(photo by Brian Harkin)
For the past few years, I’ve been studying with tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. My lessons are held in his midtown apartment about once a month. Like a therapist, he generally lets me begin. I can say just about anything.
“Ellery, I’ve been listening to Evan Parker, and I think my playing is too idiomatic, too human. I want to sound more like weather.”
“Ellery, I told my friend about our lessons and he thinks we’re going at it completely backward, wasting time.”
“Ellery, with all the music out there, why is everyone still obsessing over Michael Brecker?”
Ellery is a deliberate speaker, doesn’t like to generalize or talk about things he feels he doesn’t understand, but he’s also unusually open-minded and tolerant of half-baked ideas. He has the air of a perpetual student, and the gravity of one who’s been playing professionally his entire adult life. Simple discoveries still excite him, as do challenges to his thinking. He’s generous in describing his struggles in order to reassure me about my own.
These long conversations, sometimes as much as the more concrete musical portion of the lesson that follows, have been a tremendous help and inspiration to me. After a few years of this, I decided to ask Ellery for a formal interview.
As a framing device, I set up a sort of modified “blindfold test” in which I played him other people’s versions of standards that he recorded on his recent album TRIO NEW YORK II with Gary Versace and Gerald Cleaver.
Paul Motian Trio 2000 + 2, “Midnight Sun” (from ON BROADWAY VOL. 5, Winter & Winter, rec. 2009) (Paul Motian, drums; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone; Michaël Attias, tenor saxophone; Masabumi Kikuchi, piano; Thomas Morgan, bass)
Ellery Eskelin: He’s [Motian’s] recognizable right away – even that little bit…
Cool. I hadn’t heard that before.
Jacob Wunsch: What’d you think?
EE: I liked it. It’s a great tune. When the two horns came in, it really opened up. It just gets me to thinking again: what is it about that piece that’s so compelling? I asked myself that question a bunch as I was practicing it, preparing for the recording. I’m still not sure what the answer is.
JW: You mentioned that harmonically it’s fairly simple.
EE: Right. The underlying chord progression is fairly straightforward, but something to do with the way this melody interacts with it is deeper than first meets the ear, or the eye. The melody is in some ways kind of simple with this descending chromatic line. You think, well, that’s what it is, just this descending chromatic line. But it’s much more than that, because each one of those chromatic notes has an implication against that harmony. And they go by pretty quick, so you might not know what that is right away.
When I sat down at the piano and first tried to voice these things out, it seemed like there was an amazing array of possibilities, that depending on how I heard it at any given time it might be a different set of possibilities. That was, on the one hand, a challenge in trying to learn the tune, figuring out how I might want to approach it. But on the other hand, it also drove home the importance of really hearing what you play and meaning it. There’s really no room for guesswork in this tune — not that there is in any tune — but this tune is a real minefield. If you get off the rails, you can really find yourself in a tight spot. Since there are so many potential ways to hear these notes, you have to be really clear with yourself what your intent is, otherwise you can get lost very easily.
It also drives home something I’ve been aware for a long time: your own personal conviction can make something right or wrong in the end. If you hear it and you mean it, then it works, in spite of the theory behind it. But that’s an easy, almost glib thing to say. I just lost my train of thought. I just went off the rails…
JW: But isn’t it true that sometimes you’ll hear something, you’ll play it and it’s not what you thought, it doesn’t come out well?
EE: You can play right notes that sound wrong and you can play wrong notes that sound right, but it is in the end very important to mean what you play. Very often that can be the difference between success and its alternative. This tune is especially challenging in that way.
It’s surprising to me: you have this straightforward chord progression and you have this melody which, on the face of it, you might think it’s going to be overdone with this pattern of descending chromatic lines that’s played three times in succession. On the face of it, compositionally, you might just think, jeez, that’s really going overboard. But it doesn’t. It’s very rich. I still feel like there are secrets in that tune to be mined.
JW: How did you choose that song, where did you come across it?
EE: I’ve been aware of it since I was a kid. It’s not called very often. It’s not one of those tunes that seems to set itself up well to just blow on — meaning to just solo over — like certain other tunes do. Again, I think it has a lot to do with the relationship between the melody and the chord changes. This is something that’s important in any tune that you play, but it’s often taken for granted by players who sort of dispense with the melody and get on with the business of soloing.
I think what makes these tunes unique and individual is the relationship between the melodies and the harmonies, because the harmonies are all very similar. Even in the simplest tunes, I’m often astonished. I’ll be sitting at the piano trying to analyze something and say, why does that sound so good? What really makes that work? What am I really hearing? What’s really going on here?
It’s not always what you think it is. You need to have an awareness, an appreciation of whatever those factors are. They might not always be completely tangible, at least to me. The more you can understand that, or have a feel for that, the more personal your delivery of that song will be, and the more meaningful your improvisation. That’s what I’m most interested in. I’m not really interested in a set of changes to blow on; I’m interested in a complete song. I’m interested in the melody and how it works with the harmony and whatever’s going on there — that just makes it for me.
JW: That’s true of all the songs you chose?
EE: It’s definitely true of all the songs that I chose. And with this song, because of the challenges I mentioned before, there’s a certain beauty that — even more so than most other songs — those features that give it its identity are also the ones that are kind of challenging to take for granted and just improvise with. Therefore, it’s not a song that gets played very often. And when it is played, it’s not a song that I hear people just improvising on the changes. They didn’t do that here. We didn’t do it on our record, even though I was prepared to. I had every intention of cracking that.
JW: But wait, you don’t play the song’s melody for the first six minutes of that track.
EE: The first six minutes, I think, are free, off the grid. The difference with this record and the previous one is that for this one we knew which tune we were going play before we played it. This was not the case on the first one [Ellery Eskelin, Trio New York, prime source, 2011]. We were off the grid in the opening of this tune, but we knew which tune we were going to be playing. It wasn’t as if we were playing on the changes. I had practiced playing on the changes of this song for months, hours a day. Because I felt like, okay, this is a challenge. I’m gonna play this song on a record; I’m gonna crack the code. I was prepared to do that. And yet, when I got together with Gary and Gerald and we started working on it here in the apartment, practicing it, it really seemed to sound the best to feature this melody as prominently as possible.
Which is what Paul’s band did when they got around to it. I mean, the pianist played a little bit of the head, and then you heard a piece of the bridge, but it sounded pretty free. When the horns came in, it was great. They were starting to play some harmony. I thought, maybe they worked out some shit here; I need to find out what that is. But after they went on, I got the impression it might’ve been spontaneous, which is pretty cool.
JW: The saxophonists were kind of echoing each other, right?
EE: I’m not sure. When they came in the second time around it was almost a little jolt. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was cool. I enjoyed it. I’ll have to ask those guys. I’ll talk to Michael and ask him what went on. I’ll get the inside scoop.
[The melody] is the essence of that tune. The way we arrived at our arrangement was that we would play the melody and elongate it and give Gary plenty of room in there to harmonize and re-harmonize with some of the myriad possibilities. It didn’t need a whole lot of embellishment on my part once we established the melody and had gone on from there. So we kind of separated the improvisation, making that a free section in the very beginning. Once we knew the trajectory would be that opening statement, we had in mind: okay, that’s the job this improvisation is going to do; we’re gonna connect it to the beginning of the tune. And once we get in there, I’m pretty much going to play the melody. And if I’m not mistaken – did we only play it once? Not more than twice?
JW: I think you played it twice.
EE: Is it twice? I can’t remember. But it certainly wasn’t more than twice.
JW: These guys just play it twice, too.
EE: Another tune like that is “Lush Life,” the Billy Strayhorn tune, which I recorded with Joint Venture on our first recording in 1987, which was on an LP. [Joint Venture, JOINT VENTURE, Enja Records, 1987] We did a similar thing in which I played the melody in a very elongated form. I let the rest of the band improvise around it. Paul [Smoker] improvised freely, and Drew [Gress] was improvising half with the harmony and the changes and half-out. It’s a nice effect — those tunes that have such strong [identity] it doesn’t really require much, sometimes the melody is just so happening. And again, it’s a deceptively simple melody, but it’s just very compelling.
JW: You wrote an appreciation of Paul Motian on your blog the day he died. In it, you describe trying a musical “joke” at a rehearsal with your own band on the day you first played with Motian. I think the idea was to play completely free rhythmically while still making the changes in time. You employed the same approach with Motian later that night and the results were apparently surprising.
EE: I didn’t mean it as a joke at that point. By then I figured out that it was not.
JW: You wrote “Everything I’ve done since then has come out of that one seemingly casual but quite intense (and amazingly fortuitous) experience.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, specifically the idea of playing completely free rhythmically while still making changes in time. Is that something you do a lot on this new record?
EE: I’m not as hyper-conscious of it now as I used to be. I remember when I stumbled on that. Essentially what it means is that rather than playing a bunch of eighth notes in a row like most people do, I was rhythmically playing free, playing different shapes that are not metrically oriented to the time or the rhythm of the music. In fact, they kind of contrast or go against the grain in a way. And yet I wanted to keep my place in the form harmonically. So if the changes were going by in time, I wanted to honor that. I wanted to make the changes, but I wanted to play free.
You’re right, it was meant to be a joke at this jam session that I was doing with a group of friends during the afternoon. I was getting kind of bored. We’d been playing tunes a lot. I felt like, here we go again; we’re playing this tune again; it’s just the same-old, same-old. I started feeling belligerent. I thought, I’m just gonna screw this up completely. I’m gonna really just fuck it up. I was feeling devious and destructive. I don’t remember what the tune was, but it was some sort of 32-bar standard, one of these things with a set of changes you’re just blowing on. I thought, I’m just gonna screw this whole thing up, ‘cause I don’t give a fuck.
I launched into this thing and I tried to make it as extreme as I could. I got through it and I realized, that was kinda cool. And not only that, but the piano player immediately picked up on what I was doing and it changed the way he was playing. He kinda took it in his own solo and did something similar. I thought, that was really happening. I gotta remember that because that was really pretty cool.
That was the end of the session. If it had just ended there, I might not have given it as much thought as I did. But it just so happened that Paul was playing at the 55 Bar with Leni [Stern] that night, and Drew Gress, who was on the jam session, was on that gig. So I said, Drew, let me hang out with you tonight. Maybe Leni will let me sit in; Paul’s on the gig; that might be cool.
So that’s what happened. I went down there; I hung out. Then Leni, who was always very nice to me, invited me up to play. The way Paul was playing, it just seemed like, oh my God, this is the perfect situation for the experience that I just had on this jam session. This is gonna be great. And it was. I played that way and that moment was just… what do you call it: a catalyzing moment, a defining moment?
I thought, wow, that just opens up a whole new world for me of music and playing. It was so perfect because that’s what he’s doing. He’s very free even if he’s playing time. There’s nothing taken for granted; there’s nothing rote about it. Every sound he makes is a spontaneous and wonderful, beautiful, astounding event to me. It could not have been a more perfect situation. I remember at the end of that night I just thought, I am never playing two eighth notes in a row again for as long as I live. That’s how strongly I felt about it.
I remember at that point being very conscious that this was a thing. I didn’t hear too many people doing it. There are precedents for it. I started to dig around a little bit. I said, well, Keith Jarrett kind of did that — where’d he get that from? Well, Paul Bley did that — where’d he get that from? Well, Ornette did that…
Then all of a sudden you start to hear it everywhere, but there were certain [key] people. It kind of bridged the two worlds that I was interested in. I was doing a lot of free playing, free improvisation without tunes and chords, but I also have a strong upbringing in standards and jazz music. So this was a way to address both aspects of that music. I could be free, and I could be on point making the changes at the same time. I thought, this is where I want to live. And in a way I am still in that world.
Yes, everything has come out of that one point. It’s remarkable when you have an experience like that. I used to call that an epiphany — that’s kind of what it is. It’s just a very concentrated moment when you just know, oh my God, that’s it. I still feel like that’s reverberating. But like I said, I’m not as conscious of it. At the time, I felt like, okay, I’ve got this thing, now I’ve gotta hold on to it. I’m afraid to let go because I might not get it back. It was that exciting and almost elusive because I felt like I stumbled on this thing by accident.
Now I don’t worry so much. Now, you’ll hear on the record, I play some choruses in eighth notes. But the difference is I’ve never been able to simply stand up and just run a bunch of eighth notes. Because once I feel like that’s what I’m doing, I start feeling I’m just playing some bullshit. It’s just not real; it’s not right. It goes against everything I feel in my value system as a player. And yet, I can sort of achieve it by being prepared at any moment to go off the rails. Or maybe I’ll just be hyper-conscious about where I am in relation to the beat. I still have to conceive every note as its own entity. I can’t think about strings of notes, really. I don’t like to think about lines; I like to think about melodies. So even though it might come out sounding like eighth notes — and that’s kinda what it is — it’s not generated from that part of my brain that used to generate eighth notes. That might be a hard thing for me to describe or get across to a reader or listener.
JW: Oh, I think it comes across in the music. Your eighth notes feel strange.
EE: Oh good, thank you.
JW: Sometimes it feels like somebody is fast-forwarding through tape or something. It has this weird motion.
EE: It’s a little start and stop. I think that’s because I’m prepared to do that. In the early days, when I was doing this free-rhythm/making-the-changes thing, it was much more extreme. I feel like that same process is still happening even when I do play something that’s close to eighth notes. So yes, if you listen, it’s a lot about the push and pull between me and the time, the beat. I like to push and I like to pull. I especially like to play so far behind the beat that I start to drop beats incrementally. I love that because it forces me to play some unknown melody that I don’t know. It’s not programmed. You can’t play programmed shit that way.
JW: Can you elaborate on that?
EE: [Sings a series of eighth notes that gradually slow down in relation to a beat snapped in steady quarter notes.]
In other words, I’m slowing down the pace of my eighth notes against the steady time. That throws a real monkey wrench into the melodic material you’re playing, to make it fit harmonically what you’re doing and still have its own logic intervalically and its own time. It’s a real split-brain kind of thing. But I love it because it provokes me to play something different. And it keeps me right in the moment; it keeps it fresh. It’s just a really good feeling. Sometimes some bizarre shit can happen. It’s really kinda cool.
JW: Should we hear the next piece? It features a great eighth note player, Lee Konitz.
EE: My hero. Is this from that record with Elvin Jones?
JW: No, this is the duo record with Red Mitchell.
Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell, “Just One of Those Things” (from I CONCENTRATE ON YOU, SteepleChase, rec. 1974) (Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Red Mitchell, bass)
EE: That’s the first time I’ve heard that cut.
JW: What’d you think?
EE: Well, first of all, Lee is one of my heroes and has been since I was a kid. I’ve told him so to his face. I know he knows it. At the risk of maybe projecting my own experience onto this recording — which is definitely a possibility, I understand that — I do get the sense that this is not the easiest tune in the world to play. I feel like I have firsthand experience at knowing that. But I daresay I can kind of hear it. That’s an unusual thing. I don’t know that I’ve ever really felt that way about anything I’ve heard Lee play. Again, I could be projecting. If I heard this two, three, four, five more times on a different day, I might feel completely wrong and go back, read this interview, and think: you idiot, what’d you say that for?
JW: Do you hear hesitation?
EE: Not hesitation, no. It’s very subtle. Again, I’m a saxophone player. I’ve heard a lot of Lee Konitz. I’ve worked on this tune pretty hard. I feel like I’m aware of what’s happening on it.
I know when I was practicing it, I had to really work. There were a lot of things that were just a little bit awkward in terms of where your melody is going. The kinds of things that might work in one situation that has this chord change and that chord sequence might not work quite so strongly in this case. Again, it’s that as yet indefinable relationship between the melody and the harmony that can be elusive.
This is something Lee talks about and he’s a master of. I’m loathe to be perceived as criticizing here and I’ll take full responsibility for projecting. This tune goes a lot of places and it has a lot of implications, a lot of ways you can play.
I like the bass part, by the way. He played some descending chromatic thing from the very beginning that I’m going to go to the piano and figure out. There are a lot of different sets of changes that you can play here.
I remember going back and getting the original sheet music and trying to figure out what Cole Porter was doing and how to play this tune.
JW: Is that something you try to do for all the tunes — go back and find the original sheet music?
EE: A lot of them. Maybe not every one, but certainly ones that I feel that I’m stumped on — and this tune was a stumper. It still kicks my ass.
JW: What does it mean to be stumped on a tune?
EE: It means that all the stuff you think will work sounds a little half-assed. It’s like, I really am not realizing this tune to its full potential.
JW: Do you wind up sticking close to the melody?
EE: It’s not that. It’s trying to grapple with what’s unique about this tune and addressing that. It called for a certain development on my part. I’m not claiming that I did the best job in the world on this tune. It reminds me that I have heard a bunch of versions of the tune. This one’s recorded more than the other one we talked about [“Midnight Sun”]. So there are other examples. And I will say there are not too many versions that I really feel like, okay, they got it.
JW: Can you think of one?
EE: There’s really one. I don’t say that to put down ones that I don’t know, because I haven’t heard them all. But out of the ones that I’ve heard, there’s a version that Warne Marsh does on a trio record, I think it’s COPENHAGEN SESSIONS or something like that. [Warne Marsh Trio, UNISSUED COPENHAGEN RECORDINGS, rec. 1975, Storyville.] I think it’s Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and a drummer whose name escapes me.
JW: Alan Levitt?
EE: Maybe so. They do a bunch of standards and there’s hardly anything on the record more than three or four minutes long,
JW: It’s on your shelf.
EE: Oh yeah, maybe you’ve seen it. It’s up there somewhere. I probably pulled it down and referenced it. What’s interesting is that in this version, I don’t even think he plays the melody. There’s no setting it up with a 2 feel until you get to the 4/4 time. I think they just bust right into it. It’s at a pretty good tempo. The thing that really impressed me is that given the fact that he did not play the melody, given the fact that they did nothing to prepare for this, but just go straight into the deep end of the pool — improvising his lines and his linear thing — you would think that he’s at the risk of really disassociating from the tune too much. It’s makes me think, whoa dude, you sure about that? But actually, of all the versions I’ve heard, I felt like he was probably the most in touch with the essence of that tune because he sounded the most fluid. I didn’t sense he ever backed himself into a corner or played anything that was inelegant. He was just very articulate melodically and harmonically. He just knew that tune better than Cole Porter did in a way. It was just three minutes of like, oh my God.
JW: Let’s talk about the what it means to play the melody at the beginning of a piece. Because that’s one obvious difference between the Lee Konitz we just heard and your version.
EE: Did we play the melody? I can’t remember. Probably not.
JW: You play the melody.
EE: It started out with me and Gerald, right? But then I kind of make a little reference to the melody.
JW: But why not state the melody up front like Lee Konitz does and like most jazz musicians do? That order ostensibly sets the listener up for the improvisation to come, gives it context.
EE: That’s a good question. The reason we do it this way is because I think of the band as a free improvising unit, even though this recording, probably a little bit more than the first one, is getting closer to some of these recognizable conventions that you’re used to hearing on jazz records. But the way we get to them is different. That’s an important distinction to me. I do feel like we’re improvising freely. And because we’re improvising freely, the protocol and the order of things is of much less importance. The convention of playing the melody before you improvise, it has little to no meaning. What’s more important is the overall composition that we’re delivering. I don’t even mean “Just One of Those Things” or whatever tune it might be.
The opening of this, I’m sure, is two or three minutes of me and Gerald off the grid. I don’t remember everything that happens after that. I think we’re probably on the form for the most part. Gary does a nice thing where he drops the bass line during his solo and changes the texture up. All of that is with an ear to what’s happening now, making that sound good for what it is. Like I said before, this might be touching on some conventions, but they’re not deliberate, they’re not by rote, they’re not because they’re the way it’s done. I’m really trying to play with these two worlds.
It may be getting a little subtle, but again it’s very important to me where we’re coming from, even if we arrive at something that might sound fairly conventional. For example, one of the tunes we do later, “My Ideal,” I think we played that, for us, fairly straightforwardly. I think I played the melody upfront. Even on the tunes that are a little closer to conventions, it wasn’t ever played that way because we just took it for granted, or did it unthinkingly, or thinking, that’s the way you’re supposed to do it. Above all, I feel we have the sense that anything could happen at any time.
JW: But wait, you chose to do an album of standards. If you want total freedom, why not just do free improv?
EE: Because these melodies, when we do play them, have a profound effect, at least to me. They’re a very strong ingredient. It’s something that I’m still grappling with overall in my music in terms of the larger questions: do I continue to do free improvisation, or when do I start writing more music again, or am I going to continue doing these standards and why?
I think these standards have been a means to have the best of both worlds. I do consider myself a free improviser and essentially that’s what I want to continue doing. But I had a band with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black for almost 20 years now and it started out being a group that could be a free improvising unit and yet we hardly ever did that because I wrote music for them. I wrote many, many pieces for that band because I realized that, in strictly speaking about free improvisation, there’s a lot that won’t happen, that can’t happen, that you can do with composition. If you want everyone to play the same thing together it’s hard to make those things happen [in free improv]. I wanted to have the best of both worlds and I composed for that group with the idea that I’m composing for free improvisation.
I haven’t been composing as much lately. I’m going to start again at some point. I don’t know when that’ll be and I’m not sure exactly how that’ll be. I feel like I’ve got to answer some questions. In the meantime, playing these standards, which are very close to my heart emotionally, has provided a way by which I can still be a free improviser and yet have the strength and the emotional impact that these great melodies afford. And these forms, these harmonic forms, while we may or may not play them strictly by the book, we can still use them as material. I find that it provides some very deep elements — musical elements and emotional elements — to the music, and I love that. I love this process. I love the material that we’re using.
But again, it’s because we’re free improvisers. If anything, I think that only serves to heighten the impact of these melodies and these songs when we do refer to them. So in my own way I feel like I’m honoring all those values that I’ve been talking about — the importance of melody and song and all that — even if we’re doing it unconventionally.
JW: When I was researching for this interview, trying to find recordings to play you, I went through iTunes. It’s insane how many times some of these pieces have been recorded. Did you listen to a lot of them? It must be quite different playing pieces that have been recorded hundreds of times as against playing your own compositions or freely improvising.
EE: Whether something was recorded or not actually didn’t have much bearing on whether I decided to do it. I’m cognizant of the fact that some of these tunes have been recorded to death and others hardly at all. But maybe you’re getting at something else?
JW: I’m just wondering if you listened to a lot of versions of these songs, if that’s part of your research?
EE: I did some research, but I didn’t feel the need to be exhaustive. I choose these tunes based on what is probably more of an emotional connection that comes from, again, some quality between the melody and the harmony. There’s something, even if it’s a small, little, simple device or two that really just gets my ear, grabs me in some way and makes me want to do it. I think without that, it wouldn’t work. I don’t think we could just pick a tune out of a hat. We probably could make it work, but it’s just not at all my connection.
JW: Do you pick all the songs?
EE: Yes. Gary has suggested some things. I didn’t know “My Ideal” until Gary showed it to me. He showed that to me early on, in fact. We didn’t put it into the book until later, until I got attached to it. The first time I heard it, I didn’t connect to it very strongly.
JW: Which version did he play you?
EE: I don’t know that he played me anybody’s version; he just showed me on the organ. I had heard the tune, but I think what it was is at that time we were doing “Memories of You,” and he thought “My Ideal” has some similarities. But I was so into “Memories of You” that I just couldn’t hear anything else; I had to put it aside. But then I probably did hear a version later on. There’s a great Coleman Hawkins one… I don’t know what other ones that I heard that made me think, oh my God, that is a beautiful tune; we gotta do it.
So as far as listening to versions, I do like to dig deep enough to just get a sense of some of the things that have been done, but I’m not looking for models of the tune. I’m not looking to avoid necessarily things that have been done a certain way. It’s going to come out different when we play it anyway so I’m not really worried about that. I guess what I’m listening for is something essential, like, what is the connection to the tune that this improviser is demonstrating. Very often I love to listen to the vocalists.
Actually, I have to say the research is more about just learning the tune, picking a version of the tune I think is sound. Because everybody, especially in jazz, everybody adds a chord, takes a chord away, changes a chord. Like, for example “Just One of Those Things” — before long you’re pretty far away from what Cole Porter was thinking about. My purpose in doing my homework on that is to try to get a little closer to the root of things so I see what is home base. Even though I might ultimately play something different myself, I want to know what that is. I want to have a feeling of what Cole Porter intended and what some of the more classic, early versions of the tunes were that sort of defined it for everybody, that made everybody else want to play it. So I think in that way, the farther back you go the better.
But I’m not looking to listen to every version. And when I think back upon it now, they’re probably almost always early versions. The Warne Marsh is an exception that just happened to be one that I had in my collection. But by and large, I’m looking for something really early and connected to the root of things. I’m probably less interested in many of the versions in between. Because I think for me to come up with my own personalized version, I feel much more confident doing that if I feel I know what the root of things is.
JW: That’s a good segue into the next piece.
Thelonious Monk, “We See” (from PIANO SOLO, Vogue, rec. 1954) (Thelonious Monk, piano)
JW: So that’s Monk playing his own composition — early on, I think, 1954.
EE: Wow. He was ahead of the game.
JW: I think Monk is the only composer who’s represented on both these Trio New York recordings.
EE: That’s right. And the one quote-unquote “jazz tune” of what’s otherwise a setting of Great American Songbook tunes.
JW: Wouldn’t “Midnight Sun” have started out as an instrumental?
EE: That’s right, that was Lionel Hampton. You got me.
JW: But I think it’s done more often as a vocal piece.
EE: Yeah, and it has that standard-ish quality to me.
JW: Is playing Monk different than playing the other material?
EE: It can be. There are a lot of strands of material going on in there and he’s picking and pulling at them, sometimes simultaneously or in different ways. He’s got different things going on at once. He’ll drop something; pick it up again. You realize he’s been in control of this stuff all along even though on the surface it can sound a little knotty or haphazard. It really isn’t.
I’m also reminded of another quality of his which, in some ways, maybe has more to do with pop music, inasmuch as he really sticks pretty close to the matter at hand. Not that he’s not doing a lot of profound business with the material, and maybe it’s even more profound that it’s so well integrated. Again, the last thing you want to do here is just take a set of changes and run your stuff on it. It’s not at all what this is about. That couldn’t be made any more clear by his example right there.
It’s daunting in a way. It makes me want to go back and listen to my version and re-assess, like, did I do okay? I hope so because that was so fucking great. In terms of honoring that aesthetic that I just described that I hear in there — that’s a tall order to do it on that level. It’s hard to even look at it like that. At some point, you can just say, okay, that’s a high water mark there. You can shoot high, but the thing is that you’re never gonna be as good or better than Thelonious Monk at playing his tune.
So while I’m inspired by the way he did it and the level at which he did it, at some point I have to say: okay, I gotta deal with what I’m doing here. And while it may be reminiscent of some of the ways he’s demonstrated that you can play on this tune, ultimately you’re gonna deviate from that and do things differently anyway. But it’s very tricky because you want to make sure you’re not just again falling back into: ah, I’ll just play my stuff on this tune. You want to use a tune like this to kick you in the ass a little bit and force you to play different.
I look at these tunes and I’m thinking: my God, could I have picked a harder set of music? I’m the leader; I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I could play tunes that I could just sound better on right away. What am I thinking playing “Midnight Sun” and “Just One of Those Things” and a Monk tune — am I crazy?
But I like being provoked, and hopefully it throws me into a set of results that I wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. But I will admit it’s daunting, because these songs have a history. These composers and these improvisers and these musicians, like Thelonious Monk, are icons. It’s easy to be intimidated by that, but I don’t let it get in my way as much as I’m very aware of all these implications at the same time.
Hopefully I did okay. We’ll see; it’s out of my hands at this point. That’s always the way it is: it’s out of your hands once you’ve recorded it. That’s one thing I love about the studio. As much as I love playing for an audience, it’s so different going into a studio. Because it’s easier for me to get away from any of this business that I’m talking about now that could adversely affect you. I feel like if I’m in the studio, it’s just me and my band. I’m calling the shots. I’m paying the bill at the end, so I’m in charge. I can even be cocky about it. I can be like, hey, I’m calling the shots; this is how it’s done. As audacious as that may seem — to be playing this music — fuck it, this is what I’m doing. Screw it: I’m gonna put it out there.
And then, on the other hand, after it’s all said and done, it’s like, okay, now you’ve gotta set this thing out into the world; people are gonna react to it. And then all of a sudden you think: holy shit, what have I done?
JW: One difference between your version of the tune and Monk’s is that Monk’s is under three minutes while yours is over nine. It seems like, in general, song lengths have gotten longer and people are taking more and more choruses. What do you make of that? Do you think that says anything about our culture or psychology?
EE: I think it says something about musicians.
EE: Well, depends who you’re talking about. I’m gonna separate myself, hopefully, from a trend that I think has potentially negative connotations, even though, as you rightly point out, we’re playing long-ass songs. In my defense — not that I need to defend it — the tunes on the last record were even longer. We’ve had 17, 18, 19 minute pieces. Again, though, the way we’ve arrived at it, to my mind, justifies the music. Because we’re not necessarily playing these songs. We’re improvising and we’re creating compositions that are in some ways a little bit larger than the songs that are contained in them. Maybe that sounds a little…almost [like an] arrogant thing to say — to put yourself above the songs you’re playing. I’m not meaning to put myself above the songs that I’m playing. I’m just trying to put these songs in a context and to illuminate the process for you.
In a lot of these songs, and especially on the first record, there were large portions of what we played that were not even part of the song, essentially, in terms of the form. As I pointed out before, on the first record we didn’t even know what [song] we were playing — it was all spontaneously arrived at. We knew: okay, there are eight or nine tunes that we’re gonna pick from, and we’re gonna improvise freely. But I’m not gonna tell the band which tune we’re gonna play, and I’m not gonna count it off or do any of those protocols. We’re just gonna have to negotiate in real time and see what happens. Because I think it heightens the whole experience. You gotta listen harder; you play differently; everything means more. And while that was slightly different in this situation inasmuch as now, in this case, we decided beforehand what tune we were gonna play, we still carried with it a sense that the improvisation and the overall form of the piece — whatever that was — we didn’t always quite know what that was gonna be. And of course the content and the things that we did were not planned out in advance at all. To me, that’s what carries the day and justifies a more lengthy performance of a particular tune.
Monk wrote the tune. He got right to the heart of the matter and it was beautiful. We’re setting out to do something a little bit different. I think that separates what I’m doing from the idea of simply gratuitously taking too many choruses of a solo over the form. If most musicians are playing the head and then a succession of solos on the form, it becomes a matter of: how many solos do you need? How long do they have to be? You’re right: they’ve gotten probably excessive.
JW: I didn’t actually say they were excessive.
EE: Maybe you didn’t, but to me that’s part of the general conversation as I see it in this world. That is the general criticism, and I don’t think that’s necessarily untrue. Again, it depends who you’re talking about. But I do sense that there is this idea that’s almost taken for granted: okay, we’re gonna rush through the head; and as soon as that’s done, we’re gonna get into our solos and that’s where we’re gonna show what we can do. That can be really cool when it’s great. It can also be kind of a drag and inconsequential if it’s anything less than great, because so much water has gone under the bridge. Because these tunes are so well known and recorded. That is the risk that you run.
JW: Ostensibly you might get better as you go. I mean, if you’re taking six choruses, it might take you five to get where you need to be.
EE: But should it? That’s another question. That, to my mind, gets to a discussion of a live performance versus a recording. I’ve always felt that in the studio things tend to become more concise, just as a result of the format that you’re in. There’s no audience. You’re trying to make all the elements of the music work together, integrate together to make a satisfying result on every level. Whereas when you’re playing in front of an audience, very often there’s more value placed on that peak, that climax moment in the tune. So you might be able to justify ten choruses if you give the audience a really good pay off. They’ll forget about the first three or four.
But on a recording? First, we’re not playing that way to begin with. It’s free improvisation in my mind, so there are other contours involved, other kinds of peaks and valleys and compositional things that are going on. So we’re not even approaching it that way to begin with. But even if we were, I’m not so sure that speaks the same way on a record as it would in a live performance because people’s perceptions and their memories are different. When you have a recording, you can listen to it over and over as many times as you can for the rest of your life. Whereas in a live situation, you remember things differently: certain things have a greater impact than others, certain values are greater than others. I’m very cognizant of that. That’s why I make the distinction between live performance and recording, and it’s why I value recording as much as I do.
I know that I’m in the minority with that, but I feel very much at home… In fact, it’s almost sacrilegious to say, but I really do think my best work probably takes place in the studio. I’m not even comfortable with saying that, really. I almost want to say that, but I don’t really believe it because there are things that happen live. I don’t want to negate or lessen the importance of live performance because I can’t emphasize how important that is enough and I do value it. They’re just two different things – that’s all it is.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t think of a recording as in any way being some sort of substitute or surrogate for a live performance. And I think that’s why a lot of musicians downplay the importance of recording or the results. Maybe it’s not the best. [They might say]: if you want to hear real jazz, you gotta go to a club and hear it live. I think they feel that way because they’re almost trying to replicate in the studio what happens at the club. I’m not trying to do that; I’m not trying to replicate what happens at the club.
On the other hand, I’m fully cognizant of what happens in the club and I’m not looking to sacrifice any of that either. If anything, compositionally, it’s liable to be much more potent what happens in the studio than live. Because live, there are going to be parts of it that are less focused, a little more meandering, because it’s a different process.
JW: So what we’re hearing on the album: is that all real-time?
EE: It is.
JW: Did you edit stuff down much?
EE: No. Well, there might’ve been one or two small edits in this one. There were no edits on the first record. There might’ve been a couple of internal edits in this record now that I think about it, but they’re very small.
JW: How many hours of music did you record?
EE: On this session, I can only guess. I think probably two-and-a-half or three hours at the most.
JW: Okay, so not, like, eight hours.
EE: Oh, no. We’re in there for eight hours, but part of that time is setting up, and listening back. We played everything at least once, and we played most things twice; some tunes we played three times. I don’t think we played anything four times. So figure whatever’s on the record at least times two and then maybe times three. Beyond that, it becomes diminishing returns for me. Because you’re looking for that spontaneity. A lot of times, the best things can happen on the first take or two, especially when you’re prepared and you know what’s going on. If you belabor it, it sometimes goes on a downward trajectory.
JW: Getting back to those musicians who might say: if you really want to experience jazz, you need to hear it live. In a way, that really makes sense to me. Jazz is rich in information. There are a lot of nuances; there are a lot of notes and complex rhythms and harmonies coming at you. One of the good things about the live situation is that you can take more of it in because you’re not generally doing anything else. Like, it’s taboo to be on your cell phone or computer. You’re just sitting there, listening.
On a related point: in preparing for this interview, I wanted to hear your album a lot, so I tried listening in a variety of contexts. I go to the gym, so I tried listening to it on the stationary bike and that didn’t really work. I tried listening to it on the subway: that didn’t really work. It doesn’t really work in cars. The only way I could really hear it and appreciate it was by sitting down in front of the stereo and not doing anything else.
More than that, I needed to hear it several times before the music really sunk in. The first time I heard it, it wasn’t as enjoyable as, say, the sixth time when I had some things in my ear. So I wonder, when you put out an album, do you worry that that’s not gonna happen?
EE: Do I worry that what’s not going to happen?
JW: Do you think people take the trouble to really listen?
EE: I make records for people who take the trouble I guess it what it boils down to. I’m not sure I’d know how to accommodate people who listen halfway. It’s gotta be excruciating.
JW: Do you know anyone who listens like that who’s not a musician? People who just sit down and listen and don’t do anything else?
EE: Oddly enough, there are a lot of fans [who aren’t musicians themselves]. Or I don’t know that there are a lot, but I know some of them. I’ve been playing long enough and I’ve been touring around the world and I know many of them personally by now. And lots of times, I ask people. It’s one of the first things I’m curious about when I meet people at these concerts. They’ll come up and say hello, and depending what questions they ask, I can usually tell. But I usually ask them: do you play?
I think the assumption on the part of a lot of my comrades is that the audience is made up of a fair amount of musicians. In New York, it may be a little higher percentage. But I think, at least for the music I’ve been doing, the percentage of musicians is less than what I thought it was or would be and I was kinda surprised by that.
Especially when I was touring with Jim and Andrea, because we were doing something that was rather different than the norm. We weren’t really playing so many jazz clubs, and the audience was younger and they were coming at this music from a different direction. The audience was not always schooled in jazz. Some of them were into alternative rock and punk who wanted something more and discovered improvised music and maybe jazz. Because of that, a lot of the audience were just various creative types of people; or people who didn’t do a creative thing in their life, but it was — at least at that time — part of the culture of 20-something, 30-something people, especially when we started in the ‘90s.
I think that’s carried to some degree, even though this music [Trio New York] is much more connected to jazz. We can play a jazz festival — we played the Detroit Jazz Festival; we can play a jazz club. But when we tour, it’s still a similar circuit that I’ve been playing: something a little different, more improv-based. They have more eclectic programming at the venues. So the audience at those concerts is not as many musicians as you might think or as might be in a more tried-and-true jazz setting.
And so: to get to your question, do I expect people to really sit down and listen?
JW: Or do you worry that they don’t – and that some of your craft is lost? We were talking earlier at my lesson about how you consider things like the texture of single notes in a fast moving phrase. Talk about nuance! On the other hand, the pop music around us seems to be getting simpler and simpler. I think you once said that some forms of pop have reached a sort of nadir, that it couldn’t get, in some ways, any simpler musically than it is. I wonder if some of what you’re doing is being lost on people used to consuming that.
EE: What you and I discuss in our lessons is getting really under the hood into the nuts and bolts of it. I think you can appreciate how much is there. But my job as a musician is to make it all sound simple. And even though you’re right, there’s a lot of information coming at you — it’s absurd for me to call it simple —there’s gotta be something in my delivery of this music that you feel.
I have this conversation with some of my musician friends. I feel differently than many of them. They kind of feel like a lot of the music we’re playing now, the audience doesn’t understand it, we’re too far over the heads of the general public. And I think, no, that’s the wrong attitude; that’s self-defeating. It’s what they [the people in the audience] feel. They don’t have to understand it.
I don’t understand a lot of music that I love. I listen to a lot of classical music. I can hear it, but I can’t say that I understand it all. If you really want to get down to it, if you want to analyze Mozart — something that you think is pretty clear and straightforward — there’s a lot going on there that you might not understand. But you hear it; you feel it.
And that’s my goal as a musician. No matter how multifaceted or complex it might be under the hood, if you’re willing to listen, I’m going to do my best to make what I play communicate on a physical, visceral level. That doesn’t mean to connote force, when I say “visceral.” It just means that it’s something that you can respond to, that you can feel, that you might not know how to explain. And like you’re saying, with multiple listenings, maybe you realize: oh, that washed over me the first time and now I hear it. That’s the game that we’re playing.
That assumes that there are enough people on the planet who crave those kinds of experiences, be they musical or otherwise. There are lots of ways to have deep, meaningful experiences in life — this is just one of them. To my mind, this is a component of human experience that seems to have gotten pushed aside in the context of today with all the gadgetry that everybody is hooked up to that seemingly makes our attention spans measured in seconds. It would be easy to say we’re just completely fucked now; you’re right, it’s all a drag and I’m fooling myself by even doing this. But no, I really do not feel that way. I feel quite joyful and quite positive because I know that there are enough people beyond the stereotype of what we do see every day.
We do need some more depth in our lives. And if you don’t get it, your system is gonna be out of balance and you’re gonna get fucked up in some way sooner or later. You need singular, one-minded experience. We were talking about meditation earlier [in your lesson]. That’s one way of doing it. Music can be another.
I appreciate what you say about sitting in front of the speakers because that’s really what you have to do. And to get back to the point you made — and I completely agree with it — the live experience is ostensibly where you do give yourself permission to sit there and stare at the band and do nothing but listen. Of course we can complain about [audience members taking] videos which is creeping in, and iPhones which are creeping in. I’ve spoken out against that. But that is why we put such a premium on the live experience. I think you’re right to point out…and it’s something I’ve been cognizant of too: it’s because you give yourself permission to have that experience.
And how many people… Even me, who value that thing at home: I’ll admit I listen to music while I’m doing other things. I’ll multitask, but I realize that’s not the optimal thing to do. I’ll have the radio on; it’s my way of researching music, putting on one of these internet stations that play nothing but 1920s and ‘30s music. I’ve got it on while I’m doing my email or doing something else. But there are times when a particular tune will come on, I’ll hear something and I’ll stop what I’m doing. Or if I’ve heard half of it and it’s just gone off, I’ll jot down the title, and I’ll go get it. I’ll buy it and then I’ll give myself that opportunity to sit down and listen to this music multiple times, over and over, undistracted, because that is part of the experience.
So I don’t worry about it. I feel like if anything I want to make the experience as potent as possible. The last thing I want to do is try to water it down or accommodate a half-assed listening situation. Because it’s not that kind of music; it’s just gonna make the music worse. It’s not gonna make anybody’s perception of it any better to try to figure out, like, what’s gonna keep their attention for another 40 seconds? Screw that.
I think the best and the most potent thing that I can do is just to throw them into the deep end of the pool. If they don’t dig it, I can understand that, but I think they have a much better chance of digging it if you give them the pure, unadulterated, hardcore real-deal. Especially now, because there are so many distractions. Trying to second-guess and figure out what’s gonna work? No. There are too many distractions and you just cannot compete on that level anymore. That game is over.
Not that I could play it in the first place, because I never could. I’ll admit I was never good at that. Some people might be good enough at that that they can do it, and then maybe there’s a craft and art to that, but it’s not my game. I find that it’s much better to give people something that is so potent that it jolts them out of themselves. I’ve had this happen where they come up and say: you know what, I have no idea what you all are doing, but I really dug it — or something to that effect. I love it when that happens. And it happens enough that I feel like, yes, this is what we need to do. I feel quite strongly about that.
JW: Though you’d probably do it even if nobody was listening.
EE: Yeah, but you need listeners. It’d be depressing to think about doing this without other people. That’s a good thing to point out. Because here we are: I’m doing an interview with you, and I’m talking about me, and I’m talking about how I feel, and that’s all fine and good. But it’s not really about me when you get down to it. It’s about the exchange; it’s about the experience. Whether that’s on a record or whether it’s live, it’s about your communication with other people. It’s just a different dynamic.
I’m not trying to give them what I think they want or what I think will make me more money. I’m attracting that aspect of humanity that craves experiences like this, those people who want to have that experience in music and sound. So what I do is be as honest as I can and try to do what I do to the fullest of my potential to give them something that is real. Without that, it would be really depressing and dysfunctional, fucked-up. I can’t imagine.
If anything, I’m more and more aware of that relationship. When you’re younger, you’re getting your thing together, you’re just trying to gain some traction, you’re trying to get a little attention. It’s usually within the community of musicians that you’re dependent upon for your gigs. You’re looking to move up and have your stock rise in the community of musicians and gain some foothold that way.
But now I’ve been doing it long enough. I’ve been in New York for 30 years. I’m really thinking about me and the listener and that experience and what it means. I don’t want to take for granted that people should just sit and listen for an hour undistracted. I realize that’s not the norm and I appreciate it. I don’t want to belittle that or devalue it or just take it for granted whatsoever. I’m very aware that that is a demand. And so it’s incumbent upon me to deliver a pay-off, a reason for them to do that, to make it worth your time.
I’m asking you for an hour. I’m asking you to buy my record, spend your money and then give me your time, which is worth much more than money. I’m asking for your time and attention. I can’t control whether you do or not. But what I’m telling you is here’s part of the bargain: if you give me your money and surrender that time, I think it’s gonna be worth it. That’s our relationship.
So I value that more and more at this point in my life. I’m 53 years old. I really super-value that, because times do change and it does seem like you gotta hustle much harder to make things happen now. Culture is changing. Finances, politics — it’s always in flux. That’s nothing new, change is always happening. We all feel that, and it can be very easy to get down and discouraged.
In the context of what we’re talking about — a world full of computers and iPhones and connectivity electronically (a pseudo-connectivity) — if anything I’m an anachronism. But that makes me stand out a little bit more. By not capitulating so thoughtlessly into making my shit sound good through the computer and through your experience on an iPhone in the subway… I’m just not gonna do that. It’s not what this music is for.
And yeah, okay, that is different these days. I’m asking you to do something pretty old-school But it’s really not old-school — it’s human, essential. So if anything, I feel like because I’ve been in the game this long and I have this experience in this context, hopefully people like me can stand out. Because sooner or later you’re gonna need what I’m doing. Maybe not the experience of listening to my music, but you’re gonna need an experience like it. Sooner or later, you as a human being gotta turn all this shit off and sit still for a minute. You’ve got to, otherwise you’re gonna end up in Bellevue. It’s essential, and that’s how I look at it. So I’m there when you’re ready. [laughs]
JW: Should we listen to some more music?
EE: What’s next?
JW: Next is “My Ideal,” Branford Marsalis.
EE: Yeah, play it. I’ve heard this, but play it anyway. If we don’t listen to it all the way through…I’ve heard it within the last several weeks.
Branford Marsalis Quartet, “My Ideal” (from FOUR MFs PLAYIN’ TUNES, Marsalis Music, rec. 2012) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Justin Faulkner, drums)
EE: This is a different chord than I’m used to hearing at that part. I remember thinking that when I heard it the first time. I wonder if that was a decision on their part to change it, or if it’s a different of changes that I know, but that’s interesting.
He’s using his sound very effectively on this. From the very opening notes, it kinda grabs you by the throat, his tone. He’s really connected sonically with his delivery and everything with this song. I appreciated that the first time I heard this.
Do you have the Coleman Hawkins version on there? Just put that on for a couple of minutes.
Coleman Hawkins acc. by Leonard Feather’s Esquire All Stars, “My Ideal” (from COLEMAN HAWKINS: THE BEBOP YEARS, Proper, rec. 1943) (Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Art Tatum, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sid Catlett, drums)
EE: I’ll say this: Branford was impressive, but Coleman Hawkins makes me want to cry. And that’s taking nothing away from Branford.
JW: What do you mean?
EE: It’s just a different… I don’t know. Okay, you can turn it off. I just wanted to touch on it in that context. I don’t mean to pit those two. Compared to Coleman Hawkins, I mean, come on, the conversation’s over. It takes nothing away from anybody to talk about how great Coleman Hawkins sounds and delivers that.
JW: This is something new for you, right? 20 years ago you probably would’ve been more interested in Branford.
EE: Yes. Because Branford, to my ear, what I was hearing there was much more in the world of…there’s a certain kind of punch in his delivery that was more like Sonny Rollins. That sort of bold, strong, brash and yet very full sound. I was impressed by his tone on that. To me, it’s an association that I have with a different period in the music. And my appreciation of Coleman Hawkins now…I don’t know when that was recorded – do you?
JW: I don’t. I think it was the ‘40s. [December 4, 1943.]
EE: He’s bringing with him his experiences from the beginning of what we often trace as the jazz tenor saxophone. And you’re right: that is new to me; my appreciation, my love of it is very new. And maybe that’s why I get so excited just to hear a few notes. Because it is something that I think I appreciated more as an idea when I was coming up. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, that music sounded old-fashioned. It sounded like some kind of earlier version of what we were trying to do, or what I heard people doing that was hipper or newer or more developed. In some ways, I maybe felt like this earlier music was somehow, not obsolete, but like a relic of its time, and that it had been improved upon somehow by virtue of all the great players that came since then, all the people that I was interested in who made their mark in the ‘50s and ‘60s — which is more where I place what Branford was doing on that cut.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth mentioning in context that my discovery of this earlier music came in a way kind of accidentally or unintentionally. It came through a process of trying to change my sound on the saxophone.
JW: Because you got a different instrument?
EE: The process started before I got the new horn — or the old horn, I should say. I had been playing a more modern instrument, a Selmer Mark VI, and over time began to feel like my sound was not as full and deep and rich as I would like it to be. So I started, even with that instrument, trying to play it a little differently. One thing led to another. I changed my mouthpiece; ultimately I changed the horn and bought a 1927 Conn. And this 1927 Conn was so different from this 1960s Selmer than I had been playing that I felt like I was starting over from the beginning in learning how to play the saxophone again.
I didn’t know who or what to turn to for guidance. So I thought, well, Lester Young did pretty good in terms of playing this thing in tune and getting a sound out of it. So let me go back and listen to Lester Young records, and [other] records of guys who played these horns and see if I can’t get any hints by listening to this music that might clue me in on how to approach playing this instrument so I can control it.
Because it was totally out of control; it was like playing the violin. It was like, where are the notes, the pitch — it’s everywhere. But that was also the beauty of it, because you had so much flexibility with these instruments. So after listening from a purely technical standpoint, after a period of several months of immersing myself into this music recorded in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, listening for no other reason but to try figure out how did they get that sound — not because I wanted to sound like that stylistically, but they had a certain richness to their tone… I felt like if I can get some of that richness in what I do, it’ll make my sound better, to more how I like it. But I’m still gonna play the way I play; I’m not gonna try to play like Lester Young. That was not my intention.
I wasn’t interested in the style or anything. But because of that, because I wasn’t hung up about the style, because I was listening from a technical standpoint, it allowed the music itself to come in without the same kind of filters that I’d had before — those filters of old-fashioned-ness, obsoleteness. Those filters I wasn’t even thinking about on those terms whatsoever. And because of that, the music kind of got in me in a way that it never had before.
After about three months, I realized that I was getting quite emotionally attached to this music and that it was sounding exciting. I was hearing the creativity that went into it and it was starting to sound just as modern as anything that could’ve been played today. I was astonished by that, and I was trying to figure out why. Ultimately, I came to feel that that music was complete in and of itself; you couldn’t improve upon it if you wanted to. It was never made obsolete — that was just a fallacy in my mind because of the cultural generation that I grew up in. That was just the prevailing mode of thought. In the ‘60s, it was all about new and improved. Old shit? Nah, we’re done with that — it’s all about new. We’re in the space age, technology, blah blah blah. And that just affected how you thought about everything, music included.
Now when I hear Lester Young or Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins or any of these musicians, it’s such an amazing experience to hear that as new music knowing that it was done in the ‘30s or the ‘40s or whenever and realizing the history. It’s completely mind-blowing.
JW: Do you listen to your peers at all? You had heard that Branford Marsalis…
EE: I do. I keep up with what’s going on. I’m not gonna cut myself off.
JW: How do you do that? Do you go to shows?
EE: Any way I can. It’s not that hard. I’m out there playing; I’m curious. I hear people, especially when we go out and travel on the road. You play festivals and you get to hear people. If I hear a person’s name a couple of times or if a person that I know says a person’s name — like, you should hear so and so — I take that seriously and I go out of my way.
I think especially in the last five or ten years, due to the fact that now I’ve been around in New York for 30 years, there’s a whole new generation or two that is younger than me who are doing great things and different things. I’ve been making an effort to find out who’s doing what, and in fact calling people to play with me. Because I think that’s it’s not only important on a lot of levels — it’s just great. I’m in New York with people coming up thinking about things different than me because of their experience. That’s just as valuable to me as reaching back to Coleman Hawkins or whoever it is, being up on who’s doing what now.
I’d like to feel that I’m pretty much in the know as to what’s happening today, but I’d say in the past three years 90 percent of my listening has been to music recorded prior to 1950.
JW: You listen to classical music, too.
EE: I do.
JW: Something that strikes me as unusual, or even maybe ironic about this project is that you use these old songs, this old instrument, this old format — the organ trio — but the music that results sounds really modern. Why do you feel compelled to use these older forms to generate this new music?
EE: Because it’s not about old or new anymore. I’ve finally gotten past style and I’ve finally gotten past the idea of modern as superseding anything. Like I said, now that I can appreciate that that music was completely self-contained and will never be bested — ever — I can simply look at this all on an equal, level playing field. Whether something is new or old, it’s simply musical material. And to me, the idea of something being better because it’s modern is almost a non sequitur. Because it’s modern has little to do with what I think of its value as compared to something that might’ve been done decades or even centuries ago.
JW: Do you feel alienated from our culture at all? I mean, you’ve got a pocket-watch, you’ve got this old horn, you’re listening to music from the ‘20s, and then you walk into a store and you hear Brandi. Though actually, bad example, I happen to know you like Brandi.
EE: That’s right, we analyzed Brandi in one of our lessons.
JW: But you know what I mean. Do you feel that something’s being lost?
EE: Yes, but I embrace it. It’s just that’s how it is. I’m not the only motherfucker who experiences that, but the way I react to it is important. I don’t want to become an old fuck, a bitter, crotchety old grump. It’s a drag. When I see guys who do that, I think, dude, get me away from you. It’s so easy to fall into. [But] I don’t want to be holier than thou when it comes to that, because if you catch me on a grouchy day, you know, I can be a grouchy old man if I want to be, it’s easy.
JW: Isn’t some of this top-40 music, like, insulting?
JW: Insulting is the wrong the word. But you spend so much time digging into these melodies and chords, and your rhythmic sense is so complex…
EE: I see where you’re going and while I have a thought in my mind, let me interrupt you. Just because it’s music doesn’t mean that it needs to be compared as the same thing that I do. Because remember what I talked about before: it’s the quality of experience that I’m offering you or anyone. It just happens to be that I’m a musician so I’m gonna give you this quality of experience through music. But you can attain it through meditation and yoga… there are many, many ways that you can have an enriching experience in life. And so I happen to do it through music. That doesn’t mean that I need to compare what I do for better or worse against anybody else who also does music, because the function is completely different. As soon as I can disengage from that, comparing all those things that you just mentioned, I realize that’s just a different game. They both happen to be music, but the goals are different. And at some point it’s absurd to compare the two. So I’m much happier when I realize that, you know what, I don’t have to compare myself with that at all.
Now I realize that, okay, I’m existing in a world where many people will [compare] — by virtue of the fact that I say I’m a musician and they see an instrument in my hands. To them, maybe it means the same thing. I don’t know what it means anymore. It’s a saxophone — talk about an anachronism, if you want to look at it on that level. I’ve got this nineteenth century instrument. Come on – it’s absurd. If you were to make these comparisons: what am I doing playing a saxophone? I should have a computer; I should have tracks. But I don’t.
So I don’t compare myself because it’s a different type of experience and I’m much happier when I just let that be what it is, just go on and do what I’m doing and think about, okay, what do I need to survive? Because I’m a musician and this is what I do for a living, so I have a heightened awareness about that, believe me. I think about rather than comparing myself to those things that you mentioned — which is a losing proposition before you even have the conversation — I gotta think about what it is that I offer and how I can get that out there and recognizable and have people relate to it in some kind of way so that I can continue to do what I’m doing.
Because in order to do something like this to the highest level, you’ve got to devote your life to it and you have to do it as much as you can. In this society, that means making a living at it. So there is that aspect of commerce and commerciality, but I’m not offering something that is commercial in the way those things are commercial. You have to make these distinctions in order not to be completely depressed on the one hand, but also in order to realize your true value. Because if I don’t feel like I have something of value to offer, then what am I doing?
JW: Is it possible the opposite is true: that what you’re offering is of value, and this other stuff is not?
EE: Well, you know what, it’s easy for me to say that stuff is of no value if I’m gonna compare what goes into it compared to what I think I do. But I think that’s deceptive, because obviously it’s providing some kind of function to somebody — and not even somebody, but to a lot of people. I can’t just dismiss that; something’s going on. Maybe I don’t get it, maybe I don’t relate to it at all, maybe I think it’s pretty bizarre. I might look at something on the TV and think, that’s fucked up, how is that getting over? But that’s grouchy, crotchety old man talk. The fact is, it is getting over. Why is it getting over? What is that about?
JW: Those questions are more interesting, I guess.
EE: Well, to a limited degree. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to dissect it because there’s a limited amount of time. I might give that give that five minutes of thought and then go back to listening to Lester Young for the next three hours. That’s just me. But I don’t want to be negative about those things. I gotta respect the fact that that’s what happening now. That doesn’t mean I have to capitulate to it. If anything, maybe it gives me greater latitude to do what I do if I’m smart about how I handle myself. It’s tricky. I’m not gonna say it’s easy, but that’s where I’m at; that’s what I’m dealing with.
James P. Johnson’s Blue Note Jazzmen, “After You’ve Gone” (from Ben Webster: Complete Small Group Recordings, 1943-1951, Definitive Records, rec. 1944) (Sidney De Paris, trumpet; Vic Dickeson, trombone; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; James P. Johnson, piano; Jimmy Shirley, guitar; John Simmons, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums)
EE: Is this the James P. Johnson, with Ben Webster and Sidney De Paris?
JW: It is.
EE: It’s interesting how the rhythm changes with each of these soloists. In a way, it’s almost like worlds colliding, and yet already this happened, already this was… I don’t know what year this was — do you?
JW: 1944. What do you mean by world’s colliding?
EE: Well, in a way…’Cause you have James P. Johnson with that kind of rhythm. And then when Ben Webster came in, the rhythm section changed and he’s playing this completely different way.
JW: Would you say this is getting toward bebop?
EE: I don’t think bebop right off the top of my head, no. I just think Ben Webster. No, what do I think? It’s a straight 4/4 thing. It’s definitely going in that direction. It’s swing, it’s not yet bebop. It’s a different kind of swing. James P. Johnson was almost with that stride kind of thing for a minute. That’s why I was so surprised when I first heard this. It’s like wow, Ben Webster with that kind of rhythm section?
And then when the drummer plays on breaks he’s playing on some older kind of break and then going back to swing again. It’s interesting to me. I’d like to know how this session came about, like, whose idea was it to put these guys together?
JW: Blue Note, I think.
EE: This is a great solo — Sidney De Paris, is that his name? Great rhythm. That was awesome. You know, in a way it’s a mix of musicians and on paper you might think, is that gonna work? And it really does. While it might have been like…I’m guessing, like you said, the label or a producer maybe thought to put this together…
JW: Weren’t they known as the Blue Note Jazz Men?
EE: I’m not even sure. This is where I’m at a severe disadvantage over a lot of folks who know the history of these things — I’m thinking like Phil Schaap or Loren Schoenberg, who can tell you, who can answer these questions. I can only guess and be wrong.
I can talk about what I hear, though. What I hear is it sounds like a group of musicians who are very cognizant of the fact that they represent different periods in the evolution of the music, and yet they’ve accommodated that in this rendition of this song in a way that I think is pretty awesome. It’s kind of stunning when Ben Webster comes in after James P. Johnson’s solo. Not only does the rhythm section change, but then you’ve got this sound, this velvet sound coming in there. It’s like… that’s pretty wild.
JW: Webster got a lot of air in his sound. I think you’ve let more air into your sound as well?
EE: Maybe so. I don’t know how conscious it is. It has something to do with the nature of the horn, when you want to get a certain fullness. And a lot of what he was doing is what we call a subtone, which is a specific kind of technique of playing the horn with your embouchure and airflow that invites that airiness. It’s just part of the package, but it sounds pretty cool, too, as it becomes part of the tone. He’s known for that.
JW: I’ve seen Trio New York about five or six times now. Gary’s been a constant, but the drummers switch out fairly often. What’s the role of the drummer in this group? How important is it, for instance, that the drummer knows the form of the piece?
EE: We all have the same role. Now of course Gary’s playing chords — he can have a pretty strong influence over the harmony. The drummer can have a pretty good influence over the time-feel and whatnot. But ultimately I want us all to have an equal say in every aspect of the music.
It’s a challenge for me as a saxophone player to be able to override something. For example, when I talked before about negotiating in real time as to what tune might come up, Gary might hint at something, and maybe I’m not feeling it. Maybe I’m feeling something else, I’m introducing something else. I need to be strong enough to make my case. It’s easy to get swallowed up by the organ. He’s got the bass, he’s got the chords, he’s got everything — he’s self-contained. So I’ve gotta be strong. That doesn’t mean force either, that just means a certain kind of clarity.
It’s very important that the drummer knows the song. We all need to know everything about the song and we all need to know as much as possible about what the others are doing. So when Gary comes over, I’m always asking him… He’ll play something; I’ll say: dude, show me what that is, show me what that chord is you just played. That sounded great, what is that? I might guide him around. I say: I want to hear more of this or more of that. We’ll work some things out. I need to know what he’s doing, he needs to know what I’m doing and Gerald needs to know what the both of us are doing.
I will say that I’ve gotten together mostly with Gary. Because like I said before, the research portion of this is me going back and trying to find as close to the root of the matter as possible. So actually what Gary and I are doing for the most part is coming to terms with what we’re going to agree upon as being the bedrock version of this tune. Even though chances are slim that we’re ever really going to play it that way, we reference from it and that’s very important.
He’ll come over and sometimes we’ll just do very stock stuff. Like, okay, there’s this tune — what change do you want to play here, what chord? Do you want to play that? Or, I like this better. The original was this, but we’re gonna do that instead.
We’re gonna hash out in advance what we think the foundation of that will be, so Gerald does not necessarily need to be present for that, although it’s very important that he knows what we’ve come up with. What we did last time is maybe I’d have Gary come over once or twice; I’d have a couple of things one on one with Gary; and then before the record, I had both Gerald and Gary come over. Now Gerald can’t be setting up here. He just brought a cymbal and a snare, but we talked a little bit about the group dynamic and what might happen. He had the benefit of seeing what Gary and I had arrived at and he could then put his input in there, too. Because very often he’ll have some great suggestions about this stuff that has more to do with the chords or whatever. It is important that everybody be plugged into the process.
JW: Would you talk about playing with Gerald? I know one of the things I most appreciate is his sense of dynamics. He allows everyone to be heard, makes them sound good.
EE: I appreciate that a great deal, too.
JW: How do you know Gerald?
EE: Through Mark Helias, a bass player who I’ve been playing with for many years, since roughly 1990. Gerald came to town at some point, maybe in the ‘90s — I can’t remember exactly. Mark Helias hired Gerald to do an Open Loose gig or maybe something with Ray Anderson. I can’t remember what it was, but that’s how I got to know him. That was the first time I played with him.
Then I started calling him for some things. Then at one point he might’ve went back to Detroit for a minute and then come back again. There was a period of time where we didn’t play so much until I put this band together. I started calling him from the very beginning to do these gigs with Gary and me around town. He’s very busy, as he should be, because he’s an asset to anybody he plays with. I can understand why he’s so busy, as frustrating at that might be to me personally sometimes. So as a result, I’ve had to call a number of different drummers.
You’re right, there have been about five or six different drummers who have played with the band at one point. They are all pretty much cognizant of this material in general enough that we don’t really have to rehearse them. I don’t think I’ve rehearsed with any of those drummers. What we might’ve done is as we were setting up for the gig, I’ll say, okay, this tune, that tune, another tune, and we maybe just run through the tune one time in its basic version.
JW: It’s taken for granted that they know these tunes?
EE: I’ll ask them. I won’t play a tune if they don’t know it; I’ll pick ones that they do know. And even if they do know it, we’ll run through it once in just this straight version, straight time right up and down like a Jamey Aebsersold record or something, no frills. Just so that we know that’s home base and we’re gonna play free. But that process of playing free with this material does require that everybody have an equal say. Even if at many times… like what happens on the record: Gerald’s playing time, I’m playing my kinda eighth note things and Gary is comping. Of course that’s gonna happen. But as you can see there’s a lot that leads up to that and hopefully the results are different because of that.
JW: How do you know Gary?
EE: Gary I met the first time through John Hollenbeck. John Hollenbeck and his friend, the great vocalist Theo Bleckmann, are both members of Meredith Monk’s ensemble. Meredith was having a retrospective at the Whitney Museum about three or four years ago and a lot of people were putting together projects in which they were essentially covering one or another pieces of her music — which is not something that happened much. I’m not sure it was something she was completely comfortable with; I think she had to let go a little bit for that happen.
But it was really beautiful — a lot of different ensembles doing versions of her music, and she did some versions of her music. One of the groups was put together by Theo and John and it was it with me and Tony Malaby on saxophone, Gary on organ and Theo and John. So it was a five piece. We did three or four of her pieces and played on this daylong marathon retrospective. It was really, really wonderful because she’s been a hero of mine since the early ‘90s. She’s been very influential on me in ways that might not be so obvious because she’s not at all associated with improvisation or jazz necessarily. But I got to see her do a solo show many years ago and it was one of those oh-my-God moments. It affected me. That’s a conversation maybe for another day, but suffice it to say, it was a wonderful experience for me to be able to play her music for her. And at any rate that’s the first time I met Gary.
At that time, we had just gotten my mother’s Hammond B3 put here in the apartment. I had to bring it up from Baltimore. For health reasons she’s not able to play any longer. She sold her house and had to move out of it and she couldn’t keep the organ any longer. So we brought it up here and that was also a kind of catalyst for that. Once I had the organ up here it’s like, well, might as well get some people over to here to play it, for fun if nothing else.
There were a few different people I invited over. At that time, I was doing completely free improvised stuff. I hadn’t played tunes for 15, 20 years very much at all and had no intention of really playing tunes. I had a few people over here. I had some free improvisers who maybe didn’t know the organ so well, but could do some interesting things on it intuitively. And then some people who could maybe play the organ more, but maybe they weren’t so interested in free improvisation. Gary was somebody who knew both. He knew how to play Hammond B3 organ — he knew everything about that — and yet he was interested in playing free.
We started out playing free, but after about 20 minutes we wound up playing “rhythm changes” in G or something weird like that — not only with no preconception, but it was like the farthest thing from my mind. After he left, I thought: that just does not happen, that never happens. How did that happen? Why did that happen? Is it significant or is it a fluke? What was that about?
The more I thought about it, the more interested I became in that idea that you could play free and something like that could happen — all those elements that that brings with it. A harmonic form, a song, a melody — all those things we talked about earlier can be incorporated in a free improvisation. So that was the genesis of the band really. It wasn’t my idea that I thought about. It was this thing that happened and I went, oh, duh, that’s really pretty cool.
But I appreciated the fact that it doesn’t happen with everybody and it’s very much about the chemistry of the musicians involved that makes something like this work or not. So Gary started coming over. He came over a bunch before we ever did our first gig. We started doing gigs with different drummers. I started calling Gerald from the beginning, but it took about a year until he was actually available. We played with five or six different drummers, all of whom are great. That’s one wonderful thing about living in New York is that there’s no shortage of great musicians, great drummers. So that was never really a problem.
The problem was I wanted to make a record and it was like, God, I’ve got six great drummers — who to call? Then finally Gerald was available for one of the gigs and when he played I just thought: yeah. I mean everybody was great in their own way and I could’ve made the record with any one of them and it would’ve been wonderful. But there was something about the way Gerald was playing that just clicked for many of the reasons I’ve been talking about this whole interview — things that are important to me, things that I respond to, things that I’m just becoming aware of. He can do it all: he can swing, he can play free, he understands the values and qualities that I’m appreciating in this early music, and he’s on the cutting edge of everything that’s happening today. He’s the whole package.
And he doesn’t play too loud, which unfortunately… I don’t even say that to criticize any other musicians. I’ve played with loud bands and I’ve played loud myself most of my life. It’s just the way we play today. I wasn’t around in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but I’m sure that we play two to three times louder than guys played then in terms of decibel levels. Sonic quality and resonance is another issue. Those cats could fill a room in a way that few people today can. But that’s not volume, that’s something else, that’s another quality.
But anyway, being able to play the horn the way I want to play it, with the tone that I want to make, requires that I play a little softer. So I’m not as happy in the loud situations as I used to be. In fact, the more I listen to this older music the more I appreciate how softly it was played. When I read the accounts, from people like Pops Foster, the bass player… In his autobiography, he talked about how you may have a ten piece band, and it’s got horns and drums in it, but it’s led by a violinist. He doesn’t have an amp. He has to be heard over a ten-piece band. Not only that: Pops Foster says that the band would play so soft that you could hear the dancers’ feet sliding along the floor as they were dancing to the music. The music was unbelievably burning and swinging, intense, and yet at that soft, soft volume. That really intrigued me. I thought, we don’t have that anymore.
From my experience so far, playing at softer volumes has actually opened a lot more sound and a lot more depth to the music than I was achieving before. It makes me think that there’s even farther to go. So I’ve become pretty adamant against too much unnecessary amplification, like PA systems and monitor speakers and all this shit — for the music that I’m playing?
I get upset. I go on these tours sometimes and these sound people have all this shit set up and I tell them to take it down and then you get into arguments. I’m thinking, why should I have to argue about this? When did it become just a thoughtless thing: we’re just gonna throw all this shit up there. It’s destroying what I’m setting out to do. Anyway, not to go down that avenue…
Getting back to Gerald, when we played on our first tour of Europe I was really astonished at how soft we could play and keep the intensity. I hadn’t had that experience with too many bands. I think so often intensity and volume are equated as being the same thing, and they’re not. Not every musician and not every drummer knows how to play soft with the same intensity that they have when they play loud.
That’s not even a criticism, it’s just a thing. It’s one of the reasons that I appreciate not only Gerald, but all the drummers that I play with. Because again, I have resources here; some of the greatest musicians in the world are here in New York and there are plenty of them. It was a tough choice, but Gerald was the person I had in mind from the beginning anyway. It just took me about a year until I could actually get him. Then once I did it was like: okay, let’s make a record — dude, are you in town next week? When we played that gig at the Stone or something, the next day it was like: yeah, okay, I gotta get him.
I went down to see him play; he had a gig with somebody. During the break, I went up and said, “That was great what we played last night; I want to go in the studio. Get your appointment book out; show me what dates you’ve got.” He pulled out his datebook and I wrote them all down and I think I called the next day and got the studio and made the whole thing right then. I struck because I realized that was the moment.
Jimmy Smith, “Flamingo” (from THE SERMON!, Blue Note, rec. 1958) (Jimmy Smith, organ; Lee Morgan, trumpet; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Art Blakey, drums)
EE: I’m sure I’ve heard this; I just don’t know what it is yet.
Yes, I have heard this. Wow, that’s beautiful. It’ll take me another minute before I realize who this is.
The suspense is killing me, just tell me who it is.
JW: Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, Kenny Burrell.
EE: It’s interesting because I think the first time I heard this tune was probably Earl Bostic, and they do it almost as a jump or a shuffle.
JW: I brought that one, too.
EE: Maybe we could listen to that, too. But to hear it played slowly like this… I really appreciate what a beautiful tune it is. That’s just gorgeous.
Let me hear, just for comparison, a few minutes of the Bostic.
JW: You want to hear Don Byas first?
EE: You’ve got Byas? Yeah, put that on.
Don Byas, “Flamingo” (from DON BYAS: 1947-1951, Melodie Jazz Classic, rec. 1950) (Don Byas, tenor saxophone; Art Simmons, piano; Jean-Jacques Tilche, guitar; Roger Grasset, bass; Claude Marty, drums)
EE: He’s another one that I’ve been appreciating more and more.
I haven’t heard this. They’re using different chords. I gotta say I like the chords that Jimmy Smith was playing; those are the chords I know the tune by. I miss that mournful chord.
It’s interesting because when I hear a lot of people talk about Don Byas, very often they’re talking about one of his up-tempo pieces, because he played amazingly on fast tempos. But really the ballad shit, that to me is like…
JW: What do you like about this?
EE: It shares a lot with what I appreciate about Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins — the delivery, where it’s really modeled after a vocalist. I feel in my mind, consciously or not, that’s how it comes across. And there’s… I use the word virtuosity. There’s a virtuosity in being able to do that, even though in a lot of people’s minds that might not be the right word. Virtuosity — you usually think of a lot of notes and complex shit, but to get the nuances, to get it to sound that good is not easy. We found that out today [at your lesson] just workshop-ing a melody. It takes a lot of work to make it sound easy and effortless and natural and beautiful.
Now it’s growing on me — that chord. Now I’m starting to like it.
Wow, short and sweet. I thought he was gonna improvise a chorus. That’s beautiful, just playing the melody. Interesting.
JW: You want to hear Bostic?
EE: Yeah, ‘cause Bostic, I think, was the first. That was how I first heard it. That’s the tune I remember hearing from the time I was a little kid.
Earl Bostic, “Flamingo” (from FLAMINGO, Proper, rec. 1951) (Earl Bostic, alto saxophone; Lowell Hastings, tenor saxophone; Clarence Redd, trumpet, vibraphone; Rene Hall, guitar; Clifton Hall, piano; William Betts, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)
EE: Yeah, I’m a sucker for this. I mean…why do I even say that? I say it because it’s not often talked about or dealt with — Earl Bostic, or even this style of playing which was very commercially successful at the time. It’s closer almost to an r&b type of thing, but this kind of saxophone playing is the reason I play the saxophone. These guys who came up in the 50s: Lee Allen, Clifford… The guy who played on that tune “Honky Tonk” – what was his name? Clifford Scott? I’m getting it wrong. [Clifford Scott is correct – ed.]
JW: You played him on your “Musician’s Show” on WKCR?
EE: Yeah, all those things I played on the “Musician’s Show,” they come out of this bag. This is really the reason that I play the saxophone.
JW: What do you like about his tone? It’s so different from Don Byas’s.
EE: I so much wanted to sound like this, but could never figure it out. Even to this day, that growl, that rasp… I think I mistook that for brightness or edginess and in my attempts to sound like this I think I kind of sacrificed the fullness. Because it’s a very full sound as well as being raspy on the top end, too.
JW: It has a core.
EE: It has a core. I didn’t know how to get this sound. I didn’t have the right… I had the Buescher saxophone with a mouthpiece very much like that classical mouthpiece I was showing you today and it’s not that easy to get this kind of sound on that equipment. I didn’t know that. Even if I had the right equipment, it wouldn’t have been easy to get this sound.
This guy, by all accounts, was like the guru of all things saxophone, the go-to guy on how to play the instrument just from a technical standpoint. It seems like he was a genius of knowing how the horn worked and knowing how to get it to do things that nobody else could do. I didn’t necessarily appreciate that at the time because he’s not putting that all out on display. He’s playing music. To be able to play a tune like that… It sounds deceptively straightforward, but he was a very deep guy.
I like it because it’s got that sound. I loved that sound. It’s got a certain kind of attitude and a command and I loved the feeling of it, the swing of it. It just feels great, it just gets you moving.
JW: You started moving as soon as I put it on.
EE: [Laughs] I’m not even conscious of it; it just grabs you. It just grabbed me when I was ten years old. When I heard that kind of saxophone player, it just grabbed me. What’s so wonderful is that here I am all these years later and it grabs me just the same as it did 40-some years ago. I feel like I’m a kid again. I hear it and I’m just plain excited. What can I say? It’s just a thrill.
JW: I’m curious about playing with a B3 organ, the special environment that instrument creates. Could you talk about playing with an electronic instrument, an instrument with infinite sustain…
EE: It’s interesting. It is an electronic instrument, but I don’t think of it as one. It’s got a certain warmth, a certain fullness. When you think of electric instruments you have connotations of, like, an electric guitar being played with a real crunchy sound or whatever you might think of or what I think of.
Dare I say it has certain human qualities about it? Maybe by virtue of the way it’s built. It’s electric, but it’s not electronic —there’s a distinction there. That speaker has a lot to do with it, that Leslie speaker. Because you have an acoustic phenomenon going on — maybe that’ s what helps make it sound human. I’m probably going to raise the ire of a lot of electronic musicians out there and I apologize in advance because that’s not what I’m trying to do.
It’s also an instrument that I grew up with, as many people know. As I’ve said many times, my mother played the Hammond B3 professionally in Baltimore. It’s the first music I ever heard in my life. From the time I was a little kid, I used to crawl around on the pedals of the organ, my mom says; sit next to the speaker when she was playing; sit next to the pipes when she was playing in church. So that is so in my DNA.
JW: I think it might be in your saxophone sound, too. Sometimes I hear a similar undulating quality.
EE: The vibrato or something? Because the organ does have vibrato. But also, you’re right, it does have a certain undulation when certain kinds of overtones get stacked up together. Acoustically it does kind of have this undulation effect.
JW: Gary is a player who’s not afraid of imitation. I know some improvisers don’t like to directly quote, but he’ll sometimes play directly off of something you play.
EE: Or vice-versa.
JW: Can you talk about playing with Gary?
EE: Gary is someone who has his feet in both of these areas. He knows how to play this instrument in terms of its tradition, and technically he knows what he’s doing. His technique on it is unassailable. And yet he knows how to be creative with it and that’s a combination that is a little bit rarer. Again, not to take away from anybody else, but I think Gary is unique. I like the fact that he can conjure those sounds out of the organ that I grew up hearing that are just a primary, primal to me emotionally. Sometimes when he plays I can’t help…I flash onto being seven years old listening to my mother play. It’s that direct.
JW: Did you play with your mom?
EE: I did. In fact that’s another aspect of this material, these standards. That’s all she played was standards.
JW: So you played standards with your mom?
EE: I did. That’s the first music that I played. I played them with her and she taught me a lot of these songs. Very many of the songs that I play are songs that she played. She played “Witchcraft” which we did on the first record. “How Deep is the Ocean “ — that’s one that she played. Probably all of these at some point she’s played.
JW: Probably not the Monk.
EE: Not the Monk. She never considered herself a jazz musician.
JW: Did she improvise?
EE: Not really. She would embellish. And from playing six nights a week she had arrangements. She might have an introduction or a shout chorus or a transition chorus or an ending that she’d worked out with her band. But she never considered herself an improviser or a jazz musician ‘cause she didn’t play these extended linear right hand things. She was about songs. And so again, this whole thing about songs and melody, that is just so deeply ingrained in my psyche from her and from the instrument, the B3. It’s just… I gotta do this.
And it feels good to do it at this point in my life, too. Because having done 20 years or more of free improvisation essentially, to have that experience and then go back and do this material through that lens, in that context, is a very unifying feeling for me. It feels really great to be able to wrap everything up.
JW: Steve Lacy talks about post-free.
EE: Post-free? That’s cool, but it’s still free. It’s freer than ever; it’s freer than it ever has been. Free to, not free from. When free music became coined as a term, it usually meant free from chord changes and eventually free from steady time, song forms, melodies — free from. Musicians felt like, we’re no longer compelled to have to do those things, we’re gonna play completely free. From my perspective, coming up much after the fact, hitting New York in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, after the first and second wave of the free guys, I was … Even after the fact, it didn’t necessarily mean the same thing to me to play something free from chord changes or free from time. I looked at it as an equal musical statement with playing a tune. It was like, play a tune, play free — fine, no big deal, no problem in my mind.
You read about in the press like it’s some thing, like a war. Fuck that, that’s bullshit. For my generation and everybody that comes after me, it’s all just matter of fact; it’s just all good music. You play free, you play a tune — great, it’s all good. So to be able to integrate all of it into one expression that is essentially free because I’m free to do anything that I can manage to do — that to me is true freedom, that’s true free music.
In the ‘80s when we were playing free, I started to think, what if I want to hear a major triad? When is that ever gonna happen, what the fuck? I remember being in the middle of some really super fucking dense, loud, angular, chaotic dissonant thing and walking over in the middle of it and plunking out a C major triad on the piano. It was so absurd that cats just laughed, just like, oh that’s so out of place. But you know what, if we’re playing free, why should that be out of place? Why should that even be funny?
Again, that was one of those things that started out to be a joke, and then when I started the band with Andrea and Jim, a lot of the music I gave her, was like, oh, there’s a C major triad for you, Andrea — what do you think of that? Again, it’s all good. But that’s part of my generation, that’s part of my outlook.
Anyway, it feels really good. That band with Jim and Andrea: I remember saying something similar about that group in ‘94 or ‘95 or ‘96 when we started playing. I remember saying for the first time in my life it felt like I was able to integrate all my experiences, good and not so good, musically. Just trying to make sense out of the chaotic, fractured experience I had coming up, having to play any kind of gig for money — it might be a wedding or it might be some gig too embarrassing to even talk about. And always wanting to be a jazz musician and having this crisis about what it is that I want to be and what the reality of this thing seems to be now in 1980-whatever-it-is or 1990-something. And finally, with that band, being able to just draw on all kinds of source material and realizing that it was all coming out of experiences that I had — some of which I’d rejected at the time I was experiencing them and would have like to have blotted out of my memory.
So that was one stage of this sort of integration. And now with this band it’s like another kind of stage where all the crazy experiences that I had in the interim 20 years of playing free music and everything that we did — now I can have my earliest music experiences speak through that as well. In a way, that would be different if I had said to myself when I was 26 years old: oh, I’m gonna make a Hammond B3 record, play standards like I did with my mom. I mean, I did make a standards record when I was in my 20s, but with bass and drums, and that was already after having done a little bit of free music. And again, that was in a freer context.
But it means something different now. I’m 53, I’m not 20-something — that’s part of it, too. I’m still astonished that the number 53 just comes out of my mouth so effortlessly — what the fuck? I have to do the math; it always comes out the same. But it doesn’t feel that way. It’s a different time; it’s a different context.
A lot of the great jazz musicians that we’ve been talking about — not all of them even made it to 53, or maybe they had the better parts of their careers when they were in their 20s or 30s, but it was a different time. I’ve had to structure things differently in my life and I feel like I’m just now getting to some good stuff. So my goal is to keep myself as healthy as possible and continue to do this for as long as I can, because it just seems to get deeper and better and more satisfying. I feel like I’m just entering into some areas where I can see there’s a whole lot to do, which is a great feeling to have. So it doesn’t feel like 53, like you’re getting on the downside of anything. I feel like I’m ramping up, you know?
Jacob Wunsch is a clarinetist based in Brooklyn.