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

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
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.

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.