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Richie Beirach: Indelible Memories and Thought-Provoking Reflections on a Life in Jazz, Part 1

Victor L. Schermer By

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Part 1 | Part 2

Richie Beirach hovers somewhat mysteriously in the pantheon of the great modern jazz pianists. Some of the others in that category from his generation (coming up in the 1960s/'70s), like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Kenny Barron have greater celebrity, but Beirach easily qualifies alongside them as one of the most accomplished masters. While the aforementioned have developed a signature style, emotional power, and virtuosic technique, Beirach, above and beyond those qualities, has for over a half century immersed himself in a process of uncovering and interpreting the richness in music from both jazz and classical sources, from bebop to cool jazz to fusion, and from the Romantic composers to Bartok to the very modern. A composer-instrumentalist in the best sense of the word, he delves into new and old melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic regions with depth and passion, always looking for creative ways to fulfill the potential of musical expression.

A centerpiece of his career has been an ongoing collaboration with NEA Jazz Master saxophonist, Dave Liebman. Ever since their groundbreaking jazz fusion album, Lookout Farm, they have been working and composing together on a frequent basis, producing a series of duo and ensemble recordings that are unique and original, yet always steeped in the tradition. In addition, Beirach himself has performed and made notable recordings as a soloist and leader, for example, the early Eon (ECM, 1984), Hubris (ECM, 1977), Elm (ECM, 1979), Elegy for Bill Evans (Evidence, 1981), and the more recent Summer Night (Venus, 2007), and Impressions of Tokyo (Outnote, 2010), among many others.

Beirach lived and worked as a prodigious sideman in New York at the height of the 1970s jazz scene through the 1990s. At the start of the New Millennium and in the wake of the 911 terrorist attacks, he shifted his home base from New York to Leipzig Germany, where he taught and mentored young pianists for fifteen years. Today, he continues performing and teaching worldwide while residing in Hessheim, a small town not far from Frankfurt and Mannheim, where he values his privacy and freedom. Beirach is a wonderful conversationalist, so relax and enjoy this extensive autobiographical excursion by a jazz master.

PART 1: COMING UP IN NEW YORK AND WORKING WITH DAVE LIEBMAN

All About Jazz: Let's get started with the desert island question. What would be the recordings that you would take there?

Richie Beirach: I would take Kind of Blue, Bill Evans' Portrait in Jazz, Miles Davis' Milestones , John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Miles' Nefertiti, Evans' Waltz for Debbie and Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Lennie Tristano's record that has the tune "Lineup" on it (Lennie Tristano, Atlantic, 1956), and Paul Bley's Footloose, with Steve Swallow on bass and Pete La Roca on drums. I would definitely take Trane's Crescent, Monk's Piano Solo (Disques Vogue, 1954), Chick Corea's Sundance record with the tune "The Brain" on it. I would take Artur Rubinstein's recording of Chopin's Nocturnes, Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, especially the first and last. I would take Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra. Scriabin's Late Preludes, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, the Beethoven "Pathetique Sonata," and Morton Feldman's orchestral piece, Coptic Light. Ligeti's Atmospheres for Orchestra, Lux Eterna, and Etudes for Piano. I would take one of my own CDs, probably Hubris or Elm. I would take the duo record I just finished with Dave Liebman called Empathy (Jazzline, 2020).

AAJ: Your taste is very eclectic. And your love of Bill Evans is obvious.

RB: Evans, Miles and Trane. And of course McCoy Tyner and his Passion Dance. I forgot that one. And The Real McCoy is classic, and of course Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil. But I left out a lot, all the funk, James Brown. I like a lot of different kinds of music.

Emergence: From "Chopsticks" Onward

AAJ: I myself, and I assume a lot of readers, don't know a lot about your coming up, before you hooked up with Dave Liebman and those guys. When you were a kid, how did you get interested in music, the piano, and jazz? And what turned you on about all of it?

RB: OK. Let me go back to the very beginning. Here's the story. I'm five years old, and I'm with my parents who are vacationing in a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains. One day, I'm walking with my parents, my mother's got my left hand and my father's got my right hand, and we're walking by a gymnasium, and there's a sixteen year old kid, a camp counselor, playing "Chopsticks" on an old upright piano. It was the first time I ever heard a piano! And I let go of my parents and started walking towards the sound of the piano. I walk in, and the kid looks at me, and I said, "What is that?" And he said, "It's a piano." And I kept repeating the word "piano." And the kid picks me up, and puts my fingers down on the first two notes of "Chopsticks." F and G. So he's teaching me to play "Chopsticks," and my father walks in and has no idea what's going on. I'm sitting this guy's lap, and my father was a badass who was a combat medic in WWII, where he landed in Normandy in the second wave. And he looks at this kid suspiciously, and says "What's going on with my son?" So the kid kind of apologizes to him. But I go, "Daddy! Piano! Piano!" So he sees that the kid is cool, and I keep saying the word piano a hundred times.

The summer is over, and we get back to our home in Brooklyn, and the first thing I say is "I want a piano!" So to shut me up they bought me a shitty little white spinet piano, not even an upright. But it was fine for me. So then I need lessons, and they take me to the local music teacher on McDonald Avenue. Her name is Mrs. Schindleheimer. She's German or Austrian, came over on the boat. She's six feet tall, she's got a bun on top of her head with pencils in it. She has a vaccination mark on her shoulder that looks like a basketball. So she starts teaching me, but she can't read music! She gives me this book called "Teaching Little Fingers to Play." It's her music school, but she can't teach a thing!

Luckily, the next Saturday, a real teacher comes, a 60 year old guy with a beautiful suit and a white shirt, an Italian guy from Palermo. He's there to teach the advanced students from the music school, one of whom is Mrs. Schindleheimer's daughter who looks exactly like Olive Oyl from the Popeye comics. So, I go up to the Italian guy and I say, "I don't like her! Would you teach me?" I'm a little kid and I have the biggest chutzpah balls in the world! And he starts laughing, and said, "No, I'm sorry." But my father, who is very sensitive to my needs, gets this teacher, whose name was James Palmieri, and says "Listen, my son wants to study with you. Here's twenty bucks," which in 1953 was a lot of cash. So Palmieri takes me upstairs to his private studio that was like a European drawing room with a small Steinway with books and music and a nice rug and a globe of the world.

So I come into the studio, and Palmieri says, "OK. Play something." And I say, "I can't play, please teach me." And he says, "I don't teach beginners." So I begged him and I said, "I will do anything that you say. Please teach me." I don't know how I got this way -I was only five years old. And he said, "OK." And that was the beginning. It changed my life. He started teaching me how to read music, and I'm rabid, listening, memorizing. I run home, I started practicing, learning. To make a long story short, I stayed with him from age five until I was eighteen. He was James Palmieri, a concert pianist who had a terrible tragedy with his wife and son who died in the sinking of the Andrea Doria ocean liner.

Palmieri had a great concert career. He was friends with Rubenstein, Michaelangeli, Horowitz. He lived on 46th Street on Restaurant Row in Manhattan above the Vesuvio Italian Restaurant. Eventually I went on the E Train to his studio in Manhattan. He taught me everything about the piano: reading, interpretation, technique, sound. I have a very good sound, but his sound was ten times as big, and broad, and subtle. And I virtually became his son, who died, and my father was working twelve hours a day, so I needed a father figure. So eventually I had two or three lessons a week with Palmieri. He taught me more than music. He taught me about life, girls. I could tell it was good for him too. He had no friends, no women in his life. After his wife died, he decided that getting close to anybody was too hard -he was in total grief.

AAJ: Did you have any interest in jazz at the time?

RB: When I was twelve, I heard the Milestones record, and specifically the tune "Billy Boy" with Red Garland on piano. I didn't realize it then, but in retrospect I see how Miles was so generous, giving his rhythm section a whole tune: Garland, Philly Joe Jones, and Paul Chambers. I heard it by accident in a record store or something, and I had that moment of ephiphany, like "Yes! That's what I want!" I do love classical music, but I didn't like the atmosphere around it. People were stiff and formal. But I quickly found I had a feeling for jazz and loved the sound of it. So I started to study and buy records. I had an older friend, Cliff, who took me to Birdland and the Village Vanguard when I was under-age. And I heard Miles and Trane and Bill Evans in my face. I'd sit in the peanut gallery at Birdland, because I was too young to buy a drink, and that was it!

I was OK at classical music, but there were kids who could play circles around me, and they loved to play it. But something was missing for me, and then I figured out that the problem is that it's always the same. There's no improvisation. It's all about the composer, which is fantastic if you're the composer. And I suddenly realized that improvisation was the way for me. And I was all ready prepared in an instrument, the piano, and my technique and sight reading were really good. However, my teacher, Palmieri, didn't teach me anything about theory, harmony, and composition. To improvise well, unless you have an unbelievable ear, most of us have to know theory, harmony, and how the music is put together.

Palmieri died when I was 18. I went to Berklee for a year, which in retrospect was a terrible mistake because I didn't get what I needed there, but I did learn some very important things. I learned to survive on my own for the first time. I met Harvey Mason, Miroslav Vitous, John Abercrombie, Keith Jarrett, Bob Brookmeyer, and a lot of other great players. But the school wasn't satisfying to me, and I also went hungry. My parents wouldn't support me because they didn't want me to be a musician. So I went there defiantly, with no money.

AAJ: You're the first person I've interviewed who didn't praise Berklee as a school. What didn't you like about it?

RB: In 1965-'66, when I was there, Ray Santisi, Herb Pomeroy, and John LaPorta were on the faculty. But the school wasn't what it was cracked up to be. The teachers were distracted. I remember Ray Santisi looking out the window at the girls on Boylston Street while I'm playing double diminished scales. He didn't want to be there. The feeling I got was that they didn't have it together. Maybe the whole idea of a "school" for jazz is screwed up. Jazz has to be taught by an accomplished master. It's not done in a classroom, not that way, in my opinion.

On a positive note, I did perform a lot there. I lived on Symphony Road with a bunch of guys. Downstairs was a whore house! I was so naïve, I didn't know what it was! But the school was not a real school. It was just a collection of people. Later, they became much more successful, they bought a lot of real estate, and it became a factory. It got better in the 1980s when Branford Marsalis was there with Kenny Kirkland. LeeAnn Ledgerwood, whom I later married, and Terri Lyne Carrington were there at the time. But when I was there, it was not happening.

So I came back to New York, and I got an apartment at Spring and Hudson in Manhattan near the old Half Note, and I auditioned for Manhattan School of Music. That was the smartest decision I ever made. I went there as a theory and composition major, and studied for four years with Ludmila Ulehla, and that's how I learned about harmony, counterpoint, contemporary music, composing, and all the real skills that I teach now, and that Berklee didn't give me.

Manhattan School of Music, Dave Liebman, and the New York Jazz Scene

I started at Manhattan School of Music in 1968. A little before that, in 1967, I met Dave Liebman, who was actually doing substitute teaching in the public schools. We weren't good enough to play jazz gigs then. We played weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and those kind of gigs. But I was learning a lot, and every day we'd get together and hang out. I had an apartment at Spring and Hudson; he had a loft on 19th Street off 7th Avenue near the Con Edison building. I would show him what I was learning at school from an amazing book called Contemporary Harmony by one of my teachers, Ludmila Ulehla. Dave was getting into it too, and took some lessons from Ludmila. He learned how to write music with her. Dave never went to music school formally. He went to NYU and studied American History. But he would help me with melody. He had the greatest sense of lyrical melody, which I'm sure you know. And he could play piano and drums in addition to sax and flute. We used to transcribe solos from Coltrane. We played together a lot in his loft.

AAJ: Were you one of the musicians who hung out with Dave in the loft?

RB: Of course! Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Bob Moses, Clint Houston, all the motherfuckers. It was tremendous. And downstairs, Chick Corea and Dave Holland had their pads. And on Sundays, there were jam sessions in Dave's loft, and on the floor below with Chick. It was amazing. Chick and Dave Holland were playing with Miles at the time. It was unbelievable.

Chick Corea was a real hero for me then. He was incredible. He was carrying forth the stuff from McCoy. McCoy was awesome, he was pushing forward rhythmically, harmonically, you name it. He was just a great pianist and composer. He was the one. And Chick was carrying that through, personalizing it for himself.

So we come to 1972, I'm studying at Manhattan and Dave is working wedding gigs and some jazz gigs with Larry Coryell, and then finally, I got the gig with Stan Getz with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, and Dave got the gig with Elvin Jones, with Gene Perla and Steve Grossman. And that was the beginning of great things.

AAJ: Did you play those famous gigs at the Café Au Go Go with Getz?

RB: Sure, of course! We played at Au Go Go, we played at the new Half Note on 52nd Street. We played Rockefeller Center Windows on the World, all over New York. And the old Half Note in the Village as well. Suddenly, we were no longer kids. Dave and I started working with our own bands. And this was the beginning. Dave went to Japan in 1973 with Miles, and I was with Stan in Japan at the same time, and Dave and I made our first record there called First Visit (King Records, 1973). We made it at midnight after a concert. It was an amazing scene. Japan's economy was thriving at the time, and they loved American jazz. So this was a great period, and we then put together our band, Lookout Farm.

AAJ: So you were with Getz, and Dave was with Miles. But then you and Dave started creating your own music together.

RB: For me the driving force all the time was to find my own way. Even while I was studying at Manhattan, I was learning about melody and rhythm, and theory, and harmony, and all the great composers like Scriabin, Khatchaturian, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. I studied everything in that school. We studied all the essential composers. By "essential" I don't mean popular, I mean essential to the continuum of the history of music. If you take one away, you have a hole. For example, Bach and Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Prokofiev, Boulez, Stockhausen, and a few more.

AAJ: You didn't mention Ravel or any of the impressionists who influenced jazz so much.

RB: Of course, they belong on the list. So, over the course of four years at Manhattan, we studied four pieces by each of the composers, with the score and listening to the LPs. We would listen, for example, to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, or a Bach Cantata or the Prelude and Fugue, and so on. And then the teacher, Ludmila Ulehla, picked the essential 20 composers in music history,from Bach Mozart Beethoven, and so on, up throough through Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, Prokoviev, Shostakovich. Berg, Schoenberg, and Stockhousen. For each of these essential composers, she picked out the most important and iconic pieces for us to analyse. We would listen to the recording and follow the score ,then write a short piece of our own in the style of the great composer. We did this over four years. It was a perfect comprehensive education, and I was lucky to have it.

Eventually, my goal became to put all that I had absorbed from these studies into jazz, into, say, "Stella By Starlight," to integrate the harmony, the melodic ideas, and so on. I continued doing that for about twenty years afterwards. I spent hours and hours at the piano, sleeping as little three hours a night. But I loved it, so it wasn't arduous work.

So then with Dave, him with the melody and me with the chords and the rhythm, we figured out a different way to play! We did all that in Dave's loft. And I wasn't the only one doing this. Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano did something similar before me. McCoy, Bill, and many other jazz pianists like I did, even Bud Powell. A standard like "Stella By Starlight" had simple chord changes that were not great to improvise on, they were about the lyrics. They're Broadway show tunes. So you've really got to do something to get them to work improvisationally. So when Dave and I would get together to work on "Stella" or "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," and so on, we'd try to stretch it harmonically. Of course Miles' band with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams were doing something similar. They were expanding the harmonies and what could be played.

AAJ: I heard that you studied with Lennie Tristano.

RB: Way before that, Dave told me that he took a lesson with Lennie Tristano. And Lennie lived in Queens on Jamaica Avenue at 179th Street, so I take the train there. I go in. The house is dark, because he's blind, so I hear him say, "Come in. Put twenty bucks on the table!" That was a lot of money in 1966. But I did what he said. And he comes out looking like Frankenstein, but he's very nice, and calls me over to his Steinway. He says, "Play something." So it was awful —I start playing "It Ain't Necessarily So." This was when I was still studying with Palmieri, and I still didn't know shit. After about 30 seconds he shouts "Stop!" He said, "OK. You can't play. You have no time. You have no swing. Your assignment is to listen to Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young." That was it. That was the whole lesson! And he was absolutely right in what he said. But it killed me, it crushed me! But somebody has to tell you that and break you down, so then you can start learning.

So that whole week, I was depressed. My father asks, "What's the matter?" I say, "Nothing. This guy says I can't play." He says, "Fuck him!" I said, "No, he's right, dad." He says "Really?" And I started listening to Sinatra and Holiday, even though I really wanted Hancock and McCoy, who by the way Lennie didn't like. Lennie stopped at Bud Powell, even though Lennie developed some amazing chromatic stuff, similar to McCoy, very open. But I had only two lessons with him. I couldn't take the rejection, I couldn't take the truth. And at that time I really wasn't good enough to get the best out of my lessons with him.

But then I heard the amazing record he did called Lennie Tristano with "Lineup" and "East Thirty-Second Street," where he overdubs the piano part. It really inspired me, and I felt he was ten years ahead of Herbie. But he was a very bitter guy, very nasty. But he really helped me because he gave me the truth, plain and simple. Somebody has to tell you that you can't really play. And of course, he had Olympian standards, and I was not even in the running.

Lookout Farm

AAJ: How did the iconic recording, Lookout Farm, come about.

RB: Fast forward to 1972-73. Dave and I are young guys, we're living in New York, we're feeling great. And so we want to do a recording. The record business was thriving then. They paid you good money to make a recording, not like today when you have to produce and pay for your own recordings. And today, anyone can make a record, so there are hundred CDs coming out each month. That's democracy, and it gives anyone a chance to record. But it floods the market with garbage. Back then, you were hired to do a job, and you had to be good.

So we already did the record First Visit in Japan that I referred to earlier, and we were very happy with it. Then Manfred Eicher, the head of then new ECM label in Europe went to hear Miles and met Dave there. ECM was just a local label then. They hardly had any distribution or sales. But we ended up doing a record for Manfred, and it turned out to be Lookout Farm! We recorded it in New York. At that recording date at the Generation Sound studio with Tony May the sound engineer, I play a long solo on a tune we wrote called "M.D." dedicated to Miles. After we record the tune, Manfred, who at the time was recording Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, freaked me out when he said, "That was a great intro. Would you like to make a trio record for ECM?" I of course said "yes," and I did my first record called Eon (ECM, 1975).

AAJ: To me, Lookout Farm is a landmark recording that influenced the jazz to come. What was the magic that created it? And why was it called Lookout Farm?

RB: It was a very special album. What made it happen was that, first of all, it was a working band. And we added John Abercrombie, a great friend. And it was one half acoustic piano and bass, and side B of the LP was electric piano and bass. We had tablas and guitar. And we were a real jazz fusion band. Were playing fusion, and the rock stuff but with advanced harmony. It was really integrated. Also, we were young, we had amazing energy, and the tunes were simple but really well crafted and designed to be a springboard for improvisation. There was not a lot of unison stuff, not a lot of showy bullshit decoration. We just used the heads to get us into the improvisation. 90% of it was improvised. Dave's tune "Pablo's Story" dedicated to Picasso was just four chords, just enough to go. We had this unconscious gestalt that we were going for great improvisations. We tried to build our solos compositionally. This is where all the studies we did to learn how great music is built and constructed were applied.

Of course, Bill Evans, Miles, Herbie Hancock, Chick, Wayne Shorter, and Sonny Rollins were all improvising compositionally, which means not just one good lick after another. Look, if you take a great solo from Hank Mobley or Dexter Gordon, they're great, but they're predictable, with certain licks played over and over again. But then you hear a solo from Wayne or Sonny Rollins or Jim Hall or Miles, it's compositionally improvised, it has a full development. And that's what we went for with Lookout Farm.

Lookout Farm itself is an actual place in upstate New York. It's a house and property that still belongs to a great friend of ours, the artist Eugene Gregan. He did the cover paintings for Eon, Drum Ode, and Pendulum. He was our artist and our friend. He was older than us, and we would go up to his place for inspiration. He was living the life of a pure artist. It was the 1970s, and we went up there for inspiration and to smoke some great hash. Eugene was both very supportive and critical. He's still around there at the farm.

So we figured we'd name the band and the record Lookout Farm for Eugene's place. We were sophisticated hippies. We didn't just get high and look at the sky. We wanted to do our creative work. So we had a great time with this album, and then we toured around the world. We won a lot of awards. We won the Downbeat Best New Band award. We went to Japan, and we went to India on a State Department tour. We went to Hong Kong. We went everywhere in Europe. Our promoters would get us a van, and we'd travel 6,000 miles around Europe: Copenhagen, Sweden, Spain, wherever the van would take us. It didn't pay a lot of money, but we were young kids and we were strong, and we would sometimes sleep in the van to save the hotel money. I remember one night we did a gig at the Montmartre in Copenhagen and drove to Rome after that. It was unbelievable.

Then we toured the United States with another van: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Billings, Montana. We played Billings behind chicken wire! The crowd threw beer bottles! And of course, we played New York, Philly, Washington, Florida, every jazz club! We brought our own equipment, we learned, we had to deal with each other, and we became adults. It was great. We'd go on tour for six weeks, come back, chill out, and do it again! And in Europe, we could go back again and again, play gigs, and do a week of teaching. And we'd go to exotic places like Istanbul and Jakarta. We made the most money in Japan—they loved us and they had the money to pay us well.

The 1970s were amazing for us. And ECM became the main record company featuring Keith Jarrett and Chick! Keith's Cologne Concert, a two album set of piano improvisations, sold five million units! So ECM's CEO, Manfred Eicher, put all the money back into more recordings. We got distribution from Polydor and Universal. And I did some records of my own: the solo album Hubris and Elm, with George Mraz and Jack DeJohnette. Then we did Drum Ode. But then we ran into problems with Eicher, because he became very authoritarian. He'd tell us what to play. He liked ballads and bossa nova, not intense jazz like we played. So eventually, we had to leave ECM. Abercrombie and Ralph Towner stayed with Eicher, Keith did, and Chick became famous with Return to Forever, which unfortunately was a compromise for him. He changed his whole life over night. He recorded Light as a Feather with a vocalist. Chick is a great pianist, but he hasn't done anything of real value for my taste and jazz history since Sundance records and the fantastic work he did with Miles in 1969.

Working with Liebman on Chromaticism, Bartok, amd Improvising Approaches

AAJ: Dave told me about how the two of you developed the new music together, and he talked about how you somehow combined the chromatic approach to improvisation which he developed into a teaching platform with your interest in the classical composers like Bartok. Could you say something about that aspect of your collaboration?

RB: First of all, I've always been interested in contemporary music. Of course I love Bach and Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, all the guys I mentioned earlier whom I studied with Ludmila. And I don't like that crazy atonal stuff -it doesn't satisfy me. I don't feel anything from it, and I need to feel something. The language can be very dissonant, but for me there has to be some element of emotion in it. Like Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Man is that powerful, and it's really dissonant, and it's really Russian. Do you know that the Russians put Prokofiev in jail! They thought he was mocking the government! How stupid can you be? The government was very oppressive, and unfortunately, oppression is very good for music! You compose to make a statement against it and for freedom and justice! It was the same in the U.S. in the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement and the violence inspired so much great music! But Trane's music and so on from that period is not just protest music, because that becomes pretty thin after a while. But the revolution gets into the music, not just as anger but sheer energy.

AAJ: Do you think that revolutionary fervor affected your own music?

RB: No! We were not about destroying and breaking things down. We loved "the system"—it was working for us. We got our recordings and our gigs. Even though we didn't sell millions of records, we were the "prestige guys" for the recording industry. And, getting back to our collaboration, all of our recordings start with me and Dave working together. Dave writes an amazing melody. He calls me one night from a hotel room in Budapest. And I'm in Leipzig. It's three in the morning. He's freezing in his hotel room. He calls me, and I say "Yeah?" He says, "I got a melody." He plays this incredible melody. I say, "Send it to me." He sends me it in his handwriting by email. His handwriting is terrible! But I can read it, and I sit down at the piano and start harmonizing it. And the melody is so well written. It has within it ten possible implications of which harmony to use. I sat there for six hours working on the harmony. It's called "Kurtland" and dedicated to our great friend and producer, Kurt Reinker. We recorded it on the Jazzline CD, Balladscapes.

Dave and I worked together like Rogers and Hart. We've been doing it now for fifty years! We always surprise each other with our ideas. When our dear friend John Abercrombie passed away, we wanted to write something for him. So Dave said, "Give me a set of changes." So I sent him a really beautiful chord progression, and he comes back in a couple of days with this incredible melody, He plays saxophone, so he's all melody. And he's a total master of it.

Now with the chromatic improvisation idea, I assume you know about Dave's book A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody (Alfred Music, 2015). We started working on it together. But he wanted to go in a particular direction, and I realized it was going to be his book, and I pulled out of it. But there's a lot of my stuff in there, a lot of my voicing, and all the examples of contemporary music is mine. I'm perfectly happy that it worked out that way.

The upshot is that we found our own way to play chromatically. It's very simple even if you're not a musician. If you're playing on C minor 7th, it consists of C. Eb. G. Bb. There are playable notes in between like D and F, but then there are notes that would ordinarily be thought of as wrong for improvising, like C# and D# and B natural -you're supposed to avoid them, but they are actually the richest and most interesting to play. All music has been chromatic since Bach. The difference between Dave and I versus Bach is that in Bach, all the chromatic notes resolve up or down into the chord tone. Dave and I are looking for non-resolving chromatic tones that can be held for long duration. Trane did that in 1965. Listen to his amazing solo on "Transition." He plays every note in the chromatic scale when he wants to, and this is a great innovation. It happened in music a hundred years ago with Alban Berg and Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Every note in the chromatic scale became a useable note. And it just became part of the music and created so many more possibilities! And every time you add a chromatic note, you have more possible harmonies for improvisation. The chords changed and expanded. This all developed a hundred years ago. And we studied it.

What Dave and I did was to figure out a way to play standards, like "Softly in a Morning Sunrise," or "Naima," or the blues, and to integrate into the fabric of the conversation all these chromatic notes as long duration notes. And it really became part of our style, our way of handling it. Randy Brecker plays that way too. Wynton and Branford Marsalis both have played that way. There are just a lot of ways you can play chromatically, and it's now the music of the day. And I'm always looking for new possibilities. I'm not just looking for dissonance. I'm looking for lyrical dissonance.

So Dave and I have worked on lots of things together and separately. It takes time. It's been fifty years, and we're still doing it! And we're still developing. The truth is we're playing better now than we ever have, and in the last couple of records that we did, we've reached a real high point. Eternal Voices (Jazzline, 2019) is completely contemporary classical music along with some Bach and Beethoven, and with improvisation. But the Bartok was closest to me because it was the most chromatic and the most organized. In the early days, when I studied Bartok in school, I was in close contact with Dave. And I showed him everything I learned, and Dave went and studied with Ludmila for a while. So this was a natural thing that came around as a big cycle. And eventually, I used the Bartok string quartet themes as a basis for improvisation. What's the difference between "Stella by Starlight" and the rhythm changes of "Oleo" and Bartok? It really is different only in terms of its dimension. So we took the themes from Bartok's string quartet and set them up for improvising. And of course we're a duo, not a string quartet, so it was easier that way. We first thought of doing it with a real string quartet and have the original composition followed by us, but that was not practical.

So we ended up doing one CD of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Scriabin. And we did another CD of the Bartok String Quartets. That was two years ago. And then last year, we went in to make a duo CD with no music, no paper, no talking! Dave and I just improvised for an hour. The album will hopefully be released in 2020, and it will be called Empathy. This is my favorite album of all that we've done together, because it has all of the elements that we love. It has structure, great melodies, energy, interaction, fire, and reflection. And it's all improvisation. And it's really what we were meant to do. But we took a big chance with this. It's still very vital between us. Every time I play with Dave, it keeps growing.

Lieb has been and still is my oldest and best friend and colleague for 50 years. I can't imagine my life musically and otherwise without him. His playing is known everywhere, and the breadth and depth of his personality, and the rare qualities he has acquired during his life have enhanced my entire existence. We came up together, and we learned and helped each other. To this day, I go to him for advice, feedback, and his general view of the world, which is as pragmatic and down to earth as anyone I have ever met. Dave has only gotten better as the years have gone by, musically and as a man. His sound, especially on soprano, carries all the humanity, joy, sadness, and truth of daily life. But being a great artist, it is more. When you hear Dave and of course play with him you are taken away from the everydayness of life. How could such a pragmatic and unaffected cat play with such deep sense of the human part of music? Well, that's the fascinating part of the artist that is Dave. Complex, passionate, empathetic, and honest are some words I would use to describe his music and personality. I still look forward to the times when we get together and do gigs and recording dates and hang out.

AAJ: Somehow, I feel that Bartok is a key figure in your work with Dave. Am I right?

RB: Yes, of course, you're right. Because Bartok had his own way of integrating chromaticism, but he was a traditionalist when it came to the forms: the concerto, the sonata, the preludes. It was new wine in old bottles. And you could hear how brilliant he was because he was using the old forms. So that helped Dave and me, because we would use the older forms to improvise. You could hear it in Bartok's string quartets, the first movement in which he would use a chromatic theme with his own personal way of doing it. Bartok was an incredible musician. He could play everything. He was a great pianist, a total instrumental genius. And he was writing from a very high, experienced place, but with a completely different idiom. And Bartok had a genius for melody, a genius for rhythm, a genius for harmony, and a genius for orchestration. And you need that to be a great orchestral composer.

Also, rhythm was important to Bartok. His rhythm is not stiff. It's almost like jazz. The reason is that he was coming from the tradition of Hungarian folk music. So we listened to his rhythm as well. Listen to the rhythm in Bartok's music for strings, percussion, and celesta, the Concerto for Orchestra, the piano concertos, the 14 bagatelles for piano. Unbelievably great. You can play them as pieces, and they sound like jazz.

Dave and I love all of music. And that's the thing about jazz. For me, classical music's rhythm was so far away from me, from contemporary life. Jazz is totally satisfying rhythmically, but in terms of form and melodically, it can be boring. But Miles' and Trane's groups had everything—the melody, the rhythm. It was completely satisfying. That's why to me, it's the greatest music. It has the elements of spontaneity and risk. If you go hear a really great band five nights in a row, even if it's the same material, you will hear different performances. The aim is to play it differently each time, but not just differently, but excellent! It's paradoxical. When a classical musician plays the same piece repeatedly for different audiences, the goal is to make it feel really fresh and spontaneous. When jazz musicians like Dave and I play, the goal is to make it sound almost like it was written and developed, not just playing fast licks and decoration.

AAJ: That is indeed a paradox. Jazz is spontaneous but the goal is to make it sound composed.

RB: And the main thing is does it touch you, does it make you feel something. That's my main criterion for all music.

AAJ: Dave often conveys that idea as well. But I did want to bring in modal music in connection with Bartok and chromaticism. Miles' Kind of Blue album was based on modes rather than harmony as such. Bartok wrote a book of piano etudes for each mode of the scale. How does the modal approach fit together with the chromaticism and dissonances that you and Dave utilize?

RB: Modal music is simply music written within a mode. Modal music existed well before classical harmony. There are seven modes. In the Greek modes, the major scale is called the Ionian mode. Let's say it's C major. The mode of the second degree, D, is called the Dorian mode. Miles' tune "So What?" is built on the Dorian mode. That's the D minor mode. The third degree of the C major scale, the note, E is the Phrygian mode. The mode of the fourth degree, F, is the Lydian mode. The mode built on the fifth degree is Myxolydian. The mode built on the sixth degree is Aeolian, and the mode of the seventh degree, B, is called the Locrian mode. Each of these is a scale, and they were around way before the major and minor scales.

What Miles did on the tune "So What?" instead of a chord progression, with the chord changes every bar or every two beats, Miles said, screw that, we're gonna go for sixteen bars of the D Dorian mode. And then the bridge goes to E flat Dorian. The same chord is then transposed a half step above for eight bars. And then another eight bars. So it's D Dorian, Eb Dorian, and then D Dorian. In 1959, this was revolutionary. And they stayed in it at a slow tempo. And Miles needed Bill Evans for that, because Bill had those amazing chords.

So this was modal jazz at its beginning. And Miles had tremendous courage. He also needed Bill Evans, because Wynton Kelly didn't have those chords. Wynton is on one track on that album, "Freddie Freeloader," which is Bb blues. But Miles needed Bill for "Blue in Green," which had an amazing chord progression. Ten bars of "Blue in Green"—that's all Bill! And by the way, Miles claimed he composed it. But Bill told me it was his composition, and he had recorded it before he gave it to Miles. [Miles said he wrote it, but his estate has since given credit to Bill Evans.—Eds] By the way, "Blue in Green" is not modal—it's just a beautiful ballad.

The modal approach was also developed by George Russell. He had something called the Lydian chromatic concept, which was important more, I think, philosophically than in practice. But McCoy developed the modal stuff and pedal point playing to the furthest point. Taking off from "So What?" McCoy and Trane eliminated the Eb bridge, and it just became an open pedal point, an open D pedal point. This pushed the music forward. And that's what influenced me and Dave. Trane's "Transition" is all played on one chord!

AAJ: This seems to clarify that the modal and then the pedal point single-chord approach then became the basis for you and Dave going further over to chromaticism. It gave you permission to move forward.

RB: It gave us permission. It gave us inspiration, and it gave us a template and a blueprint from which to proceed. With the pedal point, you had a single chord, you had stationary harmony, but that allowed for a tremendous amount of creativity in the chords that are on top of the pedal point! You can superimpose all kinds of triads, major, minor, superposition over the pedal point. The pedal point gives you the structure and the foundation. But the chords above it give you infinite possibilities. And Dave and I explored those possibilities. My tune, "Pendulum" is based on an F sharp pedal. The whole tune, from the live recording we did at the Village Vanguard with Randy Brecker and Al Foster, is my little anthem. It's very simple. It's from Bartok, by the way. But I put it over an F sharp pedal with a jazz feel. And it immediately creates an atmosphere from which you can really jump off and play whatever you want. Check out the twenty minute track on the Pendulum album.

A pedal point can be boring, but in the hands of a really good pianist and horn players, it can be a way of stimulating the imagination and be very creative. So that's what we did. I love to do pedal point playing, and I like to do tunes too. Bebop was based on "I Got Rhythm" chord changes and blues. We still go back to those changes, but today, we can do a lot more with them. And that's what Dave and I do, The transition goes back to Bill, and Herbie, and McCoy, and Chick.

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