Alan Broadbent: 'Like Minds'

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Out today is Alan Broadbent's new trio album, Like Minds (Savant), with Harvie S on bass and Billy Mintz on drums. It's a terrific trio recording, featuring Alan's elegant piano and superb conversational interactions with Harvie and Billy. I've known Alan for many years, and it's always a joy to see him live and catch up. I first fell in love with his playing on his duo albums backing vocalist Irene Kral—Where Is Love (1974) and Gentle Rain (1977). By then, my ear was grooved to the piano articulation of Bill Evans, and Alan's playing shared many similar traits, including the swing, the softness, the pedal tones and chord voicings.

Alan's new album is terrific, with songs ranging from Hank Mobley's This I Dig of You, Bud Powell's Blue Pearl and Sonny Rollins's Airegin to Clara Edwards and Jack Lawrence's With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair and Jule Styne and Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Dance Only With Me. Harvie S is such a gorgeous player, running sensitive, meaty lines behind Alan while Billy is right there with splashy but tender cymbals and drum figures. So great to hear a trio that's so in sync and in the pocket.

Recently, I caught up with Alan through an email interview...

JazzWax: Alan, where in New Zealand did you grow up?

Alan Broadbent: I grew up in a suburb of Auckland called Onehunga. In the days before the internet and TV’s popularity, and just before the Beatles changed everything, my family lived in a pretty isolated, provincial world. My dad played banjo and piano as an amateur, but I was never encouraged to play. Piano lessons were what you did as a pastime, but for me it took hold and never let go, much to the consternation of my parents.

JW: Why consternation?

AB: From the time I was 6, I had a different relationship with music and had no guidance or mentor, which I really could have used. So, from the beginning, it was a sense of self-discovery. I stopped studying music with the nuns in my school when I was 12 because I wanted to compose, not knowing in the least how to go about it. I used to frequent the library in Onehunga where I found an LP of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, of all things. This began my love for standards. Little did I know I’d be Nelson Riddle’s pianist some 15 years later. My parents didn't understand my obsession and probably worried how I was going to earn a living locally.

JW: How did you become interested in jazz?

AB: In 1964, the Dave Brubeck Quartet toured in New Zealand. That was my first experience with live jazz. At the time, Take Five was a global hit, so I was familiar with that song. But I was more taken with Dave’s Gone With the Wind album from 1959, with Paul Desmond’s wistful improvising and Dave’s comping. With friends, I listened heavily to The Amazing Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano’s album Lennie Tristano from 1955, with Line Up and Requiem. Years later, I studied with Lennie and even wrote a string arrangement of Requiem’s intro for Charlie Haden and Quartet West.

JW: Who else?

AB: I loved pianist Wynton Kelly’s feeling and Red Garland’s joyous, skipping eighth notes, something that now comes to me naturally. It’s the art of rhythm, the lines emanating from that feeling. Then I heard Bill Evans playing Re: Person I Knew from his Moon Beams album in 1962. This changed everything for me, as I had been trying to find a way to improvise that expressed a certain beauty in the music, and there it was. Fortunately, Jazz Scene USA was broadcast on TV where I lived in New Zealand. As I watched, I realized I wanted to be in that world more than ever.

JW: What was your first professional jazz performance?

AB: There was no performance in particular that I remember, just night gigs around town while I worked days as an apprentice sign painter. When I was 17, I had a trio at a local club called the Embers, with Denny Boreham on bass and Frank Gibson on drums. I never copied anybody’s style, since I knew intuitively that jazz was about singing with your own voice. Besides, as Tristano stated concisely, “Jazz is not a style, it’s a feeling.” It was just a matter of me learning how to do it and absorbing what I loved and what moved me.

JW: Why did you choose Boston’s Berklee School of Music over music schools in New Zealand?

AB: Well, I knew early on that my future in New Zealand was somewhat limited. I also knew that I needed to be in the U.S. with like-minded musicians who had, as Bud said, “a seriousness of purpose.” I wanted the possibility to grow into the musician I had I mind for myself. I subscribed to DownBeat magazine, which was always a month late due to shipping in the days before Auckland International Airport was built.

JW: What came next?

AB: I applied for a scholarship to Berklee and included an acetate of my trio playing Speak Low. Lo, I was awarded a partial scholarship, enough to get me in the door. I quit my sign-painting apprenticeship and got an afternoon gig working on a newspaper conveyor belt at the Auckland Star to save money for the trip. Although my parents didn’t quite understand what was going on with me, I have always thanked them for letting their 19-year-old son get on a boat and sail to Boston. It took 32 days.

JW: In Boston, did you get to hear Bill Evans?

AB: The third week after I arrived, Bill appeared at the Jazz Workshop. As he was leaving, I handed him a transcription I had done of his recording of “Re Person I Knew,” which he took with a shrug. A few years later, I went with Irene to hear him at a club in the San Fernando Valley called Diamonte’s. There were three or four other people in the audience. On the break, Bill disappeared out back and never returned, if I remember correctly.

JW: Immediately after college, you went right into Woody Herman’s band in 1970, with your great composition and arrangement of Bebop and Roses. A confusing time for music, yes?

AB: Back then, I wasn’t aware it was a confusing time. I’ve always lived in a kind of parallel musical universe. I've never felt any connection whatsoever with pop music and I know very little about the performers. I wrote Bebop and Roses, on Woody’s Giant Steps album in 1973, after I was already off the band. I didn’t have a piano at the time and sent it to Woody without hearing it, except in my head. It turned out nicely for a kid and kind of vindicates me for some of those awful rock charts I did. A couple of years ago I was invited to play with the band under Frank Tiberi. I requested we play Bebop and Roses. They’d never heard of it. So there you go.

JW: How did you get the Irene Kral gig in 1974?

AB: As far as I remember, I replaced jazz pianist Mike Wofford, who was moving to San Diego. I don’t know how Irene came to hear of me, but she called and we hit it off musically. She already had her charts for the songs she was going to record, but we refined them. We recorded at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood that December. I think Irene’s perfect intonation and economic use of vibrato gave her voice a unique horn-like quality. We never officially toured, per se, but we did play a number of venues, including New York’s Michael’s Pub a couple of times with Harvie S, who produced and plays on my new album, Like Minds.

JW: Was working with Kral a changing moment, a turning point for you?

AB: I don’t think I changed so much as I found another purpose. A huge part of my universe at the time had been my love of the orchestra. I came to writing for orchestra late and regret not having had the chance to write orchestrations for Irene. In truth, at the time of Where Is Love, my piano was in disrepair, so I was literally forced to think in terms of orchestration rather than the piano. It’s all there, though, waiting for me to create an orchestration for Irene’s vocals magically in the center of it all.

JW: You were quite busy in the early 1980s. Were you just working on jazz recordings or was there movie and TV work that went uncredited or unknown to your jazz fans?

AB: In the mid-‘70s I started working with Nelson Riddle, first on his dance-band gigs, then his television and occasional movie dates. Except for his Linda Ronstadt albums, I did much of his ghost writing.

JW: You were on the West Coast then, yes?

AB: Yes. I got to know all these wonderful studio guys from the Sinatra era: Willie Schwartz, father of Nan; Harry Klee, who plays all those In the Wee Small Hours flute solos I’d known for years and is the flute soloist on Johnny Mandel’s Sandpiper soundtrack. Harry had, in his van out in the parking lot, the finest bar this side of the Rockies. There also was Pete and Conte Condoli, Vince DeRosa, Israel Baker, Buddy Collette—all from the Hollywood glory days.

JW: And as the 1980s progressed?

AB: By the early 1980s, synthesizers began to take hold and I just couldn’t go there. At the time, I’d get a call once in a while to do a date with composer Pete Myers, whom I’d met when I was on Woody’s band and he was conducting for vocalist Della Reese. He took me on as an orchestrator. That’s when I began to hear my orchestrations being performed and recorded on almost a weekly basis. Pete was pretty brilliant and fast, so I learned a lot sitting across from him as I was handed another musical sketch to be orchestrated. But I’m not capable of composing to order, and at about this time I became dissatisfied with all that. Then I got called to go out on the road again. 

JW: In the late 1980s, you began recording often with Charlie Haden and Putter Smith. Two different bass styles, yes?

AB: I’m not sure they’re different as much as they have different approaches to the same thing: the singing style. The solos that communicate the most to me are ones that transcend their instruments and become more horn-like, playable and singable. Both bassists had that quality and a commitment to time.

JW: What was Natalie Cole like to record and tour with?

AB: Natalie gave me my first real break as an arranger when she asked me to write a chart for Crazy He Calls Me. I’d known the tune for years, ever since Billie Holiday recorded it in 1949 with Gordon Jenkins's orchestra. It’s very strange, but at a record shop in Auckland when I was little, in my hunt for obscure standards, I once came across Nat King Cole’s album Where Did Everyone Go?, with Jenkins arranging. I wanted to write tunes like that and arrange like that. Many years later, I arranged two or three songs from that record for Natalie’s Stardust album in 1996. A favorite arrangement of mine is on that album, There’s a Lull in My Life. When we rehearsed it, Natalie and I were very moved, and she said to me, “You know, Alan, I used to sing that on my daddy’s knee when I was 12.” Man, could she swing.

JW: Were there eye-opening moments during your playing on Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life album in 1991?

AB: All I remember is sight-reading those beautiful piano parts that Johnny Mandel wrote, wanting to do a highly musical job in such great company. Quite a while later, I got to work with Shirley again, this time with Charlie Haden’s Quartet West. I had written a chart for her of Leonard Bernstein’s Lonely Town. During the playback, everyone went into the control room except Shirley, who remained in her little booth on the other side of the studio. So I went over, peeked in and asked if there’s anything I could do for her. She said she was OK and that she enjoyed being a sideman.

JW: You’ve been a recording tyro over the course of your career. If I was new to jazz and your piano and wanted to buy more of your albums, which five would you recommend?

AB: Well, there’s my last three trio albums for Savant Records—Like Minds, Trio in Motion and New York Notes. But beyond that, I would say: Personal Standards from 1996, with bassist Putter Smith and drummer Joe LaBarbera; To the Evening Star, a solo album in 2019; Broadbent Plays Brubeck in 2019 with bassist Harvie S, drummer Hans Dekker and the London Metropolitan Strings; Developing Story in 2016, with Harvie, drummer Peter Erskine and the London Metropolitan Orchestra; and Songbook, featuring songs I composed and Georgia Mancio’s lyrics added. It's very intimate with just the two of us on there—me playing piano and Georgia's vocals.

JW: Tell me about the new album, This I Dig of You, and the guys with you on there. What was the concept?

AB: Bassist Harvie S and drummer Billy Mintz and I have been playing together for quite some time. Rehearsing for an album is not about arrangements and the like for us but about improvising. So everything is new when we play, which is kind of dangerous. But that’s what I want to record, that unpredictability and the excitement that the unknown brings. You’ll find a lot of that on the album. Also, to my mind, there is an immediacy to it, a deeper emotional quality.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Alan Broadbent Trio's Like Minds (Savant) here.

JazzWax clips: Here's This I Dig of You from the Alan Broadbent Trio's new album...



Here's Alan's composition and arrangement of Bebop and Roses for Woody Herman...



Here's Alan on piano and vocalist Irene Kral on Where Is Love...



Here's Alan playing The Duke from Broadbent Plays Brubeck...

The Duke

Here's Alan playing solo on Baubles, Bangles and Beads...



And here's the Alan Broadbent Trio—Alan, Harvie and Billy—at Smalls in New York in 2021. Enjoy...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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