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Larry Willis: Reaching and Teaching

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LW: Well first of all, for me for the most part, has to have an element of dance. You have to be able to tap your feet to it in some form or another and just to keep myself open to whatever the possibilities are and never to let my taste in music to be confined and predetermined. The piano helps me in that direction because one of the things that my teacher used to joke about, but it's so very, very true is about the immense dimensions that the instrument has and he would put it this way—he'd say, "Well kid, every time you sit down at this instrument the odds are 88 to ten, and they don't get any better." So if you shut yourself off, you can't go anywhere. And every time I sit down at the piano, the more I learn about it, the more I don't know. And that keeps my interest in this music in all forms. I'm trying to be not just a better pianist, but the best complete musician that I can be.

AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

Paul Murphy and Larry Willis

LW: Well, yes. One of the things that has been a tremendous joy for me and we just hope that this can just continue and grow... I have a very, very interesting and very good musical relationship with a great drummer by the name of Paul Murphy and I think that we are on the cutting edge of something because when we go into the studio to record there is nothing that is prewritten or prearranged. It's a total attempt at improvised music just based upon trusting and listening to the other player and I'm very, very elated about all of this because that is one of the elements that keeps my mind as open as I possibly can.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of reviewing one of those efforts a while back and I always say that it shows just how open you are. I think if I were to play one of those recordings for one of the self proclaimed members of the "jazz police" they perhaps find the Larry Willis they think they know, but if they made the effort to listen closely enough they find that it is indeed the very same Larry Willis.

LW: Same guy (laughs). Haven't gone anywhere.

AAJ: I'd imagine it must be cathartic for you to be able to get out from under all the rules and just be able to play?

LW: Yeah, but the only way that you can do that is learning and understanding the rules in the first place because nothing positive can come out of breaking the rule just because you can. You know there are reasons for it and overpriced (?) freedom. It's just been a revelation and something that we're going to continue and hope to build on. And hopefully we can get out here and play a few concerts and have people experience from a standpoint other than putting on a CD.

AAJ: Anything else?

LW: No just looking forward to continued work with the orchestras and the quintet and with the trio. And I just want to continue growing.

AAJ: Among the orchestral works you did a "Sketches of Spain" concert featuring your arrangements with an Israeli string ensemble. Have you had the chance to perform that here in the States yet?

LW: No. Russ, you know as well as I do, getting gigs in the States now is tantamount to trying to find a needle in a haystack. The interest in this music that keeps everything on an even playing field does not happen here. Even the jazz festivals that come up during late spring and summer, they're not even jazz festivals any longer. The jazz talent that these festivals will hire, you're talking about a very limited number of people and they're usually from another generation. Most of these festivals are basically music festivals. You'll find Gladys Knight and the Pips at a festival that is under the umbrella of jazz.

AAJ: Which wouldn't be such a terrible thing if you could find Larry Willis playing at a festival under an umbrella other than jazz.

LW: Absolutely, but you see that playing field is not level.

AAJ: Somehow jazz musicians are taken advantage of for their open mindedness towards other music in that they will share the stage with other types of artists at their festivals, but are never invited to open for rock of R&B acts.

LW: Because at the end of the day the bottom line comes down to money; certainly jazz represents less than two percent that is played or sold in any kind of economical reason.

AAJ: Well on that sad note, we'll call it an interview.


Selected Discography



Jackie McLean, Right Now! (Blue Note, 1965)

Woody Shaw, Live Volume 1-4 (HighNote, 1977)

Jerry Gonzalez & The Fort Apache Band Rumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1988)

Larry Willis, Solo Spirit (Mapleshade, 1992)

Larry Willis Sextet, A Tribute to Someone (Audioquest, 1993)

Paul Murphy/Larry Willis, Foundations (Murphy, 2009)

Photo Credit

Page 1: Eldon Baldwin


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