Wayne Shorter – Music of the Spheres

Wayne Shorter

Mercurial and mysterious as ever, the saxophonist talks to Stuart Nicholson about how his deep past connections are now shaping his present, and future, conception of music, and what lies beyond!

Wayne Shorter Without A NetSaxophonist Wayne Shorter has long been acknowledged as a major figure in jazz. But since he has somehow eluded excesses of hyperbole that customarily swirl around those in the jazz pantheon, there have always been mutterings off-camera like, “Yes, we know he’s a jazz great, but how great?” by those who like their heroes to come plainly labelled. Well, they have their answer now. Shorter’s release Without A Net, hyperbole or not, is an album that marks a milestone in his career since it makes eloquent claim to be the finest recording yet by jazz’s greatest living musician.

Simply stated, there is no one else in the world today that has come close to matching the level of intense creativity displayed here by Shorter and his quartet – Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums – on this remarkable collection of 10 live tracks recorded on the band’s European tour in late 2011, and the 23-minute tone poem ‘Pegasus’, recorded live at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The album is also something of a milestone in another way – it’s his first album as a leader for the iconic Blue Note label in 43 years. Shorter first appeared on the label as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959. But he is not much concerned with his past and the run of classic albums he made under his own name for the label between 1964-1970, including Night Dreamer, Juju, Speak No Evil, Adam’s Apple and Super Nova, deflecting talk of the past with one of his famous elliptical anecdotes: “To me, all those albums and all those tunes or pieces of music, they just incorporate the same thing – they all remind me of ‘Once Upon a Time’, and after once upon a time, what do you do? You say ‘Once Upon a Time’ and then what? Not only has it got to be more than just soloing, it has got to be more than what something used to be if there is a broader, more profound function. I look on those albums, or the music, as music not finished, nothing to me is ever finished in life, it’s up for evolution, to evolve. There is a lot of information in everything, nothing actually dies. I look for the constants instead of the temporary in everything, if there is a constant then that is a real eternal adventure, I call it ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ when one wakens to something that is constant.”

Like most jazz musicians with a distinguished past, he takes the view that what is done is done, and what Shorter seems to be suggesting is that what has been done could always have been done better. It is the here and now that concerns him, the next project, the next challenge. But if you are looking for the constants in Shorter’s music that he talks about – ‘The Ultimate Eternal Adventure’ – a trajectory from the past to the present and Without A Net, then perhaps there is a direct correlation to be made between his latest album and that of the music of Miles Davis between 1964-7. This was the period when Shorter was a member of the trumpeter’s legendary quintet along with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums that produced the iconic Live at the Plugged Nickel from 1965.

The enormity of this album in the evolution of the small group in jazz was brought home in 1995 – to those who would listen – when Sony released a seven-CD set of the complete sessions that years earlier produced the single legendary album, released in 1966. “Ahhh! You hit on something,” responds Shorter with animation. “That was in my mind for quite a while and there is a 13 or 14 year period with Weather Report and to me that was a detour from the Plugged Nickel adventure. That period was a detour, and now I am continuing it.” Well, there was certainly a lot of information in Live at the Plugged Nickel, representing jazz at its highest level of creativity. “It’s kind of plain to see,” agrees Shorter, “but you are the first one who hit that [connection] right between the eyes.”

Wayne ShorterShorter’s period with Miles Davis in the 1960s roughly approximated his finest work on the Blue Note label during this period, and Davis was keen that Shorter write in similar vein for his band. Quite what Shorter brought to the Davis band can be illustrated by the title track of his album Speak No Evil, recorded for the Blue Note label three months after he had joined Davis in September 1964. A 50-bar AABA composition, Shorter’s theme stated in the 14th bar A section is simplicity itself, essentially one note, the sub-dominant in the home key of C minor, which occupies the first eight bars, followed by a two bar modulation and a return to the minimalistic theme, now in the dominant, for the next four bars. The 14-bar theme is then repeated, followed by a B section, a true ‘middle Photos eight’ of eight bars of broken phrases, followed by a return again to the 14-bar A theme. The middle eight aside, we have 42 bars using essentially two notes that was the complete antithesis of the typical jagged, jumpy bop and hard bop themes. However, even though the burden of complexity was removed from the front-line, it was transferred to the rhythm section where drummer Elvin Jones’ polyrhythms assume central interest, framed, as it were, by the static melody line.

Much of the revolution that took place in the music of Miles Davis in the latter half of the 1960s was sparked by the compositions of Shorter. Up to that point Davis had predominantly favoured traditional songforms and jazz standards. Through Shorter’s influence, he began using themes with relatively static melody lines, often of smooth, sustained tones and slow harmonic movement (as opposed to the twists and turns of bop and hardbop) contrasted by an interactive role for the rhythm section (as opposed to fairly static, timekeeping role of the rhythm section previously). This approach – as in ‘Speak No Evil’ – with an interactive role for the rhythm section and Tony Williams’ drums – Shorter’s piece ‘Nefertiti’ from the Nefertiti album is virtually a feature for Williams – became widely influential in jazz and jazz rock, and can be heard in bands such as Weather Report (of which Shorter was co-leader). These changes are usually attributed to Davis, yet it was Shorter who was the modest, self-effacing quiet revolutionary contributing more than his fair share to the evolution and redefinition of music of the period.


“We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”


With his own quartet, which made its debut on record in 2002 with Footprints Live!, Shorter wanted to translate the ideas at play in the Davis quintet into a contemporary context, sometimes even dispensing with compositions.

“When we got together it was one rehearsal and it was so short, the rehearsal was ‘not playing the way we used to play!’” explained Shorter. “If you have time to think about that, the testing time is when you’re in the moment, which is one of the chief components of playing jazz. There is a large amount of ear training that comes into play, hearing immediately what someone else is doing and you comment on it, and when you’re doing it you are in the world of composition, you in the world of ‘in the moment composing’, so when you are composing in that medium – in that manner – you’re might be on the way to be qualified to be called a de-composer! I’m a decomposer! The group now go on stage not knowing what we’re going to do. This aspect, or this characteristic, we have developed, and use attributes that people have but don’t use. I think it might be called the development of trust. To trust and really know there is no such thing as a coincidence or mistake, that you are not going to be self judged, or judged by, externally from the audience, and also we remove ego from the stage – showing off, trying to prove your educational credentials of your craft, your musical credentials – but instead go out there and how do you rehearse the unknown? No rehearsal – that’s going to be part of this new singularity, the inhibitors of this planet will be subjected to negotiating the unexpected these days and onwards, and we have to become more human to do that!”

On Without a Net, Shorter has selected six of his latest compositions plus new versions of his original ‘Orbits’, that first appeared on the Miles Davis album Miles Smiles from 1967, when Shorter’s composing methods had begun to take hold in Davis’ group, and ‘Plaza Real’ from the album Procession by Weather Report, which he co-led with Joe Zawinul in the 1970s and 1980s. Shorter is the film-buff-to- end-all-film-buffs, and thus includes the title song of the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio that marked the first on-screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while the album’s centrepiece is a 23-minute tone poem written for his quartet plus the Imani Winds quintet, reflecting his growing interest in writing for strings and trying to locate a place that is equidistant between jazz, classical and the popular.

“Currently, I am working on some orchestral things,” he explains “We’re going to do something at Disney Hall, I’m working on a piece – an extended piece – with the band and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Esperanza Spalding, and we’re going to do this with three more orchestras; the Detroit Symphony Orchestra where Terence Blanchard is the director now; and the Nashville Tennessee Orchestra and the Washing D.C. National Orchestra. There are some orchestras in and around Massachusetts and Boston, some young conductors, young players talking about orchestra improvising, playing music and reading their repertoire and then included in the repertoire, sections of improvisation.

“I think this idea is spreading, everyone wants to get on it, we don’t hear that same, ‘I only read music, I don’t improvise’, ‘I don’t do this and I don’t do that’ – you know? People like Nigel Kennedy, he’s a mother, and there’s Lang Lang with Herbie and there’s some young, adventurous conductors – not just young – there’s gonna be something amazing come out of this. The Mayan calendar is correct, the end of the world will happen at Christmas (2012), to me meaning ‘the end of the world as we know it’. We’re heading towards a new singularity, which is going to come from the individual taking the lead in life instead of following. We’re going to destroy the feudal system and get rid of Lords and Serfs and then we’ll be ready to greet the alien – that’s what that this music is about!”

Shorter lives in a big white house in Los Angeles, festooned with Doric columns and a row of cypress trees in an upper-middle class suburban neighbourhood from where, in the 1970s and 80s, he would drive across town to participate in a Joni Mitchell recording session, a Steely Dan session or the occasional movie soundtrack. Today he is actively involved in jazz education at the UCLA, where he is Visiting Professor, and with the Thelonious Monk Institute. So how does he introduce students to the advanced improvisation techniques of his quartet on Without A Net?


Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?


“I would say don’t throw away everything you’ve learned,” he says after pausing to consider his answer. “Because if you are going to talk about flying into the unknown you’re going to need a flashlight, and that might be the skills you have acquired in the past, you have got to have a flashlight! Herbie, myself, Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, there’s a few of us teaching at UCLA and we spend like two days out of a month each teaching along with Kenny Burrell, he’s been there a long time, he’s with the jazz portion of UCLA. The Thelonious Monk Institute is there now and they have seven students who have been auditioned and they qualify for the two-year programme that the Monk Institute provides. This two-year programme – they also have other courses at UCLA – but they can only do this programme when they have completed four years of college prior to all this, four years under grad studies. So, these seven musicians, they are g-o-o-d, I’m telling you, one from Chile – on xylophone, one of the best, and they all write too, so it’s not telling them not to do this or not to do that, but it’s being there and supporting and contributing what little tidbits you have – there’s a lot of wisdom here – to contribute whatever you can using the same unscripted dialogue and action we use when we play on stage as a quartet. We can’t change into a teacher, like a classical teacher, ‘I want you to do this…’ that’s not me, but the other musicians have different expertise and different teaching methods too.”

Shorter has been sufficiently impressed with the current intake of seven students at the Thelonious Monk Institute that he used them to perform as members of his own ensemble, “I was honoured somewhere in Los Angeles and they wanted me to do a 20 minute performance,” he says. “So I got the Thelonious Monk Institute’s seven musicians and we gave a little performance at the end of the award ceremony, there were other people getting awards, Johnny Mandel was one, and we did a little something and that was part of their voyage through UCLA and real life, and all that. Supporting this was Herb Alpert and some other people associated with him, so it’s all coming out to be, ‘What do you say after you say Once Upon a Time?’ Don’t repeat any of the other fairy tales, tell me a new story, tell me about yourself, tell me what you think life is, what is life, what is it?”

Suddenly Shorter breaks off to greet his music copyist who has just arrived to work on the music he is preparing for his upcoming concert with his quartet, Esperanza Spalding and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I have to go,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “This is like building a space craft here, we will be ready to greet the UFOs!” And with that he was gone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise


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Robert Glasper – Breaking Cover

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper’s recent double Grammy Award wins for his two Black Radio albums have capped an 11-year career that has not just seen him break through to the mainstream like few other jazz artists today, but has also seen Glasper forge deep bonds between today’s jazz, R&B and hip-hop scenes. Back with his original rhythm section of bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid for his new album Covered, this simmering piano trio joins the dots between Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, hip-hopper du jour Kendrick Lamar, and jazz standard ‘Stella By Starlight’. John Murph reports...

As Robert Glasper dines at the Smoke Joint, a gentrified soul-food restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on a humid mid-May Sunday afternoon, a young man spots him then casually approaches. “Yesterday, you met my daughter Ella,” the transient gentleman says before exchanging pleasantries about music and life in Brooklyn.

Glasper – the noted 37-year-old jazz pianist with serious hip-hop and R&B bona fides thanks to his critically and commercially acclaimed Black Radio discs – welcomes the impromptu conversation as if he’s known the guy for years. Whereas some other easily recognisable artists would have probably cut the chatter rudely short, Glasper quickly establishes an inviting rapport.

“That’s the vibe,” Glasper says after the man departs. “The average jazz musician doesn’t have that. I really get people coming up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re Robert Glasper!’ and just start talking. It’s cool to have that.”

Glasper’s flair for connecting with people paired with his incredible musicianship has served him well. During his shows, he brings an iconic stage presence that engages on an intellectual and emotional level; more importantly he puts jazz newcomers at ease. His comedic asides are just as well known as his impressionistic improvisations and his catholic taste in music, which embraces as much pop, R&B, gospel and hip-hop as it does the wide spectrum of jazz.

While Glasper – dressed casually in all black – gives the passerby the momentary sense that he has all the time in the world to shoot the breeze, the two-time Grammy Award winner is gearing up for another busy and productive year. The next day, he’s mastering a Nina Simone tribute album for RCA in conjunction with Liz Garbus’ Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? At the request of RCA Records, the companion disc will take on similar characteristics as Glasper’s Black Radio projects by having a litany of special guest vocalists that include Gregory Porter, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Usher and Jazmine Sullivan – all of whom were selected prior to Glasper’s involvement.

This week’s itinerary also includes Glasper completing a Miles Davis remix project for Sony Music. Glasper had already contributed to the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles biopic, Miles Ahead, before the label approached him about the idea. Glasper leapt at the opportunity but he didn’t want to do a rote jazz remix album. “They’re kind of boring,” Glasper explains. “You kind of chop up a part, put a beat to it, and that’s it.”

Sony Music gave Glasper access to the Miles recording vaults, which contains some multi-tracking of tunes. This enabled Glasper to reach higher; he recreated new songs, showcasing his Rhodes piano playing and a rotating cast of special guests, which includes Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote and John Scofield.

If those two endeavours aren’t enough, Glasper is touring. His travels this year have included spots in Japan, Spain, Germany and the UK; also on the list is a special engagement at Los Angeles’ Playboy Jazz Festival, where he will play with the Blue Note Records’ all-star band, Our Point of View. During the band’s stay in LA, he and Don Was, Blue Note Records’ president, plan to record an album. The tour also allows Glasper to support Covered, his newest Blue Note release, on which he returns to the piano trio format and reunites with drummer Damion Reid and bassist Vicente Archer, who played on Glasper’s first two Blue Note dates – Canvas (2005) and In My Element (2007).

On Covered Glasper refurbishes such modern popular tunes as John Legend’s sanguine ‘Good Morning’, Jhené Aiko’s angst-ridden ‘The Worst’ and Radiohead’s foreboding ‘Reckoner’. Those songs as well as the others culminate as the perfect segue away from Glasper’s two previous Black Radio discs with the Experiment. Glasper quickly notes the artistic decision was indeed strategic. “I had to think about how I was going to make a trio record that wasn’t going to completely neglect the audience that I’ve acquired from those mainstream R&B and hip-hop records,” he explains.

Making smart decisions has characterised Glasper’s career since he dropped his debut disc, Mood (Fresh Talent) in 2002. After that release, he made sure that the following discs would be on a major label so he signed with Blue Note Records. Even then, producer Eli Wolf had ideas about Glasper recording with some of his R&B and hip-hop contemporaries. But Glasper wisely thought how he would pace his career and the timing of such projects. “I decided to wait two or three albums so that I could first get the respect as a jazz pianist,” Glasper explains. “As a black man, critics are quick to put me in the hip-hop/piano category. And if that would be the case, I probably would have never gotten the respect for being a jazz pianist.”


“Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”
– Robert Glasper


“It’s a business at the end of the day. Your career is your business,” he continues. “Most jazz musicians have their heads in the clouds thinking, ‘Oh, what do I feel like playing today?’ They don’t think about shit, but then they gripe.”

Glasper hopes that Covered will introduce acoustic jazz to his Experiment fans. That’s why the disc also features a stunning reading of Victor Washington’s classic ‘Stella By Starlight’. After Glasper’s orchestral solo introduction of the composition’s melody, the rhythm section underscores Glasper’s melodic improvisations with an undertow that implies rap music’s boom-bap rhythmic bounce. The rendition deftly articulates Glasper’s mastery at hip-hop in that he often concentrates on the feel of the genre instead of trying desperately to mimic its sound. “‘Stella By Starlight’ has been played a fucking hundred million times. I don’t understand how people can record standards, just play them in a standard fashion then expect people to get excited,” Glasper laughs, “you got to do something to that shit.”

After concentrating five years on the Experiment, which earned Glasper two Grammys and catapulted him to the stratosphere of pop stardom, he began longing for the trio and the opportunity to focus on playing the acoustic piano. “All my jazz fans missed the trio, and so do I,” Glasper says. “I’d been away from the piano too long; I needed to get back to playing for real.”

That’s not to suggest that Glasper views the music he created with the Experiment as fluff. But playing with the trio forces him to utilise his virtuosic skills more because he’s the main voice throughout. “There’s no hiding behind anything,” Glasper explains. “There’s no stopping and having a drink and watching the other cats play – that’s something I could do with the Experiment. With the Experiment, there are so many areas in the show where I’m not playing at all.”

Before Glasper recorded Covered, he realised that he needed to brush up on his piano chops; so in late fall of 2014, his manager arranged a few trio gigs in New York City, Chicago and other major jazz cities to woodshed and rekindle his musical accord with Reid and Archer. “They were kicking my butt,” Glasper says about those early gigs. When time to record arrived in December, Glasper – inspired in part by the making of Cannonball Adderley’s 1966 hit LP, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: Live at ‘The Club’ – decided to do it live in front of studio audience at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. “Just in case we weren’t totally ready, I would have the option of recording more,” Glasper laughs. “We put couches and a bar in the studio. We made the atmosphere sort of loose to make it seem like a little nightclub.”

“I didn’t really notice anything that has changed regarding his technical abilities,” Archer says about Glasper’s piano playing during the trio’s reunion. “The way he approaches the piano is different from what it was 10 years ago. Still, I didn’t see any hesitation in his playing at all. He’s a wonderful player.”

Archer argues that while the trio’s incredible bond prevailed, its chemistry has changed slightly because each member has gained experience playing with other musicians, and, they’re all more mature. “All of our individual sounds are more defined. We make better musical choices and know what to play and what not to play.”

The main difference Reid notices, however, is the emphasis on pop tunes rather than originals. “Now that we’re doing covers, there’s more thought about being careful and respectful to the compositions. That has brought a different concept to how we play together,” Reid explains. “On [Covered], we’re only doing two of his pieces – ‘I Don’t Even Care’ and ‘In Case You Forgot’. I personally like playing his originals more because I think that’s when we’re more open and more reactionary. We have this impulsive thing with the original music because we’re playing new melodies and chord changes; it stimulates different kinds of chain reactions.”

Like Archer, though, Reid believes that the trio’s hiatus and the individuals’ experiences playing with other musicians have enriched their chemistry for the better. “Now we’re more expressive and much more about listening to each other,” Reid says.

When Glasper talks about reconnecting with his trio mates, he praises both Archer and Reid for their singular musical voices and faculties at creating meaningful musical dialogue. “Damion is a special drummer; I don’t know any drummer who sounds like him,” Glasper says. “We have such a weird connection because we don’t feel rhythm in a metronome kind of way; it’s more circular. Sometimes, it feels like he’s playing free but then ‘Boom!’ the one is always there. I had to get used to that way again. When Damion and I are floating in the clouds, Vicente knows when to go out and when to be an anchor so that everything makes sense in a really dope way. Another good thing is that everybody in the trio really digs hip-hop. So when it’s time to do that shit, we’re on it.”

Speaking of hip-hop, soon after Glasper finished recording Covered, he got an invite from jazz saxophonist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin to contribute to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new disc, To Pimp a Butterfly. Glasper – a huge fan of Lamar’s 2012 disc, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – sprung into action. Originally, the pianist was slated to play only on one song, ‘For Free’, a blistering indictment against America powered by a “balls-to-the wall” post-bop excursion. “I went from my jazz session where I didn’t do any hard swinging to the Kendrick Lamar session, where the first thing I did was that song, which is swinging like a motherfucker,” Glasper laughs.

Lamar was in the studio too and after hearing Glasper’s gutsy piano accompaniment, the rapper asked if he would play on some of the other songs. So with the help of electric bassist Thundercat showing him the melodies and chord changes, Glasper lent his improvisational wizardry to eight cuts on the critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly – an album that Glasper tweeted as “one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time”.

“People jumped on me after I said that,” Glasper recalls. “People were like, ‘You’re speaking too soon. You can’t say that; you have to give it time – like 10 years.’ There is such a thing called an ‘instant classic.’ We didn’t give A Tribe Called Quest 10 years before claiming that Midnight Marauders was a classic album or Common’s Like Water for Chocolate or D’Angelo’s Voodoo. You don’t need 10 years to call them classics. You just need good ears and know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Interestingly enough, one of most poignant moments on Covered occurs during the trio’s misty-eyed rendition of Lamar’s ‘Sing to Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. On the original, Lamar unravels a harrowing tale in which the protagonist is set on revenge after witnessing one of his friends get killed through gun violence. Because of his bleak circumstances, the protagonist confides to the listener that he too could become another fatality to the street’s vindictive wars. “There are so many ways you can peel that orange,” Glasper says about the song. “‘Dying of thirst’ can mean so many different things. In that song, Kendrick says that you need to be baptised in the water because you need love and God’s help. That’s where America is. It could be so many things.”


“When it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.” 
– Robert Glasper


On Covered, Glasper reprises the cascading melody on ‘I’m Dying of Thirst’ while Reid and Archer underscore it with a samba feel that’s as supple as it is sombre. But instead of featuring a rapper to deliver the song’s ominous theme, it features Glasper’s six-year-old son, Riley, and a few of his friends give a roll call of various young slain victims – many of which have made global headline news – at the hands of police brutality. The children’s unsettling cameo helps give Covered a deeper emotional gravity as it encompasses the #blacklivesmatter movement, which has swept over the United States. “When you hear kids’ voices saying that they are Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and so on, it makes you think in a different way. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. They’re kids’.”

“Becoming a father has totally made me think differently to things than if I wasn’t a father,” Glasper continues. “When you’re a father, you become, ‘OK, I don’t want my son being this kid lying dead on the concrete. What can I do? I got to do something’. It hits you in a different way. I’m never thinking about myself when it comes to interacting with the police. But when it comes to thinking about the police now, I’m always thinking about my son.”

In addition to wanting to create an acoustic jazz album that speaks to its socio-political times, Glasper didn’t want his high profile to go to waste. He argues that as a black jazz musician, he’s one of the few who has a large-scale platform, a voice to which young listeners pay close attention. “There aren’t that many black people in jazz who have that platform. I can count on one hand those who have the young people’s ears in jazz – it’s probably me and Esperanza Spalding on the big scale,” Glasper says. “Then you also have people like Christian Scott and Jason Moran. It’s maybe one or two more people of our generation that already have the ear of the young people on a large scale. I’m not talking about being just a great musician; I’m talking about having the young generation’s ears, in which they respect your opinions.

“I can tell people what I ate today on Facebook and I get about 500 likes,” Glasper laughs as he finishes his plate of barbeque ribs. “So why not change that popularity into something else and try to make a difference with the platform that I have?”

The Robert Glasper Trio's Covered (Blue Note) is out now. Visit Blue Note for more information.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.


Feature EST – Three Falling Three

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Feature Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus – Bad to the Bone

Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus – Bad to the Bone

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

With parallel careers spanning the last two decades saxophonist Joshua Redman and piano trio The Bad Plus have forged equally acclaimed, but distinctly separate paths in contemporary jazz. An opportunity to collaborate in 2011 revealed an unforeseen compatibility and subsequent world tours deepened both musical empathy and personal friendship that’s resulted in the quartet’s explosive debut album, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Stuart Nicholson spoke to Redman and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson about how this evolving partnership has brought out the best in all of them, especially through the rigours of the road...

For the last two years or so concerts by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman with the piano trio The Bad Plus have been making the jazz media, promoters and the public sit-up and take notice. Reviews have been effusive – Albany’s Metroland said: “It’s as though Redman is the long lost fourth member of the quartet,” while Los Angeles Times concluded: “The Bad Plus (plus one) roared as if a quartet were always lying just beneath their surface.” Since jumping on the touring circuit following their debut performance at New York’s Blue Note jazz club in 2011, the quartet have finally consummated their relationship on record with the release of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch). The music is knotty, challenging and explosively satisfying, and succeeds in the tricky task of jumping ahead of pre-release expectation by offering a fresh and original slant on improvised music that delivers on the present, yet, promises much for the future.

The Bad Plus’ repertoire has always had a reputation for making the word eclectic appear narrow and limiting, ranging from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to covers of hits by the Pixies, Aphex Twin and Nirvana, leavened by a series of originals from pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King that often contain essences from a variety of stylistic sources that are sometimes mischievously referenced. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is no exception – there’s a fresh look at two Bad Plus staples, ‘Silence is the Question’ from 2003’s These Are The Vistas and ‘Dirty Blonde’ from 2004’s Give, plus seven new originals from the band members including ‘Country Seat’ with its essences of Aaron Copland, ‘The Mending’ with a nod and wink in the direction of Erik Satie while the through-composed (meaning the song unfolds continuously without repeating itself) ‘Beauty Has It Hard’ has the kind of clever/tricky writing we’ve come to associate with Bad Plus with a more-is-more solo from Iverson. All this is achieved against a backdrop of shifting textures, metres and rhythms that has became a part of The Bad Plus’ portfolio of surprises.

What is interesting about this meeting of musical minds is that it seems much more than a let’s-get-together-and-see-what-happens collaboration. Ever since their major label debut in 2003 with These Are The Vistas, The Bad Plus has scrupulously worked towards a specific group identity and only once, in 2009, when vocalist Wendy Lewis joined them on For All I Care, has a fourth voice emerged on one of their recordings (with, it must be said, mixed results). But here Joshua Redman, far from jumping in with his stylistic bag of tricks, has opened up his own creative space within the group that offers much more than a tenor saxophone plus rhythm with an approach that really does sound as if he is the long lost fourth member of the band. This association seems to have grown organically into something more than either party expected following their original collaboration on the Blue Note jazz club stage in 2011.

“It was a special anniversary year at the Blue Note,” explains Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson. “They wanted something more than just groups, they wanted to have guests and the idea of Josh playing with us came up and we wanted to try it, we’d never played with him. We maybe knew him a little bit, but certainly we had a lot of respect for him as a musician, but we didn’t know him personally. But we had a great week and he seemed to enjoy himself as well, and that was followed by a tour, some dates in the States and touring in Europe in the summer, and we just established a great rapport with one another and wanted to continue it – it just kind of evolved naturally, it just started out as a situation where we didn’t really know where it would go, into something that was a lot of fun for us.” Redman concurs, adding, “it was one of those rare instances that, you know, something that may have not have arisen in the most organic fashion turned out to be artistically serendipitous and something that obviously proved to be a long lasting partnership and something that has been very inspiring for me and hopefully for them as well.”


“Being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!
– Joshua Redman


Entering the musical world of an established trio with their own particular style, which in the instance of The Bad Plus has been developed over almost 20 years, has its own unique challenges, which both parties acknowledge. As Anderson observes: “I think that Josh – he will have his own opinion about this – but I suspect what his experience is, is that he can come into this established sound and it is easy to become a part of it, he doesn’t have to come in and be ‘Joshua Redman, bandleader and one of the most famous musicians of our generation’, he can come into this and just completely commit himself to this band sound and become a part of it. For us, we don’t really do a ‘backing band’, so anybody who comes in and plays with us has to deal with The Bad Plus and the people we’ve done it with, I think they’ve enjoyed that.”

Clearly this was the case with Joshua Redman, who came well prepared for the challenge, having memorised several songs from The Bad Plus repertoire for his Blue Note debut with the trio. “Yeah, they are a tightly knit jazz group that has existed in the past 20 years,” he agrees. “Certainly they’re one of the most dedicated jazz groups, and I think their eco system, they have a fairly closed eco-system in terms of how they function as a group and what they do as a group – but obviously they are all incredibly open minded and flexible musicians – really for the most part has existed as ‘The Bad Plus’ and as just ‘The Bad Plus,’ even though they have done other projects. That has been the primary thing they have all been devoted to since the band’s inception. Initially, I basically was a guest with them, so when I played at the Blue Note with them it was entirely their repertoire, I mean they sent me a list of tunes and recordings they had done of those tunes, and basically I learned them and tried to integrate my voice and my sound and my approach into what they did as a band. But I never thought of myself as a ‘guest soloist’, you know? Although that may have been the way it was portrayed initially, it was really important for me, in any project I’m involved in, it is really important for me to find a way to contribute to the collective.”

Perhaps part of the success of this collaboration lies in the way Redman, by immersing himself in Bad Plus’ musical world has re-discovered a long lost part of his musical psyche that has made for his perfect fit with the band: “[Bad Plus are] very influenced by the sorts of jazz I have been influenced by from a very early age, but maybe haven’t had as much of an opportunity to kind of explore those sides of my influence with other groups – I mean, specifically, they have all been influenced by a lot of the music my father [Dewey Redman] was involved in, they’ve been very influenced by Ornette [Coleman] and Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, and Charlie Haden’s music and Old and New Dreams, these just happen to be groups that my dad was really involved in, and music that I have been listening to for as long as I can remember. So, you know, I feel that playing with them has definitely brought out a side of my musical personality that perhaps I had not explored as much previously.”

You only have to glance at the websites of both The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman to see their often-demanding touring schedules together, a reflection of their musical commitment essayed on The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Today, touring is a fact of life for the successful jazz musician, but it comes with its own stresses and strains: “Yeah, musicians often find themselves out on the road saying, ‘they didn’t tell us about this in [music] school!’” laughs Reid Anderson. “The hardest thing to do is to walk out of the front door – it’s very intense, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and the way we tour it’s often a different country every day travelling, and doing a soundcheck and repeating it day after day. Of course, it can be very rewarding and it’s a job that when you turn up for work people applaud you and tell you how much they like what you do, which is gratifying, but it’s definitely not a situation where you can always exercise choice – if the lobby calls at 5am you gotta be down there at 5am, you have to take two flights and drive for two hours, and do a soundcheck and play the concert, that’s your day and you have to deliver, you have to deliver a good performance, no-one cares how tired you are at the end of the day… Personally, I couldn’t go out there just to play music, go through everything that it takes to do it, you have to be out there playing music you really care about that you can get behind to justify the sacrifice that it takes to do it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Joshua Redman. For him the romance and glamour of touring the world’s top jazz spots and festivals quickly wore out. “Well, being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!” he says with a knowing laugh. “You know, it’s not an easy life, and it hasn’t got any easier the older you get, it’s a lot of late nights and very early mornings and a lot of it is long and stressful travel, not that much sleep, or very little sleep. The older you get, you’re not as resilient, it becomes more of a physical drain, physical stress, you don’t recover as well, and also emotionally it can be tough. I have a family at home, got two young children so it’s very hard for me to be gone from them and my wife – you know, you shouldn’t become a professional musician to see the world! Although that is a perk. A lot of what you see of the world is hotels, airports or train stations, and you eat some very good meals along the way! But you know what makes it all worthwhile? Those two hours a night when you step up on the bandstand and you get to make, or try to make, beautiful music with other musicians, and connect with them and to do it for an audience and do it for the people. There’s nothing I’d trade that for in the world. That is an incredible luxury, as hard as life on the road can get, the luxury of being able to play music for people and the connection that can come out of that, and not to sound too ‘touchy-feely’, but a sort of communion that can come out of that, there’s nothing in the world that’s like that feeling. It’s a luxury to be able to do that and make a living doing it.”


The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman ★★★★

The Bad Plus Joshua RedmanNonesuch

Joshua Redman (ts), Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. date not stated

If we were to look at the career trajectories of both Redman and Bad Plus, we would see in the case of Redman an involvement in pianoless groups in more recent times – Back East (2007), Compass (2009) and Trios Live (2014) – and piano ensembles (such as James Farm) interspersed with the jazzwith-strings Walking Shadows (2013). What is perhaps lacking is the creation of an effective and definitive context within which to focus his talents as an improviser: his recent career a series of ‘projects’ rather than the refinement of an overall vision for himself as an artist. In contrast, The Bad Plus have created a context for themselves, a trio sound that is their own, but there has been a feeling since their heady days of hearty deconstructionism following their major label debut with These Are the Vistas, of searching, but not quite finding, a real direction for their music. Thus this collaboration gives much to both parties: to the saxophonist an effective context within which to function as an improviser, and the trio, who seem energised by a sense of direction fresh blood has bought, a driving force that is perhaps the discovery, as contemporaneous press reviews of their live concerts have noted, of the long lost fourth member of the group. As with other Bad Plus albums, there are some insanely intricate passages, but leavened with touches of humour and rock inflected energy from the fine drumming of Dave King. Redman effortlessly fits into this world, but his solos suggest fresh paths to be trodden and fresh horizons to aim for, and with bits of each party rubbing off on the other, the future looks good. – Stuart Nicholson


Feature Sonny Rollins – Tenor Of Our Times

Feature EST – Three Falling Three 

Feature John Coltrane – In The Temple Of Trane 

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Jazzwise magazine / Photo by Cameron Wittig & Jay Blakesberg

Avishai Cohen – Burning Brighter

Avishai Cohen

Bassist Avishai Cohen has in the last decade of his prolific, high-level 20-year career, moved from bass hero and bandleader, into the echelons of significant stylistic innovator and powerful musical mentor. Known for spotting the stars of tomorrow, his gifted current trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor has helped him produce one of his strongest albums to date: From Darkness. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to Cohen about how his young charges push him and the music beyond the limits

Most contemporary jazz musicians work in a range of groups but many feel that there is a particular kind of band that acts as home, a place to which they feel bound to return time and again. Personnel may change but the instrumentation, like a steady heartbeat, remains the same. For the Israeli double bassist and composer Avishai Cohen that staple ensemble is bigger than a duo but smaller than a quartet.

“Basically I never stopped playing with a trio,” he tells me on a clear phone line to his home in Motsa Illit, just outside of Jerusalem. “The trio is always the main engine in my music, sometimes it’s with strings or sometimes it’s with horns or different things but it always remains the main core of what I’m doing. It’s enough because of the piano, and my writing for me to able to convey my thoughts and feelings. Whether I’m with other musicians or in the trio itself, I think in terms of the trio.”

This maxim has just materialised on the band’s From Darkness, which emerges as one of the early key releases of 2015. Built on the musical raw materials – middle eastern and latin rhythms, European classical harmony and western pop sensibilities – that have defined Cohen’s career since he debuted on the Smalls scene in New York almost two decades ago, this new work enriches a discography that has now swelled to some 15 titles. This is a substantial figure for an artist who, although having had the not insignificant honour of recording for Blue Note France, largely issues work through his own Razdaz label.

Independent and industrious, Cohen, resident in Israel since 2007 following 15 years in New York, chooses his musicians discerningly and the …Darkness trio features two stellar collaborators in 27 year-old pianist Nitai Hershkovits, the bassist’s duet partner on 2012’s Duende, and drummer Daniel Dor, a 28 year-old graduate of the New School in Manhattan. Following several international gigs with the band in the past few years, the leader thought it was time for the tapes to roll.

“We do many concerts as a trio during the year, we became very solid and something happened in such a way that I really knew it was time to document another trio, which I hadn’t done for eight years,” the 44 year-old reflects. “I have one trio record really, Gently Disturbed, which has become liked by many fans. Since then I haven’t done it so the fact the trio sounds so great made me just want to document it.”

As is often the case the last player to join the group did so on recommendation from an existing member. Hershkovits had already built a strong chemistry with Dor in a number of other groups and duly put his name forward to Cohen who hired him pronto. The impact of the new arrival is not something the leader wants to understate at all.

“Something really came together when Daniel joined, it put a different kind of weight on things,” Cohen gushes. “He has enough of a sound or character so that the music is to do with him as much as anybody else, if not more. Since he joined the trio moulded into this thing it had to get to, something that’s really solid. I never had an agenda but it’s as if there’s an agreement on rhythm.

“What did Daniel change in my trio sound?” Cohen muses. “Well, it’s like a heavier sound, but in the lighter parts of it he brought this delicacy that I’ve never really had from any drummer, so the range of dynamics from his playing in a trio setting is so effective and so strong.


“There’s a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group.”


“You know I think a lot of the character of bands or records… it comes from the drummers,” Cohen argues. “The greatest bands have the greatest drummers, whether it was Led Zeppelin with John Bonham or The Police with Stewart Copeland or John Coltrane with Elvin Jones.

“Daniel has the quality, he has a stamp in the way that he plays: everything is very clear. It’s a very assertive and present kind of drumming with this beat, this bigger than usual sound than you would hear in jazz, and also compositionally we can kind of feed each other as a result. I basically wanted to make a record with more groove, and luckily my compositions went there and provided that for me.

“On the second tune on the album ‘Abie’ there’s a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group and it was something I realised after we recorded, where I just had to say to myself ‘wow the energy here is not the usual energy of a jazz CD.’

Distant though they may be, Cohen’s days as the junior player in bands are worth recalling. Although he worked with two very significant members of his peer group, Danilo Pérez and Kurt Rosenwinkel, the leader who put him in a much brighter spotlight was Chick Corea, co-producer of Cohen’s 1998 debut Adama as well as his boss in the sextet Origin, then the pianist’s own trio. Cohen has an important point to make about the ultimate value of that crucial stage in his career for all concerned. Such a high profile gig had to have carpe diem moments.

“I never wanted to be just another bassist for someone like Chick,” he states. “I wanted to be special and strong and affect him as much as he did me. When I did get the chance to start playing with him I’d already known a lot of his music and I sensed that it would not be enough to be another even very good bassist who could execute his music. I felt that he wanted me to bring something new, fresh and challenging to him. I was challenged and enjoyed growing and learning so much from him, but I think that he also got something from my enthusiasm. Chick doesn’t just want people to make him look good; he really wants a push and a kick in the butt in a good way. I was happy to be able to do that and learn a lot and get inspired to just become my own bandleader from one of the best teachers.”

Things have come full circle then. Cohen is now Corea to Dor and Hershkovitt, an experienced player and leader developing music with accompanists who have grown up in a world that is vastly different to the one that he knew as a younger man. Needless to say there is an expectation on Cohen’s part that their personalities will be sufficiently strong to ensure that he is not the one who can lounge in a comfort zone by dint of his achievements to date. He needs stimulus.

“On my god… so much! Every time we play they challenge me. I always seem to get my ass kicked in a good way,” he says with a hearty chuckle before going on to expand on his original point.

“You know I think they control the language that we have and to me they’re like the new generation in jazz because they can play pretty much anything, but not just play it, really make something out of it. They are so informed about so many things, they play very intricate music like it’s their own. I get so much inspiration from these guys.” 


Avishai Cohen Trio – From Darkness ★★★★

RazdazAvishai Cohen

Avishai Cohen (b, el b), Daniel Dor (d) and Nitai Hershkovitts (p). Rec. 2014

The tried and tested axiom of ‘new players, new life’ or rather ‘younger players, greater energy’ acquires much credence here. Israeli bassist-composer Cohen has risen to A‑list bandleader status by way of a prodigious and consistently high quality output for the best part of two decades but the arrival of the explosive junior drummer Daniel Dor has given his ensemble sound a substantial shot in the arm. The strength of the backbeat and the fluency in the polyrhythms lay a solid foundation for the intricate meshing of middle eastern, latin, classical and rock sensibilities that are Cohen’s trademark, which has in turn exerted a substantial influence on the likes of British groups such as Phronesis and Kairos 4tet. Stylistically, this is by no means a radical departure from previous work but there is a sharpness in the execution and richness in the group dynamics that make the session notable. As he has proved on many an occasion the leader is a very expressive improviser who can easily hold the attention over extended solo passages, but the focus here is largely on relatively short pieces where a concentration of ideas is the order of the day and the harmonic movement is not necessarily reduced. In any case Cohen’s writing creates a grand, overarching narrative in which a series of shifting, vivid moods serve the provocative nature of the title – from darkness comes light, and to a certain extent life. So, somewhat appropriately, the album finishes with a wry but emotionally charged reading of a ballad for troubled times – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. – Kevin Le Gendre

This article and review originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise


Feature Charles Mingus – Triumph of the Underdog

Review Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (50th Anniversary Edition) ★★★★★

Review Gary Burton and Chick Corea – Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 ★★★★★

Dr John – Hanging with the Hoodoo Man

Dr John

To say Malcolm John ‘Mac’ Rebennack Jr, aka Dr John, has lived a colourful life would be something of an understatement: from spells in jail, being shot in the hand, scoring drugs and his upbringing in deepest, darkest New Orleans, he is the very embodiment of the Crescent City’s rich gumbo soul. With his riotous album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, he celebrates another Big Easy scion, Louis Armstrong and his timeless trumpet and vocal legacies. The Good Doctor tells Michael Jackson how jazz has always woven itself into his work...

“Louis came to me in a dream and said ‘Cut my stuff yo’ way’,” recalls Rebennack, “and man, he never came to me in a dream before, even though we wuz both booked with (legendary boxing and jazz promoter) Joe Glaser back in the game.” Rebennack remembers Glaser’s vintage roster represented, ‘the spectorama of trumpet players’ including Dizzy Gillespie, who at the time thought Louis was Uncle Tomming (selling out to white audiences). “I told Dizz then ‘he can’t be Tommin’, he’s anything but that, he just knows the procedures to get across’.” Words of experience from a white man who infuriated segregated white and black unions in New Orleans by backing black musicians in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, singer Joe ‘Mr. Google Eyes’ August brought Dizzy to a Dr John show and the bebop progenitor confessed he now concurred about Armstrong. “He totally agreed with me and that made me feel much better,” reflected Rebennack, who idolised both Gillespie and Armstrong.

Dr JohnIn honor of Pops a ‘spectorama’ of latter-day trumpet heroes are assembled for Ske-Dat-De-Dat including Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews and Wendell Brunious, who turn in cameos respectively on ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Memories of You’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, ‘Dippermouth Blues’ and the warm and fuzzy ‘That’s My Home’. A signature track from the record is a funkified update of ‘Mack The Knife’, which features Blanchard and Paris-based rapper Mike Ladd. During his version of this storied narrative, originally titled ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ in the original Brecht/Weill iteration from 1928 (adopted as ‘Moritat’ by Sonny Rollins, the same year as Armstrong waxed it, by the by), Rebennack shouts out to star guests Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland, much as Armstrong tipped his hat to Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya in his 1956 version, an addition furthered by Bobby Darin. The merry murder ballad was also morphed by Ella Fitzgerald, who forgot the lyrics in Berlin in 1960 and improvised. Rebennack appreciated Fitzgerald and her simpatico with Armstrong and was once convinced Ella was looking out for him. “I was in this rehab years ago, having a vacation from my life in the psych ward and I was totally convinced this nurse was Ella Fitzgerald.”

Rebennack’s rambunctious life as wannabe hustler, songwriter and record producer is kaleidoscopically portrayed in his autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon (St Martin’s 1994), in which, early on, he has his own Mac the Knife moment, trying to get even with his formative ‘junko pardna’, a sketchy character called Shank:

“One night, after he had pulled some bad issue on me, I tore over to [Shank’s] house, ready to stab him. I came in there with my knife out, and he croaked, ‘Is that all you got to use on me?’… he pulled this huge revolver out from somewhere, didn’t even point it at me, but he got me backpedaling fast. Later, I found out his gun not only wasn’t loaded; it didn’t even have a firing pin. It was some antique from the Wild West days.”

Rebennack’s days as a potential McHeath, mercifully, were fraught with misadventure, such as the time he fixed on shooting rhythm & blues singer Lloyd Price for stealing one of his songs, but the Price gig at which the showdown was supposed to occur was cancelled. In attempting to sue Price for the theft of ‘Try Not To Think About You’ (which Price recast as ‘Lady Luck’), Mac ultimately discovered the lawyer he enlisted was also on Price’s payroll.

A further rift involving blade and gun proved more hazardous. It’s an infamous road story involving Dr John’s defence of his greenhorn singer and Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, but Rebennack fleshed it out during our conversation:

“Ronnie’s mama was chopping some meat with a big knife and she said ‘I’m gonna chop your cajones off if you don’t look after my son, ’cos he’s way underage.’ So I took him on the road and I walk in his motel room and he’s getting pistol whipped by this guy, some big robbery guy in Florida; so I’m hitting this guy’s hand on a brick trying to get the gun out of his hand and pull his eyeball out and I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel.”

The resultant gunshot severely damaged Rebennack’s left ring finger and made him switch from guitar to keyboards after an unhappy spell playing bass in a Dixieland group at NOLA’s Famous Door lounge. Mac, who studied guitar with Fats Domino guitarist Papoose and the versatile Roy Montrell, recently demonstrated vernacular Telecaster chops in Chicago on a rousing version of Earl King’s rebellious ‘Mama and Papa’, otherwise sticking to piano or Nord, peppering ballsy cuts from Locked Down with such Rebennack perennials as ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’, ‘Make a Better World’ and ‘Such a Night’.

“Yeah, I play a little bit of guitar now. I never really stopped, even after I first got shot in my finger, but I remember Leo Fender at some point asked me to play his Jazzmaster guitar and I said ‘these things get outta tune’ and I didn’t play it, so he stopped endorsing me. If I had any of dem guitars now, I’d probably be rich. Aah well, that’s life.”

A precedent to Dr John’s Armstrong tribute was his pithy Ellington homage Duke Elegant (Blue Note, 2000), which featured guitarist Bobby Broom. Broom was backstage at Chicago Blues fest, along with this writer and his kids (it was father’s day after all and I knew the writer of ‘My Children, My Angels’ would be down with that). Dr John greeted us all and ‘jaw jerked’ benevolently.

Broom had this to say about his time with the Doctor: “I was in Mac’s band from 1994 to just about 2000. When I joined him, I knew about its place in the story of jazz music, but I had no idea about the strong influence on the creation of R&B that New Orleans had. During my time with him it all started making sense that, as with all melting pots, New Orleans always had the perfect traditional ingredients for any new, cultural creation – whether in food, religion, jazz or R&B.

“Mac embodied those musical traditions ­– in R&B, blues and jazz. He knew I was a jazz guitar player and a music lover who could lean a little in different directions and he let me bring that to the band.”

Talking of such inclusivity Ske-Dat-De-Dat is particularly generous in the space allotted to sidemen and women, even for a typically expansive Dr John project. That’s the product of formative years working at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans and thence with the Ace, Ron and Ric and Mercury labels, where he put sessions together, pooled talent and often wrote songs with others in mind. ‘Tight Like This’ for example is a steamy, Afro-Cuban tinged feature for Arturo Sandoval, where the leader is conspicuously hands off, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is singer Andy Hamilton’s baby, the Doctor lets him have it.

Though an inimitable frontman ever since he hatched his mythical moniker and caught the imagination of the psychedelic set in tumultuous 1968 with his eerie, eclectic cave-jam Gris-Gris (incidentally Mac was never a devotee of psychedelics), Dr John wasn’t desperate to be centre of attention. Many of the acts he supported, ‘back in the game’ – to borrow a nostalgic phrase his sandpaper rasp over the phone frequently delivers ­– he found disingenuous.

“My pa told me: ‘Kid, you got kicked outta three schools, my advice is go out on the Chitlins Circuit with dem old men’. But the whole thing about those frontmans (sic) was a lotta them had a three dollar bill attitude… it was in the days when nobody saw acts on the TV, so Sugar and Sweet would pass off as Shirley and Lee and Earl King would pass off as Chuck Berry or Guitar Slim, James Booker as Joe Tex. People didn’t even know who the real front guys was because there was so many shuck guys out there.” Rebennack refuses to bracket Marvin Gaye in that number however, “I loved that Marvin played good drums every soundcheck, better than his real drummer and I loved Big Joe Turner; I had a real blessing working for him.” Turner’s ‘Piney Brown Blues’ first heard in his father’s record store when he was in knee pants, made a big impression.

“My pa sold three kinds of records, there was what they call race music back then, which was blues and R&B, there was spiritual and gospel and there was jazz – bebop and traditional jazz.”

Though his primary influences included his wildly flamboyant confrère James Booker and crucial stylist Professor Longhair in New Orleans, Mac always craned an ear for jazz from further afield and comments in Under a Hoodoo Moon about checking McCoy Tyner: “Every break I used to get from working joints in the Quarter, I used to go to Vernon’s to hear John Coltrane when he was in town… I used to sit up behind McCoy Tyner, because I wanted to learn how he played piano. But Trane’s music would get so intense – and my head was getting so narcotised – that I’d nod out every time they started.”

Another jazz great Rebennack intersected with was Art Blakey, though at first not in ideal circumstances, when he, tubaist Ray Draper and pianist Walter Davis woke an angry Blakey as they night tripped through his apartment to score heroin in the early 1970s. Through the connection of Mac’s road manager Barbara Becker, Blakey would eventually record Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill, 1990) with Rebennack and David ‘Fathead’ Newman and during the session, “Art was sweet enough not to mention the way we’d first met,” Rebennack recalls. That date turned out to be prescient, given a somewhat chilling version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (more pertinent to the song’s somewhat apocalyptic lyrics than the touristic version) and Blakey’s croaky vocals on ‘For All We Know’, as Bu (Blakey’s Islamic nickname) would be dead within six months.

Before expedient DA Jim Garrison cleaned up New Orleans in the early 1960s, there had been a genuine 24/7 music scene embracing more of a community, less dog-eat-dog. Since there was plenty of work, musicians would swap out gigs and play several engagements a night. This has contributed to Rebennack’s laidback attitude and the peculiarly relaxed, yet rhythmically layered, crowd pleasing funk that emanates from NOLA. Musicians from the City all share a brotherhood and at Chicago Blues Festival, Rebennack was pleased to share the bill with Aaron Neville.

“I used him on the first session he was on, at Cosimo’s studio, when we was all dittyboppers,” Mac recalls fondly, “Me, Charles (Neville) and Aaron played ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on this tribute to me in New Orleans, we’ve been playing that since we were kids, I love Percy Mayfield’s songs.” And indeed, he learnt the songwriting craft from the likes of Mayfield: “Me and Shine (guitarist Alvin Robinson) wrote a song that we thought was a killer for Percy, but when he heard it he said ‘You can’t take that long to get to the hook!’ We was writin’ songs but didn’t care how long it took to the hook, so Percy pulled our coattails to that and it made some kinda sense to both of us.”

In LA in 1967, a couple of years after release from spells in Angola, Fort Worth and Lexington correctional facilities, Mac Rebennack refashioned himself as Dr John, a throwback to a nineteenth century medicine man/freed slave/purported Senegalese Prince who ran a voodoo practice and whorehouse with a certain Pauline Rebennack. In many ways the connection with this original hoodoo hustler and journeyman made sense, since Rebennack himself was an itinerant troubadour who had dabbled in pimping and the dark arts (early on, goofer dust – graveyard dirt mixed with gunpowder and church-bell grease – was a favorite concoction to curse his enemies). By 2013 even his ‘Dr’ appellation was vindicated when Tulane University bestowed an honorary doctorate of fine arts, so he became Dr Dr John.

Another self-graduated entertainer, organist Dr Lonnie Smith, worked on a tribute record to Fats Domino in New Orleans with Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones and Rebennack and remembers his counterpart with affection: “Doc is very funny, very soulful and the strange thing is we both walk with a cane, don’t we? He plays from the heart, it’s not about anything that’s not real, and that’s the way his music comes across; he’s a very beautiful person.”


“I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”
– Dr John


So, getting back to the star studded new album – for which he owes thanks to his longtime “hellfire trombonist”, arranger and co-producer Sarah Morrow; such flirtatious duet partners as Raitt (‘I’ve Got The World on a String’) and Copeland (‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’) and the Blind Boys of Alabama – did the Doctor ever meet his main man Satchmo, outside of a dream?

“I met him in Joe Glaser’s office where on the wall was a picture of Louis sittin’ on a rock right outside New Orleans. I knew he was sittin’ by the bridge which went to Bucktown and right there I knew he could see Ralph Schultz’ Fresh Hardware store and my pa’s shop.” Rebennack’s father’s appliance and record store, where he fixed turntables and amps and span records, had a defining influence on young Mac. “I was askin’ if he was looking at my pa’s shop – but Louis was laughing so hard at Schultz, because Schultz could marry you, give you your birth tag stickers, whatever ya needed at his hardware store – that I never got to finish the question.”

Subsequently, Dr John is as synonymous with New Orleans as Armstrong himself and has traveled a long and winding road since copping Louis Jordan and Joe Turner from his father’s Top 20 list. “Back then I thought I was gonna be a Liberace type guy or somethin’, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna be, I had some dream of dat – you always have fantasias.” He adds, “Listen, whatever ya get, that’s what ya got and I don’t care, I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”

Though the Night Tripper of yore has had health concerns of late, he remains sanguine and still tucks into a gamey gumbo of squirrel, alligator and specklebelly goose when back at the crib. “If ya eat squirrels that comes outta the swamps, ya get good, if you get ’em that’s close to the Gulf, that’s not good.” His gratitude to the open armed Spiritual Church of New Orleans (he learned bass in the Church band when he was a sprout) is evidenced in the purified modulations of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, delivered by soul singer Ledisi and gospel quintet the McCrary Sisters on Ske-Dat-De-Dat. ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, a more secular cure for life’s ills, along with James P Johnson’s ‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’ (originally recorded in 1949 with Pops and Billie Holiday) typify Dr John’s taste for a hybrid of sacred and profane. It’s all grist to the mill or rather gris gris to the pot Broom refers to, a rich brew, with Rebennack re-stamping the legacy of Armstrong who stretched the canon and spiced it with humour. Such adaptation borne of dry joie de vivre was encapsulated by one of Dr John’s songwriting collaborators and sometime Sidney Bechet sideman, Pleasant Joe: “My old partner Cousin Joe used to play with all the bebop bands in New York and I could see why they would hire him, because he had funny lyrics to all the blues. Anyway he told me a long time ago, he said ‘The best way for a musician to croak is to fall over on the last song of the show – the band gets paid, and you don’t have to play an encore,’ that’s the way to go.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise


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