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Lew Tabackin: On Becoming and Barolo

Lew Tabackin: On Becoming and Barolo

Courtesy International Jazz Productions


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"You looking for Lew?" a waiter standing outside Gennaro, a homey Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side, asks as I scan the outdoor dining area for a sign of my interview subject for the evening. "He's inside." They definitely know him here.

Ushered into the dining room, the staff graciously points me towards a table in the back, where Lew Tabackin, comfortably ensconced at a corner table with a promising bottle from his cellar, is ready for our conversation and cuisine to begin.

Lew Tabackin isn't just a Gennaro regular and wine lover of course, he's a rare master of two instruments; flute and tenor saxophone. His nearly six decade career has brought him acclaim worldwide, regularly topping critic's polls with both instruments while pushing the boundaries of his art form across cultures and disciplines. His solo work in ensembles is as impressive, as is his career as bandleader. He's worked with vaunted names such as Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Cab Calloway, Clark Terry and Toshiko Akiyoshi; the latter also being his partner in life, and wine connoisseurship.

The ensuing conversation spanned a few courses and a lot of libation. In it, I gleaned much about what makes this masterful artist who and what he is, from how he practices to the larger questions of music, audiences and spirituality. Although we had asked for a quiet table, I daresay our shared laughter made our corner a raucous one.

Because you might wonder, we started with a crisp Franciacorta from the restaurant's by the glass list, and then moved into the Brezza "Cannubi" Barolo 2010. It's a wine that's a a perfectly balanced study in delicacy and power, mature in restraint while also showing generosity. To me, it was a sublime pairing—echoing Tabackin's musicianship with fine flute work and his intense tenor sound, while infusing persistence, so key to longevity in music or wine. The wine pleasurably inspired Lew's reminiscences about his personal history of exploration and adventure in Barolo and beyond.

After the interview we enjoyed cognac and a visit to the wine cellar Lew shares with his wife, where I captured a few photographs and more bon mots. I hope you enjoy selections of our conversation as much as I did.

On Becoming Himself

All About Jazz: One thing that fascinates me is how you've talked about spiritually melding with the musicians of the past who have inspired you.

Lew Tabackin: As a young player I started playing late—I started at 15 years old, I had no musical family; I started from nothing. So I started playing saxophone in high school and I evolved into being an early Coltrane clone.

I think I got the essential spirit of it. But—I saw a lot of white guys trying to sound like Coltrane and they sounded so stupid, so I thought maybe I'm just as stupid as they are. So anyway I thought, it's time to find out who I am because I didn't want to become a method actor, you know, get onstage and become somebody else. So Leo Fogel, a trombone player, had a record collection and he invited me to listen to stuff.

I started out—The first guy I liked was Al Cohn, he was a cult figure among the white saxophone players in Philadelphia. I started listening to Sonny Rollins and got into Coltrane. Sonny Rollins was very important to me. Anyway Leo played me a lot of stuff. He played me Lester Young—believe it or not I hadn't heard much of anybody. Prez is just perfection—Ben Webster—his tragic beauty, it's really dark.

Don Byas. Don Byas scared the hell outta me—I never heard anyone play the tenor like that. I mean, I'm sure you notice that saxophone players that play a lot of notes usually have a smaller sound, it's easier to execute. With a big sound, you blow a lot of air and it'll hold you back. Don Byas could play with a big sound and fast—they called him the art Tatum of tenor.

And he got me into Coleman Hawkins and but couldn't get it... it was too difficult.

AAJ: How so?

LT: It was too hard for me to understand. I wasn't up to it. I didn't have enough experience and I wasn't sophisticated enough to appreciate it. Hawkins—-he was more sophisticated than Bird.

So I tried to grab a certain essence from people I heard so I could intuit it into my soul. I wasn't a transcription thing, it was beyond that—more spiritual in a way. Then when I went to listen to Sonny, who was my hero, I could recognize all the elements—-"That's Hawk! That's Prez!" So now I was convinced the way to find your identity is to absorb yourself in the history, and eventually something personal will come out even though the influences are there. So that was the beginning of that.

On Spirituality and Tradition

LT: Another experience I had—once I was on tour with the Newport Jazz All Stars and we were supposed to do this tune, "Someday My Prince Will Come." I'm playing it and we started to play, and all of a sudden I was somebody else. I was Coltrane—it kinda took over. One of the bass players said "What was that?" It was kind of scary in a way. I didn't know what to think about it. I was... I was taken someplace.

Regarding the spirituality, through the years, especially when I was younger and I'd be doing a gig and I'm trying to play and things aren't happening and a couldn't connect phrases or whatever, all of a sudden I'd be playing and I'd play a phrase and I'll say, 'Oh that's Prez, or Hawkins' and then I'd know I was connected to some force out there. That's as close to spiritualism as I get—I would feel I wasn't alone.

AAJ: Jazz has such a vibrant tradition but also a legacy of breaking from that tradition and forging a new path. Have you ever felt a resistance to tradition? Sometimes there's this feeling that you gotta do the new thing.

LT: I always felt when I hear someone who's expanding the tradition, if you lose the tradition you lose the essence of jazz—that's an old fart concept I guess. My idea was always to play my own way but be an extension of that tradition. I don't want to be a museum piece or retro... I just thought of something—I got a review, a five star review in Downbeat, and the writer said—I never forgot this—that "Lew Tabackin would be a marketer's dream if he weren't so professorial looking, because he's on the cutting edge of retro bop."

AAJ: How can you be on the cutting edge of retro?

LT: It was kind of weird, I never forgot it because it was so absurd. In other words I wasn't really retro but I could be sold as retro. Because if you didn't play like Coltrane at that period at my age, you were against the grain.

AAJ: Well, both approaches are retro since you're looking back either way to something that's already happened.

LT: I think the key to this is that people confuse fashion... the media is kinda biased in a sense in that they want to hear something that they think is new, it could be electronic—or anything that's non-traditional that they think is paving the way to something new, and they are forgetting about what's moving on in a more neutral way.

AAJ: When I listen to you on a standard tune, the form may be what has come before but your improvisation is in the moment, and it's absolutely now. It's not the new thing, it's the now thing. Very vital.

LT: Well I'll get back to my youth—at sixteen I realized I was not going to be the next Bird... not a great savior, and I thought okay, I could be a utility musician. Shows or whatever—I thought about that for three months, and had a revelation. I said 'wait that's stupid, because if everybody thought the way I did there wouldn't be any more players.' So even at a young age I realized I could find out who I am. I could contribute something and be the only Lew Tabackin, whatever that means. I can make a contribution by finding my own personality. It takes a long time. Obviously. It took me by the time I turned forty... I remember I was playing at the Nice jazz festival and Jimmy Heath came over and was very complimentary. And then he said "Well you're forty now." And then I thought about it, there's something to that. It takes a long time, especially now when people aren't playing every day like they used to. You get to accept your idiosyncrasies. Before forty you don't want to hear that. You're used to hearing other people's idiosyncrasies and you don't want to hear your own, but then you accept it.

Which leads me to another experience I had when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven in New York. I was hanging with Zoot Sims, he came off the bandstand at the Half Note and said "Man, for the first time in my life I feel confident." And I was so shocked for two reasons: first he played so great all his life, he was amazing—and then on the other hand he actually confided in me, and I was flattered to be treated as an equal. I thought about later, and he was probably around forty when he said it. So I think there's a quasi magic number... it takes a long time.

On Practice

AAJ: Do you think there are artists that are sui generis that come out of nowhere practically fully formed?

LT: No I don't think that's possible. I mean like Bird, who developed his shit early. He practiced twelve hours a day, practiced all the time and was obsessed. Someone said that if you went by his apartment and didn't hear him practicing you knew he was out of town. I don't know anyone who comes out of nowhere. Some are more gifted than others and can accomplish things quicker. I mean, Bird died in his early thirties.

Coltrane was obsessed—I think he knew his life would be short. I would go to hear him when I was a kid in Philadelphia—he'd play two sets and go practice in the kitchen during the break. Totally obsessive. Some people feel like they are trying to beat the clock or get it in as quickly as they can because they know it's not going to last.

AAJ: As a method, continuous practicing and obsession in these examples makes for great art but it doesn't always make for a great life.

LT: It doesn't always make for great art either. I mean I remember an interview with him [Coltrane] and he said something about practicing on certain patterns or concept and then he said "I get on the bandstand and there's this wonderful thing I hear but but I can't play it because I'm too preoccupied with what I was practicing. I miss the beauty."

It's an interesting thought—-I think you have to balance the practicing. Practice is supposed to be a way to allow you to facilitate your ability to express something. It's not supposed to be the end all of everything. You're not supposed to go on the bandstand and play what you practice. Trane was very open about what he was thinking and what he was going through. So you learn a lot from hearing what other people say.

AAJ: What is your relationship to practicing now?

LT: I practice every day—-it's quite boring. First thing I do, I get up every morning, I have a breakfast or something, coffee, then I go to the basement and start playing my flute. I spend more time warming up than actually playing. I'm trying to get the sound right. I play really boring stuff just to get the sound happening. Basically it's more like warming up than playing. If I can't get the proper sound I don't want to play, it's not interesting to play.

Maybe I'll work on a piece, or whatever. And later I'll play the tenor: same thing. Try to get my air going. I have to use a tremendous amount of air to get the sound I want to hear. Even at my advanced age it's kind of like I haven't given up—it's a massive amount of air.

On Maturity and Age

AAJ: Do you feel that your lung capacity has diminished at all or that you're always getting the best of what your body can do at any moment?

LT: I've realized I have to be more careful. When I end a note, I have to have enough air to finish the note. The nuance of a horn player— singer too—nuance is signature. So if you run out of air and can't finish a note properly ... I'm preoccupied with that and maybe twenty years ago I didn't think about that and now I think about it. If you ever listen to old Oscar Pettiford recordings, you could hear him breathing. He's playing the bass and he's breathing. He doesn't have to take breaths like a horn player or singer but he does. He would breathe according to the musical phrase. Which is a great lesson, he doesn't have to but his breathing is part of the phraseology.

I'm an expert at the quick breath. In classical music you're not supposed to hear the breath. But in jazz music the breath is humanity. It think it's great, it's romantic, It's the human essence.

Now that I'm getting older, I hate to admit it, I have a choice: a choice to make my equipment easier—closer mouthpiece softer reed—and I don't like that and I don't like the sound. Frank Wes had that really figured out. He had asthma and got old and he can't breathe as well as he'd like so he made his equipment really soft and used a microphone. His musicality was great, and he actually was getting better and better musically.

Another case is Phil Woods. He had a real breathing problem—so he shortened his phrases.

AAJ: Let's flip to the positive side of that, you might be aware of diminished capacity, but I would say you know yourself and you're better able to maneuver.

LT: I did three nights in a row at Birdland recently and by the third night I was blowing the walls down. So it's not so much diminished capacity but diminished gigs. When you're playing almost every night everything seems to work better. I have it in the back of my mind I want to make sure I can end a note. That's important to me. I try to tell that to young people and they don't really get it.

AAJ: Yes—the ending moment of what a note is and where the breath goes after that. It doesn't end when it ends. I did a Jazz & Juice article on Ben Webster. In my research I read Ted Gioia liken his paying to that of a shakuhachi master. You could hear the breath in his sound that way.

LT: Here's a funny story—the first thing Ben Webster would tell the drummer is to not play brushes. One guy forgot and started to play the brushes and he got really pissed off and said "when you play the brushes you get into my "Pssss sound" [Lew makes a Webstery exhalation] So everything was on purpose. When I was a kid I read a DownBeat blindfold test and they played Ben Webster and the subject couldn't believe it was serious, that anyone put that much breath in the sound.

On Understanding Music and the Zen of Performance

AAJ: You talked about listening to Coleman Hawkins earlier, and how when you first heard him not being sophisticated enough to get it. I think that's so interesting because we all have stories or have heard stories about the first time someone hears so-and-so and the skies opened up and the light shone down. But I can relate to evolving into an understanding. The first time I went to see Mark Murphy I had no idea what was going on and he's someone I revere today. But I was just confused at first.

LT: I was on a plane a long time ago and there was a newspaper with an interview with Roberta Flack. She was a piano student in school, a voice minor. She studied with a voice teacher and the guy gave her a Billie Holiday record to listen to. She said "What's so great about that, the pitch isn't great, the sound isn't great... " and her teacher said "When you've figured out what's great about that you can become a singer."

Sometimes you're not ready to hear certain things. Art Blakey used to say "you have to study to appreciate jazz" and by study he means listen to a lot of music. Nowadays people don't know what they are listening to. Maybe ten percent of the people know why they are even there. They don't have enough experience to get the jokes, the references... .even here in New York which is supposed to be sophisticated, it's not really.

So I use a zen approach. Try to draw the audience in in a very special way, not superficially. One time I was playing at Birdland and I ended on a middle D on the tenor. It's an interesting note and a tried to put everything I could into that one note. And I could feel the audience become the note.

That's a true zen experience when you can become one with the audience on an intimate level.

AAJ: I'm touched by that. In jazz this kind of regard for communion with the audience is something I don't hear people talking about.

LT: There are two ways to connect with the audience. There's a superficial way, you do some stupid shit, some crazy high note, but when you connect in a pure way... I was playing in Paris, it was a radio broadcast, I released it—it was called Live in Paris.

Anyway, I was playing this tune, it's very simple, I move from an F to F#, very simple. And the audience gasped! I could feel it. And I thought wow these people are really on the trip with me. Paris has a great tradition of all the ex-patriots who went to live there and they became really interested in jazz and jazz history.

So to put it simply, one of the reasons to keep on playing is for the moments you really connect with an audience in a pure way. It doesn't happen often. That's why I try to play without a microphone so the people can feel the sound as opposed to the microphone. And they start to realize it, and what they heard was real sound as opposed to amplification.

AAJ: A critic once wrote the best way to hear you is in a room of fewer than a hundred people.

LT: Well, small room, small money. But to me jazz is chamber music. I mean I'm going to Newport on Sunday, it's going to be a zoo, it is what it is. I'll probably play for five minutes. You go to festival, and it's all party music you know, everybody's having a good time, but that's not what turns me on as a player. You're forced to do some bullshit—you're supposed to do cartwheels or something, I dunno.

Festivals are great because they are promotional. People say "Oh okay he's still alive, he can still play." But the essence of the music is in the small places where you become one with the audience. That's the goal, that's what I get off on.

On Lyrics and Story

AAJ: You mentioned Art Blakey—he was really into knowing the lyrics to the song. Do you think about the lyrics?

LT: Dexter Gordon was really into the lyrics. I make up my own lyrics. Okay so you have the melody right, you're going to play the melody for the whole time and then a solo... then there's Coleman Hawkins on "Body and Soul," he doesn't hardly play the melody at all. Some people are into emoting the spirit of the melody and other guys aren't.

I try to think narratively. I play a tune and I think I'm more of narrative player. I have the tune say something to me and then I can internalize it.

AAJ: I like differentiating between lyrics and narrative.

LT: I don't like to play unless I can find a narrative. I feel naked if I don't have some kind of story to tell. Playing a bunch of licks and shit, what does that mean? It means nothing.

I played a solo on a record date—it was a meaningless solo. I couldn't get the narrative. I told him not to release it. He released it—nobody knows and nobody cares but I do.

AAJ: I think it's an interesting divergence—to talk about players where the sound and the approach ends up becoming its own communication and maybe not so narratively based. An opera singer friend of mine was wondering if it was enough to just make a beautiful sound, she didn't feel connected to the stories she was telling but she has this glorious sound. Is it enough just to make a beautiful sound?

LT: That's interesting, it's something I have to think about. Sometimes I worry about sound so much I think I tend to go in that direction.

On Wine

AAJ: Since we're having this Barolo we should get into wine. So when did you become interested in wine?

LT: Basically I wasn't interested in wine. Toshiko [Akiyoshi] was interested in wine. I was drinking beer. I realized the results of beer drinking wasn't too cool—and so I started drinking wine and I fell in love with Barolo.

So I get a gig in Italy, and the woman that put it together had a jazz school in Torino. So I show up with a tenor and I'm nineteen, still in Los Angeles, and there's a journalist there. I said to him it was great to be here in Piemonte where they make Barolo and the guy freaked out—he said we thought Americans only like Coca-Cola.

So the next day I'm on TV doing and interview and then they take me to a wine shop called Rabinzano and they start opening up '47 Barolos everything is being filmed, and the journalist who started all this, his name is Gigi Marsico, and he became my mentor in a sense. He wrote books about the region. We became really tight and I had some really great experiences. I got to meet some really interesting people.

It was amazing, I don't even speak Italian. Barolo is the king of Italian wines. There's Brunello and there's Barolo. It was really fun—I became ordained in the Cavaliere del Tartufo [The Knights of the Truffle.] You have people in medieval costumes and you smell the wine and the tartufo and become ordained. It's pretty fun. Okay so one time we got to a restaurant run by the Brezza family and I go to settle the bill and they say, 'Oh no, you're a Cavaliere, you don't pay.'

My favorite story—Toshiko and I were invited to stay in Cantina Cerreto in Chiaretto. So we show up, people pick us up at the airport and its' getting late and the nebbia, the fog comes in, and we see this cantina—Rocche Costamagna—we knock on the door and this guy Giorgio comes out and says come on in, immediately starts opening up bottles. He says, stay here tonight. Only in Italy, you become family immediately.

From there we were introduced to Vietti, Conterno, you hang out with these guys—Aldo Conterno was great—he'd get pissed off at the critics. It was around the '97 vintage—and the critics were saying it was great vintage and he's like "No, the '96 is great, I know what's great!" He was cool, and we'd see him every year and he'd give me a bottle. All these people man, I had wonderful relationships... I did a concert in Torino called "Blues, Ballata and Barolo."

My favorite Barolo is from Roberto Voerzio. He became the new way to go in Barolo. I was in a restaurant and I recognized him and he recognized me—I found out he's making a Barbara, which isn't typically my favorite wine but I got six bottles of it. Haven't tried it yet.

On Longevity and Philosophy

AAJ: You've been a creative dynamo couple with Toshiko, one of the pioneering women of jazz, for fifty years—both of you now legendary artists.

LT: Legendary means you're old.

AAJ: Well there's a lot of old people that aren't legendary, so...

LT: I thought there was a problem being middle aged and a white dude in jazz, nobody gives a shit. I thought, okay man when I hit seventy my demographic might become more positive but it never worked out.

AAJ: Leonard Bernstein talked about how after seventy the critics didn't dare say anything bad about him.

LT: Maybe in my eighties... I lost my eightieth birthday during Coronavirus— so I told my Spanish promoter, start working on the ninetieth.

AAJ: In another interview you mentioned having a reverence for zen and existentialist philosophy. I'd love to get more into that.

LT: When I was a kid I used to get off on the concept of existentialism basically you're your own band. The idea that you make your way. You're in the process. You're never a musician—you're becoming a musician. Your life is a process of becoming.

I kind of like that because it's never finished—you know, 'I got it together man!' No, never happens.

AAJ: That's the fountain of youth I think. There's no static point you reach. There's an idea that there's some pinnacle you're reaching for.

LT: Clark Terry said "There's a fine line between a groove and a grave." If you're happy and thinking you're cool, than you're on your way down. But if you think, man I'm not so cool I should be better, Then you keep it going.

AAJ: So we should all feel a little insecure?

LT: (Laughs) When I was a kid I was watching a late night TV show and they had a philosopher on, and he was asked "can you sum up your philosophy for us in one or two sentences?" And he said, "The human condition is you can't win but you can try."

AAJ: Well then, here's to trying.

LT: Cheers.



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