Q&A: Wayne Shorter and Daniel Rotem At The Playboy Jazz Festival

June 10, 2015

By Devon Wendell

On Saturday, June 13th; Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and young players from The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble will be performing at the 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival taking place Saturday and Sunday at The Hollywood Bowl.

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I recently had the amazing opportunity to interview Wayne Shorter on his upcoming performance at the Bowl. Shorter is a master improviser, not only in music but in conversation as well. Instead of the typical Q&A with questions 1-15, I let Shorter take the helm and share his priceless wisdom with me freely.

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Devon Wendell: Hello Wayne.

Wayne Shorter: Hello.

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

DW: I first wanted to let you know what an honor it is to be interviewing you. You’re one of my biggest idols both musically and intellectually.

WS: Well, Thank you very much.

wayne shorterDW: You’re going to be performing at the 37th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival with Herbie Hancock and The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble. Can you tell me about the kind of music you’ll be performing at the festival?

WS: I think what’s interesting beyond the music is people seeing the performers on stage, Just seeing them. There’s so much stuff going on in the pop world, people moving and dancing and all of that. A lot of the younger generation that will be there will be seeing people who they have never encountered in a night club. A lot of people thought we were dead.

[Laughter]

WS: They wonder “how did you last this long?” or “How come you didn’t get swept under the rug amid the nightlife of all those years of touring?”Or “How come you’re not in the hospital?”

(Laughter]

WS [continuing]: But you’ll see some people just looking. Not with their mouths open but saying “Hey, I never saw you guys. I heard about you guys from my father.” That’s a big one you hear a lot.

DW: Oh yeah, my dad’s record collection.

WS: Exactly. Playing with the young Monk Institute guys. Now that’s going to be something. And that’s what that whole thing is about. The next wave of poetry that’s coming out of The United States and around the world. But some people don’t even believe it’s still going on. I’m glad that the young people at The Bowl in the audience will see people dealing with and getting into music that has more than three chords.

DW: Exactly, something to challenge their notions of where music can go.

WS: I like what Einstein said about the simple and the complex. He said “We need simple. Of course there’s complex in every day things and the simplicity really sells and we have simple but no simpler.”

[Laughter]

DW: Yes, that certainly pertains to all art forms today.

WS: That’s what I hope some of the young people in the audience will get out of the music. Those who may be looking for the fast way, the instant gratification way of doing what they want to. It could be anything. They may want to be the quick doctor [laughter] or the quick psychiatrist or audience or in politics. They might see what’s coming from the stage and realize that it’s great to study as an individual and not to get satisfied with something that feels easy or keeps you in that comfort zone.

DW: Exactly. Your music has always had that quality of enlightening the audience beyond preconceived notions of what they think they should like or feel comfortable with. Pushing the boundaries.

WS: The whole world is pushing. Nations are pushing each other. So many start at the word pushing.

DW: Yeah and they get stuck there.

[laughter]

WS: As far as interviews are concerned, for me to talk about what tunes I’m going to play or what kind of mouthpiece that I use, well that kind of interview to me is like a basketball player doing an interview. You know Stephen Curry on The Golden State Warriors?

DW: Yes, great player.

WS: Well he had his little girl with him while they were interviewing him on TV and she was cute and they thought that was distracting. Well I thought that talking about basketball was distracting.

[laughter]

DW: Yes, that human element gave it a greater purpose.

WS: The interviewer is just following the contract and if he doesn’t do the interview he gets fired. [laughter.] But it’s his daughter that he adores. But they want to know what kind of scalpel the doctor uses and so on. Even another basketball player said that the media guys spend more time with the basketball players than with their families when they’re on season. And Curry said that someone asked him “Don’t you think it’s kind of annoying for your daughter to be with you in interviews?” And Curry said “Well do you think I should get another daughter?”

[Laughter]

WS: [continuing] When people watch us at The Hollywood Bowl, they’re watching behavior. The behavior of someone who chooses the road less traveled. That road can take you more places than the one most traveled. I mean, that more traveled road is crowded with wannabees, and instant gratificationers, and those who believe that if they study something, they’ll lose their flow or their groove. Like “I’m going to lose my groove if I study teaching.”

[Laughter]

DW: Yeah, my generation was pretty much programmed to believe that.

WS: I was told that to get to my destination, catch that train before it leaves the railroad station. To grab that opportunity like American Idol. Oh yeah, I can be an instant singer. Go ahead! [Laughter]

WS: [continuing] The thing with The Monk Institute kids is that they can’t take that two year course at UCLA unless they’ve already gotten a four year bachelor’s degree. I think there’s going to be a xylophone player from Chile. When we auditioned this guy, (Herbie, myself, and Jimmy Heath) he came and played Duke’s “Sophisticated Lady” on xylophone and Jimmy was like “Damn! You mean he didn’t get nothing from Milt Jackson, or Terry Gibbs or someone like that? He’s got his own thing. Where did he learn all of that stuff?” [laughter]

WS: [continuing] The trombone player walked in for his audition, dressed in a formal suit. One of the auditioners said “Wow, he looks like an insurance man?” [laughter] When he started playing we said “Uh Oh!” He came through Al Grey who played trombone in Duke Ellington’s band, plus Kai Winding, Jay Jay Johnson, and he came through all of that stuff himself.

DW: Wow. That’s pretty amazing. He was really swinging hard huh?

WS: Yes. We worked with another group that’s going to graduate in another year. There’s a girl playing piano and there’s a vocalist who writes really good stuff. And he doesn’t try to sound like a horn or other instruments when he sings. He doesn’t try to scat all over the place. The instrumentalists try to sound like him! He’s really a well ranged guy.

WS [continuing] What you’re going to see is that the young musicians on that stage all respect each other. They’re demonstrating what true democracy can be. The whole thing about improvisation and jazz and competition, like when someone plays across somebody else, they see it as an opportunity. Like in a relay race when someone passes the baton on to the other guy so he keeps going and doesn’t slow down because of ego. In other times, that might cause a fight. A guy would say “You interrupted my solo!” or “I’m not playing with you anymore because you stole my thunder.” [laughter) In a way they’re transcending this whole thing about show business. I hope they show some of that stuff to the so-called go-getters in the audience. A lot of people are trained or bullied in unseen ways into becoming go-getters. It’s done almost subliminally. So it’ll be good to see all of those differences.

A lot of people can’t get along because of their differences. The differences are what we have in common. Before it’s all over, I hope the noble spirits of humanity reveal the truth of the performance and reaching beyond the point of divinity and beyond the craft. So that’s the kind of interviews I’ve been doing. Just having fun with human beings. Are you enjoying it?

DW: It’s wonderful. I am. I threw my note pad out the window.

[Laughter]

WS: It is what it is. It’s like democracy. Well how do you spell democracy? C R E A T I V E. Creative living. We can surpass and transcend all of the labels and living under names of things. People use the words and the words become a weapon. If you get stuck with a word, the meanings of the word can be open season. [laughter]
There’s this book in which the first sentence says “Human beings are the only entity who like to name things.” [laughter]

DW: It does restrict everything, like all of these different names for music, and types of art. People like to get trapped by categorization.

WS: What I would like for people to experience when watching a performance is seeing things happen on stage that they would like to happen in everyday life. You know those people who are no longer here, like Charlie Parker? Some of what they did is in the art of never giving up the spirit. And that no one person is just one thing. There are many dimensions to a person.

DW: So is every aspect of existence made up of a series of improvisations?

WS: To me, in improvisation it’s very hard to lie. You can fantasize, but fantasy is not necessarily a lie. We hope that the business world hears again creative stuff that comes from an improvisational idea in the moment and the difficulty in lying. You have to do more business from the heart. Even when dealing with the unknown. How do you negotiate the unknown by lying?                                                                    The thing is I’m 81. Some people that I’ve known for a long time, when they get old and look at a friend or someone in the family or someone they’ve know a long time they can say “You know, I never did like you?”

[Laughter]

WS: They say what’s on their mind.

DW: Yes, no more explanations needed. I respect that indeed sir.

WS: To say what’s on your mind, you need a lot of wisdom and validity to back it up.
I’m watching young people today. I saw on television this young woman who is a transgender and her name is jazz. A lot of wisdom coming from her. I’m really learning a lot from younger people in what they have to say.
I was at Lincoln Center last week with Wynton Marsalis and there was this little boy, 15 years old who came out of the orchestra with a saxophone strapped across his back. He didn’t say I like the way you were playing or I like the music, he said “I like your writing and I like the philosophy.”

DW: Wow!

WS: Oh, and there’s one more thing people can expect from my performance at The Bowl and that’s a reversal of Whiplash!! There was some good acting in it, but I mean historically speaking. [Laughter]

DW: Sounds great. Thank you for your time Wayne. This has truly been an enlightening experience. I’ll see you at The Bowl.

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Q&A: Daniel Rotem Performs With Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter And The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble.

After my interview with Wayne Shorter, I had a brief chat with tenor saxophonist Daniel Rotem about his upcoming performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble. Rotem is one of the gifted students at The Monk Institute, with a bright future ahead of him.

Devon Wendell: Tell me how it feels to be playing at the Festival in the Hollywood Bowl with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and the other Monk Institute players.

Dan Rotem: I grew up listening to and studying the music of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, so it still seems surreal to be sharing the stage with both of them this weekend. I remember buying Mr. Shorter’s album Speak No Evil, one of the first jazz albums I bought, and shortly afterwards The Soothsayer. Every time I listened to them, the music took me on a journey. I used to watch the movie ‘Round Midnight a lot (Mr. Hancock won an Oscar for the best score), and I remember listening to his playing on some of Miles Davis’ records thinking that this must be some of the most beautiful music ever created. Later on in high school I got to know more of Mr. Hancock’s albums like Empyrean Isles and Speak Like a Child. I feel like in some ways the music by both of these legendary artists is part of who I am, like certain memories that I have growing up are connected to Wayne’s sound, or Herbie’s sensitivity. It is an absolute honor and I am very excited to be making music with them, as I am to be sharing the moment with the Monk Institute Ensemble, that by now feels like family.

Daniel Rotem

Daniel Rotem

Devon Wendell: You’re already quite an accomplished tenor saxophonist. You’ve studied at Rimon School Of Jazz And Contemporary Music in Tel Aviv. You were the youngest to win first place at Rimon’s Outstanding Jazz Player competition. You graduated from The Berklee College Of Music with a Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Performance after receiving a full scholarship there. You’ve also studied with such jazz icons as David Liebman, Peter Erskine, Lionel Loueke, and Jeremy Pelt, to name a few. Tell me some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from playing with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

DR: One of the early lessons I learned from my family is to be a human being, respectful, kind, and attentive, care for the well being of others as a way of life. Working with Mr. Hancock and Mr. Shorter reinforces these values, especially since I had the chance to see the people behind those legendary musical figures. Both of them are so kind and caring, involved and invested in the time they spend with us, sharing their experience and perspective with us in the most honest, humble way. I remember the first time we worked with Mr. Shorter, and one of the songs we played for him was one that I wrote. When we finished playing, from the way he commented (he said my song sounded to him like the desert, like the kibbutz) you could tell that he was truly listening attentively. Wayne Shorter, one of the greatest jazz composers of all times is taking the time to mentor us and share his thoughts with us, I am so grateful for that.

We recently had the privilege of going on a US State Department Tour to Morocco, performing with Mr. Hancock and vocalist extraordinaire Dee Dee Bridgewater. There was a moment in one of our performances that I will remember for the rest of my life. For me, when the music is truly happening, borders or boundaries of differentiation dissolve: there is no more me, you, the audience, there is only the music, that connects us all. Performing with Mr. Hancock in Morocco was the best manifestation of everything I love and wish to do in music. As soon as the music started we were no longer “Herbie Hancock” and “The Monk Ensemble”. It was as if we’d known each other for years and met each other for the first time, at the same time. The way Mr. Hancock plays, each note a moment in time and a lifetime, and to create music in the moment with him… it was truly an amazing experience.. Truly an inspiration.

I was fortunate enough to be living in Boston the year Mr. Hancock was a guest speaker at Harvard. I went to every single one of his lectures; each was more interesting and inspiring than the previous one. I remember what struck me the most was not only what an amazing, accomplished musician he is, but what an honest, kind human being he is.

DW: Tell me about your role in the Thelonious Monk Institute For Jazz Performance and how it’s helped you to grow as a musician.

DR: What I love about the Monk Institute Ensemble is that by now it feels like family. The first time we met was at the auditions for the program and most of us had never met before (Ido the Trombone player and I went to the same high school in Israel and lived together in Boston for two years while we were both studying at Berklee). As soon as we played the first note together as a band for the jury (consisting of Hancock, Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Burrell, and James Newton) it felt like something else; the energy, the communication, there was a seed that felt amazing from the very first moment. As if it was meant to be. Every member of the band is not only an improviser and instrumentalist, but we all compose our own music as well. Being able to write regularly, and have such amazing musicians in the band to play the music, has been very beneficial to my development.

The fact that we each come from a different background, with different musical education and preferences really contributes to the learning process as well. Its like mixing 7 different ingredients, each with its own flavor, feeling, and characteristics, they are each unique on their own, but mix them together, and the options are endless. Since we started working together as a band, we also had the privilege to take part in educational outreach programs. It is truly rewarding and satisfying to be able to give back to the community, and support other students who are starting out, like I was supported when I started. In life, we are each a student and a teacher, and I have been learning so much from working with the kids that we got to work with.

DW:: Where do you hope to see your career as a jazz musician in the future?

DR: As a human being and a jazz musician I would hope to be able to inspire and contribute to those around me in this world. There is so much we still have to learn as a species, and I would like to take my part in the learning process. I hope to be able to touch people through music, and advance mutual respect and understanding. Musically speaking, I hope to be able to keep learning, keep developing. Having had the privilege to speak and play with Mr. Hancock and Mr. Shorter, if I could ever come even close to doing what these two men do, and in the way they do it, I would be a very fulfilled and happy person.

DW: Thank you so much for your time Daniel. You are a insightful person and I look forward to seeing you perform at the festival with Wayne, Herbie, and The rest of The Monk Institute Of Jazz Performance Ensemble.

DR: Thank you. I too look forward to it.

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

 

 

 

 


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.

* * * * * * * *

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.

 * * * * * * * *

 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.

* * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * *

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.


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