Q&A: Arturo Sandoval at the Playboy Jazz Festival

June 5, 2014

playboy jazz logo

By Devon Wendell

Legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Arturo Sandoval and his big band will be performing at the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year at The Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, June 14th.  I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Mr. Sandoval on his upcoming performance at the festival and discuss his incredibly illustrious and influential career, and much, much more.

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DW: Arturo, tell me how it feels to be performing at the 36th annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year and tell me what you and your big band will be bringing to the festival.

AS: I’m very excited. It’s an honor and a privilege. It’s a great festival. I’m so happy, man, because the big band that I have here in LA is an amazing band with some of the best musicians in town. It’s such a joy. Every time I play with that band I know heaven, man. And we’re going to try to do our best to entertain the people the best we can. It’s really great.

DW: My love and obsession with the music of Dizzy Gillespie brought me to your wonderful music. Tell me how Dizzy’s music and spirit still inspires your recordings and live performances.

AS: Dizzy was my hero even before I met him and after that he became my mentor and best friend. I always say that I believe that was a gift from God to become a good friend with my hero. That opportunity doesn’t happen very often. And he was so good to me in so many different ways. The only thing I can tell you is that I miss him very, very much.

DW: That is the greatest gift for an artist. We musicians dream about that happening and everything about Dizzy was larger than life.

DW: I often feel that younger people don’t appreciate or aren’t even aware of the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Clifford Brown, especially in America. Besides carrying on the legacy of these pioneers, do you feel obligated to educate younger generations on this music?

AS: Of course because it’s the legacy of the most wonderful art form in this country, jazz. I have no doubt about that. And I strongly believe that it’s a crime that people don’t realize or are aware of the importance to keep this style of music alive. It’s the mission of not only the musicians but also the press and the media, the radio stations, producers, programmers, record labels; everybody has to get together to preserve this wonderful legacy.

DW: Absolutely. I try to do my part and I’m often met with a lot of adversity from people in the “industry” but it’s worth it.

DW: Was there a greater exposure to jazz growing up in Cuba as apposed to what’s being taught to the youth of America in schools and music programs today?

AS: Oh No, man. In Cuba people don’t talk about jazz. They don’t even have a radio program that plays jazz music at all. We listened to jazz from the voice of America through short wave radio. Other than that, you have to try hard to find a record, recording, or tape, otherwise it’s almost impossible. There’s no record store where you can go and buy a jazz record. It just doesn’t exist. But when information is in the atmosphere you will find it no matter what. It’s up to you to really find that information.

DW: Tell me how other forms of music other than jazz inspire you. Do you listen to all kinds of music?

AS: I listen to everything, man. Music is music. There are only two types of music; good and bad. If it’s good, I’m always interested in trying very hard to learn it. That’s my way of thinking and philosophy. The music is one and whatever sounds good, I’m going to study and learn.

DW: That is what it really boils down to, good and bad and we either create those barriers that keep us from growing or not.

AS: Yeah, That’s it.

DW: Tell me about some new jazz as well as some Cuban musicians on the scene today that inspire you or that have gotten your attention.

AS: I left Cuba 35 years ago and have never gone back. I’m not aware of what’s going on there. There are always new and great musicians coming out of the island. All over the world it’s the same story. There’s new musicians who really embrace this style of music and want to develop and bring new ideas to it. And we must respect and embrace that and encourage them to keep trying to grow.

DW: As a musician myself, I often find it difficult to practice as much as I did when I was younger. How long and often do you currently practice?

AS: I must practice everyday, I must. It’s not a choice. You either do it or you cannot survive, especially with the trumpet. The trumpet is a tough instrument and very physically demanding so you have to stay on top of that every single day otherwise you start to sound worse and worse every hour.

DW: That actually leads me to my next question. As Dizzy used to remind us, the trumpet is a very physically demanding instrument. Are there certain nights in which you feel the instrument is kicking your butt on the bandstand or do you feel a more confident control over the trumpet? Is that control possible on a consistent basis?

AS: You cannot take anything for granted with the trumpet. You have to fight every day. And as Dizzy used to say; “The trumpet’s always going to win. Tomorrow, maybe you have a chance, but the day after, the trumpet’s going to win, and then you die and the trumpet wins.” (Laughter)

DW: Ah, that makes me reconsider trying to learn it. I’ll stick with the guitar where you just break strings and constantly go out of tune. Tell me about your process of composing music. Does the melodic and harmonic structure come to you first or the rhythm, or all three at once?

AS: Oh, I don’t really have any kind of formula you know? (Laughing) I’ve got a routine in which I sit down at the piano every morning and try to put together something. I don’t know what, Sometimes a piece of melody, or some progressions and changes. Sometimes the harmony comes first. Sometimes the melody will lead me to a progression of chords.  The bottom line is to always try when you’ve got the desire to create something.

DW: Tell me how other instruments besides the trumpet inspire your fluent and beautifully melodic playing.

AS: Oh I spend a lot more time with the piano than with the trumpet. The piano is the best teacher you can have. It helps you to compose, to learn harmony, with improvisation, and most importantly, the piano helps you truly understand music.

DW: Dizzy always said that the piano is the foundation for composing and understanding all instruments.

AS: That’s it. I start at the piano always.

DW: Tell me what records you are currently listening to both on the road and at home?

AS: I listen to internet radio. I listen to jazz stations a lot. I also listen to a lot of classical music, especially the impressionists. I’m a big fan of Erik Satie, Debussy, Ravel, and I’m also a big fan of Rachmaninoff. His concertos are unbelievable. I listen to everything and don’t discriminate against any genre of music. If it sounds good, I try my best to get familiar with the style.

DW: Tell me about the very first jazz recording you experienced as a child growing up in Cuba.

Arturo SandovalAS: The first record I ever heard was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and man that impression still lingers on in my head. Before that I didn’t hear any jazz. I had already been playing for quit a number of years but only traditional Cuban music and then I got a scholarship to get classical training, then a journalist in Havana asked if I had ever heard any jazz music and I said “no, what’s that?” (Laughter) and then he gave me that record of Dizzy and Charlie Parker.

DW: Do you mean the Bird & Diz album on Verve with Monk on piano?

AS: No, I think it was Kenny Clarke on drums, Milt Jackson on vibes, and Slam Stewart on bass.

DW: Oh, yes from 1946 and ‘47. Charlie Parker and Dizzy were my introduction to jazz as well.

DW: Tell me about the moment in which you felt you had truly arrived as a trumpeter with legendary status.

AS: I don’t know about that, man..(laughter) I don’t believe in those titles, especially with the trumpet. With the trumpet you have to fight and learn every single day. You have to start from scratch everyday. Oh man, it’s a tough instrument.

DW: Many artists do not like the label of “jazz musician.” I know the late great Yusef Lateef found it limiting. Are you accepting of this label? How would you label your music?

AS: I don’t know. I am open to all kinds of music. When I’m on stage I don’t want to feel any limitations. If I feel I want to go in a certain direction, I go. I think the most beautiful thing about jazz music is the freedom. You feel free on the stage to create, to improvise, and come up with different ideas every time, even with the same tune. I try to play a piece differently every night.

DW: Many musicians find it very difficult to transition from other genres of music such as blues and rock to jazz, which has a very specific musical language. What is your advice to such musicians struggling to grasp and utilize the language of jazz in their music?

AS: We have to listen to everything. The more styles you listen to, the better you’re going to be. We have to be prepared to play different styles of music with completely different approaches, even in the sound and the articulation, and the colors of the sound. The more you add to your vocabulary, the more entertaining and interesting your performance will be.

DW: Tell me about the difference in experience when playing with your big band in contrast with playing with smaller groups?

The Arturo Sandoval Big Band

The Arturo Sandoval Big Band

AS: Oh, it’s a different feeling, man. The big band sound is so powerful. I’ve got to tell you, I’m so excited because the big band I have here is amazing. These musicians are incredible. It’s such an honor for me to share the stage with those guys. A small combo is completely different; there is more freedom to improvise. With my small band we’ve played together for so many years that after I play a few notes, they know exactly which direction I’m going. With the big band we have to follow the arrangements and structure more.

DW: Where do you see the world of jazz headed in the next ten years?

AS: It’s in the hands of God, my friend, but it’s also the responsibility of all of us to preserve the legacy that we’ve gotten from so many great artists from the past. I believe it’s the most important art form created in this country.

DW: Amen to that! I couldn’t agree more.

DW: Tell me about your plans for the future. Are you working on a new recording project at the moment or do you have one planned? If not, please keep this fan updated.

AS: Yes, thank God I always have something cooking. I’m working on a lot of scores for films which I love to do. I’ve got a brand new record that’s going to be out by the end of June. It’s a tribute to a Mexican composer named Armando Manzanero who is the number one bolero composer in the history of the genre. I’m very happy that he participated on the record with me. It’s very special because it’s the first time that I’m singing on a record. I play a little bit of trumpet on the album but I’m singing on the whole project. It’s a beautiful piece of music with beautiful lyrics and compositions. I’m very excited about it and look forward to what the people are going to think about it because I never did a record singing before. Nobody can say it’s not pretty.

DW: Manzanero is amazing and this will introduce his music to a whole new audience. That sounds very exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing it. Thank you so much Arturo. I will see you at The Playboy Jazz festival very soon.

AS: Thank you so much. I look forward to it.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson and Faith Frenz.

 

 

 


Q & A: George Lopez and the Playboy Jazz Festival

June 11, 2013

By Don Heckman

Long time fans of the Playboy Jazz Festival are going to receive a surprise this year for the legendary event’s 35th anniversary.  After having hosted virtually all of the previous Festivals, Bill Cosby has decided to retire.  He’ll be replaced by George Lopez, stand up comedian, actor and host of the late night show Lopez tonight. Last week Lopez shared his thoughts about his high visibility new assignment.

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Don Heckman: How did you feel, George, when you got the news that you were replacing Bill Cosby at the Playboy Jazz Festival?

George Lopez: I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about it.  And I still can’t believe that Bill Cosby would ask me to be the host of the Playboy Jazz Festival.  There’s not a lot of people that I respect more in life than Bill Cosby.

DH: Were you familiar with Cosby’s work at the Festival?

GL: Sure.  I’d known of his association with being  host of the Festival for years.  But not until I got involved did I learn that he had been there for 34 years.  And I was also surprised to learn that the only two people who had ever filled in for him were Flip Wilson and Steve Allen, I believe.

DH: How did you find out about the new assignment?

George Lopez

GL: I got a message to call him, I think it was in October.  Months before the February announcement.  He told me he did not want to continue as host.  And he asked me if I would take over for him.

DH: Did you have any contact with him before that?

GL: Yes,  Mr. Cosby had done my talk show a couple of times.  And we had a nice rapport.  He was very kind to me about my comedy.  So when I found out why he wanted me to call him, I thought, “Well, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

DH: What’s your background in jazz, George?  What kind of fan are you?  Warm, luke-warm, what?

GL: I’m a luke-warm.  But I have a tremendous respect for music.  I mean, I love all music.  From my association with Carlos Santana I learned a lot about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and more.  When I was in high school, George Benson had crossed into the mainstream. And even then I knew about Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and guys like that.  Not to the degree of what Mr. Cosby knows.  I appreciate jazz for the craftsmanship of the players, but also because their music is from the soul.

DH: Over the years comedians like Cosby, Mort Sahl and others have mentioned the similarities between the improvisation of jazz and the improvising of stand-up comedians like you.

GL: Yes.  That’s true.  In fact somebody once said to me, ‘You know, your comedy is like jazz, free like jazz.  You don’t play the same notes all the time.”  And I agree. There’s a warmth and a soul to jazz that is not in a lot of music.

DH: You also grew up in a very musical culture, didn’t you?

GL: Absolutely,  It’s always been an everyday part of my life.  There is a tremendous amount of love for music in our culture, of jazz and really of all music..

DH: I assume, however, that there won’t be a Lopez Band to replace the Cos of Good Music, Bill Cosby’s unique band?

GL: No.  I mean, wow, that’s right, Cosby had his own band.  But what did he play?

DH: Sometimes drums. And he played them pretty well. But mostly he just inspired a carefully chosen group of fine players to do their best.

GL: Wow.  I’m afraid that’ll be missing from this Festival.  I wish I could.  I wish I was talented enough to be able to play something.  Anything.  At the Hollywood Bowl.  And I’m not saying that – if I continue as host of the Jazz Festival – that I would not consider putting together a little quartet myself, down the line. The same way Mr. Cosby put that band together.  That would have to be one of the most exciting things, to put a band together and play at the Hollywood Bowl.

DH: Sounds like a very interesting addition to the Festival.

GL: Right.  Especially if I had Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E in my band.

DH: Even better.  How did you work out the way you would handle the hosting of the Festival?  Did you talk to Cos about it?

GL: Cosby ran some things by me.  He told me he didn’t perform so much as just host.  He was like “It’s not about comedy, man.  It’s just about hosting.”  I just want to stay energetic and keep the audience connected.  I may jump in and play congas with Sheila E. at some point.  Or a tambourine.  Throughout the day I would love if the guys would occasionally have me play maracas or tambourine.  Because I think that would help keep the audience connected.

DH: That’s something Cosby did extremely well.

GL: Right.  Which is what I want to do, too.  I want to keep everybody in the Bowl, from the back to the front, connected.  Keep the band pumping.  I can imagine myself walking out into the crowd.  Because I did it once when Santana and I played there.  Cosby also told me to draw attention to the musicians: “Hey, how about so and so on the drums!”  Or “Give it up for so and so.”

DH: Are you all set to go for Saturday and Sunday at the Bowl?

GL: I can’t believe it’s almost here.  I just want everything to go smoothly.  And there’s a lot going on.  Including Quincy Jones’ 80th birthday celebration.

DH: And are you ready to come back next year?

GL: I’d love to be invited back to continue to host the Festival.  To  honor the selection of me as host to follow Cosby.  It would be win-win, and fill my heart with a lot of love.

DH: Thanks, George.  Looking forward to the weekend.

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The 2013 Playboy Jazz Festival  takes place at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16.  For information call (310) 450-1172.l 


Q&A: Gregory Porter at the Playboy Jazz Festival

June 6, 2013

By Devon Wendell

On Saturday, June 15, Gregory Porter will be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl. The trailblazing jazz vocalist and songwriter has become one of the most important male jazz singers to come along in decades since the release of his debut album Water (Motema) in 2010, which was nominated for best jazz vocal album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards.  His sophomore album Be Good (Motema) (released in 2012) earned him a Grammy nomination for best traditional R&B performance last year.

We recently discussed Porter’s rapidly growing career.

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 Devon Wendell: Tell me how it feels to be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year?

Gregory Porter: Very exciting, I’m honored.  I went to see Joao Gilberto at The Hollywood Bowl many years ago and I thought, “Wow, this place is big with such a grand stage!” I remember wondering if I’d ever make it to a place like this one day.  And now I’m going to be there at the Playboy Festival!

DW: That’s really something.  And in addition to that, you were recently signed to Blue Note Records, one of the great historical jazz labels. How does that feel?

GP:  Pretty amazing. I got more congratulations from my friends on Facebook than I did for my Grammy nominations. (laughter) The importance of that record label to black American music history is incredible. The documentation, style, and record cover design. And the most encouraging thing about Blue Note is that they told me to stay doing what I’m doing.

DW: Let me congratulate you as well.

GP: Thank you.

DW:  Who are some of the jazz musicians who inspired you when you were growing up and what was your first introduction to the world of jazz?

GP: Well the first artist who spoke to me in an emotional way was Nat “King” Cole.  The music was extraordinary and my mother used to say “Boy you sound like Nat ‘King’ Cole!” (Laughter)  Plus Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s recording together, Joe Williams, Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, Carmen McRae. But I’ve been inspired by so many artists, jazz and not: Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, A lot of soul and gospel because that’s what was around a lot when I was a kid in both L.A. and Bakersfield and my mother was a minister.  The preachers I grew up around really impacted me.  Minister Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly and Pastor Richardson sang like Sam Cooke.  Elder Duffy had an almost James Brown style (Laughter) Growing up in Bakersfield, Black people moved there from The South because of the agriculture, working in the fields and so on. That generation had songs that they brought with them so when we convened in church, we sang this old music, country, gospel, blues. It was not sophisticated, not new, not mass choir, just hands clapping and (Singing) Bless that wonderful name of Jesus.  The gospel blues.

DW: Did you appreciate what it was all about then?

GP: No. I didn’t appreciate that sound at the time because I thought, “Oh, I’m around these old people singing these old songs,” and “It’s hot in church, I’d rather be out playing with my friends.”  But at the same time, it’s the basis of where I come from when I go to that spiritual place in things like “Work Song,” and “1960 What?” I blur the lines between gospel, soul, and jazz. It’s all given me license to have a more soulful expression in jazz.

DW: You’re such a powerful and imagistic songwriter. Tell me about your songwriting process. Let me ask you the old question: Do you come up with the lyrics or melody first?

GP:  The melody and the lyrics come together and the bass line and rhythm follow shortly. It may sound strange but maybe they’re working themselves out in my subconscious mind before they come to my full attention. When I wrote “Be Good,” (Singing) She said lions are made for cages to look at in delight. That just came to me just like I’m singing to you. I don’t spend a lot of time reworking something I’ve written initially based on something I felt. Sometimes it just comes to me and feels right.

DW: Musically and philosophically speaking, tell me about the differences between your debut album Water and the latest album, Be Good.

GP: I think they’re extensions of each other. Be Good is as much about love, protest and songs about culture and family as Water is with its mentioning of Harlem and “Real Good Hands.” There’s more family and love stories in Be Good.  If I look at both as self analysis, the themes reappear, the vulnerability. The man that’s singing “Illusions” is also the person who is singing “Hey Laura.” But the protest in Be Good is more subtle. It’s a conversation that comes out of neighborhoods that feel squeezed by gentrification, the people that were there unable to afford the rent now because it’s the new hot property.  Love is really what I’m trying to get across in the music in all of its forms. I’m trying to talk about the full spectrum of the human experience.

DW: You grew up in California but currently live in Brooklyn. How has the energy in New York influenced your songwriting in comparison to California?

GP: In New York, the streets outside of the people’s homes are extensions of their living rooms. If I walk to my coffee shop, I’m saying “Hi” to 20 people who feel like they have some ownership in the neighborhood. The thought of family and neighborhood comes together between my house, the coffee shop, and the few blocks near where I live in New York. Watching people’s lives and their ups and downs has had a profound affect on my writing.  On the other hand, California’s great, the air’s fresh and sweet, there’s space between houses.  But there’s something about hearing somebody next door arguing about a check that bounced. (Laughter)

DW: Which compositions of yours best reflect your own life experiences and personality?

GP:  There’s a song on the upcoming album called “When Love Was King.”  Some of the lyrics are: “When love was king, he lifted up the underneath and all is well he did bequeath. To all those who toil without a gain so they would remember his reign. The hungry children first he think to pull their lives from the brink. Beside him stood his mighty queen of equal force, wise and keen.” In these themes, I mention feeding hungry children, gender equality, and eradicating poverty. The idea is not to write a political song to beat people over the head with, it’s to lay it down for them to agree with or not. There’s one song on my upcoming album that I don’t agree with. But I’m singing it.   “Water” is one that reflects me, the redeeming and regenerating qualities of it fascinate me. That theme comes up on all of my albums.

DW: Songs of yours, such as “1960 What?” and “On My Way To Harlem,” paint a clear and educational picture of African American history, culture and experience.  Was it your intention, when you were writing the songs, to educate listeners of other cultures?

GP:  Yes, If it’s a curiosity that wells up in me, then I assume that someone else may want to feel that energy too.  The whole world has been supplied by the art, writing, and political thought that’s come out of Harlem, so I felt a connection and ownership to it even when I was a little boy. Like films on The West Coast, or the great songwriting that comes out of Memphis or Nashville, Harlem is a special place. If we don’t preserve and protect the things that create energy, the world will be worse for it.

DW: Lyrically, you’re also one of the best storytellers to come along in music in a long time. Tell me about some lyricists and writers in general who have impacted you as a songwriter.

GP: I realized when I started to write that the more personally you write, the more universal it can be. We all have those direct stories that make us human, then more humans get it. (Laughter)  I was thinking of an album Jobim recorded where he’s singing with his grandchildren and he’s singing in the words that his grandchildren would sing. I read the beautiful lyrics of Milton Nascimento. And as far as the American book of standards is concerned, it’s just genius after genius.

DW: You’re labeled as being a “jazz vocalist.”  Are you content with that label or do you find it limits your ability to reach a broader audience?

GP: No. I’m a jazz singer for sure. I even felt like that when I was primarily singing gospel. I would always deviate from the melodies and look for other harmonies to play around with while I’m singing songs that had been in the canon of gospel music for a hundred years.  So I’m a jazz singer formed by gospel, blues, soul music, and anything else I want to add. That’s truly the tradition of the music.

DW: Can you mention some examples?

GP:  Sure. The purest of jazz vocals for me: Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, all extended the bounds to include other genres of music. And it’s not a slight to say that my style has also been influenced by classic ‘70s R&B. If you hear a piece of Donny Hathaway in me, good, God almighty!

DW: Sounds great.  Thank you so much Gregory, for your time and wisdom.  I’ll see you at The Bowl.

GP: Thank you, looking forward to it.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Q & A: Denny Zeitlin, Psychiatrist and Jazz Pianist (Part 1)

November 19, 2012

By Don Heckman

Denny Zeitlin is a rare Renaissance man.  He’s been a practicing psychiatrist since the early ‘60s, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco since 1968.  His career as a highly praised jazz pianist has paralleled his psychiatric work.  After making his first recording in 1963, he released dozens of albums over the succeeding decades, including his latest release, Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.  This is Part 1 of our conversation.

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Zeitlin will present an evening of Solo Jazz Piano, December 1, 8 PM, at the Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Avenue (at 18th Street), Oakland, CA. Admission $20.  Reservations recommended:  (510) 547 8188.

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Don Heckman: Denny, you’ve got a solo piano concert coming up on December 1. I know you’ve enjoyed exploring the possibilities of that format for years. Will there be a special focus for this performance?

Denny Zeitlin: Since I’m going to be recording, I’m going to focus on compositions that haven’t been released in solo version and some that have never been recorded—originals and standards. The exception will be some of the material from my new solo piano album of ballads on Sunnyside: Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.

DH: How did you decide, after so many years of presenting albums with great variety among the tracks, to do an album of one over-arching “Midnight” mood?

Denny Zeitlin

DZ: It’s true that even in studio albums of the past I’ve always programmed for maximum variety to make it like a concert.  And of course all the live albums have had that character. But I have had it in my head for some years to someday do an album of just ballads—with a sustained mood throughout the CD. My hope was to take some of the tunes from the American songbook that have been really important to me over the years and explore them as deeply and authentically and spontaneously as I could. I wanted this to emerge as a suite of pieces that would repay deep listening, but also be an album that could be lived with as a companion to activities of everyday life.  As it turned out, the project included a couple of Jobim tunes, and an original of mine. I was happy that Sunnyside wanted to release it, and have been very pleased with the response from listeners and jazz writers.

DH: And now I understand that your very first recording, in 1963, as featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on his Columbia LP, Flute Fever. is going to be reissued on CD in January. How does it feel to mark your 50th anniversary as a recording artist in this way?

DZ: Having Flute Fever finally come out on CD after all these years has helped me reflect on just how lucky I am to have been able to share music in this way for half a century. Having a series of albums over the years has provided some permanent “snapshots” of my odyssey with an art form which by its nature is so impermanent and “in the moment.” Even after so many years, I can clearly remember what it was like to go into Columbia’s  30th Street studio and prepare to start that recording session. I could feel the vibes of the countless artists who had recorded there. I was in my third year at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and had just met John Hammond month or two earlier when he had invited me to come onto the Columbia roster as a recording artist. I hadn’t been actively looking for a recording contract, and was blown away by his excitement and generosity.

DH: How did the idea of recording with Jeremy come about?

DZ: The plan was that I was going to do a series of trio albums, but John felt it would be a good idea for me to get my feet wet in the studio by being a featured pianist on Jeremy’s first album. It was essentially a “blowing date”. I met briefly with Jeremy the day before to discuss some of the tunes he wanted to record, and then we got together in the studio with Ben Riley and Ben Tucker and recorded the album in two sessions. I thought there was very special chemistry in the room among the four of us, and that the interaction of flute and piano was particularly fresh and special.  Jonathan Horwich is releasing the CD on his International. Phonograph label, and has done a super job of re-mastering from the original multi-track tapes. The CD restores the original take of “Lover Man,” with Jeremy’s terrific flute solo which had been edited away to fit on the vinyl. As a bonus track, there is an alternate take of “What Is This Thing Called Love” that is really burning.

DH: Speaking of re-issues, I’ve wondered whether someone would reissue the electronic-acoustic projects — Expansion and Syzygy — you did for 1750 Arch records back in the seventies.  Any plans for that? How did you get involved in that musical direction? Any other projects in that genre?

DZ: I’m hoping it won’t be too long before those projects will be reissued. They remain close to my heart. Towards the tail end of my association with Columbia records, I was getting very hungry to explore the world of electronics and synthesizers, having become a bit restless with what felt like the timbral limitations of the acoustic piano. Beginning in the mid-60s I began to investigate what was out there, hiring engineers to build sound modules and equipment for me. I wanted to find a way to integrate my experiences in jazz, classical, rock, funk, and avant garde music.  I withdrew from public performance for several years to focus on this, with collaborators George Marsh on drums, and Mel Graves on bass.  What gradually emerged was a 747 cockpit-like array of keyboards, synthesizers, pedals, and sound altering gear that would take 6 hours to tear down and set up at a concert venue, and 6 more hours to undo afterwards. I actively pursued this direction until the late seventies, initially releasing “Expansion” on my Double Helix Records label, but happy when Tom Buckner, a fine avant garde tenor vocalist, offered to release it on 1750 Arch Records [1973]. A few years later, “Syzygy” [1977]was recorded for that label.

DH: And that experience led unexpectedly into another direction, didn’t it?

DZ: Right.  In 1978 I lucked into an opportunity to compose the score for the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and perform on much of it. This allowed me to bring to bear everything I had experienced in music, particularly the electronic forays, and included the challenge of writing for a symphony orchestra. For 10 weeks I felt like some kind of military general presiding over a battalion of musicians, contractors, and studios, dealing with the politics of Hollywood, and immersed in my own studio frequently for 20 hour days.  When the film was finally wrapped, and the soundtrack album complete, I was both exhausted and exhilarated. I realized this had been an extraordinary musical opportunity that might never repeat, and decided not to pursue any further film scoring. And at that point I also had a great hunger to get back to the purity of acoustic music.

DH: But you haven’t completely remained in that arena.  Why not?

DZ: Particularly in the last few years, there have been huge leaps in synthesizer technology and access. Now there are “virtual” synthesizers that live in computers that have exponentially greater power than the older synths.  The technology allows a musician to work increasingly in “real time.” Since in many ways I’ve always wanted to “be” an orchestra, this is a very exciting opportunity for me. In the last year or so, I’ve been concertizing less and spending more time in the studio working with this music. I’m very excited with what is emerging, and hope to have an album released next summer.

To read Part 2 of the Denny Zeitlin Q & A click HERE


Q & A: Denny Zeitlin, Psychiatrist and Jazz Pianist (Part 2)

November 19, 2012

By Don Heckman

Denny Zeitlin is a rare Renaissance man.  He’s been a practicing psychiatrist since the early ‘60s, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco since 1968.  His career as a highly praised jazz pianist has paralleled his psychiatric work.  After making his first recording in 1963, he released dozens of albums over the succeeding decades, including his latest release, Wherever You Are—Midnight Moods For Solo Piano.  This is Part 2 of our conversation

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Zeitlin will present an evening of Solo Jazz Piano, December 1, 8 PM, at the Piedmont Piano Company, 1728 San Pablo Avenue (at 18th Street), Oakland, CA. Admission $20.  Reservations recommended:  (510) 547 8188.

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DH: Denny, in addition to your activities as a recording and concertizing musician, you have an active practice as a psychiatrist and teacher at the University of California in San Francisco. What has it been like to maintain these dual careers for half a century?

Denny Zeitlin

DZ: Actually, I’ve been balancing these two interests since childhood. Music had a bit of a head start on psychiatry, in that I started clambering up on the family Steinway when I was two or three years old. When I was about seven, my uncle, who was a psychiatrist in Chicago, began talking with me about what it was like to work with patients and I was fascinated. It wasn’t long before I was practicing psychotherapy without a license on the playground. Captivated by both fields, I had a sense early on that one way or the other I would be deeply involved in both, and never happy pursuing one to the exclusion of the other.

I have tried to find the heart for me in each activity, nurture that, and let other areas go.  In psychiatry, I focus on working with patients; teaching psychotherapy to psychiatric residents at the University of California, San Francisco, where I am a clinical professor; consulting to other therapists’ practices; and presenting courses and workshops In music, I have focused on leading my own groups, or performing in duo and solo; and relishing the opportunity to compose , record, and do a modicum of touring.  My psychiatric responsibilities have not allowed for extended touring; being a sideman in a number of bands; or having much opportunity for writing for large groups and symphonies.  These compromises seem a small price to pay, and I am extraordinarily grateful to have been able to maintain these dual pursuits.

DH: From a layperson’s point of view,  these two careers seem so very different.  Are there commonalities—aspects that drew you to both of them?

DZ: I think deep communication is at the core of both.  With a patient in my office, I’m hoping to tune in and connect as profoundly as possible to his or her psychological life in order to help the person feel truly understood. A similar process occurs improvising with other musicians, when we are selflessly and deeply attuned to each other.  I then frequently enter an ecstatic state in which it is not apparent who is playing what or how, but that some special and new music is simply happening.  I feel more like a conduit than a producer of music at those times, and yet maintain a certain part of myself available to observe and intervene without getting in the way.  In the solo setting, my task is to communicate with my deepest self via this process of merger, and allow some new music to surface.

“Healing” is another commonality. I’ve wanted to be a healer all my life, and am grateful to have had an opportunity to be helpful to so many patients for so many years.  And although I don’t practice “music therapy” in the formal sense, I believe there are therapeutic effects when I reach out to an audience and find them reciprocating.  This meeting, this connection, also has a transcendent “healing” effect on both listener and performer.

DH:  You offer a Lecture-Demonstration called “Unlocking the Creative Impulse: The Psychology of Improvisation,” where you wear both hats.  Tell us a bit about it.

DZ: I’ve wondered for many years about the nature of the creative spark and what ignites it, and have enjoyed exploring this area with musicians, artists, performers, psychotherapists, educators, and lay audiences in workshops I have conducted internationally.  My basic thesis is that the highest forms of creativity entail the combining of two disparate disciplines.

One is the more classically “Western”  tradition, involving the countless hours of woodshedding that lead to technical expertise;  the study of the history and scope of the art form; and development of a personal aesthetic.  The other is the more classically “Eastern” tradition, emphasizing the development of ecstatic capacity, allowing the artist to merge with the act of making art.  This integration occurs at peak moments of creativity, regardless of the artist’s level of awareness of it.  Both disciplines are needed.  Over-emphasis on the Western tradition produces work that may be technically and formally flawless, but is emotionally empty.  And over-emphasis on the Eastern tradition leads to communication of deep emotional states at the cost of aesthetic form.  Since the anatomy of ecstasy is less familiar to those of us raised in the Western world, I focus considerable time on it.  Interested readers might like to read a more detailed summary I wrote for the New York City Jazz Record in November, 2011 (www.dennyzeitlin.com/documents/arc-creative-impulse-nyc-jazz-record-8-12-2011.pdf).

DH: On your website, www.dennyzeitlin.com, you share some of your other passions, like wine collecting and fly fishing.  How do you weave all these activities into the fabric of your life? And how does all this fit with your life with Josephine?  You folks have been married since the sixties, right?

DZ: Well, start with my parents, who had a tremendous zest for life, and encouraged me to follow my passions. I’ve loved fishing since I was a boy, and since college have focused on fly fishing.  I got involved with wine in medical school, and started a cellar with my wife in the mid-sixties.  For twenty-five years we were avid mountain bikers, traveling to spots throughout the United States.  I run up on Mt. Tamalpais near our home in Marin County four times a week, loving the opportunity for another kind of merger experience with the outdoors.  Balance and compromise are two challenges I keep in mind to avoid feeling that the days are too jam-packed.  My life with Josephine is at the hub of all this.  She is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.  We have such a wonderful time sharing our lives, and she has been an unflagging supporter of my music, resonating deeply with my work. I believe she is the most creative person I have ever known.  Her ability to constantly take a fresh look at the world is inspiring.

DH: What about plans for the future?

DZ: At age 74, I am more and more frequently experiencing friends, colleagues and family facing illness and death.  I am fortunate to be in extremely good health at the moment, and I don’t take it lightly.  You never know when the wheels are going to come off. I am grateful for every day and for my good fortune in being involved in careers and activities and relationships that are so rewarding.  I see myself as a perpetual student; I love to keep learning and growing, without forcing the directions that might take. I can’t imagine ever retiring from psychiatry or music—maybe they’ll have to cart me out of my office or studio someday.

DH: Thanks Denny.  As always, it’s been great talking with you.

To read Part 1 of the Denny Zeitlin Q & A click HERE


Q & A: Donald Fagen’s new album, “Sunken Condos”

October 18, 2012

By Devon Wendell

Donald Fagen

Recently I had the opportunity to have another exclusive interview with my former boss, mentor, and obsessed music lover Donald Fagen.  (To read my first Fagen Q & A for iRoM, published in April of 2009, click HERE.)

This time, we discussed his new solo album, Sunken Condos (Reprise Records) – released on Oct. 16 — as well as jazz, the recording process, film makers, and much more.

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Devon Wendell:  Hello Donald.  Thanks for taking the time to chat with me again. First tell me about the development of Sunken Condos.

 Donald Fagen: I wrote some tunes. I hired Mike Leonhart to record them, help me out and keep me company. End of story.

DW:  Michael Leonhart co-produced, did all of the vocal and horn arrangements with you on Sunken Condos, as well as being one of the album’s engineers. Explain the musical chemistry between you and Michael.

DF: He also played the drums. At sound checks on the road, he’d sit down and play a bit and I noticed he had a soulful, old school feel . So I gave him a couple demos to play to. They sounded so good, he ended up playing on every track. Then he started calling himself Earl Cooke Jr.

DW: Speaking of engineers, Sunken Condos is your first recorded project without the “Immortal” Roger Nichols behind the board. Was it strange working without his unique presence and contributions?

DF: Actually the second. Walter and I learned a lot from Roger, so the tradition continues.

DW: Your previous three solo albums were autobiographical. Would you say Sunken Condos is too or is there another concept behind it?

DF: I started out thinking I’d just write a bunch of free-standing tunes without the pressure of the whole personal thing, more like a Steely Dan album. But the way it came out, it might as well be another in that series. It was good to start out that way though.

DW: After being a part of Two Against Nature, and working for you in general, so many people asked me if “Gas Lighting Abbie” and countless other songs were code for some strange drug. So many people assume your lyrics are about drugs, even when they’re clearly not. Why do you think this is?

DF: Melancholy adolescents (and adults with that sensibility) tend to be fixated on drugs and the connection between drugs and musicians’ lifestyles. So when they’re confronted with language they don’t immediately understand, they figure it’s drug-related. “Gaslighting” is a slang term taken from the classic film, Gaslight, in which Charles Boyer tries to convince Ingrid Bergman that she’s insane so he can get her money. For example: “You piece of shit, all this time, you’ve been gaslighting me?”

DW: Okay….so which of your new songs are about drugs?

 DF: Well, there was a song on Morph The Cat that mentioned a made-up pharmaceutical called Chronax that was prescribed for the time-travel challenged narrator.

DW: I think I was prescribed that in the ‘90s…(laughing)…When I first met you many years ago and discovered that we shared very similar tastes in music and culture, I assumed that, like me, you were either oblivious to, or shared the same disdain towards music on the pop charts as do I. Is this true or have you learned to appreciate the Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas of the world, or should we just stick to Bud Powell?

DF: Actually, I like the odd chart hit. But generally speaking, stick to Bud.

DW: In our previous interview, we discussed our obsessive love of jazz. We jazz lovers tend to go through periods in which we become hooked on a particular recording or set of recordings, no matter how many times we’ve listened to them in the past. Right now, for me it’s those classic Miles Davis Quintet sessions on Prestige from 1956 (Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’).  What are you stuck on right now?

DF: I like surfing the net for old records I may have missed.  Hank Mobley, stuff like that.

DW: Yeah, I just found a few Hank things I missed with Lee Morgan on Savoy.  So many rock, r&b, and “mainstream” artists like Cyndi Lauper and Rod Stewart are recording straight ahead blues albums with covers by Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, etc. Have you ever considered doing something like this?  “Weather In My Head” is certainly one of the bluesiest tracks you’ve ever recorded.

DF: I love good blues. I once thought about doing an all blues album until I realized that they’re all pretty much blues anyway.

DW: What’s the worst thing you could imagine doing musically in the future?

DF: I’ve already used up all the worst things I could ever do.

DW: When writing a song, what usually comes first for you, the lyrics, melody, the groove, or does it all come to you at once?

DF: Depends.

DW: With Your Dukes Of September project (With Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald) there seems to be a totally different side of you not heard or seen when performing solo or with Steely Dan, almost as if you become this wilder alter-ego. It feels like you’re playing hooky from school. Tell me about your role in that group. How do you feel your personality and artistic choices have changed with The Dukes compared to what happens with Steely Dan?

DF: I’m evolving at a really astounding rate of speed into something way cooler than what I was before.

DW: With Steely Dan, your solo projects, and The Dukes Of September, there’s always a lot of funk in the music. This is certainly the case on much of the material on Sunken Condos like “Slinky Thing,” “Good Stuff” and your version of Isaac Hayes’s “Out Of The Ghetto.” Tell me about some of your funky influences both now and in the past.

DF: In the mid-sixties, the sort of jazz I liked seemed to have reached a dead end, partly for socio-political reasons. At the same time, soul music (and eventually funk and reggae) became the center of the creative motion of that time. Walter and I were both drawn to that stuff. Also, funk reminds me of early Stravinsky. And Igor rules.

DW: Yes, he does and Igor’s certainly got the funk!  Throughout your career, who are some of the strangest acts you’ve shared the bill with?

DF: I think the question should be: Which acts were forced to share the bill with us? We opened for the Beach Boys, Slade, Frank Zappa, Sha-na-na, the Doobie Brothers, the James Gang, Elton John, Chuck Berry, Uriah Heep, you name it.  When Walter and I worked for Jay and the Americans, we used to open for Frankie and the Four Seasons a lot. They were good.

DW: Do you feel the average classic rock fan who comes to see you live will walk away with a curiosity to learn something about jazz through hearing it in your music and the newer live arrangements of older Steely Dan classics?

DF: Not the average classic rock fan, no.

DW: Do you and Walter have something up your sleeves for the future?

DF: Liver spots.

DW: There are not only film references in some of you lyrics such as in “Gas Lighting Abbie” and “Bright Nightgown” but also very strong visual and cinematic qualities to your lyrics and music. Tell me about some of your favorite films, film makers, and actors and how they’ve influenced your song writing.

DF:I became a bit of a film creep in high school. I lived near Princeton N.J., where there was an art theater, the Garden. So I got to see all the great films that were being imported, the Fellini films, Truffaut, Pietro Germi. I liked John Schlesinger’s movies, like Billy Liar, and all those great British films of the time. I don’t go to the movies so much now.

DW: Me either. I guess we’ll both be sticking to Fellini, Truffaut, and Bud Powell for the most part. The state of the music industry is pretty bleak and ambiguous right now. Do you take dealing with the music business as seriously as you did when you were younger and has it become harder to make money without touring?

DF:We never took it seriously. How can you? The best you can do is try to have some fun with it and not become bitter just because you were robbed of most of your money.

DW: Oh great, so there’s some hope….(laughing)… It seems as though you’re (both with Steely Dan and as a solo artists) one of the few artists left who makes albums meant to be listened to all the way through, from start to finish (like a book) while countless other music stars just record filler with a few designated hits for download and quick radio play. Do you consciously attempt to create records that unfold like a great novel or series of short stories?

DF: Well, I don’t think I have the sort of rigor – a big word in academia – to create some ideal, seamless work of art. With me, everything’s intuitive. When I write 50 minutes of decent music, it’s time to record. It’s a nice length, 50 minutes.

DW: You talk a lot about New York City in your songs. Many old New Yorkers feel that The City has become an overly gentrified playground for the very Anglo-Saxon rich and lacks the grittiness of the Travis Bickle days of yore. How has The City changed for you and tell me how those changes have impacted your song writing.

DF: I respectfully disagree. There’s not only Anglo-Saxon rich, there’s rich bastards from every ethnic background. And, yeah, that’s just what I need, a fleet of Travis Bickles cruising around town dispensing grittiness at every corner.

DW: Good point and in that case, you may want to avoid moving back to LA anytime soon… Honestly, do these interviews make you miserable? If so, I owe you a few dogs at Rutts Hut if I ever make it out of LA alive.

DF:  I prefer the beef barbecues. But thanks.

DW: Okay, it’s a deal, a few beef barbecues for you and a couple of dogs for me. Thanks and meet you back in Clifton soon.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Q & A: Chris Botti

June 1, 2012

By Don Heckman

 Trumpeter Chris Botti has moved, over the past decade, from visibility in the smooth jazz genre – an identity that never really seemed quite right for him – to international prominence as a versatile jazz artist with a unique style of his own.  Described by his record company, no doubt accurately, as the best selling jazz artist in the world, Botti has worked hard at getting to, and maintaining, his high level of achievement.  Often on the road, at stops around the globe, for more than 300 days and nights a year, he maintains a rigorous schedule of keeping in close touch with his legions of fans.  We caught him for a Q & A before his Los Angeles appearance at the Greek Theatre tomorrow night.

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 DH: Chris, I know you came from a musical family environment, growing up in Oregon.  Your Mom was a concert pianist.  But what was it that made you want to play jazz and the trumpet?

CB: The thing that made me want to play trumpet – and jazz — was hearing Miles Davis play “My Funny Valentine” when I was twelve.

DH: Why?  What was it that you heard, at that young an age, that had such an impact?

CB: I’ve always loved it, even then, when I can hear the space in what the horn is playing.  That’s probably why I gravitated much more toward Miles’ band with Wayne and Herbie than toward the more straight ahead styles of, say, Kenny Dorham or Freddie Hubbard, even though I love those guys.  I marvel at the incredible technique and the joy that Freddie and Clifford Brown had, and Dizzy as well, but I’ve always tended to gravitate toward the kind of music that ultimately just breaks your heart.  When Miles plays “Old Folks” or something like that, the music sounds so pretty and at the same time haunting.  That’s always what I was drawn to.

DH: Your shows have always seemed to be more than just instrumental performances.  On Saturday, in addition to your group, you’ll have Lisa Fischer doing vocals.  And, even more than that, you reach out, connect and interact with your audiences in a way that’s done by very few jazz musicians.

CB: I think it’s very important, especially nowadays, to reach out to your audience, and to be grateful that there’s an audience out there.  Because that’s the element that propels everything.  When you see a live concert, whether it’s me or a classical player like Lang Lang,  or Joshua Bell – something without lyrics – you want to hear, at some point, or see and feel a sort of visceral bang.  Miles saw bandleaders like Dizzy and Louis when he was coming up, and he saw that they had all that joy on stage, and he probably thought ‘How am I going to separate myself?  I can’t out-Dizzy Dizzy.  So I’ve gotta somehow come on with something of my own, some sort of brooding, artistic vibe.  And that might light a fire under people.’  And he was right.  It certainly did.

DH: You spent a substantial portion of your early career in the back-up bands of pop artists – most notably, Sting, but a lot of others, as well.  Did those experiences serve, in any way, as templates for figuring out how to do your own reaching out to an audience?

CB:  That’s completely true in regards to Sting, to Paul Simon and to Joni Mitchell, among others.  One of the first things I learned was that their way into success was to surround themselves with incredible musicians.  And they all did that.  I was in a Paul Simon band with Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd and Richard T — all in the same band —  with some West Africans and some Brazilians.  And then when I went with Sting, it was the same thing.  He really features his side musicians.  He opens his audience to them, and them to his audience.

DH: That’s one aspect of influence that you’ve definitely followed.  Your bands have been stellar assemblages.  But you learned more, too, from those prominent pop artists in those early years, didn’t you?  Something in the way you present yourself?

CH: You bet.  Whether it was Peter Gabriel or Joni or Sting or Paul Simon, I watched the way they worked.  How they crafted a song, how they paced a show. How they introduced people.  All that was a huge asset for me in the way I do my own show..

DH: And there’s another aspect to the success you’ve had over the past decade, isn’t there?  An aspect with the initials B.C., who was once the drummer with another hugely successful pop act, Blood, Sweat & Tears?

CB:  Right.  Bobby Colomby. My manager.  He’s the guy who’s been swinging for the fences on everything.  And in hindsight, the best deal I ever made in my life was to force Bobby to become my manager – begrudgingly at first, but now he’s way into it.  He did it kicking and screaming at first, but now he just loves it.  Which is fantastic.

DH: Your new album, Impressions, like your previous albums of the last decade, was the result of a combined creative consultation between you and Colomby, right?

CB: Yes.  We’d had a lot of success on the heels of the Live in Boston album,  One of the things that people said to me over and over again in the past 2 ½ – 3 years since that record came out, was that they liked the variety so much.  They were really impressed by going from Steven Tyler to Yo Yo Ma to Sting.  They liked all that, not only the beautiful music but the approach of ricocheting all over the place.  So when Bobby and I started to formulate ideas for the record, we just kicked around some random ideas for guests, some kind of wish list.

DH: A wish list that included what?

CB: We started with Mark Knopfler and “What A Wonderful World.”  How different could we get than that?  Then, a year earlier, when the Polish government was reformed, they invited me to come and perform a piece on national television.  And they commissioned us to do this Prelude by Chopin to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. And another good starting point for the album.

DH: You also managed to get Herbie Hancock on that list, too.

CB: Well, that’s an interesting story.  We’d just performed at the White House, with Herbie.  And Bobby had this wacky idea.  He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you write something with Chris?’  Can you imagine how intimidated I felt?  I told Bobby, ‘Man, you’ve lost the plot.  You’ve let this gig of being my manager go to your head.’  And Bobby’s like ,’Trust me, it’s going to be fantastic.’  And I’m like, ‘Bobby, I’m nervous as hell.  But he insisted I show up at Herbie’s house, which is pretty close to mine.  Herbie’s idea was to just go to the piano – he had mics set up and his studio was downstairs.  “We’ll just improvise,’ he said.  So he just walked to the piano, delayed for a while, thinking, and then he played the first chord.  And I played this little phrase.  And we continued for about twenty minutes, recording it all, and then picked what we wanted and formed a song from that – with all the ins and outs…Alan Pasqua transcribed it for us, and Vince Mendoza who took all those ingredients and put them all together.  And I told Bobby, ‘Man, you were right again’.”

DH: There’s a lot more on Impressions, of course.  Standards like “Over the Rainbow” and ”Summertime,” a gorgeous cinematic piece by Gabriel Yared, another co-written piece, this time with David Foster.  And , much more.  You covered a lot of bases on this one.

CB: Yeah, We picked so much great material for this record that I don’t know what we’re going to do for the next one.  Bobby and I might have to retire.

DH: How do you feel about the way things are going now, Chris?  About where your career has brought you to, in all the years since you heard Miles play “My Funny Valentine?”

CB: We’re sitting in a real nice place to be right now, given the state of the record industry, and I feel forever grateful for that. People always ask me, ‘When are you going to take a break?’”  And I go, ‘The long list of musicians who have screwed up a successful career or just get lazy and let it go, is huge.  And I don’t want to be one of those.  So I’m going to take it while it’s here.’  The truth is, I’m so into it.  I can’t think of a better life.

DH: Thanks, Chris.  Looking forward to hearing you tomorrow night [Saturday] at the Greek Theatre.


Q & A: Israeli Singer Noa (Achinoam Nini)

March 22, 2012

By Don Heckman

Israeli singer/songwriter Noa, whose given name is Achinoam Nini, makes one of her rare Los Angeles appearances on Saturday night in a UCLA Live concert at Royce Hall.  Her remarkable resume encompasses performances and/or collaborations with artists reaching from Pat Metheny, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli to Lokua Kanza, Khaled and Mira Awad, to name only a few of many.  As well as her musical partner of more than two decades, guitarist/producer Gil Dor.  Noa  has performed with ensembles ranging from a duo with Dor to the Israeli Philharmonic, in major venues throughout Europe, the Middle East, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Japan and beyond.  Through it all, she has been a tireless advocate for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.    

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DH: Noa, your Saturday night performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall will be one of your rare appearances in Los Angeles.  So let’s get down to basics.  Can you give me a little advance word about the program we’ll be hearing.

NOA: Since I do not often perform in the US and even less often in LA, I chose to take advantage of the wonderful stage I have been given to present a range of my original material in English, Hebrew and Yemenite. There will be a selection of songs from various albums made over the past 22 years of creative work with my musical director and guitarist Gil Dor.  And, in addition, a special spot for ‘the Israeli songbook,’ a collection of classic Israeli songs we recorded together with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in 2011.

DH: What about the ensemble?  You’ve performed with everything from a full symphony orchestra to a duo with Gil Dor.  Who will be with you at U.C.L.A.?

NOA: Of course Gil Dor will be with me, playing guitar, as he has been for 22 years.  We also have a wonderful multi-instrumentalist named Gil Zohar, who will play piano, bass and flute. I myself will be singing and playing percussion.

DH: An intimate, but obviously very musical ensemble.

NOA: We try to make music that stands on its own, regardless of the ensemble.

DH: Your New York appearance a couple of weeks ago was with Mira Awad, the Palestinian singer. She won’t be here in L.A.  Will that – in this concert — in any way diminish the dialogues for peace which have played such a prominent role in your performances?

NOA: Mira and I have known each other for over ten years and have done many concerts together. I myself have been performing for twice as long and have collaborated with Arab artists from around the world on numerous occasions. I convey my message of peace in many different ways: in interviews, on my blog or other written platforms (social and such), through collaborations and with specific texts I write and put to music (like the song ‘Shalom, Shalom’). Having said that, I am first and foremost a singer/songwriter. I am happy for the opportunity to share my music with whoever will come out to hear us in Royce Hall.

 DH: Expanding on that thought, can you say something about what brought you to the point at which your art became an expression of your belief in the changes that you feel need to take place – in the world, in general, and in Israel, in particular?

NOA: As I said in my previous answer, I do not consider my art as a platform for specific ‘political’ beliefs. My art is a study in the complexities of the diverse, ever changing human spirit. What I do is use my privileged position as a public personality whose voice is heard. In that context, I convey my message any way I can. I realized early on that as an Israeli artist I had two choices: running away from politics or tackling them. I chose the latter, and have become a sort of informal ambassador for all those people in Israel who share my views of dialogue, compassion and peace.

DH: What would you see as the ideal conclusion to your quest for change, in Israel and elsewhere?

NOA: I dream of a world driven by kindness, compassion, generosity, empathy, sharing, creativity, respect and love. A world where ‘we’ becomes much more important than ‘me,’ without compromising either. A world where religion would assume more modest proportions and serve only as an instrument of solace and enlightenment, never of self-righteousness, hatred and violence. Yes, a more modest world. A simple trip to the neighborhood planetarium will help you screw your head on straight any time.

DH: Your music reaches out to embrace many styles and genres.  Has the application of your music to your desire for change in any way limited the expression of your far-reaching creative interests?

NOA: Art is always about making choices and limiting yourself in one way or another. Though I have far-reaching interests and a diverse musical and cultural palette, I do try to ‘speak a language’ — one that Gil and I have been perfecting and deepening over the years. Granted, our slightly off beat definition of ‘style’ has made us harder to market, as we do not fall squarely into any one genre.  But we are very particular and uncompromising about what we do, and strive for the highest level of excellence. We’ve always said, we bow only to the God of Music.

DH: Given those creative interests, what haven’t you as yet done that you would like to do?  With whom could you imagine having a satisfying musical encounter?

NOA: I dream of meeting and possibly writing/singing with my heroes: Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. I also dream of singing at the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Palestine.   I would also love to be able to bring my symphonic project to places like Carnegie Hall in New York City (my dream since childhood) and Disney Hall in L.A.  But really, my greatest wish is to just keep at it, keep travelling this fascinating road of music. The journey is the dream.

DH: Speaking of traveling, you’ve had a very unusual life’s journey – so far.  You lived in the U.S. from the age of 2 to 17.  Basically your childhood, adolescence and teen-age years.  How has that affected you, if it has?

NOA: I was very fortunate to have the childhood that I had, which was not at all simple but so enriching. I grew up in a Yemenite Israeli home, a small apartment in an old tenement building in a lower middle class Bronx neighborhood populated by every type of race and color, and studied in a predominantly Ashkenzi yeshiva. Needless to say this was a source of much confusion to my budding  identity. Culture and music were everywhere, from the Yemenite songs my grandmother taught me at home to the Broadway musicals I adored, my mom’s opera obsession and trips to MOMA. I was immersed in art and culture and drank it up with thirst and passion. My parents are the most supportive loving people in the world. They drove me to piano lessons, dance class, choir practice, what not. They listened to the songs I started writing at age 8 and clapped as enthusiastically as if I were Barbara Streisand reincarnated. When I fell in love with an Israeli man — I was 16 — and asked to leave the States and return alone to Israel, they let me go, and they have been enthusiastically following my career and helping me with my three children ever since.

DH: After all that, what was it like to make the transition from essentially being an American teen-ager to returning to Israel and serving in the Army?

NOA: Israel was a shock — still is, after 25 years! — and so was the army. It was a bucket of freezing water poured over my head. I had a hard time in the military, no place for a free spirit, but I learned a lot, and after those two years I was full of ambition and energy, ready to gobble up the world.

DH: But, given conditions in Israel and the Middle East, along with the hazards that an outspoken artist who performs in public might encounter, have you ever considered relocating back to the U.S. – which could be a kind of homecoming for you – and raising your children, as you were raised, in this country?

NOA: I have considered it, but will only do so if things get really, really bad in Israel. The definition of ‘bad’ is very subjective of course, but I guess I’ll know when the time comes. For the moment, I’d rather stay in Israel, which I love, and fight for what I believe in, than replace one promised land for another…

DH: Noa, a final question about a very significant moment in your life – in many people’s lives.  You were at the Tel Aviv peace rally in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  Can you say something about the impact it had on you?

NOA: I was there on stage, in one of the happiest moments of my life, performing for the many hundreds of thousands of people that had come out to encourage Rabin on his quest for peace, post Oslo [Accords, establishing the Palestinian National Authority].  Twenty minutes later, the dream was blown to bits by a mad assassin. I was so shocked and horrified.  I think I haven’t recovered to this day. I pledged then to do my utmost, even at the expense of personal security, comfort and commercial success, to carry the torch that had fallen from his hand that awful night, and work for peace. That is what I have been doing, stubbornly, ever since.

DH: Thank you, Noa, for this illuminating conversation.  It’s been a pleasure.  I look forward to hearing you at Royce Hall on Friday night.

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To read more iRoM Questions and Answers, click HERE.  


Q & A: Judy Carmichael

February 21, 2012

By Don Heckman

Judy Carmichael is a jazz rarity — a lively, contemporary pianist who has been specializing in classic jazz piano styles, especially stride piano, since the early ’80s.  Count Basie nicknamed her “Stride,” and her early career was also aided by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Benny Carter, Freddie Green and Roy Eldridge, among others.  Performing in all parts of the world, often with the support of the U.S. Information Agency, she has a fan base reaching from China and India to Brazil, Europe and beyond. 

She is now celebrating her 15th year producing and hosting her Public Radio Show Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired, broadcast on over 170 stations throughout North America and abroad and on NPR NOW Channel 134 on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio. Her recordings and music books are available at www.judycarmichael.com, or by mail order through C&D Productions, P.O. Box 360 Sag Harbor, New York, 11963. 

Judy Carmichael makes a rare appearance in her Los Angeles home town on Thursday night at Vitello’s in Studio City.  She’ll be backed by the sturdy support of guitarist Larry Koonse and saxophonist Harry Allen.    Vitello’s.  (818) 769-0905.

I spoke with Judy last week about her remarkable jazz journey.

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DH: Okay, Judy, let’s start with an absolute basic.  When and how did music first come into your life?

JC:  I can’t remember exactly.  I played ukulele when I was 3 and think I started piano shortly after or the same time.  I took lessons for a couple years, quit, and started again.  I probably only took for a total of three or four years.  It was the John Thompson books.  I think I made it to Book Four.  My teacher scared me and didn’t teach me theory and I wanted to understand what was going on beyond playing the notes.  So I quit and never thought I’d pursue a career as a musician.  I got my first job STILL not knowing what key I was in!

DH: But you did indeed wind up pursuing a career as a musician.  How did it get started?

JC: I was a German major with a French minor in college, and one of my classmates said there was a job I should audition for playing the off night for a pianist in Newport Beach on the Pavilion Queen, an old ferry boat that was made into a floating cocktail party.  I got the gig by playing one tune, “Maple Leaf Rag.”

DH: That was the beginning, but it took a while to get up to speed, didn’t it?

JC: Yes.  I didn’t think about a career in music until my mid-twenties, when I got serious encouragement from Harold Jones, Freddie Green, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, all great supporters of mine in my early years.  Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge encouraged me as well, and were both instrumental in spreading the word and getting people to take me seriously.  I wouldn’t be a professional musician today, if those people hadn’t basically told me I had to do it.

DH: Stride and classic jazz piano styles have been at the heart of your music for years.  Can you remember the first time you heard someone playing stride or classic jazz, and who it was?

JC: Sure, that’s easy.  Count Basie on “Prince of Wales” with Benny Moten.  Changed my life, and at that moment I wanted to learn to play like that, even though I had no context for the music.  It also never occurred to me at that point that I would learn this music and play it for a career.  I didn’t know who Basie was.  I was twenty two and known as a ragtime player, exclusively.

DH: And hearing that Basie recording shifted your career direction?

JC: I was never enthusiastic about playing piano as a career, but when I heard Basie I knew I wanted to play like that, with or without a career.  I always thought I’d be a comedic actress or have my own variety show or be a language scholar and run around the world speaking lots of languages and do whatever I could to support that life.  I never wanted to play tunes I don’t love and have never been good at it.  My heart isn’t in it.  To this day I’ve never played “Happy Birthday.”  People find that hard to believe, but it’s true.  I’ve always been hired to play exactly what I play, which has limited me and helped, probably in equal measure.  God bless the men who have hired me as a sideman (side person), because I’m the last person I’d hire in that regard.

DH: What was it that, specifically, drew you to stride piano as your musical focus?

JC: I’m a huge fan of other kinds of jazz, but I’m drawn to rhythmically swinging music and will always play that.  I’m a high-energy person and am naturally drawn to hard-driving music.

DH: In music and beyond, who were your models, if you had any, and why did you choose them?

JC: [The artist] Ray Eames, whom I was fortunate to know the last few years of her life.  Loved her passion for art and for only pursuing work that had a bigger purpose.  Carol Phillips, who started Clinique and whom Time magazine mentioned as one of two women in a sea of men in their issue of the most influential business people of the 20th Century (the other was Estee Lauder).  Carol made the initial gift to my not-for-profit which allowed me to get my radio show Jazz Inspired off the ground.  And Basie, Freddie Green and Benny Carter, for their class and understated way of presenting their music and moving through life.

DH: In the beginning of your career, you were, and in many respects still are, an unusual sight as a stride pianist.  Did you meet with resistance, with questions doubting your authenticity, as a young, white female playing stride?  If so, how did (do) you handle them?

JC: Constantly, with musicians, until they heard me play and then they supported me.  Same with audiences.  I wore jackets, never dresses, until I got older and had a reputation as a player.  I always played down the female aspect so people would focus on my music rather than my surfer-girl appearance.  I’m older now so I wear whatever I want, which is a relief.  Although, hilariously, people still sometimes imply I’m getting by on my looks, which is a riot to me, since I’m far from my twenties.  I always got more support from black musicians from the bop school, interestingly.  The more traditional players never supported me, which is fascinating, when you figure Jobim and Tommy Flanagan dug me more than guys playing more in my direction.

DH: You’ve added vocals to your performances fairly recently.  How did that come about, and how has it affected your performances?

JC:I love singing and it’s only a few years old.  I had two vocal cord surgeries when I was in my late teens and never tried to sing consequently, even in the shower.  My being able to sing is a shock to everyone, especially me. Now that I’m singing, I want to sing ballads.  Singing is bringing out a much different side stylistically and rhythmically.

DH: You do a great deal of traveling and perform all over the world.  Do you find that stride and classic jazz piano trigger different audience responses in different places?

JC: Everyone likes stride and swing music.  It’s upbeat, rhythmically engaging, harmonically accessible.  When asked how he’d like to die, Dave Brubeck said:  “Playing stride piano.”  That says it all.

DH: Judy, your NPR show, “Jazz Inspired,” has been on the air for more than a decade.  What inspired you to do it?

JC: I wanted to feature people who would never get an hour on NPR, but should.  I also wanted highly celebrated people who don’t have to promote anything to get an opportunity to talk about their creative process.  Jazz also gave me a unique way to start a conversation with professionally creative people and hopefully inspire the listener and also educate and inspire them.

DH: Given the title of your show, does inspiration, as a concept, intrigue you, in music and beyond? And who are some of the guests you’ve had on?

JC: Inspiration and creativity are everything to me.  I think everyone should develop these aspects of their lives.  Some highlights:  Robert Redford, Seth MacFarlane, John Lithgow, Neal deGrasse Tyson, Blythe Danner, Billy Joel.  Tony Bennett will be on in a couple weeks.

DH: In your busy career, you’ve also written several stride piano instruction books.  That obviously seems to indicate that you believe stride can be studied from a book.  But I’m assuming that’s not how you learned stride and classic jazz.

JC: I wrote these books (which are now compiled in a new edition from Alfred Publishing) exactly for the person I was in my early years, when I wished I’d had a book like this.  This is much easier than learning as I did from the records.  To my amazement this book has been spectacularly successful and spawned other books on stride.  This success has been the biggest surprise of my career, other than that my vocal cords have healed enough for me to sing.

DH: Judy, you’ve been performing for more than three decades, with all sorts of honors and acknowledgments.  Is it still as satisfying as ever?  Are there areas of “inspiration” that you would still like to explore?  How do you see it all unfolding in the next few years?

JC: I’m having more fun now than ever.  I want to sing more, play with larger ensembles, write lyrics, and have my own TV show, which is close to happening, I’m happy to say.  I also want to improve my tennis game and break 80 on the golf course.

DH: Thanks, Judy.  Looking forward to seeing and hearing you at Vitello’s.

Photos courtesy of Judy Carmichael.


Q & A: Don Lucoff — Jazz Media Expert and Managing Director of the Portland Jazz Festival

February 3, 2012

By Don Heckman

Don Lucoff’s DL Media company has been one of the jazz world’s primary public relations and marketing consultants since 1988.  In addition to a more than two decade association with Blue Note, Lucoff has worked with virtually every major and independent record label as well as a stellar list of individual jazz artists. 

Born in Los Angeles, Lucoff was a drummer as a pre-teen, drawn to the likes of Ringo Starr and John Densmore before a friend turned him on to jazz.  Going to college in San Diego, he developed an interest in radio and the business side of music.  After working with producer Darlene Chan at the Playboy Jazz Festival and hosting his own show on radio station KCRW, he moved to New York, working for Peter Levinson’s public relations firm and MCA Jazz before starting his own company, DL Media.  His first major client was Blue Note .

Two years ago, Lucoff was appointed Managing Director of PDX Jazz, which produces the Portland (Oregon) Jazz Festival.  With this year’s Festival on the horizon – running from Feb. 17 – 26 – we had a conversation recently in which he discussed the challenges and the achievements of maintaining and building a jazz festival in a mid-size American city.  For information about the Portland Jazz Festival click HERE.  For the schedule of the Portland Jazz Festival click HERE. 

DH: Don, you’ve had one of the jazz world’s most successful media companies for years now.  What motivated you to take on such a significant job, while still maintaining DL Media?

DL: Well, because the game has been changing.  The major labels are not as active as they once were.  So, with the changing infrastructure in the music industry, I began to look at other opportunities to compliment my media company.  Which was festivals, which was where I started in the business with Darlene Chan and Playboy.  They had always interested me in terms of audience development and working closely with artists.  And now in a way it’s come full circle.

DH: How did the Portland Festival connection come about?

DL:  I began the relationship with the Portland Festival four years ago doing public relations.  And then two years ago, a management opportunity arose for me to expand beyond doing p.r.  I offered to get involved in a more expansive role, which I did, by coming back in the off season and working and learning from Bill Royston, the Artistic Director.  Last year, Bill had some health issues and retired in June.  At that time I was asked if I would expand my scope and continue Bill’s work and book the festival.  Which I did this year.

Don Lucoff

DH: That sounds like a full time job.  And you’re running your company at the same time?

DL: Well, I don’t do everything here in Portland.  We do have an operations director, a box office and memberships manager and a board with very active committee members.  And we have a development consultant.  It’s the kind of infrastructure that you would find at other arts organizations.  It’s just relatively small and concentrated, and many of us wear several hats.  My media company in Philly helps out in terms of doing some of the marketing and p.r.

DH: As you’ve come on board, have you had any sort of template or model for how to approach handling, and building, PDX, the Portland Jazz Festival?

DL: I’ve looked back through my experience working with other festivals, of course. And there’ve been a lot.  Detroit, Barcelona, Jazz Aspen, Panama, Quebec City.  A lot more.  How they’ve done things, asking advice and opinions from people I know at those festivals.

DH: Has that brought you to any conclusions about how to approach the Portland Festival?

DL: Well, one of the things that interested me the most about the Festival, and Portland in general, was how, for many years, touring artists wouldn’t have the opportunity to play in Portland because there wasn’t much in jazz that was active here on a consistent basis.  So one of our early goals was to encourage jazz events throughout the year.  Make Portland a 52 weeks a year jazz city, rather than 2 weeks a year.  And we’re well on the way to doing that.

DH: This will be the ninth annual Portland Jazz Festival.  Which would seem to indicate that it’s a success. What would you say has made it so? There are a lot of cities the size of Portland that would probably love to have a successful jazz festival.  Or even a music festival, without having been able to do what PDX has done.  What’s the magic ingredient?

DL: I don’t know about magic ingredients.  But I do know it takes a community to support a festival.  And there are businesses and members of the Portland community who have a passionate interest in jazz.  And who feel a responsibility to the music.  And that’s been a major factor.

DH: Has it made a difference that Portland also has a significant community of jazz players?

DL:  It sure does.  There are many fine local musicians here, and the scene is very healthy.  And what I’m attempting to do is to bring that Portland dynamic into the Festival so there is dialogue between the Portland artists and the national headliners.

DH: How has that impacted this year’s schedule?

DL: Well, take for example the fact that we’re doing a program with Charlie Hunter where he’s going to play solo guitar.  And then, after Charlie, we’re going to have three local bands follow him.  That sort of programming happens throughout the Festival.

DH: So the idea of a kind of Portland content aspect – including the local Portland scene in the Festival — is important to how you’ve planned this year’s programming.

DL: Right.  But in a little broader sense than just content.  For example, the Festival this year doesn’t have an official theme.  But the Bill Frisell program is titled “For Portland Only,” because it was developed specifically for this Festival.  It’s not something that Bill is doing anywhere else.  We also will honor Thara Memory – a great trumpeter and teacher — as our 2nd annual Portland Jazz Master.

DH: You’re broadening the view of Portland, not often thought of as a jazz center.

DL: Sure.  And as part of the Thara Memory program we’ll also be doing a tribute to Miles Davis called “Artfully Miles”  It’s going to use professional local artists doing the “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain” material.  We’re also doing a program called “Mardi Gras.”  We’ll have all local Portland players, one of whom is from New Orleans, another of whom spent a lot of time in New Orleans.  You know some musicians relocated here from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and at least one of those musicians has stayed.

DH: Would you ever consider establishing an ensemble in association with the Festival, in the way Randall Kline has done with the SFJAZZ Collective?

DL: It certainly is something that I would consider as a long term project down the line, Assuming we could gather adequate funding.  But I’d do it in a different regard.  What SFJAZZ has done with their collective has been important, and it’s certainly helped them put their brand on the map internationally.

DH: Not unlike what Wynton Marsalis has done with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

DL: Exactly.  But in our case, Portland has so many great local artists that have been developed here.  And so many fine artists who live here.  So to me, the approach would be to create an ensemble of Portlanders.  Brand it, in other words, with Portland musicians.  Along with occasional national guest artists.

DH: Again, the Portland content approach.

DL: Right.

DH: Let’s look beyond the Portland aspect for a moment, at the question of programming.  Have you felt any pressure, from any direction, to contemporize your program, in the sense of including, say, smooth jazz or pop oriented acts?

DL: No, there’s been no pressure of that sort.  It’s a very sophisticated audience at the Festival.  And it’s primarily a traditional audience.  There is not a smooth jazz radio station in Portland, because smooth jazz radio stations have not lasted very long here.  That’s not to say that smooth jazz artists don’t play here from time to time.  Kirk Whalum will be here to do a show in February.  But it’s not in the interest of our organization to go in that direction.  Our programming is eclectic, and there are some commercial elements.  But commercial elements in a sophisticated way.  For example, Branford Marsalis is certainly a name with commercial impact, but what he’s going to play with Joey Calderazzo will be very high level music.  Dee Dee Bridgewater is a very well-known artist, as are all our headliners.  But the music they do isn’t commercial.  It’s prime jazz.

DH: Well, following that thought, since you have a sophisticated audience, would you consider including world music acts – Angelique Kidjo as an example – in your programming, even though they do not come from the jazz mainstream?

DL: I wouldn’t be opposed to it, given the right settings.  We’re doing an Afrobeat program this year with a local Portland band, but a band that plays in the Nigerian ju-ju style.  And, in addition, keep in mind that – from a different perspective — we’ve had a kind of world jazz theme flowing through the Festival for years.  Enrico Rava’s here this year. And we have Vijay Iyer with his east Indian project.  Last year we had the Three Cohens.  We’re very international in scope, emphasizing the truly international character of today’s jazz.  That’s the kind of music we’ve been programming and we’ll continue to program.

DH: Sounds to me as though you’re pretty much in sync with your Portland audiences – knowledgeable listeners who really want to hear the music.  No wonder you’ve been so willing to make such a major career move.

DL: For me personally it’s a homecoming of sorts, being a native of the West coast, a fan of the Pac 10 (now 12).  Portland is quite seamless, it’s a city that works.  And it has long been a missing link for routing artists between Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.  That’s what we have been working on methodically over the past couple of years and it’s gratifying to see artists now playing here in Portland who have not done so before or not often enough.  I see our Festival as the perfect compliment to the energy of Philly and the NY corridor, meaning that I now am working in the best of two possible worlds.  With a deep connection to both, as I now have lived exactly half my life on the East and West coasts.

To read more Q & As click HERE.


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