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My Conversation with Gary Peacock

AAJ Staff By

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in October 1999.

Having been in the political arena, I know first hand the power of celebrity's undertow. It has a way of casually siphoning the integrity of a candidate. Fame and power in politics, I find, is quite similar in our music, and that it is no fluke that artists "sell-out." But Gary Peacock has not. The bassist that is fondly known for being a part of what is no doubt the best acoustic trio of the past two decades, the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, sat down with me from his home to talk about another trio album to be released on ECM, Not Two, Not One. He spoke candidly about his collaborations with Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, and the Standards Trio. It is a fascinating conversation with a genius of the music, unedited and in his own words.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Gary Peacock: I guess I started when I was in high school playing drums. I was in a teenage band and I discovered upon graduation, shortly after or shortly before graduation, that what I really wanted to do with my life was to be in music and particularly my interest was jazz. I found a school in Los Angeles and enrolled in that one the following summer in 1954, I think it was. It was the Westlake College of Music. So there I studied percussion, basically piano, percussion, and vibraphone. Then I was drafted into the service and in the service I started a quintet. I was in the service and playing piano and doing some arranging for the quintet and writing a few things. As luck would have it, the bassist got married and his wife said, "You can not play anymore at night." I didn't really want to play the bass at that time but I couldn't imagine playing in a group without a bass, so the drummer, who at that time was Red Holt, you may know of him with the Ramsey Lewis Trio, we were in the same unit together and so he said, "No, man, you play bass." I said, "I don't want to play bass." He said, "You know, we can get a pianist, but we're not going to ever find a bassist." So it was kind of by default that I started playing bass. Once I started playing it, it felt somewhat natural and easy to understand and I got more and more involved with it. So that's how I started.

AAJ: Did you ever have an inclination to pick up the drumsticks and get back to the keys?

GP: Not actually. In fact, I had a drum set for a number of years and then got rid of that. I always had a piano at hand so I was always doing some, always had my hand on the keyboard during the day anyway.

AAJ: Let's talk about your collaboration with Paul Bley.

GP: Well, Paul I met in Los Angeles. I think that was 1957 or 1958. I remember the introduction because it pretty much sticks out in my mind. He called me and asked me if I wanted to work a gig at a coffee house. It was on La Brea or something like that and I said, "Sure." I hadn't actually met him before then. I had heard a little bit about him but I had never met him in person. So I go to the place and walked in and put the bass in the corner next to the piano. As I walked back towards the bar to get a cup of coffee, I looked around and there was a guy sitting at the piano with an overcoat on and a hat. I told, "Oh, I better let him know that he won't be able to sit there very long because the music is going to start." So I went over and I said, "Excuse me sir. You probably won't want to be sitting here much longer because there is going to be a pianist coming in and we're going to be doing some music." And he turned around and he said, "Gary?" I said, "Yes." He says, "I'm Paul." So that is how we met. And he says, "Let's play 'These Foolish Things.'" So I said, "OK." "In E flat." "OK, E flat." So we started to play "These Foolish Things" in E flat and something sounded really wrong. I didn't, I mean, after about two bars I thought, "I'm making serious errors here." And then suddenly, "Oh, he's in E, not E flat!" So I moved to E and the minute I did, he turned around and he said, "E flat." That's it. OK, so I worked with that. I kept playing. It was really wonderful because it actually worked. The way that he hears, even at that time, the way that he was hearing, and still does, allowed for some really astounding contrasts between consonants, dissonances, all that kind of stuff. It put my head, my understanding, and my ears in a whole different realm. So we've been, through the years, together and performed together. We actually hadn't played with Paul Motian since, I think, 1982 or something like that, although I've done a couple of tours and a few CDs with Paul, Paul Bley. So we've maintained contact sporadically over those years. The three of us actually playing together, that hasn't happened since 1963.

AAJ: Albert Ayler.

GP: Oh (deeply sighs).

AAJ: You made a landmark trio recording together on ESP entitled Spiritual Unity.

GP: That particular date happened shortly after we actually had formed that trio. It was a coming together of three people at a historical time that was simply the right thing to do. There was no effort involved in it. There was no serious planning. We all just simply we agreed to do it. It's a curious thing, because people have asked me through the years about would you be interested in doing a memorial of Albert Ayler's music and get with this musician and that musician. It's kind of like, "No, I don't think so. I don't think I want to do that." That was a particular point in history and the music was alive and incredibly vital at that time. That time's gone and so what we do is we have a record of it and the spirit of that music, I don't think, is never going to die. I'm still nourished by it. But the only way that that music could ever be performed again is an impossible situation and that would require for Albert Ayler to be alive. He's not alive anymore. There are documentations of that unit and also the one with Don Cherry (Vibrations). But that was an enormous amount of sincerity. My memory of him, his music, and him personally was a guy that almost totally lacked in any kind of seriousness during the period I knew him and lived in a space of sincerity and the music came from that. Everything came from that. It was really wonderful. It was really a very musically enlightening experience.

AAJ: There seems to be an Ayler resurgence as of late.

GP: Albert Ayler is kind of a cult I think now. I think it has more to do with, I'm not even aware of how much more popular he is, I just know that in my experience the music that we recorded never captured what was live. It just didn't capture it. It came close and there's enough on there that someone can get an idea or sense of what it's about, but if you didn't hear him live, you just missed something. But I think you can say that with just about anybody, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, any of those people. The difference is so profound in a way, you realize that what you have in a CD or a record is a snapshot. You don't really have a full experience. It's a miracle that even through that snapshot something brilliant, you can actually hear something. I talked with Keith over and over and I used to say, "Keith, it's not on the CD, God damn it." He says, "What?" I'm saying where I'm standing when I am playing with Keith and Jack, I hear things that Jack can't hear because he's over on the other side. I can hear things coming from the piano and it's such a privileged position because I'm up above the harp so I can hear things that maybe Jack doesn't hear. So when I hear a CD, I'm like, "Where is it? That should be there. That should be on there. That should happen." And the closest that ever came that I have heard on a CD or a recording is Keith's solo concert at La Scala (La Scala, ECM Records, 1997). That's the closest I have ever heard.

AAJ: And that's not all, you have worked with Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, and Miles Davis.

GP: I've been very, very, very fortunate.

AAJ: But then suddenly in the late '60s, you stopped making music.

GP: The music ended for me, essentially. It just ended. There was no more music in my life. I wake up in the morning and it wasn't there. That was coincident with serious health problems, serious, essentially an identity crisis. I was looking and trying to find out who I was and what was really my life about. I think for the most part it had to do with essentially a nervous and a physiological breakdown. I got involved at that time with Zen micro bionics and I knew that I had to create a different base. I had to reorder my life and to get my feet on the ground and I had to stay there for a while. I still did some playing during that, about a six year period. I played with Miles at the Vanguard and in Philadelphia at the Showboat. What else was there? Oh, and then going to Japan and doing some recording there. But my heart really wasn't that much in it so it was ridiculous to stand up and pretend so. So it took about six years for me to actually get my health back together. I would like to say to who's ever listening that I absolutely credit alcohol and drugs as the means by which I found myself in that state.

AAJ: Upon your return you started recording, and have been so ever since, for ECM.

GP: I recorded for ECM before, the first one was 1978 or something. That was Tales of Another, with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. That was our first album.

AAJ: How has being with ECM been conducive to your musical vision?

GP: I will say this that although I'm sure there are many, many fine producers in the world, Manfred (Eicher) is the only person that I've met that is, he just never stops listening. He hears what's authentic. He hears what's real. It's so refreshing, not refreshing, it's so encouraging in a way. If you go into the studio, the musicians who put the music together and what Manfred is doing is listening to the music for the magic. He's listening for that something that goes beyond the music. You might think you're really putting something down great and he'll point out this is what's really happening. Or there are times when I have gone in and recorded and he says, "Yeah, your solo was great but nobody else sounded good. Let's throw it away." And he's absolutely right. He's absolutely right. It's like the music, right, the music, let's listen to the music, the whole musical statement being made. It's been a real privilege and a joy to work with him. Sometimes we get in arguments. We have disagreements about this thing or that thing. He's incredible. I never met anybody that can hold an hours worth of music in his head and see how something can work over here instead of there, this thing and that thing. He's unbelievable and he's also an incredibly good friend. I have a very strong relationship with him, just personally aside from music.

AAJ: I don't think I am wowing anyone when I say you are one of the best bass players, but moreover, you belong to the finest acoustic trio of the now, Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio with Jack DeJohnette.

GP: (Laughing) It's pretty good. Well, it came about, actually it started with a telephone call. Would I be interested in doing an album of standards with Keith and Jack and I was like, "Standards?" At that time I was teaching and it was a private art school in Seattle. And all I've been doing since I was there was going back over standards as the basic tool for the curriculum. "Standards? My God." After I thought about it, I said, "Well if Keith wants to do that, it must mean that he just doesn't want to go out and play standards. It must be something beyond that." And I decided to trust him. We went into the studio to do one album in New York and it ended up in a day and a half making three albums. We just didn't stop. It just kept rolling. There was an immediate recognition that was also somewhat apparent on the first album we did, the three of us did back with my album at the time. There was an immediate recognition and a kind of understanding that you don't put into words. It's just something the three of you get. It's like, "Wow. There is something really happening here." So that's how it started. I wondered, "I wonder if this Keith thing can work on a tour? Can this work in a big hall?" Because the music was somewhat intimate and usually that kind of music was only performed or made available in small environments, clubs and things like that. So we made some tentative steps toward that direction and found out that it worked and so we just kept it rolling.

AAJ: How do you account for it's phenomenal success through the years?

GP: I think the main thing is there are some elements that I think are important. I think one is that none of us have anything we have to say. We don't have any statement we have to make. We don't have any agendas regarding our own personal desires and wishes, or recognition and everything like that. That just goes out the window.

AAJ: Is that collective the cornerstone to a higher level of creativity?

GP: I don't think that any high level of music can happen if you do have high agendas. I remember working with Miles and my pictures and my memories before I went to work with him and play with him, I guess I had some kind of stuff rolling around in my head that he has to make a statement, the band has to make a statement, this thing or the other thing, and that got erased the first night. I was like, "Holy shit! This isn't about anything but the music." It's not about anybody. It's just about the music. And listening, listening, listening. So I think when a person finally realizes that there is more available other than their own investment, or whether they're going to sound good, or whether they need to come off right, once you have that taste, once you experience that then it doesn't make any difference whether you are famous or not. There is an authenticity and a genuineness that just comes through it.

AAJ: How is Keith's health progressing?

GP: He's improving from what I can tell. I've talked to him the day before yesterday. I think he's doing better.

AAJ: I know from your personal experience that you value your health and witnessing what Keith has been struggling with must amplify the immediacy of getting as much music out to the public as possible.

GP: Yeah, but you have to understand, there is a spirit that goes into the music that is often, I've said it over and over again, but I'm not sure how easily it is understood. One element of the spirit of the music is that every time we play together, it's the first time and the last time. And with that spirit, realizing that, because this has never been a band. There is no contract. There's no agreements. There's no we're going to keep playing. There is no guarantees or assurances of any future at all. It's only the next gig if it turns up. So when you bring that kind of awareness, I mean, that's the way it is for any band. You don't know whether you're going to work the next night. Somebody could be killed or the club could close. Who knows what's going to happen? But the spirit of that brings a certain urgency to the music, but it's not an urgency that goes into the head and gets all weird. It's a spirit. It's a kind of inside, internal energy. If this is the last time, boy, let's really get into the music. Let's see how wonderful this piece can be for the first time. You never play a piece for the second and third time. You only play a piece for the first and last time.

AAJ: Anything we can look forward to from the trio?

GP: There's one that there is some talk about coming out which was recorded in Paris this year. That will be coming out next year. I'm not sure when, if it comes out. That's the plan but we don't have any plans for recording next year.

AAJ: Having played with both Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian, you have a unique perspective of the subtle and obvious differences between two of the finest drummers of our time.

GP: Well, if you've ever walked into a garden, a special garden that was very well taken care of and all these incredible plants and flowers. Over here you have something that's red with green leaves and over there you have something that's yellow and the leaves are completely different and it grows in a different direction or whatever, just incredible variation of flowers in a garden. That's how I kind of think of Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette. They are like these two gorgeous, completely different kinds of flowers that are growing in the garden. What they have in common is the same soil from the same ground. The ground is what becomes significant and the ground expresses itself through all these flowers that are buried, in terms of shape, color, direction, and things like that. That's about as close as I can get.

AAJ: What do you feel that "ground" or foundation you are referring to is based on?

GP: There are certain elements that go into it. I think one is simply a lack of seriousness and a maximum amount of sincerity and joy, just a love of playing the instrument.

AAJ: Let's get into your new ECM release, Not Two, Not One.

GP: Because there was an opportunity for the recording to happen and we hadn't actually recorded for several years and we were working three nights at Birdland in New York and so called up Manfred and said, "You know this would be a great time to record because we're all going to be in place. We're going to be in the city." And so he set it up. After we did the three nights, we'd go in the studio and record for two days. It gave us a chance to re-familiarize ourselves and get to know each other even better and like that. So that's how the date came about. He thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a good idea.

AAJ: People in the know may recognize "Fig Foot" (also known as "Big Foot," "Pig Foot," "Figfood").

GP: Yeah, yeah. It's in there (laughing).

AAJ: The intimate convergence of the three of you, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, and yourself, makes it seem as though it's as if the whole process is an inside joke that only the three of you know the punch line to.

GP: It's always astounding. There's always this memory trace that I have of when the three of us played in the '60s for crowds of two and three and sometimes we would start with fifteen and by the time we started our second piece, there's only two people left. So I am always somewhat surprised and gratified and pleased that now we play a club and it's packed every night.

AAJ: Much like your recent return to Birdland.

GP: Yes. Exactly.

AAJ: Apart from that, you and Paul Motian worked with Marilyn Crispell on her album Nothing Ever Was, Anyway.

GP: Well, I think the album turned out very well. I think it was incredibly well received in Europe and I think the music on it in general was really tops. It was great and working with Marilyn is very easy. I'm on a duo tour with Marilyn Crispell in November.

AAJ: And the future?

GP: I think the music is going to go wherever it is. If the current trend is any indication, I guess my sincere hope would be that the general public would become so disgruntled with the lack of anything real that they would start moving back towards something that they could feel some kind of connection with. By real, I mean the degree of which the lack of acoustic playing and maximum amount of electronic this and electronic that. I think it has produced a whole population of people that can't hear anything acoustic anymore. Years ago it used to be that people would come to the club and they would listen to you and they would say, "I had your record and I really liked that, but man, it was really great to hear you live. Now I know what it really sounds like." Now you hear comments that are absolutely the reverse. They talk about, "Well, I like your playing but it didn't sound like the way it sounded on the CD." In other words, they're starting from listening to the CD first and then when the music they hear doesn't match that, they're upset. I've heard that comment a few times. It's like, "Well, sorry." I think as more and more people begin to realize that something is missing, which I definitely think there is, they may start moving back towards trying to find music that is being made by people playing real instruments.

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