Dance to the Music of Time

There has been a lot going on. Leaving the Bad Plus is the biggest change, but various other sort of career and conceptual themes have also been undergoing transformation. I also just turned 45, which might be considered midpoint of the journey.

It really all does seem circular. Themes re-occur. The last month almost felt like a tour of the past.

Sarah and I visited Daniel Pinkwater. There’s a meme asking, “What four movies are you?” I don’t have four movies, but I do have the collected works of Daniel Pinkwater. Alan Mendelsohn, Boy From Mars; The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; Lizard Music — those three books “are me.”

Sarah said, let’s give Pinkwater a monster. That creature cost me a small fortune in Tokyo, but she was right. It was the ideal present, a perfect transaction.


On the drive we listened to Pinkwater audio books in the car. Amazing! I just learned that Mr. Pinkwater himself reads his books and you can buy them on iTunes. They are now an essential part of my travel library.

Rufus Reid turned up at the Pat Zimmerli Clockworks concert at Merkin Hall. Rufus is a consecrated jazz bassist, but for me he was also an important teacher. One afternoon at Banff in 1990, students and faculty were sitting around the coffee shop and Miles Davis’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” came on as background music. Rufus Reid sang along with Coltrane’s solo note for note. I was impressed and annoyed. To learn how to play, was I going to have to sing Coltrane solos too? That seemed hard — too hard! It took me years and some further strict teaching from Lee Konitz, but in the end I decided that Rufus was right. I can’t sing any Coltrane yet, but I can sing lots of Lester Young and Charlie Parker.


photo by Vinnie Sperrazza

Seeing Rufus brought back that memory and by this time next year I promise to be able to sing Coltrane’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “All of You” from ‘Round About Midnight.


I added “All of You” to the pile because Billy Hart told me:

The first time I fell in love with John Coltrane was his solo on “All of You” from Miles’ ‘Round Midnight. I’ve talked to Gary Bartz about this, and he felt the same way—that this solo made us Coltrane fans, forever.

Billy Hart is my most significant teacher and we have worked together for over twenty years. However, I had never played with Buster Williams and Billy Hart together, despite Buster and Billy being universally considered one of the great bass/drum combinations.

It finally happened on Tuesday, quartet with Billy Harper. Everyone agreed that it was extraordinary to hear the beat played by that bassist with that drummer.


Billy Hart, Lenny White, Buster Williams

Lenny White was there. He plays with Buster all the time — they have become a classic contemporary rhythm section — but I think he wanted to get a taste of that other thing Mchezaji has with Jabali. In the dressing room I was as quiet as possible while I listened to them tell stories.

Billy Hart talked about learning Afro Cuban music from Lenny White! They were both playing with Pharoah Sanders. Neither was playing drum set, they both were on cowbells and claves. Afterwards Billy complained to Lenny about how Lenny sounded so much better than him, and Lenny said he was really checking out authentic Afro Cuban music. This anecdote explains in a flash how Lenny White was able to walk in and power so many of the greatest fusion recordings: The deep background for the “new” way of dealing with the even eighth circa 1970 was African procedures from thousands of years ago. Of course.

Patrick Zimmerli’s Clockworks with Chris Tordini, John Hollenbeck, and me is out, and so is — finally — Shores Against Silence, the recording with Kevin Hays, Larry Grenadier, and Tom Rainey from 1991. I was at that recording session, and heard “The Paw” for the first time in the studio. Pat gives me a special mention in the liner notes to Shores Against Silence, which I think is only fair, as I’ve been telling people that this is an incredible record since…well, I guess since 1991.

Vinnie Sperrazza is becoming an important new collaborator. At the Clockworks gig he looked at the score and said, “I can hear how Pat was an influence on you.” No doubt — Pat will always be a monument in my life, which is elaborated further in our interview.

Vinnie took the photo of me and Rufus Reid together after telling me of a time he played with Rufus and James Williams at Knickerbocker’s. Yeah, Vinnie’s my kind of cat, with a swinging cymbal beat that undulates inside the music. We are working together in Pepperland, the extravagant revue created by Mark Morris for the Mark Morris Dance Group.

It is just wonderful to be back with Mark Morris again. For five years I was his musical director. I watched the dance shows every night, then after the show went to Mark’s hotel room and listened to Handel and Partch. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson would attend rehearsal; I played Schumann with Yo-Yo Ma. It was frequently up to me to bring conductors in line about tempi and singers in line about diction.

Pepperland is the Beatles as seen though the prism of classical music and it really works. It’s been really fabulous to expose Vinnie and other friends Jacob Garchik, Sam Newsome, and Rob Schwimmer to the magic of Morris. It’s also just incredible to leave the Bad Plus and be immediately involved in another hit project.

Concerto to Scale reflects Morris, Zimmerli, Jabali, and everything else I love. It certainly reflects Pinkwater. Program notes:

My first piece for orchestra is intentionally modest in dimension, or “to scale.” While composing, I re-read some of my favorite books from when I was a young adult and tried to capture that sort of joyful emotion. The work is dedicated to John Bloomfield.

Allegro. Sonata form in C major with plenty of scales. My left hand and the bass drum soloist are the rhythm section offering syncopations in dialogue with the orchestra’s conventional string material.

Andante. A 19th-centutry nocturne atmosphere meets modern polyrhythms. This is a dramatic elaboration of a piece originally written for Mark Turner called “We Come From the Future.”

Rondo. The tempo mark is, “Misfit Rag.” Ragtime is the way American composers traditionally insert a touch of jazz onto the concert stage, and who am I to disagree? The orchestra gets a chance to improvise and the pianist and percussionist enjoy a dual cadenza.

I didn’t really need to re-read Pinkwater for the Concerto — I’ve got those books memorized — but I did look at The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill (1972) and Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks (1963). Both are undisputed classics and are still in print. Interestingly, both are also about race relations, a fact that I had completely forgotten. They are white authors writing about the midwest in the 1960s, so perhaps not every authorial decision will past muster today, but they were in there, trying to swing. They were about my two favorite books when I was ten or eleven. I had good taste!

The review by Seth Colter Walls was gratifying (Amanda Ameer said I look like Schroeder in the picture, which is perfect) and I’ve been astonished how much I enjoy listening to the tape.

(If you want to hear the rough mix of the premiere or look at the score, sign up for Floyd Camembert Reports.)

Between Pepperland and the Concerto, it is starting to feel like my future will involve extended composition.

Composition might be part of the future, but I also will always be a jazz pianist who loves to play clubs. Starting tomorrow I am on an extensive UK tour with Martin Speake.

20/4 Sheffield Jazz Crookes Social Club
21/4 Brighton Verdict
22/4 Colchester Arts Centre
23 Cheltenham Jazz
24/4 London Pizza Express
25/4London Pizza Express
26/4 St George’s Bristol
27/4 Reading Progress Theatre
29/4 Cinnamon Club Manchester
1/5 Hastings
3/5 Cambridge
4/5 Poole Lighthouse

Go to Martin’s FB page for more.

Martin and I also go back to Banff in 1990. It was a hell of a line up there and lasted for a full month: Faculty included Rufus Reid, Marvin Smitty Smith, Stanley Cowell, Kevin Eubanks, Kenny Wheeler, Hugh Fraser. Abraham Adzenyah taught dance from Ghana — I guess the first time I danced with a woman was in that class. (Now this post is getting too personal.) Steve Coleman was the artistic director.

The students were also amazing. Tony Malaby, Seamus Blake, Ralph Alessi, George Colligan, John Stetch, Andy Milne, Jorrit Dijkstra — Jeez, I know I’m forgetting some others who are now famous…

Especially important to my artistic development were Benoît Delbecq and Steve Argüelles, who went on to be a real force together and big influence. With Noël Akchoté they became The Recyclers and released Rhymes in 1994. You want to know something I checked out? Rhymes was something I checked out, especially the track “Suguxhama” by Argüelles and Django Bates. (It’s streaming.)

(Later, prompted by David King and Craig Taborn, I would listen to all the fantabulous Django Bates records with Martin France on drums. It turns out that France is going to be on a few gigs of the Martin Speake tour. Wow! I’m going to get to play with Martin France for the first time.)

At Banff two duo relationships had notable resonance. The wonderful Jill Seifers (a great vocalist who ended up dying far too young) and I did a set at the little Banff club that I listened to over and over. And Martin Speake and I made a recording that was tremendous fun, he’s splendid lyrical player who sees it from all the angles.

At the Vortex gig earlier this year, Martin told the audience that after we met at Banff, I sent him (by post from Menomonie, Wisconsin to London, England) a cassette of Ornette Coleman’s then-scarce Science Fiction accompanied by a note on Doctor Who stationery. Yes: It really all does seem circular. Themes re-occur. I freely admit I cannot wait for Jodie Whittaker.

Interview with George Colligan.

Interview with Benoît Delbecq.

Interview with Django Bates.

Stanley Cowell plays “Carolina Shout” at my James P. Johnson event.