Pianist Peter Madsen is well rounded in his jazz foundation, having played inside the mainstream and outside. He has the knowledge, musicianship and technique for both, and in fact says he comes by it honestly, being attracted to both sides as a youngster.
"I can tell you the first two records I bought. Maybe that's why I've been fascinated with both sides of jazz, straight ahead and very avant-garde things. That was Oscar Peterson Night Train (Verve, 1962) and John Coltrane's Selflessness (Impulse!, 1963), with McCoy Tyner on piano. So I kind of started from the outside and the inside right at the first moment. From there I really didn't stop, says Madsen. "I expanded both of those things quite a lot in my understanding and playing and collecting of music, and trying to understand what's going on out there and what people have been trying to do. Trying to be respectful with an understanding of all the great people who've put their energy into this kind of a lifestyle.
It's with that respect, and also with his particular sense of improvisational adventure, that Madsen developed his latest Playscape recording, Prevue of Tomorrow. It's a solo piano disc in which Madsen takes other musicians' tunes and runs them down intriguing creative paths that spring from his mind alone. The songs are not jazz standards. They aren't the kinds of tunes that seem to show up on so many other solo piano projects. They were created by some of the people he admires; some of the people he feels were worthy of getting more exposure.
Says Madsen, "I've always been fascinated by pianists who are composers. The underground. The alternative guys. As much as I love all the straight-ahead guys and admired them for years too, I'm always somehow more fascinated with the guys who are trying to scrape out their own little world somehow, outside of the visible jazz world, shall we say. I'm a record collector and I'm always searching for interesting recordings, especially piano players of course. All of these guys were my heroes in a way for the past many, many years. As I was looking to put something together, kind of an alternative type of concept, I started looking through, picking things out of records, listening back and picking things out that over the years may have influenced me and what I was doing.
The songs include Mal Waldron's "Boo, Cecil Taylor's "Rick Kick Shaw, Andrew Hill's "Subterfuge and "A Portrait of the Living Shy, by Sun Ra. Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, Lennie Tristano, Muhal Richard Abrams, Hasaan Ibn Ali, and Richard Twardzik are also represented with selections
Of the songs from which he took the inspiration "none of them were really solo piano records, so right off the bat I'm starting from a different point of view. But they were at least trio records. Some were large groups. ... I think these guys have not had so much visibility and they deserve more visibility. Not just from me but for themselves, of course. I'm just happy I could use them, in a sense, to springboard into my own improvisation.
In his renditions, Madsen is percussive and aggressive at times. Softer, more lyrical at others, as the spirit moves him He seems to take advantage of a wide range of the piano's dynamics. The ideas are fresh and it's interesting to follow the journey. Cerebral, and yet it very much has emotional qualities, which can be heard in the records he has done with a great many musicians.
Boo is a strong, bold statement with lots of two-handed playing in the lower register and a wisp of the blues. "Subterfuge is a rumbling, rolling ride through the hills. "Three-Four vs. Six-Eight Four-Four Ways is a quirky trek through varying time signatures, weaving "in and "out. "Blues for Africa projects an almost classical sensibility overlaid on a dark blues lament, before getting more to the center of the matter with pointed chords and authoritative single-note runs. The pianist speaks originally on each.
"It was a very strong thing for me to do, Madsen says. "It was a very emotional kind of project for me. Because these people (the song composers) the thing that makes them very special is at the core of their music is something very deep and powerful. They're touching from themselves and giving from some place very deep inside themselves when they play, and also when they write. And then what I tried to capture from myself, what I've always tried to capture in my music when I play.
Madsen's previous disc was also solo, as he re-worked Thelonious Monk tunes on Sphere Essence. While the material came from a pianist who is now mainstream, Monk was far from "standard during his lifetime. The pianist took a similar approach there, showing the ability to give his own expressions, coming at the material with an original bent.
"It's the same thing. Even how I approach it, I try not to do his normal pieces that everyone seems to know. I tried to pick other alternative pieces (of Monk). Because he did write so many great pieces and everybody focuses on the same four. Great pieces, of course, but there are a lot of great pieces that didn't get as much attention. That's one of my things. I'm always trying to look for some other quality things that haven't been getting the attention that they should.
Madsen's resume as a musician includes associations with a wide variety of styles and with artists renowned, and not so well known. He is capable of adding the right elements to any of those scenes. It includes Stan Getz, Stanley Turrentine, Dewey Redman, George Coleman, Oscar Brown Jr., Arthur Blythe, Kenny Garrett, Joe Lovano, Sonny Fortune, Dave Liebman, Eddie Henderson, Ravi Coltrane, Greg Osby, Carlos Ward, Thomas Chapin, Ralph Moore, Paul McCandless, Pee Wee Ellis, Steve Slagle, Marty Ehrlich, Tony Malaby, Richie Cole, Maceo Parker, Steve Wilson, Chris Potter, Seamus Blake, Tom Harrell, Bill Frisell, the Mingus Big Band, the Village Vanguard Orchestra and many more. And yet, stylistically, he says it's difficult to pick out his major influences, because he's listened to all the pianists in the jazz pantheonand beyond.
"I'm a historical record collector. I really can't say any particular people. I listen to so many. I don't think you can know the 'outside' of music until you know the 'inside' of music. I'm fascinated by the inside guys as much as the outside guys. I try to listen to so many different people and not just jazz people. I'm fascinated by a lot of different things, from African music to Chinese musicany kind of world music, says Madsen.
"I'm fascinated by the great musicians that play all these different kinds of music. Right now, (in Austria, where he lives part of the time), I'm in a group with two African guys, two American guys and two Austrian guys. It's a mixture between jazz and African music. It's an interesting experiment. We write music together as a group. Everybody throws in what they know.
Madsen, 50, has come a long way from his beginnings in Racine, Wisconsin. He started tinkering with the piano at a young age. "Like most people, Mom said, 'Go out and take some lessons.' My grandmother had a piano. There are pictures of me playing when I was two years old or something. So I was always somehow interested. They started me on classical, because that's all you really could do then.
He got his first exposure to jazz in the school system where music was important and he was a member of the big band and was actually playing bass, a direction he took for a time, though he still would play the 88s. "From the school system, I just kept playing and playing. When I was 17 I went to one of those summer jazz camps. I can remember the exact moment when I determined this is what I wanted to do. It was at this jazz camp.
It was also in high school that Madsen began to play out on gigs as a bassist. "I wouldn't say I was doing serious jazz gigs, but I was playing piano bar music in restaurants. Typical things piano players get to do when they're pretty young. I had my first when I was 15 or 16. My piano teacher also played gigs and he got me some gigs playing with him. He played accordion and I was playing bass at the time.
After graduation, it was off to the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, which had a good jazz program. Double bass was his major instrument at university, but "I figured I just couldn't be really good at both of those instruments at the same time. That was pretty impossible. My love is really the piano anyway. I felt really at home with that instrument. The bass was always kind of for fun, he says. Madsen earned a teaching degree, but spent most of his time playing jazz.
"I graduated and was offered a job right out of school. I said, no thanks. I went to Minneapolis, about an hour and a half away. Some of the guys I knew from university were from there, so I had some contacts. I got some gigs. At school when I was finishing up was a guy who became important for me through my entire career, and that's Anthony Cox, a great bassist. We were playing together pretty much all the time. We were roommates for a while. We practiced together everyday. We were both dreaming about going to New York, says the pianist.
Madsen visited New York City and the former Bradley's nightclub, known as a piano bar where many of the great pianists would work in the 1970s. He was fascinated with the duet playing he saw, and he and Cox would often focus on that format. Both went to the Big Apple during the same period in 1980.
"I don't think there were as many players at the time and maybe even more places to play for us non-famous guys, back in 1980. I started working pretty quickly, actually. Anthony and I got a gig playing at 1 Fifth Avenue, which had jazz every night. He also worked with bassist Phil Bowler there for a few years while his reputation got around the city. The pay was enough to survive, along with other small gigs in the city, and Madsen met a lot of musicians during those years. Finding an inexpensive apartment in Brooklyn, which had room for musicians to play without bothering neighbors, also became an important step in Madsen's development. It became a place where musicians could play and experiment and word got around.
"That's how I met most of the guys I know even now, is from that place. I bought a drum set. I had a nice piano and amplifiers. People would just come over and play. I had all kinds of people at my house. It's amazing. Most people find out you're into creative music and you're doing some cool stuff and you have a good place to play and you can play any timepeople come. Word spreads around.