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Michael Weiss: Building an Identity

Luke Seabright By

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Michael Weiss is a jazz pianist and composer. His mastery of the hard bop style (he cites Horace Silver as one of his greatest influences), as well as his breadth of experience accompanying some of jazz's most acclaimed soloists, have made him a key figure in the New York jazz scene. His long-standing association with saxophonist Johnny Griffin has shaped him as an artist today. Here he discusses how playing with so many great players over the years has allowed him to absorb a wide range of different musical perspectives.

All About Jazz: You perform in a trio and quartet setting, but you also perform solo. Is that something you do a lot?

Michael Weiss: It used to be only quite occasionally, but I settled into a semi-regular gig in New York.

AAJ: It's quite a different exercise from playing with a band, so what is it that's special to you about a solo performance?

MW: It affords a certain degree of spontaneity, because you don't have to coordinate what you're doing with anybody else, particularly playing rubato or playing introductions. Basically, you can play whatever you want at any time. You approach the instrument differently, more orchestrally, drawing on more classical influences than when you play the standard repertoire.

AAJ: You perform a lot in Jules Bistro in New York, is that your headquarters so to speak?

MW: It's a little base right now. I still play with a lot of different people. It's a different kind of era than it was at the time when I was touring regularly with more well know jazz legends, for lack of a better word. There were real tours and full 6-night engagements in various clubs and places around the country. It's a slightly different reality today. We don't move around the country as much. I think jazz resides more in the educational realm today and this has somewhat supplanted the jazz club setting. There's always exceptions. There are clubs still functioning all around the country and people come out to listen.

AAJ: New York City, where you're based today, is obviously one of the great capitals of jazz, but you're not from there originally. When did you move?

MW: I grew up in Dallas but I've been in New York since 1982. It's been my home for most of my life. I came here with the purpose of establishing a career and playing with the best musicians I could. I got a chance to play with a lot of great players over the years.

AAJ: You wrote and obituary almost exactly ten years ago for the great Johnny Griffin, who passed away in 2008. That's one of the most significant partnerships in your career, if only because it lasted so long. You were playing together for over 15 years. How did you meet Johnny?

MW: Johnny's drummer and I were playing together quite a lot at that time. It happened very quickly, there was a vacancy in the piano chair in Johnny's group and his drummer recommended me. I played a few nights with the band, and I was in, that was that. I recently produced a Johnny Griffin 90th birthday tribute band. Johnny would have turned 90 in April. I tried to bring this to Europe and France specifically, but unfortunately there weren't any festivals interested in doing this. Considering the length of time he spent in Europe, I was quite surprised by this.

AAJ: What would you say, as a musician and an accompanist, you learn from these kinds of collaborations, from playing with these great artists?

MW: This is quite central to how we develop our identity, our experience, our personality and our professionalism, mainly as an accompanist. As a pianist, I'm not only a soloist, I'm an accompanist to all these horn players or band leaders. I can have a great range of creativity as an accompanist, because you're listening to what the soloist is doing and you're using all your experience to lay a carpet underneath what they do, rhythmically, harmonically, melodically. You're there to support them, to work together, to be "sympatico," always in one's best sense of good taste. Every soloist has their own style. Some are very extrovert. Johnny Griffin was a real extrovert for example. He was always bubbling over with enthusiasm, energy, and fire. He played a lot, he played very busy. He wasn't the kind of guy to play economical, like an Art Farmer or a more introverted player. He was all about fire and excitement. You've got to be able to match the intensity of anyone you play with. And you've got to maintain it, that's the most important thing. With someone like Johnny Griffin, the intensity level was unprecedented, more so than with anyone I've ever played with. He was a very ebullient and fun-loving kind of guy, silly at times, in the best sense of the word. But once we hit that bandstand, from the first note, it was as serious as your life. You had better buckle your seatbelt and get ready and have your thinking cap on. You had to maintain the highest level of concentration for the duration, so there was always a bit of mental callisthenics involved.

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