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.

AAJ: I think the first time I saw you was with Johnny Griffin and I know you've worked with a good deal of other leaders over the years. Tell me about some of the guys who currently keep you busy.

MW: Well, nobody keeps me busy, but I feel continuously blessed to have had the opportunity to work with people of the status of Johnny Griffin and Art Farmer for extended periods of time and where I can feel that my career has been built on those experiences and credentials. I always consider what I call these guys the last of "the truth" because when they're gone they'll be nobody that can take their place and really represent first hand the "real deal" and all the things that make up the tradition of jazz- all the things you can't write down, or notate, or write or talk about. There aren't words to describe how life experiences are expressed in a note, or rhythm, or phrase. These things will be gone with those people. It's unfortunate and I'm really glad that I came to New York when I had an opportunity to play with people like that. That was the real career track. There was no such thing as "young lions" and no one thought about being a bandleader off the bat. It was to get as close to the music and to develop experiences coming up through the ranks just like all the greats did and at that time there were a lot of bands to work with. Of course, it wasn't that easy to have an opportunity to play in those bands because the people that were playing were major longtime veterans themselves. I worked with Junior Cook and Bill Hardman, but at the time Walter Bishop and then Mickey Tucker were the piano players and then when they moved on I got into the band.

To get back to your question, having worked with those guys has been a tremendous experience. You know, when you play together, it's very intimate. 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, and to be able to share that with guys of that caliber on a regular basis gives you an insight into the music that's unparalleled.

AAJ: So what's new on the horizon for you?

MW: The last several years my work has been a hodgepodge of playing as a sideman with a number of different people and then the occasional gig of my own. I'll be premiering a new extended work at the Brooklyn Conservatory in November that was a commissioned work by Chamber Music America. I also have some things coming up with Frank Wess and Lou Donaldson and the Vanguard Big Band.

AAJ: I've read that you do a decent amount of teaching. Is that pretty much college level stuff?

MW: Not exclusively; I've done a lot of clinics and residencies at the college level, but also I've worked with people of all ages and I've done some assemblies and workshops for children in our local elementary school. Sometimes I get more satisfaction in working with musicians who are on an amateur level than those who aspire to be professionals.

AAJ: How do you approach the whole idea of teaching jazz?

MW: I like to find the straightest path to a particular problem and to help the student to learn to think for himself or herself. That's the most important thing along with not being reliant on method books; that's the death of jazz. You have to learn how to go to the source so that it goes straight from the source to you through your own way of assembling and disassembling all these bits of information. So the method books and fake books and transcription books take away all the thought processes that you have to develop to learn to be an effective musician, because when you get on the bandstand you have to act instinctively.

There isn't a whole lot new that has come along in terms of the improvisational language, but it's how people have put things together along with maintaining high standards of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic interest that creates some of the more interesting music. For some years now I've been a very strong supporter of a lot of the music that Wayne Shorter has written, beginning with Atlantis and up to today. I mean that's somebody who's a great model of composer/improviser. To me, that's not commercial music. There me be some things that have a funky beat or rock beat, but there is so much going on there compositionally in those tunes. I slept on that music for so many years because I was so steeped in my little bebop world so that anything with a semblance of a rock beat would be considered 'that other crap' and I kick myself for missing out on so much great music. It's just a rhythm to use like any other rhythm you might choose. Like on that coda on the end of [Weiss's] "Atlantis." That beat is primal and strong and when you mix it together with slick harmonies and polyphony in the bass it's very colorful.

AAJ: Yeah, those records aren't about a head and string of solos.

MW: No, no, far from it. In fact, Wayne said once that composing is improvisation slowed down and improvisation is composition sped up, which is very true. And I find that all the things you want to express you can only do in limited situations, but if you create your own music you can do it and create the whole thing. That's why I can say with Soul Journey that I got a lot of 'me' on there. And it's not just confined to some piano solos. I got a hundred times more 'me' on that recording than anything else I've done and so that's really satisfying and Wayne has been a real inspiration for opening a lot of doors in my compositional thinking and awareness.

You know the first thing a beginning composer finds himself doing is always introducing new material and always looking forward without looking back and there's no glue to the piece. There's nothing that holds it together and you look at Wayne's pieces and how they're constructed and you see how the material is recycled in such creative ways.

AAJ: It's like the hook in a pop song.

MW: Yeah, in a way, but we're talking about several hooks in the same song that hold it all together. That's been my inspiration. In fact, my tune "El Camino" won a prize from the Thelonious Monk Institute as the winner in the composers' competition in 2000 and Wayne presented me that prize at the Kennedy Center. We spent a lot of time together talking; it was a great time.

Visit www.michaelweiss.info .

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