Marty Morell recently began his fifth decade on the international jazz scene, but it was only recently that he recorded his first CD as a leader. Best known for his long stint as the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio between 1968 and 1974, after leaving Evans he lived and worked in Toronto for a number of years, playing with a number of Canadian bandleaders and also playing on soundtracks and jingles. Morell has performed on recordings by Henry "Red Allen & Pee Wee Russell, Steve Kuhn, Gabor Szabo, Rob McConnell, Bernie Senensky, Kenny Wheeler, Moe Kauffman and Ed Bickert, among others. Although I first got in touch with Marty some time ago, he's been so busy touring that he only recently had a chance to take time for an interview.
All About Jazz: Marty, you have recently recorded a live CD at the Toronto Club Top o' the Senator (which is sadly no longer booking jazz). Is this your first as bandleader and will you be issuing it yourself? Has this band been together for some time?
Marty Morell: Yes, this is my first CD. I felt inspired to record it after meeting Evan Evans in 2001. He is a very talented young man and is a highly sought after film score composer in Hollywood. I had put off recording my own CD for too many years and felt that it was something that I really needed to do. Meeting Evan was what inspired me.
Last year my son Craig "Paco Morell and I started "Datz It Productions a CD duplication and production company. We have produced 5 CDs for various artists since moving to Florida. We do the graphics, duplication and packaging as well. So I decided to issue my CD through our company. It seems to be the way to go these days. You can purchase my CD at ejazzlines.com. The band hasn't been together as a unit per se but I had worked with these musicians quite a bit in many different situations during the 25 years that I lived in Toronto.
AAJ: How do you choose tunes for a recording session or live set?
MM: Well, for this CD I wanted to record some of the tunes that I've composed over the years. I have three on the CD, but tunes like "My One and Only Love and "Two Base Hit are some of my favorites to play. I've always wanted to play "Two Base Hit so we put a chart together for the CD. Basically, I just choose tunes that are fun to play and try to come up with a good variety and listening order.
AAJ: Do you compose at the piano, away from it, or a bit of both?
MM: Usually at the piano. I don't have perfect pitch so I need a piano to work with.
AAJ: How does a new composition evolve for you?
MM: Well, it kind of varies. Sometimes I'll hear a melody while driving or some rhythmic configurations and of course by the time I get to a piano, those ideas are gone but in trying to recapture what I've been hearing, I may come up with something interesting. Sometimes I want to write something in a specific style so I'll start with some chords then work on the melodic lines. The tune "Blues News on my CD is based on a 12 tone row. I took a 12 tone row lesson from Bill [Evans] on a plane one time and this was the result. In the late '70s and early '80s I had a Latin band in Toronto and did a lot of originals in that style for the band. I am hopefully going to record these tunes sometime soon. I've got lots of them.
AAJ: Have you been actively conducting jazz workshops and/or taking on private students?
MM: Yes, over the years I've done lots of clinics and master classes and have had a good variety of students but with being so busy playing I really did not have the time to teach on a consistent basis.
AAJ: Describe your musical background, including how you got interested in jazz, any formal lessons, important mentors and early gigs prior to becoming a professional.
MM: Well, I began studying piano at age six then played clarinet at the age of ten but had always wanted to play drums. My parents finally gave in so when I was twelve I began playing drums in the school band and continued from there. In 1961 I was a percussion major at the Manhattan School of Music and also studied tympani and mallets at the Julliard School of Music with Moe Goldenberg and Saul Goodman. During the time I was in school I played all kinds of gigs weddings, parties and I did lots of show gigs in the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY. Met a lot of great players up there. Dave Liebman, Eddie Daniels, Joe Farrell and many others.
AAJ: When did you start playing vibes and piano?
MM: It's funny but after I finished school I put away the percussion chops and just played drums but when I moved to Toronto in '74 I got back into playing percussion. Basically it was a survival thing because I never thought of myself as a percussionist but when I got a phone call asking if I played Latin percussion and if I could play on a recording session, I quickly got back into it. Soon after that, Rob McConnell asked me to join the Boss Brass and asked if I could play a few mallet parts with the band as well. Guess he had heard that I played a bit of piano and thought that I could work up a few vibe and xylophone parts. So, I borrowed a set of vibes and started brushing up on the mallets. After doing my first weeklong gig at Basin St in Toronto, the phone started to ring off the hook with percussion calls. It seemed like I became a first call percussionist over night. It was at that time that I got interested in playing vibes.
As far as the piano goes, I've always played for my own pleasure. It's been a great tool for me as a percussionist. I actually did a few gigs on the piano but never felt that I was good enough to pursue it full time.
AAJ: I have you listed as making your recording debut with trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen and Pee Wee Russell. Was traditional jazz a primary field early in your career, or were you already playing a number of styles?
MM: At the time that record was done I had been playing a lot with Steve Kuhn. The original idea for the record was to hire a young, more modern oriented rhythm section so, no that style was not something I was playing a lot. I've always played different styles of music.
I learned early on that this was an important part of surviving and building a future in the music business.
AAJ: How did you end up auditioning for Bill Evans?
MM: Working with the Bill Evans Trio was something that I had always wanted to do. After hearing Bill for the first time I fell in love with his music. I had never heard anything in jazz quite as beautiful until then. When the time presented it self and I had heard that Bill was auditioning drummers, I called Eddie then mustered up the courage and called Bill. He was really nice and asked me to come down to the Vanguard on Thursday night to play. I was elated. Having listened to Bill for the previous five years and being totally up on his repertoire I felt ready. It was one of the most exciting evenings of my life.
AAJ: Tell me what it was like working with him and Eddie Gomez (gigs, concerts, rehearsals). What prompted you to leave the group?
Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez, Marty Morell
MM: Well, I must say that working with Bill was the single most important and rewarding musical experience of my professional career. I feel blessed having had the opportunity to work with Bill and Eddie for all those years. For the time we were together Bill and Eddie were like my family and that was really something special. During performances on a good night with a great piano, great acoustics and audience it didn't and could never have gotten any better.
It was a very tough gig to leave, in fact, I was depressed for 6 months after leaving in '74, but I came to a point where I had to make a decision to explore other avenues in the music business and I had gotten a bit road weary as well. I had been on the road for the better part of ten years to that point and had reached the saturation point. I also wanted to have a family so in '74 my wife and I decided to settle in Toronto. I never looked back. The years in Canada were great.
AAJ: You've worked with a lot of fellow Canadians during your career, including Ed Bickert, Rob McConnell, Moe Koffman, Kenny Wheeler and Guido Basso, among others. Which of their recordings stand out in your view and what was it like working with each of them?
MM: Well, the names that you have mentioned are some of the finest players of all time. Lately I've been restoring and putting on CD some old cassette recordings I did of the Moe Koffman Quintet in the late 70's with Don Thompson, Ed Bickert and Rick Homme. The band rocks! Moe was a fantastic player and Ed Bickert was an incredible player and Don, well he is so talented it's silly. Too bad that Ed Bickert doesn't play any more. The recordings that I have are just fabulous.
Marty Morell Jazz Quintet, Live (Datz It, 2005)
Various Artists, African Spirits: A Spiritual Jazz Journey (Soul Brother, 2005)
Canadian Brass, Seen and Heard (Philips, 2004)
Bill Evans, Half Moon Bay (Milestone, 1998)
Don Sebesky, I Remember Bill: Tribute to Bill Evans (RCA, 1998)
The Singers Unlimited, Magic Voices (Polygram, 1998)
Bill Evans, Piano Player (Columbia/Legacy, 1998)
Bill Evans, Secret Sessions (Milestone, 1996)
Bill Evans Trio and Stan Getz, But Beautiful (Milestone, 1996)
The Singers Unlimited, Masterpieces (MPS, 1994)
Bill Evans, Blue in Green (Milestone, 1991)
Bill Evans, Jazzhouse (Milestone, 1991)
Sammy Nestico, Night Flight (Sea Breeze, 1986)
Bill Evans, From the Seventies (Fantasy, 1983)
Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass, Present Perfect (Pausa, 1981)
Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass, Live in Digital (Sea Breeze, 1980)
Rob McConnell & The Boss Brass, Big Band Jazz (Umbrella, 1978)
Kenny Wheeler, 1976 (Just a Memory, 1976)
Jeremy Steig, Monium (Columbia, 1974)
Bill Evans, Re: Person I Knew (Original Jazz Classics, 1974)
Bill Evans Trio, Since We Met (Original Jazz Classics, 1974)
Bill Evans, The Tokyo Concert (Original Jazz Classics, 1973)
Bill Evans & George Russell Orchestra, Living Time (Columbia, 1972)
Bill Evans, The Bill Evans Album (Columbia, 1971)
Bill Evans, From Left to Right (MGM, 1970)
Bill Evans, Montreux II (CTI, 1970)
Gabor Szabo, Sorcerer (Impulse!, 1967)
Gabor Szabo, More Sorcery (Impulse!, 1967)
Steve Kuhn, October Suite: Three Compositions of Gary McFarland (Impulse!, 1966)
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marty Morell