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Michael Lauren: Give My Regards To Portugal

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: Tell us about your teaching career.

ML: I became involved in the Drummer's Collective. It was a main gig for me for some twenty-five years, in addition to playing band gigs. I've always thought strongly about teaching. Some colleagues think I should have spent more time trying to make a name for myself. I was never about that. I am happy to have shared my knowledge with my students. I have no regrets. The Drummer's Collective was a great opportunity for sharing with other faculty members and students. It was never a sense of competition. Everyone wanted to help each other be a better player.

AAJ: What led you to Portugal?

ML: A great opportunity to teach that was just too good to turn down. I had a number of Portuguese students in New York City that encouraged me to go to Portugal. They thought I would really like it there. I do enjoy the European culture. One of the top drummers in Portugal was my student and he invited my wife and I to come over for a visit. We really loved it and thought about retiring there, but it just didn't seem practical as far as job security and all that. We visited a couple of more times, did some workshops and resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn't meant to be. Then shortly after going back home I received a call that offered me a great position to teach at the Escola Superior de Musica e Artes do Espectaculo (ESMAE) in Porto. I've had a wonderful time being part of the growth in jazz culture in Portugal. We have now lived in Porto for seventeen years.

AAJ: How did the formation of the All-Star band happen?

ML: I knew there were many musicians here that like playing American jazz. I was fortunate to meet a few when I first came over to Portugal. My All-Star band consists of some of the finest and most experienced musicians and composers in Portugal. They are bassist Carlos Barretto, pianist Diogo Vida, trumpeter Hugo Alves, vibraphonist Jeffrey Davis, guitarist Nuno Ferreira, and saxophonist Jose Menezes. They all have played with many international and Portuguese artists. They also have extensive recording careers as both leaders and sidemen. I'm now seventy years old and, at first, I didn't really have the time nor inclination to take on the work of putting together, managing, and booking a band. If I did, I wanted to be able to play a harder style of swing, jazz funk, and hard bop than what they were used to playing here. I created this group so that I could play the music that gives me the most pleasure. We started playing a number gigs and people were digging it. I wasn't even thinking about recording at that point. I probably should have been. We had some knockout sessions. I am very proud of the work that we have created.

AAJ: Your first record, Once Upon A Time in Portugal, has a couple of beautifully arranged standards but is mostly new material from various members of the band, including yourself. How important is it that there is a collective to these contributions?

ML: That first record was more of a hard bop deal. We did our take on the "Nearness of You."

AAJ: I must say I loved your arrangement on that.

ML: Thank you very much. I was proud of that. We also did a Bobby Timmons song that very few people play called "Minor Strain." This tune to me really represents New York. It is New York. I love that tune. Yes, the rest were all originals. One thing that is great about Portugal is the level of writing. These guys are all high-level writers. It's important to have quality material throughout the record, not just for one or two songs. The guys in my band bring out a lot of different colors and textures and attitudes. I wanted the world to know about the high-level of composers here in Portugal. I'm fortunate that a lot of those guys are in my band.

AAJ: Your recently released second offering, Old School/Fresh Ideas, continues and perhaps swells that collective process. Tell us about your new record. You must be excited about it.

ML: Yes, I really am. I wanted a bit more room on this record. To keep the hard bop, but to mix in a blues tune, a funk tune, and just expand it a little within the same feel.

AAJ: Your concept of having short yet fertile duets interspersed between songs on this record has an impact on how your music is heard and received. What was the intent of this approach?

ML: On the first record I had separators. Solos that not only gave the guys their own space but that became a bridge to the next tune. Not on every song, but still throughout. It was also thematic in that I had the guys play contemporary solos that set a mood for the next song. For the second record I didn't want to do the same thing. I instead came up with several drum grooves and played them at a session with no rehearsal and just waited to see who wanted to jump in on each one. So, six grooves and who wants to play 'em? Then we just started to lay them down. Some were the first take. They are all fresh and contemporary sounding. It's like cleaning your palette before the next tune.

AAJ: You would seem to have developed a comfortable and accessible sound. Are your plans to do more with your All-Stars and continue to share with and educate eager young minds?

ML: I want to play more. I love this band. I'm very happy with and know we have made a great record here. I really want to reach younger people with jazz. My students play jazz, but often its not swinging jazz. Certainly not hard swinging jazz. This isn't just here in Portugal. Old School/Fresh Ideas is an eclectic record that is not just for jazz fans but also designed to draw in younger listeners who might here something they can relate to it. My tune "Lisboa Boogaloo" is an example that many younger fans have founding something in. My students like the swing feel and the sound, we just have trouble getting them to focus long enough to listen to a solo no matter how good it is. But it will all come around. I'm very much an optimist.

AAJ: You must sometimes miss the chance to gig out with some of the jazz elite in New York City.

ML: Of course. Especially the studio work and the opportunity to play R&B, funk, and Roots American music. But many of the moments and opportunities that have come along here have been very sweet. Portugal, however, motivated me to record my first jazz albums as a leader. Also, I have been able to give more master classes and clinics. I was the artistic director for four years of a performance and lecture series on jazz sponsored by the University of Porto. The series included two history of jazz concerts. A concert contrasting big band styles and a concert performing Oliver Nelson's classic album Blues and the Abstract Truth. Amazingly, I recently got to work with Benny Golson, performing his big band arrangements of his classic tunes. It was incredible! At ninety years of age, Benny is completely engaged and gave a wonderful concert both playing and telling stories about his career. The audience loved it. He is truly a jazz historian of the post bebop era. It was both inspiring and at times surreal to play his compositions with him. Working with Benny Golson is definitely a highlight of my career.
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