Soul Journey: Michael Weiss and the Art of Composition

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Jazz more than any kind of music is an extremely intimate interaction with other people and you're kind of vulnerable when you're bearing your soul.
Although he's spent a good deal of his career as a valued sideman, communing with such jazz masters as Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, and Junior Cook, the time has arrived for pianist and composer Michael Weiss to make his own mark as one of the true original voices on the current jazz scene. In the past few years, this Dallas native has moved beyond his proficiency as an impeccable pianist to hone some considerable chops as a composer, taking home the grand prize in the 2000 Thelonious Monk Institute's Composers Competition. While the 1997 set Power Station gave us our first extended taste of Weiss' skills as a writer, an even more profound sample of his wares comes with Soul Journey, a self-produced set that boasts nine originals penned for a septet that includes Ryan Kisor, Steve Davis, and Steve Wilson. Speaking on the phone from his home in New York, Weiss sat down with All About Jazz to touch on key aspects of the new album, but also shared some thoughts on teaching and writing music.

All About Jazz: How did it come about that you've self-produced this new album, Soul Journey ?

Michael Weiss: Well, I had this music that I'd been working on and refining over the years and trying to solicit to record companies. At a certain point though, I decided to record it myself. That way I could be sure it was recorded and mixed properly and done without any artistic compromise. Then, I shopped that around a little bit and the offers for the product were not commensurate with its quality and expense and at that point I decided to put it out myself.

AAJ: So have you been happy with the response to the album so far?

MW: It's been fine all things considered. I mean when one has a single title on a small label the distribution is much more difficult. But the response from radio has been fabulous and reviews are starting to come in and people who have contacted me really like the CD.

AAJ: Let's step back a bit and tell us about some of the early experiences or recordings that first peaked your interest in jazz.

MW: My first exposure to jazz was at Interlochen Music Camp when I was 15 and I heard the faculty group perform. In fact, I think Peter Erskine might have still been there. The Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington bands came through and that was shortly before Duke died. Then, during that summer I wrote a big band arrangement and so I got a lot of essential arranging and theoretical skills right off the bat. Plus, my high school in Dallas had a career development/magnet type component that gave me four hours of music a day and so I wrote a lot for our big band and had a lot of time to get into a lot of jazz.

I'd say the strongest influences at the time involved the fusion records of the era, like the Headhunters, Return to Forever, and the CTI records. But at the same time, I had this very strong influence of Thad Jones' writing and big band playing. Then when I went to Indiana University I become really immersed in all the important recordings throughout the history of jazz, but most importantly Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. In those days I was into a lot of free jazz too, like Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble and was trying to give everything a shot.

AAJ: In terms of your writing, is that something you developed on your own?

MW: Actually, I really didn't get too serious about composing until just a few years ago, to tell you the truth. I wasn't feeling that confident about writing tunes. When I was playing trio gigs at Bradley's in New York and other kinds of gigs I was often focusing on under recorded or underexposed material by composers like Monk and Gigi Gryce or compositions by people like Elmo Hope and never really played many tunes of my own. But I'd say the sum of all my musical experiences is the big well that my ideas come out of. There's a lot of classical elements and playing a lot of piano music that are the source of a lot of the ideas that I've used in my pieces- playing Scriabin and Chopin and all those pieces.

AAJ: You know I've talked with guys like David Hazeltine and other mainstream musicians about the difficulties of getting their music out there when it seems like major labels and press are more likely to tout the latest flavor of the week or "hip hop meets jazz" type projects than give coverage to the guys who are really developing their own voices within the tradition. How do you feel about this?

MW: I think it's too hard to pin down. It's hard to put a handle on what these guys that are in these positions at the various labels are actually thinking. You can really poke holes in any case you want to make in terms of a particular direction that one thinks are the potential commercial things that these people are looking for. Like Blue Note is recording Bill Charlap, a really excellent musician, but in a very conservative vein compared to some of the other stuff were talking about. That's a lot further away from hip hop or anything that Dave [Hazeltine] or I might be making and he's not that much younger than us either. I mean guys like Benny Green have had a lot of success in a relatively mainstream or conservative kind of style. And if you attempt to find certain kinds of limitations that you think may exist in terms of who is being promoted or not you find exceptions everywhere you look. I think you just have to keep doing what you do best and in time you become recognized for what you do best. I think the more you try to figure it out the crazier you'll make yourself.


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