneider (trumpet) and Madeleine Peyroux?

LG: Matt and Ben were two guys who I had worked with in the studio. I felt that they were a great combination, not only musically, but in their conceptual ideas when putting together on-the-spot arrangements. We worked together on a Curtis Stigers record and I really liked how Ben and Matt would not be afraid to chime in with ideas. They were usually really creative ideas. They're very quick thinkers in that way. When you make a jazz record you usually have very limited time. The more spontaneous and creative and imaginative the musicians, the more you're going to get out of a couple days in the studio.

I've always found that with Peter and Bill as well. We get stuff together very quickly. But when thinking about doing a non-trio record and who all had those attributes, I immediately thought of Matt and Ben. Musically speaking, those two also don't exist in a rigid stylistic box. They're very open musicians. Both have a sense of tradition as well, but their openness is something that I've always been attracted to. I definitely had in mind a more open sound for this record.

John Sneider is one of my oldest New York friends. I met him shortly after I moved to New York in 1986. We've only, until now, played a lot of little gigs around town. I was on part of John's record once. But it seems like too many years had passed since we had really been able to collaborate in a more thorough, creative way. Also, he's very under-appreciated. Particularly now, because during the day he works for a big jingle company, JFM in New York. He's done that for five years or so. He does a lot less playing and he's a lot less on the playing scene. Ironically, it made him a better player somehow. He seems to get better and better over the years. I also brought him into one of the Curtis Stigers records and got to hear what he was sounding like these days. It was so refreshing to hear him. I've always known him to be a very open musician. Also a good composer, arranger. Incredible ears, great in a free situation. He can very quickly and easily hear what's going on harmonically.

With the kind of spontaneous situation we had with a couple days in the studio, and wanting to do some free stuff, you have to pick your musicians very carefully and find people who, in the moment, really engage and take the music someplace.

That was the core group, and then Madeleine. I had been working with her and did her record (Careless Love). We've done a bunch of gigs together. I really like her personally and musically and felt it would add another element to the record.

Her record was very well thought out. Larry Klein, who produced it, put a lot of thought into the repertoire and the approach. I thought it turned out really lovely.

AAJ: Some of the tunes you found are nice and unusual. Where did you find some of these tunes?

LG: Abdullah Ibrahim ("The Wedding") is someone I've been listening to for years. Peter Bernstein turned me onto him way back in the mid-80s when I first met Peter at the Eastman School of Music. We went to this summer high school jazz program. That's where I met Pete. Pete was into all sorts of things that I had no idea about, including Abdullah Ibrahim. I became instantly attracted to his music. "The Wedding is always something I've gone back and listened to. I always felt he was strangely under recorded. His tunes are so memorable and catchy and soulful and have so much charm to them. I was going to record it on piano, but we decided at the last minute that I would try on organ, just to bring something different to it. I've always known about that song. I might have played it a few times with my organ trio way back when.

The same goes for the music of Gabriel Faure ("Au Bord De L'Eau"). I learned his "Requiem in high school and then became a big fan of his music and recordings of his songs for piano and voice. That piece is one of his pieces that was so close to the original that I decided that—even though I brought it into a jazz realm—I couldn't really call it my own. The original piece is gorgeous and sounds like a French romantic vocal piece, but has those beautiful jazz harmonies. Even though rhythmically, it sounds like a jazz tune on the record, it's actually quite close to how it goes harmonically. As is "The Wedding which is pretty straight forward in terms of my interpretation. It's pretty much Abdullah's chords. I thought there wasn't too much room for improvement.

Bjork ("Cocoon") is someone who over the last three years or so I've really loved and found her music to be extremely melodic, even with all the electronic experimentation going on. I love it in her hands, or in the hands of her programmers or whatever you call them. I felt melodically and emotionally connected to that song. I wanted to find a way to approach it instrumentally, but also—in our acoustic jazz way—define a way to salute the electronic aspect of what she did with it. So we had Matt Wilson play in a very sparse, sort of eccentric manner; mimic what was going on in the original Bjork track. It's from a record called Vespertine. It's a very melodic, beautiful, nicely constructed song.

AAJ: On some of the songs, you're all listed as co-composers ("A Dream About Jacki Byard," "Hidalgo," "Denoument").

LG: Those were because they were totally free pieces. Before we would record I would say, "Let's make this short ...someone would come up with a vibe, to begin with. Sometimes we weren't even meaning to. We were talking about what to play next and Ben would get into something on the bass, and I would say, "Let's just roll. The idea was to try to make it as concise and well-structured as possible.

These guys are some of the best players in a free situation that I could think of. However, I did take advantage at times of what one can do post-production. If there were things that I wanted to edit, or notes that I didn't like. For instance on the Bjork tune, Matt was the only person in his own isolated booth. There were things I was able to do with him, in terms of editing what he played, that gave me a lot of freedom. I have no problem doing that. I really like the freedom of being able to do things with the music after it's played.

For the most part, I didn't do that. But there were times when I wanted to. The first one ("Singsong") was actually a free piece where Ben started a little melodic thing and I thought of a very short, simple, kind of child-like melody. I wrote it out for the guys. We didn't even rehearse it, we just rolled tape. I felt it was one of the strongest things we did, so I wanted to put it first. I also felt it summed up the vibe of the record, melodic and free, but structured at the same time., with a lot of group ,playing as opposed to soloist after soloist after soloist.

About half of the record has traditional soloing, then there's a lot of group soloing, which I also really like.

"Jackie-ing is just a song I've known for a long time. I used to play it with Jon Hendricks; he had a lyric to it. It's not very often played. "Valsinha is by one of my favorite Brazilian artists, Chico Buarque. It's a very haunting, beautiful piece that has classical undertones to it. There is a perfect example of how the creative thinking of the other musicians really influenced the direction that the interpretation ended up going. I was going to play more or less a straight waltz. Matt and Ben started playing a free, out-of-time, but in time rhythmic idea as we rehearsed it. I said, "Why don't we just do it that way. We just went with it. It sounded very natural and also enabled us to take the tune into a completely different place, but still have the melodicism.

AAJ: How do you like the CD over all?

LG: I'm really happy with it. There's sort of a conceptual thing going through it. I don't know what the concept is, exactly. But there are a lot of things on there that I don't hear a lot on jazz records, in terms of how it's recorded, the freedom that's in there. The textures. That's what I'm going for.

I felt it was very honest and very much what I set out to do. It's also pretty eclectic, and that's kind of me.

AAJ: Are you touring to support it?

LG: I'm trying to. I've got a record release for four nights at the Jazz Standard. I'm trying to get the band on the road beyond that. Hopefully, we have a little stint in the UK in late April, early May. Realistically, I'm not looking at a bulk of stuff until maybe the fall. I'm trying to get on the road, but in the meantime, I've got other things going on.

I've got a group with Jack DeJohnette and John Scofield and myself (Trio Beyond), we're going to Europe in July. And then I've got some gigs with Matt Wilson's group. Madeleine is off for a while, working on her next record. I've got some gigs with James Taylor, who I've been working with. We're actually going to do a handful of duo gigs in March and maybe a few other things with him.

I definitely have the opportunity to get this band out, I just have to figure out everybody else's schedule But it is hard. Like pulling teeth to get some decent gigs.

AAJ: A lot of people who put out records don't even get to tour, or get very little support.

LG: That's frequently been the scenario with me. The organ trio records. We'd make a record, but then I'd have a lot of sideman gigs I'm committed to—and I'm grateful for it. Particularly when the James Taylor thing came along, that gets busy sometimes. Sometimes maybe I didn't have my priorities together, but sometimes it came down to economics, where I had a few things boiling for the trio, but then a month or two with James Taylor came up and I had to do that.

Unfortunately, I've never quite figured out a better balance between getting my own groups out there and sideman work. It's tricky. I think it comes down to longer term planning, which I've never really done very well. That's why I'm already starting to think about the fall of 2006 for this group.

After almost 20 years of doing this, I'm finally figuring out that that's what you have to do. Make a long-term commitment and stick to it.

I'm motivated by the music that we made to get out there. I've traveled and toured a bunch with Matt. I know all of them really well. Personally, it will be a great hang and a great creative experience.

I've played some pretty remote places with Matt's group. Sometimes the strangest gigs are the most creative and bring the best stuff out of you. I'm not afraid to do some of those gigs. But it takes a little bit of patience to go from a cushy pop touring experience to getting back in the van and playing little places. But once I get out there, I realize that stuff is not that important anymore. It's all about the music.

It's all about balance and I'm still trying to find it.

Selected Discography

Larry Goldings, Quartet (Palmetto, 2006)
John Scofield, That's What I Say (Verve, 2005)
Jing Chi, 3D (Tone Center, 2004)
Madeleine Peyroux, Careless Love (Rounder, 2004)
Jessica Molaskey, Good Day (PS Classics, 2003)
Larry Goldings, Sweet Science (Palmetto, 2002)
Curtis Stigers, Secret Heart (Concord, 2002)
James Taylor, October Road (Sony, 2002)
Larry Goldings, As One (Palmetto, 2001)
Adam Levy, Buttermilk Channel (Orchard, 2001)
Larry Goldings/Bob Ward, Voodoo Dogs (Palmetto, 2000)
Matt Wilson, Arts and Crafts (Palmetto, 2000)
Indie.Arie, Acoustic Soul (Motown, 2000)
Dave Stryker, Shades of Miles (Steeplechase, 2000)
John Sneider, Panorama (Double-Time, 2000)
Carla Bley, 4 X 4 (Watt/ECM, 2000)
Larry Goldings, Moonbird (Palmetto, 1999)
Peter Bernstein, Brain Dance (Criss Cross, 1997)
Larry Goldings, Awareness (Warner Brothers, 1996)
Larry Goldings, Big Stuff (Warner Brothers, 1996)
James Moody, Young at Heart (Warner Brothers, 1996)
Larry Goldings, Whatever It Takes (Warner Brothers, 1995)
John Scofield, Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995)
Chris Potter, Pure (Concord, 1994)
Dave Stryker, Blue Degrees (Steeplechase, 1994)
Larry Goldings, Caminhos Cruzados (Novus, 1993)
Jim Hall, Something Special (Music Masters, 1993)
Bob Belden, When Doves Cry: The Music of Prince (Metro Blue, 1993)
John Scofield, Hand Jive (Blue Note, 1993)
Larry Goldings, Light Blue (Minor Music, 1992)
Gary Burton, Six PacK (GRP, 1992)
Maceo Parker, Life on Planet Blue (Verve, 1992)
Larry Goldings, The Intimacy of the Blues (Verve, 1991)
Jim Hall, Subsequently (Music Masters, 1991)
Maceo Parker, Mo' Roots (Verve, 1991)
Jon Hendricks, Freddie Freeloader (Denon, 1990)

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