I think the greatest cheese I have ever eaten comes from Wisconsin. It is a Sartori SarVecchio Parmesan, and enjoying that one night with a glass of zinfandel wine was one of the most sensual experiences I have ever had with my clothes on.
I just returned from Wisconsin yesterday, where I had very little time for culinary experiences. Instead I was doing a teaching residency at Stevens Point University, which culminated in a concert by their jazz band, under the direction of Mathew Buchman, of my suite Portrait in Seven Shades. When I heard they were going to attempt this difficult piece, which was composed for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, I had my doubts.
Arriving in Stevens Point on the evening before my residency was officially to start I was greeted at the airport by one of the sax students, Katie, who in the course of a 25 mile drive to the hotel managed to get in about a dozen questions relating to arranging, improvising and practicing. I guess my residency had already begun.
A lot was packed into those three days - classes, rehearsals, private lessons, lectures. I got to know many of these students, and I really appreciated how inquisitive and passionate many of them were about playing and learning. I also enjoyed hanging and getting to know the instructors, in particular Mr. Buchman, who over lunch each day, had several questions of his own. It’s always a great privilege to come into a scene you know nothing about and see the great work that so many people are doing.
An hour and a half before the band was to attempt to tackle my suite, I did a lecture in a small auditorium, complete with projected images of the great artists whose iconic paintings were the inspiration for each of the seven movements. It was a tame affair with thirty or forty attendees. The forty-five minutes of non-stop talking, added to three days of non-stop question answering, left my voice sounding like a cress between Tom Waits and Kathleen Turner.
The big moment arrived, and the students, all alike in their matching black attire, mounted the stage and took their places. It felt like my kids up there. And with a father-like pride I have to announce that they not only got through the suite, but played it with a lot of enthusiasm and musicality. They dealt with the odd-time signature of Dali, the technical challenge of Picasso, and the avant-guard direction of Pollock quite expertly.
This residency came on the heels of a recent visit, also to Wisconsin, where Vincent Gardner and I did workshops at six schools in three days. Three of these bands are finalists at the Essentially Ellington festival coming up next week. I don’t know what these kids are eating to sound so good. I guess it’s the cheese...
I’m back in New York after three weeks on the road with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. One thing I have been thinking about is a facet of touring that usually gets very little attention, reflection, or even respect - drivers. On the course of a three-week trip, between the busses that take us from one city to the next, to the vans that shuttle us back and forth between hotel and venue, we may encounter as many as fifty or sixty drivers. Fifty or sixty human beings we don’t know anything about, and usually completely forget about after we leave whatever town we’re in.
During this trip I spent a little more effort to get to know some our drivers, and I’m glad I did. Now, most of the van drivers (usually three of them in every city - it’s in our rider to have three vans) are usually senior citizens volunteering. This is especially true if we are playing for an arts organization. They love to chat. They ask all the questions we get tired of hearing. But on this trip I found that if you can get past that initial small talk, there is potential for some interesting conversation. One man loved telling jokes. I told some back. He loved them, laughed heartily - “That’s a good one. Yeah, that’s a good one,” and I know he has probably already told his new jokes to at least a dozen people. Sometimes, and usually when it is a university, the drivers are students. And when it is a particularly cute coed, suddenly a few guys in the band become interested in small talk.
One day, in Tucson, Arizona, the van driver was a woman probably in her late 60s named Sally, and being in my new frame of mind I, we got to talking and I discovered that her daughter manages the office of the one of the biggest movie producers in the world. I just happen to be writing a screenplay...
Now, bus drivers - that’s different story. I’m talking about the big Greyhound-style coaches. Try talking to them and you might get “stay behind the white line.” It’s not that they’re not interesting people - they often are - but this is what they do for a living, and they tend to be a little more apathetic, if not jaded. However, the bus driver we had in Atlanta who got us to the airport went out of his way to secure and safely store my iPhone that I left on my seat in a groggy, early-morning trance.
We had one very stressful ride from Sonoma to Stockton on a two-lane highway, where the driver kept trying to pass a tractor-trailer. About once a minute he would pull into the oncoming traffic, seeing what his chances were to get around this oversized slug in front of us. And every time there would be a car heading right for us. This had even our own ex-military tour manager Boss Murphy yelling “no,” getting the driver to pull back in the right lane. Sugar Rob, our sound man, actually moved to the back of the bus, a place I have never seen him sit before. On top of all this, the emergency exit in the ceiling kept popping open - “Fwap!” - air loudly rushing into the bus for a few seconds before it would close again, leaving us with ear-popping silence. It was like a big mouth opening and yelling in reaction to the driver’s irresponsible choices.
I mentioned this experience later that day to the our van driver and he asked if we had come route 12, and I said yeah, and he said “oh, blood alley. There are more head-on collisions on the road then you can imagine.” Nice.
The other drivers are the ones that we see every day, year after year. They’re more like family. I’m talking about our very own Charles, Bragg, EG, and Frank. Now Frank is none-other than Frank Stewart the world-class photographer, and BBQ man of the highest order. He has been touring with Wynton for longer than I have been in the band. He is to Wynton what Harry Carney was to Duke. The man Wynton knows better than anyone. He could write a book - well, he has, several about photography - but I mean a different kind of book.
These guys are all great - always possessing a positive attitude, even when they are getting ready to hit the road in San Francisco with New York being the next stop. The only complaint I have with any of them is that during a day off, playing softball, Bragg refused to set his beer down and as a result let a line-drive whiz by him in center field.
Our last day on tour, the van driver listed in the book to take a few of us to the airport was named Funny Singh. I’m not making this up. As we waited for him to arrive we kept making jokes like “a Funny Singh happened on the way to the airport.” (While not particularly brilliant humor, I’m sure the joke-telling van driver would have loved it). But mainly we were just killing time, as he was a little late. When he did arrive, I asked him if he was Funny. He said “No, I’m not. I’m Sunny.” Apparently his name was wrong on the daily. Sunny is almost Funny, but not quite.
Back to NY for a little hiatus during the JLCO winter tour. With the emphasis on winter. First stop was Burlington, Vermont, where it was minus 11 degrees. It didn’t get much better during our next three stops (New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut) and I don’t think I left the hotel except to hop in and out of the mini-vans that shuttled us back and forth to the gigs. Hotel room coffee sucks, by the way...
My soul was warmed, however, by the very intimate gathering at actress Glenn Close’s amazing house outside of Portland, Maine. She and her Husband David threw a party for the band after our concert, and most the JLCO came, still in their Brooks Brothers suits, happy to eat the incredible soul food that seemed to be prepared for just the band and maybe about four other of Glenn and David’s close (no pun intended) friends.
That night it also happened to be my Dad’s birthday, and while we were partying on the East Coast, he was celebrating 3,000 away in Los Angeles at a surprise bash given by his partner Shelly. I brought my laptop and got on Skype and we played and sang happy birthday to him. Glenn Close even got on the screen and offered her good wishes. (big thanks to vocalist Cat Conner for setting up the Skype call!) A little later, Wynton, Ali Jackson, Glenn and I jammed on New Orleans tune that I didn’t know and was messing up, but it was fun. Here’s a short clip:
A couple days later we played the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and suddenly I found myself walking in the streets for miles with no jacket, enjoying the 55 degree weather. It felt physically and emotionally like spring had arrived.
Our repertoire out here has been as diverse as the weather, playing music spanning about 80 years, including early Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, John Lewis, and recently commissioned pieces by band members Sherman Irby and Chris Crenshaw. It doesn’t seem to matter what music we play, or when it was written - the band always brings a modern energy to the performance.
By the time we had arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, winter was back, making up for lost time. Our flight from Toronto in a small prop jet somehow made it through the blizzard that appeared right around take-off time. That night we played one of our favorite halls, the Hill Auditorium, which seats about 4,000 people. The band was really playing. I left the concert that night thinking I am so lucky to among such great musicians and people. Each playing experience is completely unique. I wouldn’t trade the job of being a musician for any other.
Well, after three days in a row of early hotel departures (5:00, 5:15 and 3:45) I am back in NYC recharging my batteries. We’re back out on Tuesday for another week, taking us through the South (thank God!).
I had a photo shoot the other day for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Because the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is sponsored by Brooks Brothers, that is what we are going to wear. Period. Which is fine, because although the clothes are generally pretty conservative, they still look and feel damn good.
The purpose of this photo shoot was different from the past ones, which usually involved somewhat formal poses of the entire band, and maybe a few quick ones using various combinations of cats, and maybe a few rushed individual shots.
This shoot focussed on a few individuals who would be featured throughout the coming JLCO season, and I suppose because I have been commissioned to write a long-form piece that will be premiered next January (working title - “The Presidential Suite”) they will need some photos for their press releases, etc.
I do have to admit that all the attention is nice - you got two people dressing you, someone doing your makeup, people constantly looking at you and giving you the thumbs up, two photographers smiling and telling you you look great (whether you do or not). And you buy all of this for a moment, and it feels like you are a pop star. And then it comes, that moment that puts it all in perspective, makes the whole fantasy come crashing down: they ask you to wear a hat.
Now, I don’t think I have every worn a hat in my entire life. I tried to explain this, that if I took a picture with a hat on it might look slick, but it wouldn’t be me. “Yeah, you sure? How about this one.” It was one of those sort of tweedy British newsboy caps. Look in mirror. Actually, not bad. Maybe I should have been wearing hats all these years. Now that I think about it, the cover of my first record on Concord Jazz (I was 19) had me in a hat. I left that one on the subway in 1980. End of hat career.
A few weeks ago Frank Kimbrough and I were sitting at the bar at the Jazz Standard, listening to a band of young musicians. They sounded great, but looked a little self-conscious: three of them had hats on. I don’t know. It just felt wrong. I was thinking about some established players like Joe Lovano and Kenny Garrett who can pull it off. I turned to Frank, and said “what’s up with the hats?” Frank replied "You have to earn the hat.”
I just spent a couple of great days playing the music of drummer Tim Horner. Tim and I have been playing together since the late 80s - he was regular member of my quartet for a long time, and recorded with me on “Rhyme and Reason.” His last record, “The Places We Feel Free,” is great, and if you haven’t checked it out, I suggest you do. Playing with Tim is always comfortable and familiar. But there is an extra edge now, and I think it has to do with the great writing he is doing - the direction his music has taken.
Sunday night’s concert was for a packed house at the Puffin Center out in Teaneck, and the band was an extremely musical collection of cats including Joe Locke, Jim Ridl, Steve Allee, and Dean Johnson. We played through some very challenging music, all Tim Horner compositions, save for a Denny Zeitlin piece called Quit Now, which opened the concert following a moment of silence, as a dedication to the lost lives in Newtown, CT two days before.
The first thing about this experience that was challenging for me was that a few of Tim’s pieces required some serious bass clarinet playing. I’m not a serious bass clarinet player. Well, I could be I suppose if practiced the damn thing. The last gig I did was a year and a half ago (see my blog "Sold!"
). The great flautist Mindy Kaufman once told me she’s always two weeks away from her best. Well, that may have been true for me as well, but I had two days in which do two weeks worth of practicing. And believe me, after the rehearsal which exposed the truth, I did my best to find those two weeks.
One thing about the bass clarinet, if you don’t play it often, is that going to it from the regular clarinet is like breaking up with your 5’6’ girlfriend and starting to date a girl who is 6’5” tall - you just aren’t quite sure how to handle all of her. Well, I managed to get through the concert, although I felt like I was on a tight rope with no balance pole.
The next day I hopped into the Hippie-Mobile (AKA the Hipster) and drove way the hell out somewhere in New Jersey to a recording studio to record Tim’s record. I have to say having the concert the night before was a very important rehearsal. Tim said the studio was about an hour’s drive from the Bridge, but that is about and hour and twenty minutes in the Hipster, and I was five minutes late to the session. Everyone was in position, getting sounds, and I still had four horns to set up, reeds to wet, and a new girlfriend to wrestle with.
The session went great. The music is groovy, swinging, and quirky at times. Everyone played their butts off. I am totally psyched to hear this recording when it comes out. I’ll let you know ;).
By the way, the Hippie-Mobile’s windshield wipers decide to stop working, and I drove home in a light rain going about 40 MPH. Took two hours to get home...
It’s been a couple weeks since the Jazz Composers Collective celebrated it’s 20th anniversary by presenting a week-long festival at Jazz Standard. The dust has settled, turkey has been consumed, and things are getting back to normal after a terrible storm, and I am finding a moment to reflect on this great week.
The storm of music that hit Jazz Standard November 6-11, featured eleven bands over six days, and included projects that got their start at JCC concerts nearly 20 years ago, as well as brand new music. With the opening of the week being election night, followed by a second storm, business was a little slow at first. But it picked up as the week went on, and by Thursday it was jam-packed with old and new fans.
Ben Allison opened the festival, a sort of JCC tradition: four years ago his band played as voters elected Obama to the Oval Office, and the good vibrations of his music was successful once again this term! Ben’s new band, which is as much a rock band as jazz group, was creative and inspired, featuring two guitarists - Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook, whose styles are as different as the two political parties that were fighting it out that night. Allison Miller on drums and Rogerio Boccato on percussion sounded great together. Rogerio and I work together in a group led by Erik Charlston which features the music of Hermeto Pascoal (Come check us out at Dizzy’s Club on January 7th!).
Wednesday night was Frank Kimbrough’s “night,” and he brought to the stage a new band featuring Steve Wilson (sax), Jay Anderson (bass) and Louis Nash (drums). Frank explored new music, and also revisited compositions (with new twists) that premiered at Collective concerts years ago. The band sounded quite in sync, despite the fact the Louis Nash flew in from out of the country just in time to set up his cymbals and be handed a stack of lead sheets. Steve, on both alto and soprano, played with both intellect and expression.
Thursday night featured two bands let by trumpeter Ron Horton. Ron, in my opinion, exists way too far below the radar. He is a great composer and improviser, and a hell of a car mechanic. He plays beautifully on my recent release, The Creep. Ron’s first set featured his sextet, with Marty Erlich, Ron and myself on horns, and Ben, Frank, and Tim Horner in the rhythm section. The second set was a min--big band co-led with Horner, that included some great musicians, many of which, in my opinion, also deserve wider recognition, like Marc Mommaas, Nate Ecklund and John O’Gallagher. I was a little apprehensive about the set - there was a lot of music, lots of notes and cues, and I felt the music was underrehearsed. I was happily surprised, however, that it came together so beautifully.
Friday night featured two bands of mine and a set of Herbie Nichols music. It was a long day, with a rehearsal, three sound checks and three completely different sets, and I was exhausted by the end of it. But in a good way. The first set was my Double Quartet, featuring a string quartet. Nathalie Bonin came all the way from Montreal to play! We brought back to life some music from Rhyme and Reason, and also featured Suite Ivette, a new piece in three movements. The second set was my quartet, playing music from The Creep. The third set was the Herbie Nichols Project. We discovered new music that had been assumed MIA, after it had been supposedly lost in a flood many years ago. But this turned out to be a myth, as we were able to acquire photocopies of forty originals by Herbie Nichols that had never been recorded, and many, we assume, that had never played publicly. We are all so excited by the discovery of this new music, some of which is the best I have ever heard penned by this overlooked genius. We are planning to record very soon.
Saturday night was buzzing with excitement. Word of the Festival had certainly spread, and the joint was jumpin’. Michael Blake led off with his band, Elevated Quartet, which was loose, open and intimate. It reminded me in some ways of Trane’s classic quartet, with a little updated language. I had never heard drummer Ferenc Nemeth, and really enjoyed his playing. For the second set Ben Allison reunited his Medicine Wheel band, playing music from his recordings Medicine Wheel and Buzz. Enough time has passed to have made this a nostalgic experience. The third set was a new group, The Jim Hall Project, playing music by the great guitarist/composer. This is a very open, intimate group, with Ben Allison, Steve Cardenas and myself. Most fun I’ve had with my clothes on in a long time...
Sunday night, closing night, was also buzzing, and opened with Michael Blake’s sextet, featuring a lot of young, lesser-known musicians. Very creative. Many of them wore hats. The musicians were listening to each other, and took their time to develop ideas. The final set of the week was a the Herbie Nichols Project, playing a slightly different set then on Friday night. Herbie’s music is quirky, mostly joyful, and dark at times.
It took me a couple days to recuperate from the week. But like a strenuous workout at the gym, the pain is a good pain.
My first gig with Benny Goodman, which took place at Yale University in 1985, was not the greatest experience of my life. Well, in fact, the concert itself was quite cathartic and exhilarating - it was what lead up to that performance which made it memorable.
Benny Goodman did not have a reputation for being the easiest band leader to work for. In fact, he was known for being very hard on his musicians, and just because my father played in his sextet several years before, didn't make me immune from "the ray" - the beam of hatred and dissatisfaction that would come from his eyes when he wasn't thrilled with how you were playing.
Now, let's back up to 1976. Family vacation. Sixteen years old. One of our stops was Benny's country house out in Connecticut, where he served us hot dogs for lunch. There was a Renoir painting right behind me in the dining room, and I remember thinking he could have hooked this meal up a little better. But he was eccentric, and you just had to appreciate it and laugh. And pass the mustard.
After lunch, we went out to Benny's studio. There it was - his Selmer clarinet, sitting there on a stand. Benny said "I understand you play the clarinet." "Yes, I do." Well, go ahead - give it a try." I hesitated and looked over at my father, who just nodded. I picked up this historic black stick and began noodling through a few fast runs and arpeggios. "How does that feel?" he asked, with a playful grin. "Okay," I responded, "but your reed is a bit soft." The grin disappeared. Then we went out to the back yard to look for muskrats.
Nine years later, Benny had just put his big band back together, with the help of Loren Schoenberg, who also played tenor sax in the band. Then he fired Loren. I guess he got the ray. Anyway, he asked the cats in the sax section who he should call and they said "Get Ted Nash." I showed up for the first rehearsal feeling fairly confident. Big mistake. First thing that happened is a pad fell out of of the low D key on my tenor. I crammed it back in the best I could just before starting the first tune.
The entire time we played Benny kept glancing over at me. It wasn't quite the ray, so I just kept looking forward, trying to appear like I was taking care of business. Then I felt his stare become more intense. I tried to resist the temptation, but gave in and looked over at him and caught eyes with his. That was it. He stopped the band.
"Oh, Ted, can you play your part at letter A?' I did the best I could with my leaking lower register. I have to admit it didn't sound all that great. Then he had the sax section play by ourselves. He wanted to hear the blend. He stood in front of me, directing me with his hand - louder, softer, a little softer, a little more, a little less. I looked around at the guys for support, but they wouldn't look at me. I guess they were afraid they would get the ray.
We played the second tune, "More than You Know," and half way through my 16 bar melody solo he stopped the band. "Oh, Ted, can you pass that solo down to Ken." This behavior went on for much of the three hours.
At the end of the rehearsal Benny called me over to a corner of the room. "Ted, I don't think it's going to work out between us. It's your sound: It's...well, it's just not fashionable." I thanked him for the opportunity, packed up my horn and left. I felt miserable. I guess I shouldn't have told Benny his reed was too soft nine years before.
The next day I am home, and the phone rings. It's Benny. "Oh, Ted, I think I may have been a little harsh on you yesterday. I'd like you to do the concert with us at Yale on Saturday. And I'm giving everyone a $50 raise." I don't know where his came from but I said, "I'LL do it under one condition." "Oh?" "Yes, I'll do it as long as you don't stop the band and make me play by myself." "Oh, okay. See you Saturday."
At the sound check on Saturday, we began playing "Stealin' Apples," the classic Fletcher Henderson chart. The band was swinging, and all seemed to be going smoothly. Then I could feel it. He was glancing in my direction. I kept playing, looking forward at my music. Then he stopped band. I could feel what was coming. I looked him. He was looking at me. So I did it - I gave him the ray. He paused for a moment and than turned to the band. "Okay, everyone let's take it from letter C."
During the concert, in the middle of vocalist Carrie Smith's rendition of "Pigfoot," all of a sudden, out of nowhere. Benny points to me and says "Tenor solo." I jumped up from my chair and swung just as hard as I could. When I finished my chorus, the loudest applause was coming from the band!
That was my first gig with Benny Goodman.
35 years ago I recorded my first two records. The first one was Music from Other Galaxies and Planets
, and the second was Live at Montreux
, both with trumpet player and composer Don Ellis and his band. I was seventeen.
I got a chance to play this music again Saturday night in Los Angeles with eight other alumni, part of a festival of big band reunions hosted by the LA Jazz Institute. It was amazing to look around at the band, and see the time that has passed. Most of these musicians I hadn’t seen in 35 years: drummer Dave Crigger, violist Jimbo Ross, trumpet player Jack Coan, trombonist Rich Bullock, and french horn player Sidney Muldrow. A few I have run into over the years, like trombonist Alan Kaplan, reed player Ann Patterson, and cellist Paula Hochhalter.
I think we all shared a strong nostalgic remembrance of Don and his music - the intense rehearsals, figuring out how to subdivide in the odd time signatures - is it “two-two-three” or “two-three-two?”; singing “ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta” for hours in the large rehearsal room at the Musicians Union until it became second nature; the electrifying concerts, with Don in a white cape, feeling more like a rock concert in many ways.
I remember the day I joined the band. Don Ellis had been studying the trombone with my father. A few years before Don had suffered a massive heart attack and was told by his doctor never to play the trumpet again. So Don spent his creative energy composing. After a few years he decided to take up the trombone, I guess thinking the larger embouchure would be less stressful on his heart.
One day my Dad invited him down to the then popular jazz club Donte’s to hear my group. He came down with the lead alto player in his band, Ann Patterson. A few weeks later Don called me to fill in at the last minute for Art Pepper for the band’s last performance before taking off for Europe to do the summer festivals. (Art had been playing with Don’s big band, but was having health challenges.) At the sound check, we ran through “Go-No-Go,” a funky piece that featured Don and me. I got through it fine, but Don told me to find more “dirt” in my solo. I guess I was playing to many notes, too be-boppy.
At the end of the gig, Don reminded the band to make sure their passports were up-to-date, and wanted to meet with each member individually to talk about the. As the musicians were packing up and leaving the stage, I approached Don and asked, brazenly, “Is there any reason I should get a passport?” Don smiled that big smile of his, and said “Yeah...I think you need to get a passport.” That’s how I joined the band.
The reunion band sounded amazing. Let by Ann Patterson, with conducting assistance by Nick di Scala (who is clearly an authority on Don’s music), we played almost the entire repertoire from the Live at Montreux
record. I know one thing - if drummer Dave Crigger hadn’t been there, this concert would have been impossible. We did had many people playing this music for the first time, but they all jumped up on the music. In particular was trumpet player John Daversa, “subbing” for Don Ellis. I had never heard him play before, but I have become an instant fan.
The second composition on the concert was “Go-No-No,” the piece after which Don told me to find more dirt. When I played it last weekend, I felt Don’s presence next to me, and put some extra dirt in there for him.
I also participated in the reunion of the Louie Bellson big band, with Jeff Hamilton playing drums. He sounded great playing this music. He perfectly blended Louie’s style with his own, and it felt both historic and fresh at the same time.
At one point during the only rehearsal, alto player Andy McIntosh (whose sound I fell in love with when I first heard it when I was fifteen) asked Jeff if he could play a little softer on a particular woodwind passage, and Jeff said “Well, let’s see - on those bars Louie played a backbeat, and on the bell of the symbol, like this,” and then demonstrated. I couldn’t believe how diligently he had listened to the recordings and knew what Louie was doing at every spot in the music. That’s a true professional!
Both Don Ellis and Louie Bellson helped and inspired me at a very young age, and I owe much to their generosity of spirit and great musicianship. I miss them.
Here's a fun clip of the band playing "Go-No-Go" at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVhNbhiREDU
It’s not often I get a week completely off. No rehearsals, no gigs, no meetings...no IRS audits. This happened a couple weeks ago, so I decided to fly out to the ”other” coast for a little R&R. I covered a lot of ground in six days: I spent some time with my daughters Emily and Lisa, did some wine tasting, and hung out at the Monterey Jazz Festival. It was a mix of new experiences and nostalgic revisitations.
I grew up California and still feel a pull to this amazing part of the country, with it’s incomparable coast line, mountains, desert. Just about every type of terrain, weather, and people are here.
In San Francisco I crashed for two days on a single mattress wedged between a couch and a window, in the living room of Emily’s Mission District apartment, which she shares with three other young people. Very bohemian. The apartment looked like it was decorated by six people who never met. But very sweet. I enjoyed hanging here, and seeing how my first daughter is living her life, going to the University, spending time with her boyfriend Jason, recording music in her spare time. We ate Ethiopian food, visited neighbors, and did some hiking.
Third day into my trip I dropped Emily off at school and drove a couple hours south to the very laid-back town of Santa Cruz, where Lisa has been living since June. She tried New York for a few months, but realized she preferred the more relaxed lifestyle of this West Coast town. After hanging here for a couple days I started to question my own reasons for living in New York.
Lisa’s apartment, which she shares with a couple friends, is in a beautiful Victorian house, about a four minute bike ride from the main drag. I had a great time riding around on bikes with Lisa, visiting the wharf, shopping for a stereo receiver for the turntable one of her roommates picked up at a flea market for five dollars, and going to cafes.
On day five I gave Lisa a big hug and continued a bit further south to Paso Robles. I came here for one reason - wine tasting! The wineries in this part of California have some some of the best ZIns, Grenaches, Cabs and Petite Sirahs I’ve ever tasted. I got to the area about 3 in the afternoon, a little later than I had planned, but was still able to hit about five places before things began to close down.
The next day I visited a couple wineries on the way out of town, tasted responsibly, and headed back north to Monterey, where my room at the Motel 6 awaited me. Yes, not first-class accommodations, but I wasn’t here for the hotel room.
After getting settled, (i.e. tossing my suitcase in the half-opened door and closing it again) I headed back to the car and drove down to the Monterey Fairgrounds, home to the Jazz Festival for 55 years. For the three years I was in high school I played lead alto with the Monterey All-State High School Band. For two of those years, sitting next to me on the other alto chair was Eric Marienthal. Great cat. I had such a good time playing and hanging out with him back then. (He was also the first person to expose me to a certain extra-curricular activity which resulted in a slight distortion in perception. The problem was I wasn’t expecting the accompanying paranoia, and this made the imminent arrival of my parents that night a bit stressful.) I haven’t seen him since we were teenager, but I’ve heard him on recordings, including work with Chick Corea.
Some of the other students who were in the band during those three were Dan Wilensly, Steve Bernstein, Joe Alessi, Randy Kerber, Larry Lunetta, Larry Koonse, and Chad Wackerman.
Anyway, I had a back stage pass for the Festival (thanks Tim!), and the first group up was the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band. On lead alto was none other than Eric Marienthal. I found him outside the green room, getting ready to go on. We gave each other a big hug, and were so excited to see each other after all these years. We grabbed the Festival photographer, and he snapped a few shots of us together back stage. (Haven’t gotten them yet - will post when I do).
Gordon’s band sounded great. Clean and technical. It is a very different band from the JLCO, and I loved hearing that difference. Gordon is a natural entertainer, both on the mic and with his arrangements. Lots of humor.
After the set I ran over to another venue and caught harmonica player (harmonicist?) Gregoire Maret and his band, with Clarence Penn on drums. I first heard Gregoire on a John Ellis recording Ted Panken played for me as part of a Downbeat Blindfold Test. I remember questioning whether it was a real harmonica, because of all the bad shit he was able to play. A few weeks later, I overlapped with him in the studio - I had just finished overdubbing some solos on a recording for vocalist Rondi Charleston, and he was just coming in to do the same. I caught a little of his first solo, and he was killing.
There was something about the performance at the Festival which seemed to cause some restlessness in the crowd. They seemed to have a hard to time focussing. There was a lot of harmonic subtlety in the music, and maybe that wasthe problem - these days people need to be hit over the head. People don’t have the attention spans they used to. After every tune some people would get up from their chairs, squeezing past others, probably on their way to catch something at another venue (there are many at the festival). Often, the empty chair would be filled again by someone who had just arrived. It was distracting to a point, and I know Gregoire could feel it. But he continued putting his heart into the music, and the set grew in intensity. Ultimately, the crowd was riveted.
After the set I ran back over to the main stage and got there in time to find the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra getting read to go on. I had a lot of friends and colleagues in the band - Mike Rodriguez, Bryan Lunch, Conrad Herwig, Joe Fiedler to name a few. And of course, the Maestro, Mr. Palmieri, who is not only an acquaintance, but also the father of my manager, Ileana. The band was on fire. Beautiful feeling, killing arrangements. Felt like dancing. But I can’t. I really had a good time listening to this music. And so did the other 10,000 people! The audience was feeling it, that is for sure!
Just before the end of the set, New York time caught up with me, and I drove back to my hole at the Motel 6 and crashed.
When I woke up the next morning, before opening my eyes, I tried to pretend I was in a four-star hotel room, but couldn’t fool myself. I quickly packed up and checked out. It was back to the Festival.
Over the next three or four hours I managed to hear a little each of the following:
• Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
• Robert Randolph & the Family Band
• Gerald Clayton Blindfold Test with Dan Ouellette
• Judy Roberts and Greg Fishman duo
• The Folsom High School Jazz Choir
• The Folsom High School Big Band
Ali Ryerson & Mimi Fox Duo
All of these had their moments, but I felt most engaged by Ali Ryerson and Mimi Fox. The have a real rapport, and were really listening and responding to each other. Ali’s flute sound is rich and expressive. Also, I was really impressed with the Folsom High School jazz choir. Really creative and fun. Band director Curtis Gaesser is doing great things with the students.
Well, the week came had come to an end, and it was time to drive the two hours back up to San Francisco. I left early enough so I could have dinner with Emily, but on the way my Hyundai rental developed a slow leak in the left rear tire. By the time I noticed the change in the car’s handling, and started hearing some strange noises, a warning light on dashboard had come on.
I pulled over in the parking lot of a restaurant called “The Cats” whose entrance required a death-defying left turn between oncoming cars racing around a sharp bend. The tire was completely flat. When I opened up the trunk, emptied out my bags, and pulled up the spare tire cover, there was no spare tire! Just some blue compressor thing wrapped in plastic, and another little machine with a meter on it, with all sorts of hoses and cords. There were no written instructions, probably because the translation from Korean would be way too creative, so instead there was just a sheet with pictures and arrows. Great - an IQ test.
Took me about 20 minutes to get these contraptions connected and hooked up to the cigarette lighter, which probably didn’t place me in the genius category, but everything looked right. I started the car, and pushed the toggle switch on the compressor to the “on” position, and sure enough the tire was inflating. This thing was actually working! One of the little pictures showed the meter and it said “min 32psi.” Minimum 32 pounds per square inch. I mean, even I could figure that out. I watched the meter’s dial carefully, with my finger hovering above the toggle switch, ready to hit the button as soon as the meter read 32. It got to 20 and then just seemed to stay there. I wasn’t sure what to do - the tire looked like it was about ready. I looked back at the meter, then back at the tire, my finger shaking with anticipation. It was going on too long. I was just about to turn the compressor off when the tire exploded. It was instantly flat.
I flipped over the diagram sheet, looking for the picture of the person’s head next to the exploding tire, for an expression I could borrow. But the sheet was blank.
Hello, rental car company? I told them to send a tow truck out to get me. Forget about dinner with Emily, my concern now was making my flight. I figured I might be here a while. I reached into the back seat into a shopping bag. I found the remaining half bottle of Cabernet I purchased at the last winery in Paso Robles. I had had a glass here and there over the past day and a half while hanging at the Festival. I poured a generous splash into one of the wine-tasting souvenir glasses, pushed my seat back, took a deep breath and enjoyed my wine.
More than an hour and half had passed before the tow truck got to me, and now things were tight. It took about forty-five minutes to tow the car to the Firestone shop, and another ten to swing around and drop me at the airport. I made the flight just in time.
And that’s how my visit to the “other” coast came to an end.
I have been looking forward to this week for a long time, ever since I saw it on the Jazz at Lincoln Center schedule. Little did I know just how great an experience it would be.
Last night was opening night, not only of this project, but also for the JALC 2012/2013 season, and if this is any indication of the year ahead, it’s going to be a good one. Bobby McFerrin is our guest. We all know how varied his talents are; the range of his expressions, his rich musicianship. But little did I know just how cool a dude he is. No divo, he. The last three days of rehearsals with Bobby and the band have been full of collaboration, exploration and discovery.
Paul Simon happened to be in the audience last night, and Bobby invited him to come up and join us on Scarborough Fair (one I arranged for the band). When he humbly declined, Bobby insisted. The audience insisted, too. Finally, Paul raised slowly from his seat, sporting his usual hat, and found his way to the stage. It was one of those spontaneous moments that remind you that life is worth living.
Paul and Bobby fooled around for a while on a vamp, messing around with different pieces of the melody, reharmonizing it and fitting it different ways into the time. Then we segued into the chart, which Bobby had me to do in A minor (not the original D minor), so there was some concern whether Paul would feel comfortable singing a forth away from his usual tonal center. But, of course, we’re talking about a veteran performer, and in the spirit of being part of something special, Paul embraced the moment - and the new key.
Often when we do these collaborations Wynton “farms out” the arrangement responsibilities to the ten cats in the band who can write. While this may seem like a huge potential for danger (when we performed with Chick Corea last year, and Wynton explained this format to Chick, Chick said “You sure you want to do that?”), it is always, in my opinion, the most interesting of our concerts. Ten different people hear ten different ways. For me the disparate nature of this programming - with it’s resulting broad range of colors, textures and styles - is an absolute positive. And there is a through-line: the fact that we know each other’s playing so intimately allows us to make creative decisions that “outside” arrangers might never make. And a lot of thought goes into Wynton’s deciding which arranger is to do what song.
Whenever I can, I like to write music deep in the woods of Northeast Pennsylvania, in my log cabin. It’s quiet. Very quiet. In fact, one of the compositions on my recent release, “The Creep,” is called Cabin Fever. Without Internet or cell service, this environment is practically devoid of distractions, perfect for getting into a creative frame of mind. Yeah, the occasional black bear that comes sniffing around might grab my attention, and the beauty of the fireflies at dusk, or the awesomeness of the milky way might take me away from work for a bit, but if anything it adds to my inspiration.
This quiet, however, was broken the other day when, on a dark Saturday night there was a wrapping at the front door. My head snapped around to see my neighbor, the Philadelphia cop who owns the cabin down the road, his face practically pressed up against the window It reminded me a little of Jack Nicholson in The Shinning.(“Here’s Johnny!”) I hadn’t seen my neighbor in a couple years. He explained he is in the National Guard and spent the past year in Af-getto-stan. Charming. Alright, this area is not known for it’s dense population of liberals. Anyway, we shared a few quick updates, and I told him I would stop by his cabin the next day and say say a quick hi.
The week in PA was productive - I finished my arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” and had tackled about half of “Ain’t Necessarily So,” another chart for Bobby. It was a beautiful Sunday: warm and dry. A long weekend like this (Labor day) brings many of the cabin owners and their families to the area. Their idea of spending time in the country is quite different from mine, and usually involves driving noisy ATVs up and down the road, and shooting shot guns at bottles.
It was time to get out of here. I packed up my stuff, ready to hit the road back to the City in my Hippie-Mobile, and remembered I had promised my neighbor I’d stop by and say hi. I walked the couple hundred yards down the dirt road to his place. In the front yard I met some more cabin owners who were chilling in aluminum folding chairs, sucking on beer cans. One guy immediately shared with me a story about how he had to end an argument with the couple up the road by pulling out his 45 hand gun and firing off a couple rounds. While he is telling me this fascinating and inspiring anecdote, I notice my neighbor setting down and opening a long olive green case. He pulls out a familiar-looking piece of machinery. “What’s that?” I ask, trying to act nonchalant. “This, my friend, is an AK 47.” His 20-something year old son chimes in, with HIS five year old son hovering around his legs: “Yeah, this gun has killed more people than any other weapon, in all of history. And I’m includin' nuclear bombs!” I figured this might not be the best time to bring up my civil rights activist parents.
“Well,” I stretched my arms up above my shoulders, as if it were time for bed “I really gotta be hittin’ the road,” expressed in my best hick vernacular.
As I waked up the driveway back towards the road, I heard a couple shots. I didn’t look back. Then I wondered if my neighbor, the night before when he was in my cabin, saw the Jazz LP on my stereo with a picture of an African American on it. I kept walking.
Anyway, I am looking forward to the next two evenings with Bobby McFerrin and the JLCO. The show will be webcast. Click Here
Here's a shot during Paul Simon’s visit on stage, during Scarborough Fair