Interview with Paul Bollenback – 10.30.10

June 12, 2012
Paul Bollenback

Ed Note: This interview was first published in Bebopified on November 11, 2010, before I started this blog.  Since Paul is coming back to play at the Artists’ Quarter on June 15 and 16, I thought this would be a good time to re-publish the interview here:

Like every young guitarist of the 60s and 70s, Paul Bollenback was enamored with rock and roll. Then he heard Miles Davis and delved into fusion.

While living in Washington, DC, he was exposed to more traditional jazz, as well as organ jazz, and studied composition and performance. He made his first record with Gary Thomas in 1987 and met Joey DeFrancesco in 1990, establishing a relationship that lasts to this day.

After being named Musician of the Year for the Washington Area in 1997, he moved to New York City, where he now resides.

Paul dropped by KFAI on Saturday morning, October 30. This is a slightly edited version of the on-air discussion we had.

LE: How are you? 
PB: I’m great. It’s great to be here in the Twin Cities.

LE: You’re kind of a regular visitor.
PB: The gentleman who’s responsible for first bringing me here brought me to the studio today. John McCauley was Jack McDuff’s manager, and he’s responsible for first bringing me here. We calculated that I first came here, I think it was 18 years ago last night, to play a show with Jack and Joey DeFrancesco. I was in Joey’s band. It was a two-organ show. I met John and he was kind enough to bring me back to play at the Hotel Luxeford, for those of you who remember when they had jazz in there. I’ve been coming back ever since. I love it here. Great people and wonderful audiences, and there’s some really great musicians playing here. Tonight I’m playing at the Artists’ Quarter with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. You’ve got the Peterson family dynasty – it’s great.

LE: Tell us a little bit about how, as a guitar player, you decided to get into jazz.
PB: I was basically a rocker. I really liked Carlos Santana, and at a certain point I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, all those early heavy metal groups. I really liked the groove and power and the energy of it. A friend turned me on to the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. That was a thrill because I’d never really heard anybody play guitar like that. I’d heard all these soulful, really good guitar players, but John was a different scene. That kind of led me to Big Fun, which is an electric Miles Davis record which had John McLaughlin on it, if I’m not mistaken, which led me to Bitches Brew, which kind of at the same time got me into fusion – Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

At some point in this, my family moved from New York to Washington, DC, and that’s where I really got turned on to more traditional jazz. The first person I met when I got to DC is a great bass player named Edward Howard. Probably the thing he’s most well known for is playing bass with Roy Haynes for about 15 years, through the 80s up into the 90s. We had a friend who had a room full of records, a 10×12 room, three sides of which were covered in vinyl – all kinds. We’d go there and play and hang out and listen to music all day. That was really my first exposure to jazz other than the fusion stuff.

LE: How did that appeal to you as a guitar player who grew up in rock? What was it about jazz that appealed to you?
PB: Well, it intrigued me. When I was in high school, must have been 9th grade, there was a jazz band in the school I went to in Tarrytown, New York. It always amazed me that these young guys would come in, and they’d have music in front of them and play this stuff. I didn’t know what it was. “What is this that they’re doing?” I couldn’t do it. I was playing blues licks and trying to make my way through it. But I think that was one of the things.

Another was that my dad was a huge fan of the big bands. He really liked Benny Goodman in particular. He liked Stan Kenton a lot, and we had Harry James records and Benny Goodman records lying around the house. I’d put them on now and again, just out of curiosity. I’d be listening to one of my Beatles record and see one of these records and think, “What is this thing?” and put it on. I’d hear this “du did-it dee” and think wow, that’s interesting. But, I didn’t really like it when I was nine [laughs]. So it’s been kind of a progression.

LE: And you seem to have spent a lot of time in B-3 organ groups.
PB: Some people plot their path, and for other people it just happens. When I was 18 and living in DC, my friend Ed introduced me to a great piano player and composer named Lawrence Wheatley, who turned out to be a great mentor for me. Once I actually got a place of my own, I lived a couple of blocks from him. I used to go and play with him all the time. He was quite a bit older than I was. But he was one of those guys in DC who had played with everybody when they came through town. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had played with Charlie Parker. He was of that era.

Anyway, the summer I was 18, he had this regular three-nights-a-week gig. It was an organ gig – organ, saxophone, drums. And he’d say, “Why don’t you come down and play?” Of course, I was thrilled. I wasn’t getting paid, but these guys were top-notch players in DC. So I learned a lot playing with them. And I got my first taste of an organ group. I also really liked that record George Benson had done, Willow Weep for Me. I think it might have been Lonnie Smith on the organ. [LE: It was.]  It’s funny because it was on vinyl and I don’t even remember the cover. But that was the first jazz guitar that I heard and I thought, “That’s what I really like, what is that?” And the organ, too, the way it was in there. Needless to say, a few years later, when I met Joey DeFrancesco and he was looking for a guitar player, it worked out.

LE: As a teacher, you talk about the importance of musicians knowing how to sing the melody. Can you explain that a bit?
PB: There are a couple of things. Certainly, if you can’t sing, and I don’t sing well [coughs], you can still hear. The idea is that you can’t really play a song unless you know the entire song, which includes the melody. I think that educationally, in the 1970s and early 80s, I feel that what was being taught in schools was a lot of harmonic knowledge. Here’s the chord that you’re playing and the scale that you play over it, and that’s how you make it work. But, in actuality, if you take that approach every time, all of your music is going to sound exactly the same. And you really don’t want that.

If you know the melody, you know what the tune is about, and if you know the lyric –  especially if it’s a standard, you’re obliged to know the lyric – you know at least what the song is about. And if there’s a backstory on the song, that’s even better, because it informs how you would play it and what the song means to you when you play it. If you have a choice in what you play, and if you’re a leader you do, then you make your choice based on how you relate to the tune, and if it says something to you then you can actually create something with the audience in terms of the ambience of the tune. If you don’t know the melody and you don’t know the lyric, then there’s no way you can play the tune. So being able to sing it helps to solidify it in your mind.

LE: I’ve heard or read similar statements before, but mostly from older saxophone players, so you’re the first guitarist I’ve heard say that. It certainly makes perfect sense, even if a musician can’t sing.
PB: Absolutely, I’ve got this whole thing that I learned from a guy I studied with in Baltimore when I lived in DC. His name was Asher Zlotnik. When I studied with him, he must have been in his late sixties. He was pretty brilliant in terms of ear training. His whole thing was, if you can’t sing it, you shouldn’t be trying to play it. So he had me working on all these basic things in terms of being able to outline chords, outline harmony, being able to sing bass lines, and it helped my understanding of music as a language, and so I try to teach that to my students.

It takes a while to really have the whole thing come into play. I’ve found that most of the people I work with as a sideman have incredible ears. They have great pitch. The only way to develop that, if you don’t have that naturally, is to work on singing these different things.

LE: So when you hear someone playing something, you can think, “That’s an A-flat and I can play this with an A-flat.”
PB: Yeah, in a general sense.

LE: You’re a pretty busy guy.
PB: Fortunately, yes.

LE: That’s always a good thing for musicians. Is the Tuesday night gig at Smoke [in New York City] a regular thing?
PB: Well, it’s not really my gig. Organ player Mike LeDonne has been doing it for quite a while. He’s got a regular band that he uses, with Pete Bernstein, but Pete, of course, is very busy playing guitar with everyone, including Sonny Rollins, and a lot of time he can’t make it, so Mike will call me to come in. Since it’s about eight short blocks from where I live, I can walk to the gig. And I’ve been doing that a lot lately. That’s been nice. He’s had Vincent Herring playing alto saxophone, and a variety of drummers. McClinty Hunter, Rodney Greene, sometimes Joe Farnsworth will be there. It’s always fun to play with Mike. He’s another great organ player.

Paul Bollenback and Chris McNulty

LE: I’ve been aware of him for a number of years. He put out an album some years back that I believe was recorded live at Smoke. You also do gigs on your own and with Chris McNulty.
PB: Yes, we’ve had a…    Well, I should say, we’re married. I usually don’t put it out there just because, “Oh, it’s his wife,” or “That’s her husband.” We do quite a bit of work together. Chris just got done with a month-long tour of Australia, then went directly to ten days in Russia. I did a portion of the Australian trip with her and then we were doing a trio with Andrei Kardokov, a great piano player, all over the Eastern part of Russia, the Finnish area.

LE: For those folks who travel to New York, or elsewhere, where can they find out about your schedule?
PB: Best thing is to check my website, which just my name, Paul Bollenback, dot com.

LE: And if they can’t find your CDs in the local record shop, they can go there.
PB: Chris and I actually started our own small label. It’s not signing anybody, for all those hungry musicians out there looking for a label. We did it for us because we wanted some control over our product, and to be able to move it in the way we wanted. It’s called Elefant Dreams and you can link to Elefant Dreams Records from my website. You can order both of our CDs through that.

LE: Well, you’re at the Artists Quarter tonight. Starts at nine. Two sets?
PB: Nine and elevenish. The music is not ish, it’s very strong.

LE: It’s with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums.
PB: We’re having a ball. Lots of interaction. I mean we’re really stretching it out, playing a variety of tunes. Lots of standards. Makes the idea of rehearsing easier. We’re taking different treatments to them, different styles.

LE: And are you doing some of your originals?
PB: We may do some tonight. I brought some with me. Really, as a leader, I don’t plan a set. I know a lot of guys prepare a set list. Joey DeFrancesco never had a set list. We’d never know what he was gonna play – he’d just start playing and you better know the tune.

LE: That’s where that ear training comes in.
PB: That’s right. Gary Bartz was the same way, and Gary Thomas as well. We’d rehearse five or six hard tunes that he had written, and then he would never tell you what he was going to play. He’d just start and you jump on [chuckles]. I like it because it keeps it fresh.

LE: Let’s close off with something from your albumDouble Gemini.
PB: That’s my second album. It came out in 1997. This particular tune, “Open Hand,” was written here in the Twin Cities when I was playing at the Hotel Luxeford, it was probably 1996. I had such a nice time. People were so nice that I just wrote this tune. So this has a relation to your town. It features Joey De Francesco and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums.

LE: Thank you so very much for stopping by. I understand you’re off to do some recording now.
PB: Yes, something having to do with the Peterson dynasty, but first, breakfast. More coffee.


Lila Ammons: Fulfilling a Musical Heritage

April 22, 2012

Twin Cities vocalist Lila Ammons has a rich musical heritage. Her grandfather was Albert Ammons, the famous boogie woogie piano player, and her uncle was Gene Ammons, whose big, soulful sound on the sax was a mainstay of 50s jazz. Lila studied classical music and performed in operas, recitals and oratorios throughout the United Staes and Europe before turning to jazz and blues. Though she’s lived in the Twin Cities for about fourteen years, she spends much time touring Europe. She and vocalists Vicky Mountain and Dorothy Doring have performed together as Sisters in Song. Recently, Ammons has begun to sing around town with a quintet, and is now getting ready to release a CD. This lightly edited interview took place during my radio show, Rhythm and Grooves, on April 7, 2012.

LE:  You grew up in Chicago and actually started out in classical music.

Lila Ammons: It was very much a big part of my family. My dad was really into oratorio singing and opera and when I was a child. He used to listen to Ezio Pinza and all these Italian tenors.  I used to plug my ears and think how could he stand this, you couldn’t even understand the words. Actually, it was all early training. I think they were trying to steer us into a different direction, because they recognized our musical abilities. The last thing they wanted was for us to follow our uncle and grandfather’s footsteps into the sinful world of jazz and blues.

LE: How long did you take classical training?

LA: Let me see, I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, Masters at Manhattan School of Music, and then I spent 12 years pursuing big track opera.

LE: How does the classical training help you in singing jazz and blues?

LA: I would say from a technical standpoint, it’s given me longevity, because I know how to take care of my instrument, and that’s very key.

LE: How did you make the decision to go from classical music into other genres?

LA: (Chuckles) It was something that was secretly in the back of my mind. I had started singing R&B in Junior High School, much to my mother’s dismay. She was very unhappy about that. I was a classical pianist and violinist. Did that for 12 years. Studied in Northwestern’s Prepatory School for piano and was in the orchestra for 8 years as a violinist. I then went to college and totally got out of music for the first two years and then I was beckoned back to music. The conservatory there was stressing classical, so I got caught in the stream with the other trout. (hearty laugh)

Of course, my parents were very, very happy about that, but I still wanted to go to California and still wanted to be a studio musician, but they were like, no, no, no, got to New York, we know more people there. So I ended up at a conservatory and got caught up in it, but in the back of my mind I was very curious about this heritage that I had recently discovered. I had started in the background doing some research about my grandfather, and really discovered who he was and then located people like Barney Josephson (Ed note: Owner of Café Society in NYC) and John Hammond – just on a fluke, because I had found a book in an old used bookstore on West Broadway in NY, and I recognized the name from an album my dad had of my grandfather’s.

And from there I started making phone calls and in the back of my mind I was thinking, by age something, this, this, this. If this doesn’t go there, that’s okay because I want to look back into my heritage. And so in a way I had a master plan. I fulfilled the classical thing for my parents. My mother passed away and I felt I could do my own thing at that point.

LE:Tell us about your heritage, in case folks don’t recognize the name Ammons.

Lila's Grandfather, the boogie woogie master.

LA: My grandfather, my dad’s father, was Albert Ammons, who was a pianist, born in 1907. At the early age of 17 he began to became a noted boogie woogie player. He, along with a couple of others, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis became the Boogie Woogie Trio. They were picked up by John Hammond, the famous impresario. He discovered Billie Holiday and all kinds of people. He brought them to New York City and presented them at Carnegie Hall at the Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1938. The concert had all kinds of luminaries, including these three, and they became wildly successful, and went on to perform at Café Society. That was another very interesting place in musical, and political, and social history. That place was a hotbed of a lot of things. (Ed note: It was the first integrated nightclub in the United States.) My grandfather also had his own group, the Rhythm Kings, and then he went on to do lots of great things.

LE: He was very well known. And then one of his sons was Gene Ammons, one of my favorites. A big toned saxophone player.

Uncle Gene "Jug" Ammons.

LA: One of a kind, one of a kind. In fact, from Chicago, at 17 he was one of the lead tenors for Billy Eckstine, along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. That band was a hotbed of early bebop. It was the early incubator for bebop.

LE: How did you come to be touring Europe so much?

LA: I’m now involved in an international tour with a German pianist who is a specialist in boogie woogie and classic blues. Through a whole bunch of circumstances in 2007, the two of us came together. I put together a concert in celebration of my grandfather in 07, and brought together a lot of incredible early heritage players including Butch Thompson, as a matter of fact. I had this concert in Chicago commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Albert’s birthday, and after hearing me sing a tune, Axel Zwingenberger, the German expert, invited me to join his tours in Europe, so I’ve been doing that for four years now.

LE: The lead-off cut on your upcoming CD is an old Helen Humes hit, one of those songs that was blending the boundaries of jazz and blues at that time.

LA: Absolutely. Bee Baba Lee Ba. Jive Talk (chuckles)

LE: As you went about producing the CD, how did you choose who would be on it?

LA: The producer is Michael Wimberly, he’s a fantastic percussionist, travels around the world, produces documentaries on different instruments. I went to school with him years ago, and we’d wanted to do a project together. He’s worked with a lot of people. I called him up one day and said, Hey I want to do this project, and told him what kind of stuff I wanted. We talked about this for a year and he hand picked people that he knew that he thought would be perfect.

Houston Person

LE:Who’s on the CD?

LA: Well, on tenor sax was Houston Person. I’m just so honored that he was there. He comes from that Gene Ammons/Ben Webster kind of school.

LE: Smooth and big-toned.

LA: Yeah, so that worked out so perfectly. We have James Wideman on piano. He’s worked with Joe Lovano, and Kevin Mahogany and lots of folks. A gentleman named Onaje Allen Gumbs, (also on piano) whose name is maybe not as familiar to people, but he’s played with Buster Williams, Betty Carter, Nat Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Woody Shaw – lots of folks. A Sweet sweet sound. Leon Dorsey has played bass with Dizzy, and Jon Hendricks and lots of folks. Steve Williams was Shirley Horns drummer for 25 years. Another nice sweet sound. Then we have Nioka Workman on cello, that’s Reggie Workman’s daughter. She’s doing all kinds of things with India.Arie and Kanye West. We have Marvin Sewell on guitar. He plays with Cassandra Wilson, David Sanborn, and he’s got his own thing going. And Michael Wimberly does percussion.

LE: You said you had some ideas on the kind of music you wanted to record. What did that involve?

LA: I thought about tunes that I really loved. I have such a broad number of influences, from Joni Mitchell, to Pete Seeger, the Isley Brothers. I was influenced by so many different sounds. So I chose some contemporary tunes – I was really into the Jazz Fusion era – I’ve got Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and a George Duke tune, “Love Reborn,” that Flora Purim did with him, but I’m doing it in a totally different way. Then I’ve got some swing, one of which is my uncle’s tune, “Close Your Eyes.” I did some ballads, “If You Could See Me Now,” and “The Nearness of You,” one of my signature tunes, and “Nature Boy.” And then I’ve got some Brazilian, which I love. It’s in final production, packaging, and all that right now.

LE: It will be released sometime this summer?

LA: Hopefully, hopefully. Fingers crossed. (laughs) Lot of factors are involved.

LE: Who is in your working quintet when you play in the Twin Cities?

LA: Dean Brewington is on sax. He knew my uncle. Dean was my very first friend here. I moved here 14 years ago from NYC. We actually ran into each other in a parking lot. We hit our cars – ran into each other (laughs) At Groth’s music store. (more laughter) So thank you Groth. Then I’ve got Tim Zorne on drums, and a young pianist, Ted Goddbout, a fine young pianist. We have Ben Kelly on bass, who will not be with us tonight, so we’ll have Jim Chenoweth – a lot of people know him.

LE: You mentioned playing in Europe a lot. How do the audiences there react?

LA: As I said, there I’m specializing in early classic blues – Bessie Smith, Georgia White, and Helen Humes…  Europeans still have a love and appreciation for that music that goes beyond belief. They remember that and come up to me, often in tears and recount stories about the first time they heard Albert and during the war when they heard this and that, and where they were when they first heard it and how much they appreciate my being there. I’m so grateful that I’m there to receive this for him! Somehow it’s out there and transmitted to him what he’s done to touch so many people.


Mickey Murray – Soul Journeyman

February 4, 2012

Mickey Murray on stage at the Cedar Cultural Center. Photo by Ben Clark

In some ways, the story is familiar. A promising artist is signed to a major label, but the label is sold, or the signing agent leaves the label, or another act’s hit overshadows the new act, leaving the act without a champion or the support of the label. The promising act gets sidelined, goes back home, and either retires, or continues as a journeyman artist.

Mickey Murray’s story has some of that narrative, but it is also unique. Murray had already had a million-selling hit, Shout Bamalama, a song written and originally recorded by Otis Redding in his pre-Stax years. Murray was then signed to King Records, which was looking for an artist to bolster their lineup since James Brown was about to leave.

It was 1968. Soul music had captured the hearts and feet of American teenagers, and quite a few adults. Murray’s dynamic performance of Shout Bamalama resulted in him opening for Aretha Franklin, performing at the Apollo, and touring with Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, and others. It also made him a contender for keeping King Records on the charts. He signed with them in 1969 and recorded the album, People Are Together.

The title song was to be the first single, released in 1970. When the song was taken around to taste-making black disc jockeys around the country, they wouldn’t play it. The lyrics, “Take a pinch of white man, wrap him up in black man,” were too provocative for the time. Deejays were afraid of being fired by the white owners of their stations.

King Records was sold shortly thereafter. The new owners lost interest. Too bad. The album is a solid performance of funky music, occasionally lightened by the smile in Murray’s voice. Murray’s rasping voice and the album’s solid arrangements simply epitomize Southern Soul.

With no backing from the label, Murray accepted his fate. He returned to his hometown (North Augusta) and continued to perform. The album eventually achieved legendary status among soul music fans, going for hundreds of dollars on Ebay.

Then the crate-digging owners of the Minneapolis indie record company Secret Stash got involved. Their specialty is limited-edition vinyl releases of forgotten gems, many from other countries, and a few funk ‘n soul numbers from the United States.

In January they re-issued the album in vinyl, their specialty, and brought Murray, who is now 73, out of retirement to perform at the Cedar Cultural Center. Backed by a six-piece band, which included Secret Stash owners Eric Foss on drums, and Cory Wong on guitar, Murray performed with passion, vigor, and excitement. Murray would often take some unexpected turns as he got into each song, repeating words or phrases, to create tension and release, and calling for solos from the band. It was classic soul. His enthusiasm and energy was contagious, to the delight of the audience, many of whom weren’t born when he recorded.

Mickey Murray backstage with a fan - DeeJay Father Time . Photo by Ben Clark

Afterwards, he regaled fans and friends with stories of being on the road. I had a chance to talk with him in the Cedar’s green room. Still excited over the performance and his reception, Murray’s words tumbled out and around as he humbly talked about his background and his involvement with Secret Stash.

LE:  When did you first realize that music was going to be an important part of your life?

MM:  Music has been in my life ever since I can remember. Me and my brother Clarence started out in grammar school singing gospel music. Then we started singing around Augusta, and North Augusta. Then every summer when we’d get out of school, when I was in high school, our manager would go down to Brunswick, Georgia, and set up a house for the summer for us. And we’d work out in the different rural areas like Saint Palmas Island, Jacobs Island, Jacksonville, Florida, Saint Augustine, Florida. Come out through Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. Every summer.

LE:  How old were you when you were doing that?

MM:  I was in high school, so I’d say I was fifteen, yeah.

LE:  When did you switch from singing gospel music to more secular music?

MM:  In 19…  59. Mr. Raymond Dean, the band teacher at Jefferson High School took an interest in me. He had a band that was practicing…  School was out for the summer, and he would take a band down there two or three times a week, and practice them. And he liked me and he’d come by and pick me up, and take me down there and practice me up. Since I’d been singing gospel, I didn’t know nothin’ about these type songs. I didn’t know how to set the tempo, I didn’t know how to do this, do that. He explained everything. And then one day, he told me, he said he had a man (ed note: Sam Gantt) interested in me, and he told me he wanted me to come down to school at night and go through my little routine, and I saw this man in the corner. And when I got through doin’ my thing, he begged for me to come over, and when I went over, he didn’t even introduce himself to me. He said, “You wanna sing with a band?” and I said, “Yeah.” From there I went with the Zippers band.

LE:  The Zippers?

MM:  Yeah. They’re the band that played behind me on Shout Bamalama.

LE:  When you went with the Zippers, did you tour with them for a while?

MM:  Oh! I went with the Zippers in ‘59, and by ‘60, ‘61, they had us on Broadway. We was on Broadway, for.. Really I don’t know because I was so young, time didn’t matter. I didn’t keep close check on it. I know that we was up there for a while at the Times Square Hotel.

LE:  You were playing at that hotel?

MM:  Yeah, and then from there, me and my band, during the football season, we’d play at after-parties at Georgia Tech, Emery, all down through Alabama, Tuskegee, all the time. And then we’d play all the military bases at least once a month. Then we’d play at Fort Gordon. When we was in town we’d play that every Wednesday night.

LE:  And were you actually from Augusta?

MM:  I’m from North Augusta. See, North Augusta and Augusta are back to back. Augusta’s in Georgia, and North Augusta is in South Carolina. James Brown would call it Georgialina.

LE:  How did the opportunity to record come about?

MM:  Oh, from Miss Carter. I think her name was Mary Carter (Ed note: it was Blanche Carter). She wrote a record before I come along… a big hit, Devil or Angel. I’m not sure of the group, I think it was the Moonglows.

LE:  I believe it was the Clovers.

MM:  The Clovers. Yeah, yeah. My manager took me to her house to audition and she liked me. She told my manager Sam that she wanted to take us to Macon Georgia, and introduce us to Bobby Smith. Bobby Smith is the one that I believe produced Otis Redding in the beginning, a long time ago. She took me up there to introduce me to Bobby Smith, and ah, I did an audition for him, because she had a song that she wanted me to do. When we got to the audition, Bobby Smith told my manager and told her that he didn’t have nothin’ for me at this time. But he would be getting back in touch with Miss Carter later on.

Later on, I don’t know how long it was, I don’t know a week, month, a year, cause I was young, and not keepin’ up with time. Anyway, one day my manager called me and said, “Bobby wants me to bring you to Jacksonville, Florida – you and the Zippers, and he wants you to cut a record.” I got down there and he had Shout Bamalama. I told him I didn’t like Shout Bamalama, and I wasn’t gonna record it. (laughs) We got to talkin’ back and forth and I said, “Well my drummer, that’s his song. Let him sing it. That’s what he sings every night.” Smith said, “I don’t want him to sing it, I want you to sing it.” So, I wouldn’t agree with him, and he told my manager, “Talk to him, talk to him, talk to him.” Sam took me out, and we walked up and down the sidewalk, and everything, and I come to an agreement to do it. And I said, “Well I don’t even know the song,” and they went and wrote the lyrics on a blackboard. I ended up reading them off the blackboard.

LE:  So you had a big hit. You traveled around, opened for a bunch of folks, and then King Records wanted you. What label was Shout Bamalama on?

MM:  SS International – Shelby Singleton’s label.

LE:  After you did the record for King, and couldn’t get it played, what did you do?

MM:  Forgot about it. I didn’t really hold no grudge, or hard feeling toward King, the recording company, cause I would have done the same thing if I couldn’t sell the product and couldn’t get nobody to take it or present the product. There wasn’t nothin’ for them to do but back away from it.

LE:  Did you continue to perform?

MM:  Oh, hell yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

LE:  Did you try to get any other record contracts?

MM:  Well, I cut a couple of things, you’all got it up here too. I did a thing with a friend of mine John Peterson. We produced the thing together, in Nashville Tennessee. Then in ’88, me and Tony Cook, a drummer for James Brown, did Teenapopper, for London. I did Marvelous for London. I got a couple of other things… Ahhh, I did Full Speed Ahead for London. I got a couple of other things.. Sometimes I forget.  Another song is It’s Too Hot in Here. That was by James Brown’s bongo player. I did it with Tony and we did pretty good with it.

LE:  You said earlier that you hadn’t been performing for a while.

MM:  I got into the church. That’s a good thing. And I started singing in the choir. I sing at weddings, birthday parties, family reunions. I do that every now and then, but I don’t put on a show. At a birthday party I might go up there and sing a couple of songs, you know. Sing a song here and later on sing another song. But that’s about it. I ain’t been out there like I did tonight back to my old thing.

LE:  What did you think when Secret Stash contacted you?

MM:  I told them no, I wasn’t interested. I told them I was retired, enjoying myself. I love working in my yard. I love working in my little garden. I love going to church, and I love fussin’ with my wife (laughs). I told them I’m really satisfied. I just wanna keep my wife happy and I came home, and I’m used to her and enjoying her and wasn’t interested. But he (Eric Foss) kept on calling, and then he started sounding convincing. At first I said I got tired of messing with a bunch of crooks (laughs), but then he convinced me that he was straight. Then Will (Gilbert) started calling and started talking with me, and it become like a family thing and we became real close. They started calling every day and I looked forward to them calling and enjoying it. I told my wife, “I don’t know why but I really do enjoy them. They seem like they’re some straight people, and I ain’t seen none. They’re the first straight ones I’d seen.”

On stage with Eric Foss & Cory Wong of Secret Stash Records. Photo by Ben Clark

LE:  It certainly seemed like you enjoyed yourself on stage tonight.

MM:  I really did, but I always enjoy performing. My thing is, when I perform, I put it in me, I feel it. When I sing it and I feel it, I know somebody else got to be feelin it. I put in all the energy and if I don’t feel it, I don’t expect for you to feel it. When I’m on stage, singing, and dancing, and doin’ my thing, and see people smilin’ and clappin’ their hands and pattin’ their feet…. Oh man, that’s my reward. I’m happy as I can be

LE:  Thank you very much for your time.

MM:  Thank you.


Johnny Otis, Godfather of Rhythm and Blues

January 24, 2012

The Blues Saloon Interview– September 9, 1984

Johnny Otis, the bandleader, singer, drummer, vibraphonist, songwriter, talent scout, producer, club owner, disc jockey, preacher and impresario passed away last week at the age of 90. He was rightfully called the “Godfather of Rhythm and Blues.”

He was born Johnny Veliotes in 1921,  the son of Greek immigrants. His father was a grocer in the black community of Berkeley, California, and as a teenager, Otis decided he’d rather be black. In a 1991 interview with the Sand Diego Union-Tribune he explained his decision, “When I got near teen age, I was so happy with my friends and the African-American culture that I couldn’t imagine not being part of it.”

Otis’s first hit was a 1946 big band version of Harlem Nocturne, a moody number featuring a film-noirish saxophone. Here’s a YouTube recording.

The drummer/vibist was a big fan of the Basie sound, but discovered, like so many other big band leaders, that the market wasn’t supporting sixteen piece bands after World War II. He pared down the band, added electric guitar, hired some singers, and became a leading proponent of a new type of music – rhythm and blues.

Along the way he discovered an amazing number of performers, often through talent shows at the Barrelhouse Club. Artists like the Robins (who morphed into The Coasters), Esther Phillips, Big Mama Thornton, Big Jay McNeely, Etta James (who also passed away last week), and others owe a large part of their careers to working with Otis.

Otis was also a songwriter, with a number of hits on the R&B charts of the early 50s, including Every Beat of My Heart, which was originally recorded by the Royals (who became the Midnighters), and was later recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips. His biggest hit was Willie and the Hand Jive the throbbing 1958 rock & roller. Here he is performing the tune on his TV show.

Otis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 as a producer and songwriter.

I was lucky enough to see Otis twice. The first time was at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in 1973, where his revue included Cleanhead Vinson and the great Joe Turner. Even from a far-off vantage point, his delight in showcasing the musicians was evident. In 1984, he brought the Johnny Otis Show to Wilebski’s Blues Saloon in Saint Paul, where I was able to get a short interview with him before doing my radio show later that night.

LE: How did you come up with the idea of presenting a revue, with a number of different acts?

An old poster, found on the blog Guitar Snob

JO: I was always impressed with the variety show method of presenting acts. That is like at the big Orpheum theater with a girl singer, and then a vocal group and a tumbling act. I liked that because of its variety. And then the minstrel shows had a lot of fun, and a lot of blues and a lot of boogie, and a lot of comedy. And when I got in a position, I got my first hit record, I said I’m gonna try that, cause I have a feeling that the public likes that, and I did it in a blues context, a blues jazz context.

LE:  That first hit, was that was Harlem Nocturne?

JO: Yeah

LE: Didn’t you have some of Count Basie’s people playing on the session?

JO: Basie was always paternal, and he knew how much I loved him and he always helped me. He gave me arrangements out of his book. He loaned me his men, like Preston (ed note: Preston Love, alto sax) and I were childhood buddies but he was playing with Basie at the time. Eli Robinson, the trombone player. Jimmy Rushing, the singer, he loaned them to me to make a record date. But you know I though all those elements were going to make me a hit, and they didn’t have a damn thing to do with it. It was Harlem Nocturne that made the hit.

LE: Wasn’t that was something that you had to pull out of the air, because you had extra time?

JO: You know, it was my first record date, and when we finished the three sides I had prepared I said, Hey, Rene (ed note: Otis Rene, label owner) we’re through and we have twenty whole minutes left. He said, “Wait a minute, what do ya mean.” I said we did three sides in quicker than four hours. He said, “No, it’s four sides in three hours, so hurry and get out there and do something else.” So we had that in the book, and we recorded it and it was just a happy accident.

LE: Your R&B revue has served as a proving ground for a lot of young artists and a lot of people who’ve become stars. How did you find the folks that you used in the revue?

JO: Oh, Little Esther (Phillips) I found in my back yard in Watts. I was the Chicken Man, and she used to come and help me catch chickens. One day we were laying under a tree sipping some lemonade, after she’d caught the chicken sfor me, and she started singing. It just shocked me, so I took her to my club, The Barrelhouse, that night, and she won first prize, and I wrote a song, we went to the studio and recorded it and she became a hit.

Etta James I found, my manager called me one afternoon. We were in San Francisco and he said there’s a girl down here wants to sing for you. I told him “Tell her to come tonight.” She grabbed the phone and said (imitating her), “I want to sing for you now.” She came up to the room with two other young ladies, and she sang and it was so pretty I took her home with me and we recorded Roll With Me Henry, it became Dance With Me Henry and was a great hit.

And then one afternoon in Detroit we did a talent show at the Paradise Theater, and during that show I found Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, and the Midnighters (See previous post for a Hank Ballard interview), and a lot of other marvelous acts, but you couldn’t record them all. Big Mama Thornton I found in Texas, and Ernestine Anderson I found in Los Angeles, and Linda Hopkins I found in Oakland, California. I, I remember them pretty well right now, because we’re about to do a big reunion, a Johnny Otis Reunion at the Monterrey Jazz Festival this month, on the fifteenth. I had all these people signed and sadly, Esther Phillips and Big Mama Thornton both passed away. They won’t be with us, but all the rest of the people will be there.

LE: So you’re just continuing the process of keeping the traditions alive and finding new talent.

JO: I was involuntarily retired for ten years, because the music died out. That is, the music will never die out. The demand, the commercial demand for it dried up. And then, about a year and a half ago, it got good again, so we all got together, and we’re all traveling, and I’m really thankful to be back in the game.

LE: I’m aware, personally, I’m a little bit younger, of three, rather four phases in your career, I guess now. One was the hit of Willie and the Hand Jive.

JO: 1958

LE: And then there was the record of the Monterrey Jazz Festival

JO: 1970 – fourteen years ago

LE: And then there was the series of albums that you’ve done with people such as Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan.

JO: Yeah, Louis Jordan, Cleanhead Vinson

LE: How did that come about?

JO: Well, I had a recording studio. I had just built a fine studio. In fact, Columbia built it for me, and I thought, “Look at my old partners, living here in LA, and nobody’s recording them.” So we made records and I’d supply them with records and they go out and sell them on their gigs. You know, records keep you alive, and it was thrilling for me to word with Cleanhead Vinson and all those great men.

LE: Well, it’s good to see you back recording again and on the road again.

JO: It’s good, I’ve got my son Shuggie Otis, and Nickey Otis with me, and Miles with the West Coast Drifters, and Preston Love and Charles Williams, and Barbara Morrison and Delmar Mighty Mouth Evans. We’re having some fun


Kelley Hunt – Born To Be A Musician

December 12, 2011

Phone Interview – November 30, 2011

Sing Out, Sister

Kelley Hunt is a piano player from Kansas City who has been gaining fans the hard way, through touring. Her piano playing is out of boogie woogie by way of rhythm and blues, with a touch of blues bravado. Her singing is charged with the fervor of gospel (a nod to her gospel singing grandmother), and more than a match to her ferocious piano playing. As a songwriter, Hunt eschews victimhood and addresses social issues, the need for independence and being true to one’s calling. She has earned praise from daily papers and musician’s mags, and has been on Prairie Home Companion a number of times. All in all, the combination of her talents has helped her build a strong fan base in the Twin Cities, where she’s been a regular visitor for the last few years.

Hunt was in town recently to play at The Dakota Jazz Club, her second appearance there in as many years. As a prelude to her appearance, she kept busy calling the blues-oriented program hosts at KFAI. Though I normally host a jazz show, I happened to be subbing for Harold Tremblay, a long time Hunt supporter, on his House Party show, and was fortunate to talk with her. This is a slightly edited version of that talk.

LE: How are you doing this afternoon?

KH:  I’m doing really well. I’m happy to be on the planet, looking forward to coming to Minneapolis, and really enjoying my day.

LE:  You’ve developed a large fan base here in the Twin Cities. I would bet the KFAI phone number is on your speed dial.

KH:  (Laughs). Fortunately, for me. I love KFAI. You guys play such cool, eclectic, interesting music, and I’m honored you play my music. I really appreciate that.

LE:  Well, we’re excited that you’re coming to town and are going to be at the Dakota this coming Friday and Saturday. I’m sure you’re planning a great show for us.

KH:  I sure am. I’m flying my whole band in from LA and Nashville. We had such a great time last time, we could hardly wait to get back. It’s perfect timing for me. I’m excited to be there.

LE:  Before we get into the new album, just to give folks a bit of your background, what was the earliest memories of music for you, especially those that got you interested in a career in music?

KH:  Well my earliest memory of music is hearing my mother’s voice. Besides the fact that my mom used to be a singer at one point in her life, she sang to us a lot when we were kids. I mean, this woman can sing. It wasn’t just humming little tunes.

The hub of Kansas City Jazz Photo by Diallo French

The other thing was, all of the music that my parents and my older brother and sister played in the house.Everything from Kansas City Jazz to blues, to New Orleans music, which is part of my family heritage, to things that my siblings brought home. – Motown, Howlin’ Wolf, great songwriters, Bob Dylan, juicy stuff like Ray Charles… I just was steeped in that from the moment I hit the planet.

LE:  And at what point did you decide that this was something you were going to do for a living, as a profession?

KH:  I feel as though I was born a musician. There was never a time in my memory, as far back as I can remember, when I was really little, that I wasn’t drawn to music, that I wasn’t singing. I started playing piano by ear when I was three. And I started composing my own little songs when I was in kindergarten. It was never a question in my mind. I felt like that’s who I showed up as. It brings me so much joy, and always has that I was fortunate to live in an environment where I was supported in that train of thought.

LE:  What a blessing.

KH:  Completely

The New CD

LE:  Over the course of your last few albums you have become more and more focused on your songwriting. In the new one, Gravity Loves You, you talked about the idea that whatever direction people feel pulled in, that’s what they should do. That sounds a little like what you’ve experienced.

KH:  It’s exactly… It’s exactly what I’ve experienced, and I think that all of us have that pull. It’s just a matter of being aware of it, and also, taking that leap of faith, and jumping into what makes your heart beat the wildest. I think you’re absolutely right. It’s part of who I am, but I think it’s part of who we all are, really.

LE:  It seems that sometimes society puts barriers in the way of jumping towards the things that give us the most passion.

KH:  it can, it can. I think we have to be brave, and we have to be very strong in our convictions, and be able to focus on what it is we want, and to make the best life for ourselves that we can because, I don’t know about you, but I really love to see someone who’s passionate about the way they spend their time, whether they’re a doctor, or a sculptor, or someone who plays music on the radio. I mean it just lifts me up as a human being to witness that in someone else, and I think everybody benefits when we’re living out dreams.

LE:  Certainly, the way you’re living your dream comes out in the joy of your performance. Let’s talk a bit about Gravity Loves You. This one, as you’ve done with a number of your CDs is recorded in analog, not digital.

KH:  Correct. There’s really only one CD that wasn’t done completely in analog, and that was the live CD, Inspiration, that came out in 2000. I’ve always been drawn to that sound, using two inch tape. Not only warmth in the sound of it, but the immediacy of the performance. I love live performance, and when I go into the studio to record, I love to have all my musicians there at the same time. As much as possible, and play that song together, and feel it, and feel the pulse of it. I sit at a piano and I sing at the same time, while I’m playing, because I think that gets to the root of the song. For me, I’m certainly not against recording digitally, and I think it makes a lot of sense when it’s appropriate to do so, but I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to tape. I just like the kind of delicious, rich quality – the sound quality of it. I’ve done both and I think good music is good music no matter how you record it, but I’m so happy that I’ve had the opportunity to do that.

LE:  What can we expect from your show this weekend?

Like an enthusiastic audience

KH:  Well, you can expect that my full band will be there, and we’ll be playing songs, no only off of Gravity Loves You, but some selected songs off of the previous four CDs. The thing that I most love about playing Minneapolis are the audiences is they’re such great music audiences, you know what I mean, and it kind of brings us to life as performers. I mean, we’re going to be there 110% no matter what, but it just gives us that extra layer of… chocolate (chuckles). Jump up there and really go all out for people. They can expect, hopefully, a great time and the goal is for people to leave feeling great – better than when they got there.

LE:  Sounds like it’s going to be great fun. I know you have many fans here. Harold often gets requests for your music when he’s doing his show – even when you’re not in town

KH:   That’s wonderful, I’m thrilled

LE:  It’s so terrific that you support KFAI and recognize the passion that everyone has. It’s a mutual admiration society. Thank you so very much for calling in.

KH:  Thanks so much. Thanks to your listeners, and thanks to KFAI.


Mary Louise Knutson

November 27, 2011

Performing a song from In the Bubble. Photo by Howard Gitelson

Pianist Mary Louise Knutson has been a staple of the Twin Cities jazz scene for almost two decades. Her melodic soloing and her rhythmic sensibilities have led to her performing with quite a few visiting artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby McFerrin, Nicolas Payton, Diane Reeves, and Doc Severinsen. She’s also played for shows by artists like Smokey Robinson, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), and  Trisha Yearwood.

When she isn’t performing with visiting artists, Knutson works with a number of Twin Cities groups including the JazzMN Orchestra and vocalists such as Connie Evingson and Debbie Duncan. She also  leads her own trio, with the seamless rhythm section of Gordon Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums. It is this configuration which drives her new CD, In the Bubble, though drummers Greg Schutte and Craig O’Hara step in for a few tunes.  The CD contains Knutson originals as well as standards. The result is a swinging affair, with moods that range from meditative to joyous, all buoyed by Knutson’s warm, soulful touch. This is an album that will undoubtedly receive airplay on stations throughout the nation. Ms Knutson stopped by Rhythm and Grooves on Saturday, November 19, 2011 to talk about upcoming CD release parties at The Artists’ Quarter in Saint Paul and the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. This is a slightly edited version of our interview.

LE:     I want to welcome to the KFAI Studio Mary Louise Knutson. How are you today?

MLK:  Great Larry, I’m just getting up though. (laughs)

LE:     Is that musician’s time?

MLK:  Oh yeah. Absolutely

LE:     You have a brand new album out called In the Bubble. You notice I’m calling it an album and not a CD.

MLK:  Oh, I do. I like the way that sounds.

LE:      You’ve been around a bit, but people don’t necessarily find out about your background unless they go to your website. Give us a little bit of your background, and when you came to the Twin Cities, that sort of thing.

MLK:  Okay. Well… I actually grew up being a classical pianist. I started playing piano when I was four, and took lessons all the way through college. I got a degree in classical music. While I was at college I was exposed to jazz, and really started liking it and got involved in some of the jazz ensembles. I didn’t know how to play it at all, but at that level they usually give you written-out music anyway.  So I could read it and play in a big band or other groups, and by the end of college I knew I wanted to be a jazz pianist.

LE:     What was it about jazz that intrigued you so much?

MLK:  Just the feel of it. I could feel something. Being able to play with my friends also was a factor.  Here’s something we could do together. I guess in the classical world, we could play quartets or I could accompany people or whatever. We could do that there, but I don’t know. There was just a sort of fun energy about it (jazz) that I appreciated. I loved the voicing’s on the piano, the rich harmonies and the rhythms – all that. So I knew I wanted to be a jazz pianist and after I graduated I thought I’m just going to sit down and study this music. That’s what I did. I moved to Minneapolis. At that point I was going to school at Lawrence University in Appleton Wisconsin and I moved to Minneapolis. Didn’t know anyone here. I just found an apartment and had a little keyboard and started practicing. I knew at some point I needed to start going to jam sessions. I mean… it was hard. I was totally new at it. It was frightening to improvise. But I’ve worked at it over the years and I should know a little bit about it by now. (laughs) Twenty years I’ve been playing jazz.

LE:     You’ve also shown talent at composition and have gotten awards for your writing. Is that something you studied separately? Did it come out of what you learned as a classical pianist? How did that come about?

MLK:  Well, let me mention a great teacher of mine, Chris Granias. Chris is actually a teacher here in the Twin Cities, at the Perpich Center for the Arts, but I grew up in Wisconsin, and he was there teaching. He taught me and he was the first one to ask me to try composing. He gave me an assignment and he came back and was very supportive. He opened that possibility in me, and then from there I took a couple of composition and arranging classes at college, and really enjoy exploring what is in me and what I have to say. It’s an enjoyable act to work on compositions.

LE:    How did this album come about?

MLK:  Well, I produced a CD (Call Me When You Get There) ten years ago, almost to the date. That was my first CD as a leader with my trio. It’s been ten years. It was time. I’ve worked on a lot of other people’s projects in the meantime, but I really wanted to get back to composing again, and just sort of documenting where I am now. It’s been a while so it really is mostly about that – wanting to document and wanting to share something with people that they could take home with them.

LE:    The first track on the CD is “It Could Happen to You,” a Jimmy Van Huesen tune that you’ve arranged with a couple of significant tempo changes. Gordy Johnson is on bass and Phil Hey is on drums. Was it fun to work out your arrangement?

MLK:  It sure was. That arrangement I always think of as a Ray Brown Trio arrangement. I just love the way he used to arrange all his tunes. I was very influenced by that and that was what I was thinking when arranging that tune

Mary Louise Knutson, Gordy Johnson, and Phil Hey at the Artists' Quarter, Saint Paul. Photo by Howard Gitelson

LE:     You’ve had the opportunity to play with many visiting artists as well as almost all the artists in town, and you’ve done some touring. What happens when you play with a visiting artist? What do you take out of that?

MLK:  The biggest thing I think is the energy that they play with. That inspires me. I watch them walk on stage. That’s one thing – how they carry themselves. Often these are national, international stars. They have a way of carrying themselves and then when they perform you can feel their energy. I pay attention to that and think, if that’s where I want to be, what do I have to do to step up my game to match that. If I’m playing with them, I want to bring my energy up to that level, or do that on a consistent basis from now on. I love that about playing with national artists. I learn a lot.

LE:     Do you find it difficult to match that energy?

MLK:  Usually, they’re very gracious. I’m thinking back to a time years ago when I studied with Kenny Werner, just a lesson or two, and I remember standing behind him. The energy he played with, the volume he played with – not just that you want to play loud – he was just playing with his whole being. That inspired me. I thought, oh, that’s the level of energy or emotion that you need to put out when you’re playing. It sort of gave me permission to let more of myself out. And so when I play with national artists, they’re giving a lot of their own energy, and I’m reminded to do that. Every time I play with them it’s just: put it all out there on the table.

LE:     You were talking about visiting artists. Will you be playing with someone who’s coming in soon?

MLK:  I’ ll be playing with Doc Severinsen, coming up Friday the 9th of December, and Sunday the 11th of December at Orchestra Hall. He actually asked me to go on tour with him this last summer, but the tour never materialized, so I didn’t get to go.

LE:     But that was great that you were asked.

MLK:  Yeah, what a treat.

LE:     One of your original compositions on the new CD is “Can You Hear Me Now.” What’s the inspiration for this one?

MLK:  Well, there is a little story behind this. One time when I was trying to compose some new music, I was really stuck. I was sitting at the piano for days and weeks and nothing was coming to me, and I decided to use a sort of composing trick that I swore I never would use. It’s where you assign numbers to the pitches.  Take a scale, and the first step of the scale is number one, then number two, three four, all the way up the scale. Then you take a series of numbers, like your social security number, or your phone number, and see if those numbers make a melody. So, I was desperate, and took my cell phone number, and tried to see if it made a melody, and it did. I worked with it for a while, and am really happy with the tune that came out of it. I titled it “Can You Hear Me Now” after the ad. I was glad to use it and to get out of my rut. It does work sometimes.

Cover of the New CD

LE:     How long did it take you to put this album (In the Bubble) together?

MLK:  I started composing and arranging for it about five years ago. With a full time job as a musician, there’s a lot to do. People might not think that, but it’s busy. You’re always practicing and rehearsing for other people’s shows and stuff. So I was trying to squeeze in composing and arranging. I kept saying, oh, I’ll have an album out. I’ll have an album out next year. It just kept going on and on. It felt like it took a long time. It did take a long time to put it together.

LE:     Once you got into the studio, did that go fairly quickly?

MLK:  I actually recorded about eight of the tunes in 2009 and didn’t like any of them. So I scrapped them all and went back in 2010. I tweaked some of the arrangements, and practiced some of the soloing. I had something else in mind, so I came back and redid everything and it came back much better this time.  Although I have to say I did use some of the tracks from the original recording. After having some time away from them I actually liked hearing them. (laughs)

LE:     We’re always our own worst critics, aren’t we?

MLK:  It’s true.

LE:     Thank you so very much for coming by. This has been delightful.

MLK:  Thank you very much.


Pat Mallinger, Saxophonist, Educator

November 20, 2011

Pat Mallinger at Home

Pat Mallinger is a multi-reed virtuoso who is very active in Chicago, playing in various configurations around town and leading the late-night house band at the Green Mill.  In 2000, he and his quartet played the 25th North Sea Jazz Festival in The Netherlands and released a recording of the concert as Moorean Moon.

Mallinger is originally from St. Paul and returns once or twice a year, when he usually plays a gig at the Artists’ Quarter. In July of 2010 he was in town to promote his third CD, Dragon Fish (Chicago Sessions, 2009), an elegant musical conversation between Mallinger and pianist Dan Trudell. He stopped by Rhythm and Grooves on Saturday, July 3rd. We played some cuts off the new album and talked. This is a lightly edited version of that interview, and was originally published in Pamela Espeland’s fine blog, Bebopified. At that time I did not have my own blog.

Now, in November of 2011 he has a new album with his quartet, Home On Richmond, recorded live at the Green Mill. Since he will return to the Artists’ Quarter Friday and Saturday November 25 and 26, I thought I would publish the interview from 2010 here.

LE: You grew up in Saint Paul.
PM: Indeed, I grew up in West Saint Paul and I went to Sibley High School and before that to Grass Junior High, which had a reputation for a fine jazz program.

LE: Was it in junior high that you decided you wanted to become a jazz musician?
PM: Yeah, it was kind of funny. It was about 7th grade. Exactly 7th grade.  I remember I wanted to be a dentist for about a minute, and then the bug hit me and I quickly decided I would switch from being a dentist to being a jazz musician.

LE: You went on to school at North Texas?
PM: Actually, I went to the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire for a year and then transferred down to Denton for North Texas State.

LE: They have a wonderful jazz program there.
PM: At the time, it was the second largest jazz program in the country. It still is pretty large.

LE: You’ve had a career that’s taken you around the world, literally. Sometimes on ships, I understand.
PM: Exactly. Right after school, I jumped on a ship for about a year and played with some great musicians. I went to Boston after that and was with a bunch of friends. They were on the ships together, so we kind of formed a group together and jammed everyday. For about four years I jumped on the Artie Shaw band and the Woody Herman Orchestra and went the road awhile and then moved to Chicago. So I’ve been in Chicago almost 20 years. This November (2010) will be my 20-year anniversary of being in Chicago.

LE: You’re very active in the Chicago scene, with a weekly gig at the Green Mill leading Sabretooth.
PM: Sabretooth has been there for 17 1/2 years. In fact, someone was asking if Sabretooth was taking a break. I said no, Sabretooth doesn’t take a break. In the 17 years we’ve been doing this, we’ve been there each and every Saturday night. We start the late shift at midnight and go to a quarter to 5. 12:30 til quarter to five.

LE: So you sleep in on Sundays.
PM: If I can. My family is pretty helpful with that.

LE: You have a new recording out. It’s a wonderful recording that’s really a duo with Dan Trudell.
PM: I met Dan in my second year at North Texas. He came from Wisconsin as well. Ironically, we were born a day apart, hence the title of the CD, Dragon Fish. Dragon coming from the Chinese calendar for 1964, and Fish because we’re both Pisces. That’s where we got the name.

LE: How did you come to compose and record the CD?
PM: Chicago Sessions, a relatively new label out of Chicago, approached me about a year ago.  Their mission is to record local artists and original music. They asked what I’d like to do, and I thought for a minute about my quartet with Billy Carrothers. I thought there would be some logistic issues with that, so I asked what they thought about a duo recording. I had recently done a couple of duo performances with Dan and a couple of people put that in my ear. They thought it would be a good idea. When I mentioned it to Nick Ipers of Chicago Sessions, he was thrilled with the idea. I call Dan and Dan thought it was a good idea as well, and so Dragon Fish was born.

LE: The idea was to do original music. You came up with some. Did Dan come up with ideas as well?
PM: There are two tunes that Dan and I co-wrote.  “Adventures” is one of the tunes we co-wrote specifically for the album. It’s our tongue-in-cheek rock tune. [Laughs.] If there can be such as thing as a rock tune done as a piano/sax duo.

LE: The way you interact is so seamless, it’s obvious you have been playing together for a long time.
PM: Really continuous since college, North Texas, where we first met in 1984.

LE: How did you go about composing Dragon Fish?
PM: Well, I can pretty much trace all or most of my compositions to, funny enough, airline flights. When I’m flying—I don’t know if it’s the altitude, or if it’s just being contained in one spot for a certain time with nothing to do—I bring a little manuscript sheet with me that fits in my pocket so I can scribble ideas while I’m in-flight. These ideas ultimately turn into tunes. Dragon Fish is one of them.

LE: When you went into the studio, what happened then?
PM: At Chicago Sessions, they want to record new material. When I talked to Dan about tunes, I basically went through my most recent compositions. The ones that haven’t been recorded. Most of these have been written in the last year. So I gave Dan the tunes and he really shedded these tunes for a good month. We got together a few times to rehearse. He put in a lot of time into learning the tunes. I’ve been told they’re not easy tunes to learn. [Laughs.] I can attest to that because I have to improvise over them.

LE: What do you think it is it about your writing that makes them difficult? Are you just attracted to particular chords or particular progressions?
PM: Yeah, that’s probably correct. Maybe my chord choices, or the progressions. It’s hard to say exactly. The tunes don’t seem too difficult to me when I’m at the piano and working out the chords as I finish them up from my notes from the plane. But when you get on the bandstand or we’re rehearsing them, navigating through the chord changes, that’s when I become aware, these aren’t easy tunes.

LE: Do you approach things differently at that time? Does the meter or tempo change?
PM: Not too much. I’m not a huge fan of big meter changes or hard things to navigate when you’re playing melodies.

LE: Do you sometimes wonder what it would be like to play something slow at a faster tempo or vice versa?
PM: On occasion, but most of the time what I come up with on a flight is what I think in my head is what the tempo and feel should be. When I wrote “Just Give It a Chance,” I had in mind a Jobim feel for it. I’m not sure if that’s the way it came out.

LE: You play tenor, alto, and soprano saxes, as well as flute. What are the differences in playing each of the instruments you use?
PM: I approach them differently. I’ve got my influences on tenor, Coltrane and such. Alto, I’ve been influenced by Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker and such. So I approach each instrument slightly differently.

LE: Does the physical difference of each instrument make for differences in fingering?
PM: It does. Each has its own idiosyncracies. That’s probably why a lot of saxophone players prefer to play one or the other. I began as an alto player and picked up tenor in college. Really didn’t play the alto for awhile, but then brought it back into my life. The soprano snuck in there somewhere in college.

LE: Let’s talk about another aspect of your musical life, the Ravinia Jazz Mentor Program.
PM: I’ve been involved with the Ravinia Jazz Mentor program for 17 years now, about as long as I’ve been at the Green Mill. Ravinia started this great program and I was on board since its inception. It was created by Ramsey Lewis. The tradition of jazz education has been imparted through mentorship. For me there was no exception. I was mentored by Brian Grivna here in town, and Eddie Berger was a mentor of mine. Of course, there was my uncle Tommy Bauer, who played with Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. So, this mentorship program has meant a lot to Chicago public school students. Right now we’re involved in 19 Chicago public high schools.

LE: How does it work?
PM: Basically, we have a mentor on each instrument. Bobby Broom is our guitar mentor, Willie Pickens is our piano mentor. We go into each school and we give performances, clinics, and workshops to each school.  There are two separate aspects to it. We have the scholar program, where we pick the best students out of auditions in October, and rehearse twice a week with them. It’s like a mini jazz camp. Then, at the end of the year, we perform at Ravinia in June with them, and have a big picnic on the lawn. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ravinia has a big festival on the North Shore of Chicago. We also bring the scholars to jazz camp. We’re going to the Jamey Aebersold jazz camp, so we’ll be bringing them to Kentucky in a couple of weeks.

The other aspect of the program is our in-school visits ,where we give our workshops and reach as many kids as possible and try to teach the about jazz and the love of music.

LE: That sounds like a terrific program, and it’s impressive it’s been going on for so many years.
PM: It’s great that Ravinia continues to support it.

LE: Thank you very much for coming in.
PM: Thank you and your audience.


Anthony Gourdine, aka Little Anthony

November 18, 2011

Interview conducted Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cover of The Imperials' First Album

Little Anthony and the Imperials were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. The group (Anthony Gourdine, lead vocals; Clarence Collins, baritone and founder of the group; Ernest Wright, tenor, writer; and Sammy Stain, tenor) were inducted based on their string of hits over twelve years, at least one of which, Goin’ Out of My Head, has become a 20th Century standard.

Little Anthony was first in a group called The Duponts, and was recruited by Clarence Collins to be the The Chesters (the original name of The Imperials). The Imperials first gained national attention during the summer of 1958, when Tears On My Pillow took over the airwaves. There wasn’t much air-conditioning then, and you couldn’t walk down a street in the Bronx, where I grew up, without hearing Anthony’s plaintive voice coming off the radio and hi-fis in homes and businesses. The song was a hit throughout the nation, and they appeared on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show.  It was obvious that these Brooklyn-born singers were a few cuts above all the other young singing groups that were one-hit wonders. In fact, Two People In The World, the B-side of Tears, was also a hit.

They soon were part of national touring packages and featured performers for the Alan Freed extravaganzas and Murray the K’s Revues at the Brooklyn Paramount and Brooklyn Fox. In 1960 they had a million seller with a nonsensical dance tune called Shimmy Shimmy KoKo Bop, a song Anthony dislikes to this day, but happily sings. As the sixties came on, many young groups disappeared, but Anthony & the Imperials signed on with Teddy Randazzo and had a string of hits, including Hurt So Bad, On the Outside Looking In and the aforementioned Goin’ Out of My Head.

Anthony and the Imperials went their separate ways in the early 70s, only to reunite in 1990 for an oldies show. They had so much fun that they’ve continued performing ever since. Four years ago Stain retired, and was replaced by Robert LeBlanc, a veteran back-up singer for folks such as Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, among others.

The four appeared at The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis last June, and asked for an opportunity to come back, which the owner was happy to oblige. Their show is professionally done. In addition to their hits, they performed a Philly-style new song called You’ll Never Know, as well as Kiss, by Prince, Sting’s I’ll Be Watching You, and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The songs and skits reveal the groups versatility, and it’s obvious that these older gentlemen (Anthony is 70) have found a fountain of youth in performing. He can still hit the high notes, and with some power, though he may not hold them as long as he did 50 years ago. The harmonies (and occasional lead vocals) provided by the Imperials are spot-on.

Having fun on stage at The Dakota. Photo by Brian Gately

When the opportunity to have an on-air phone interview with Anthony presented itself, Pete Lee, host of Bop Street on KFAI, asked that I do the interview while he handled the engineering. Pete provides a wonderful mix of older music on his show, with special love for vocal group harmony, and I was happy to participate. It was an easy interview. Obviously, with over 50 years of experience, Anthony has done many interviews and has much to say. I’d ask a question and then have to get out of the way. I’ve edited this slightly for clarity.

LE: Welcome to Minnesota. We’re pleased to have you back. It was so much fun last time. You and the Imperials seem to have a lot of fun on stage.

AG: We do. We’ve been doin’ it for 54 years. Almost 54. Collectively, Clarence, Ernest, and myself have over 150 years of experience

LE: When you started out, what was it that inspired you to be a singer?

AG: I was born to be a singer. That’s a godly gift. I didn’t wake up one day and say I’m going to sing, though people do that. In my case, my mother and my aunts tell me stories that as a little boy  - 3 years old – I used to sing all the time. My mother was a gospel singer and my father was a jazz musician, who played alto and tenor sax. My brothers are all talented. And my great grandfather was known as a great singer and my other grandfather was a singer. So it was genes. Genetic.

LE: Okay. Were you performing before you got into high school?

AG: Absolutely. I was doing off-Broadway shows as a child. Legitimate theater.

LE: Wow!

AG: People don’t know that. I’m going to write this book. We’ve got publishers to put it out. So it will be about who I really am. Not who you perceive that I am, but who I really am, and where I came from. Yes, I was in the theater as a young boy. Then I was in different singing groups. You know how kids are today, even the rap guys are like that, they find other guys that can rap and they run around and do that too. So it was no different. It was something that you did all the time. The good part about it was it kept me out of trouble. (chuckles)

LE: You and your buddies weren’t getting into trouble?

AG: Somewhat. Just slightly. It could have been worse (laughs)

LE: Well sure. You grew up in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, wasn’t it?

AG: Yeah, with all the different gangs and stuff, but the one thing that really would give you a pass everywhere you’d go was if you could sing. Nobody would bother you.

LE: I suppose it helped attract young women as well.

AG: Absolutely, especially in the summertime, when we loved to go to the parks, and sing on the benches at night. It was where all the kids were hanging out. You know, it’s hot, summer; they’re out of school so they stay out at the park late. And they’d look for different groups that may have been in the area to come and sing. It would be like a battle of the groups. You want to see which group gets the most applause, which the people liked the most.

LE: You were in The Chesters, and had a little bit of a hit on the East Coast on Apollo Records.

AG: Yeah, The Fires Burn No More. In fact, I have to tell the audience that the Chesters were really the Imperials. The record company (End Records) changed our name.

LE: That was with Richard Barrett

AG: Yeah. When we went with Richard Barrett in ’58. They didn’t change my name. As legend goes, Alan Freed, well the record promoters brought in the record Tears On My Pillow, and they played it for him, to get it played on the radio, and he said, “Who’s that girl? Wow that’s really great.”  And they said, “That’s not a girl, that’s a guy.” Freed asked “What’s his name.” They told him Anthony Gourdine, so he started saying Little Anthony.

LE: I have to admit, that the very first time I heard Tears on My Pillow I was wondering the same thing. Your voice is so high and clear, and so full of heartache it’s no wonder it became such a huge, huge hit for you.

AG: You know. Teddy Randazzo was really the highlight of my career. He wrote from his heart, from what he was experiencing in his relationships. He once told me “You’re going to be my voice.” He was really a well-known singer at that time. He used to be with a group called The Chuckles. They were very popular, like The Four Lads.

LE: How did you know Teddy?

AG: I met him in 1956. I was with a group called The Duponts, and they needed an opening act. It just so happened that the people promoting that show with Alan Freed were our managers. They got us on the show as an opening act and that’s where I met Teddy. He was on the same show.

LE: Obviously at that time in New York City, if you wanted a hit, he was the guy to go to.

AG: He was the guy to go to in the United States of America. (laughs)

LE: That’s true. He had shows that came out here to the Twin Cities too.

AG: He actually started in Cleveland, and he was known then as Moondog, but some cat sued him because he said his name was Moondog.

LE: Yeah, a street character who created classical music.

AG: Yeah, anyway Freed changed (his radio show) and changed it to The Big Beat

LE: You and the Imperials were one of the few groups that were able to transition between the vocal group harmony of the 50s – what’s become known as doo-wop – and soul music of the 60s. How did you work that out?

AG: Let me correct something. I do it a lot, because I was there. Doo-wop. There was no such thing. Nobody knew what doo-wop was called. Doo-wop came from a disc jockey in New York in 1973. He was trying to describe whatever style it was. And really, he was basically talking about groups like The Elegants, The Duprees, groups like Dion and the Belmonts. They were singing a whole different style than the black groups were. We were singing R&B, street corner music.

LE: I recall thinking of it as rhythm and blues back in those days.

AG: Yeah, it really was rhythm and blues. We didn’t know what a doo-wop was. But what happened, they broad stroked everything, with a broad brush. “We’ll call it Doo-wop.” Because that’s the way they heard it. But really, you’ve got groups like The Flamingos, with I Only Have Eyes for You, that’s doo-wop? The Moonglows with Most of All, and Sincerely. I don’t think so.

LE: What I’m trying to figure out. How did you go from the rhythm and blues of the 50s to the rhythm and blues of the 60s, which was beginning to be called soul music?

AG: Each Imperial was very talented in and of himself. Clarence (Collins) played piano. He was an organizer, a group guy, knew harmonies, and has perfect pitch. Ernest (Wright) was singing with the Fresh Air Club, one of the biggest choirs in New York. So they had talent. I again, was working off-Broadway shows as a boy. So we didn’t walk in like kids off the street and didn’t know what we were doing. We knew exactly what we were doing.

LE: Okay.

AG: And we were always surrounded by great people. The great Otis Blackwell, who wrote a lot of Elvis Presley’s hits – he was a neighbor. We used to go to his house and work on chords. Then we met other people in our lives that influenced us, plus, when we really got going as Little Anthony and the Imperials, we caught the tail end of the Chitlin’ Circuit, which was the last of vaudeville. So on that show were people like Redd Foxx, Flamingos, Little Willie John, and all these greats. You know what I mean? And you learn from watching them. We really were going to school. I would stand in the wings and watch, and see how they did it, and what they did. They would give us advice, so we were way ahead of that gang that came out at that time.

Even the kids then knew we were just a bit different than them, you know? We were starting to sing four-part modern harmony in 1960 – the Hi-Los, the Four Freshmen, and stuff like that. In fact, Otis, of the Temptation, told me, “Man we heard you and had to go back into the shed.” We really weren’t the same as everybody else. Our music was different. Our intonation was different.

Here’s one of the things I always say in an interview. We knew that we could not stay recording stars forever. We had to make a transition into becoming performing stars. Once we learned the art of show business, the art of entering and exiting, and all the things you need to know, plus the fact that I was acting, so I had a lot of experience in that area, it’s a very natural thing to do what we do. I think people are sometimes startled. They think you’re just the same like all other groups – doo doppa doo doppa doo – no. Man, I’m getting ready to sing a Michel Legrand tune. I’m working on that. If you’ve seen our show, you can’t really define it. We don’t know either. (laughs)

Three of the original Imperials - Ernest Wright, "Little" Anthony Gourdine, Clarence Collins

LE: What I do know is that you’re having a good time on stage.

AG: Oh, we do.

LE: It’s obvious that the three of you have been together for a long time, and you know each other very well, and enjoy each other’s jokes even now. That’s terrific.

AG: Yeah, it’s all show business, and shtick. It’s kind of been lost. I’ve been told my many artists today – we did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the reunion thing at Madison Square Garden last year – one of the things they all said, was “you inspired us by how versatile you are.”

LE: You mentioned playing Madison Square Garden. Most of the time you’re playing larger halls, so this date is unusual. I know you play Feinstein’s in New York and here at the Dakota so this is an unusual date.

AG: Yeah, we got into the Dakota when the owner, Lowell read a New York Times review and said he’d never seen reviews that good, especially from the guy that wrote it, so he was curious. Now, we’re starting to get offers around the country, because to play a jazz club, usually its jazz singers or something close. So it’s an honor. There’s not that many places like the Dakota anymore. Only a few now, when there were so many of them. It’s an honor. It’s also a challenge because we’re used to traveling with 13 pieces. We don’t have the horns, we don’t have that big stuff, and it puts you in a situation of let’s see what you can do now.

A scene from The Jeffersons episode in which Anthony appeared. Is that him in the background?

LE: I’d like to find out more about your acting career, but that can wait until another time.

AG: Well, you know, it’ll probably be in the book. I did lots of stuff. The only guy that ever found out about that was Eddie Levert of the O’Jays. He happened to be watching TV one day and saw the Jeffersons and I was on there. I was wearing a mustache, the whole bit, and you couldn’t really tell. I talked with a much deeper voice, and my acting experience comes out. He said he made a bet, with Marvin Gaye or somebody who said (using a deep voice) “Oh man, that wasn’t him.”  (laughs)

LE: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. We want to let you prepare for tonight’s show.

AG: We had a lot of fun last time. Thanks a lot.


Fred Wesley, A Short Conversation

November 7, 2011

Fred Gets Ready to Blow. Image from his website.

Fred Wesley is best known as the former trombonist, composer, and musical director for James Brown during one of Brown’s most fertile periods, 1968 – 1975. He then arranged and played for Parliament – Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band before joining the Count Basie Orchestra for a time. Now he leads his own band, the New JBs, and is a key player in Abraham, Inc., a klezmer-funk band. He also guests on numerous recordings, teaches, and has written a biography entitled “Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman.” We had a short phone conversation on September 24, 2011, a couple of days before his appearance in the Twin Cities with a band celebrating the music of Lionel Hampton.

LE: How did you get into music? What did you do before you got into the James Brown band?

FW: Oh, well, I was just a road musician. I played with Ike & Tina Turner, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters (see also the R&G interview). I was in the Army, and had my own band for a while, and then I joined James Brown.

LE: That was obviously a career-turning moment for you. Had you decided to be a full-time professional musician before then?

FW: I always intended to be a musician. I led my own band, and it broke up. The army broke up my band. They kept drafting my musicians and sending them to Viet Nam. So I had to find a job. The James Brown gig came along and I took it. It was supposed to be temporary, but it turned out to be a long time.

LE: What impact did that have on you as a musician?

FW: Well, as a musician I played some new music. James Brown was an innovative musician and he got us to play some things I hadn’t played before. With Ike & Tina Turner and Hank Ballard  & the Midnigters it was a different kind of R&B. I found it interesting. We disagreed on certain points and I left him. I left him in 1970. I came back in ’71 with my mind made up that I would do whatever he said and try to figure out what he was doing.

LE: Once you finally left James Brown, you played with the Parliament-Funkadelic group and then joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Had jazz been something that interested you all along?

FW: Oh yeah, yeah, I was planning to be a jazz musician. The band I had before I joined James, we played a lot of jazz. It was supposed to be a jazz band, with a little funk thrown in, you know, but James Brown changed all of that. When I joined Count Basie’s band, it was an opportunity for me to play with a great musician, so I played with Count Basie as long as I could.

LE: That was an entirely different kind of approach to music. Did you have to adjust, or was it an easy change for you?

FW: It was hard for me to go back to playing jazz. I had played some jazz in a big band in the army, but it had been some time, and was quite a challenge for me. For a long time I had the longest hair in the band, I wore boots and stuff, because I was coming straight out of Bootsy’s band.

LE: How did the opportunity for this current show come about, the show celebrating Lionel Hampton?

FW: Jason Franklin is a friend of mine and he offered me an opportunity to play with some great musicians, Diane Schuur, Jason Marsalis, and Red Holloway. I really jumped at the opportunity to play with these musicians.

LE: What is it you’re discovering about the music of Lionel Hampton and your own playing in this context?

FW: Lionel Hampton was a great vibes player, which I’ve known for a while, but Jason Marsalis is mimicking him very well. He can play very well too. Red Holloway is a great musician, it’s just a pleasure to be able to play with these musicians.

LE: We look forward to seeing you Monday and Tuesday night at the Dakota.

FW: All right. Thank you. Bye bye.


George Duke

August 9, 2011

A Genial Talent

 

From the George Duke Website

George Duke is a genial, talented multi-instrumentalist who specializes in keyboards. He made a name for himself playing jazz fusion with Jean-Luc Ponty, and went on to play with Cannonball Adderley and Frank Zappa before going solo in the mid-seventies. He has practiced his talents across a variety of genres, finding success in R&B, Jazz, and pop, collaborated with a who’s who of recording artists, including  Stanley Clarke, with whom he had a number one single (“Sweet Baby”), and has had his work sampled by Hip-Hop artists. He’s scored TV and films, including The Five Heartbeats, and produced and composed two tracks for Miles Davis. Duke has collaborated with Brazilian artists such as Milton Nascimento, Flora Purim, and Airto Moreira and has also been a musical director for a number of specials and tribute shows.

Duke played at the Minnesota Zoo music series with Marcus Miller and David Sanborn on August 5th, 2011.  During their funk filled performance, Duke used his humor to good effect. Singing a ballad about losing his baby, he pretended to cry, which the audience lapped up, and Duke milked for all it was worth. Then, for a closer, his voice was electronically altered to achieve a Darth Vader effect, as he introduced the George Clinton-esque “Dukey Stick” and walked through the crowd with his portable keyboard (a key-tar?). I talked with Duke by phone the morning of July 30, 2011 during my radio show. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

LE:  Good Morning, Mr. Duke, are you there?

GD: Absolutely, I’m here.

 LE:  Terrific. Glad to have you. We’re looking forward to this Friday’s show, which features you, and Marcus Miller, and David Sanborn. I’m just amazed at all you do, and the energy you have and what you’ve been able to accomplish since, what is it, about 1967 or 68 when you first started.

GD: Well, you’re trying to date me now. (laughs)

LE:  Well, I can remember that era myself

GD: I go back a little bit. Yeah, you’re definitely in the right area.

LE:  What was your first musical memory?

GD: Oh my God. Well, actually the first was probably the strongest. My mom took me to see Duke Ellington, and that kind of messed me up. Long and short of it is I never heard any music like that. I’d never seen anyone like that. I never heard a band that sounded like that. And I was only four years old.

LE:  Wow.

GD: Yeah, it was a mess. (chuckles)

LE:  So you took up piano, and played some in church and eventually had your own little group. What intrigued me as I’ve learned about your career is that apparently you heard a recording of Jean-Luc Ponty, and he was coming to town and you decided you were the only guy worthwhile playing with him. What was it about his music that intrigued you?

GD: First of all, it was very experimental for the time, and there was a station called KJAZZ in the Bay area – I grew up in San Francisco Bay area – that used to play his records all the time, and so I got a chance to experience that and I was like, Man! When this guy was coming to town, I just instinctively knew that I was the right person to play with him, because I understood what he was trying to do musically. And so I, well, there wasn’t e-mail at that time, so I sent a reel-to-reel tape – not even a cassette, they weren’t around – I sent a tape down to this producer (Note: Dick Bock of World Pacific Records) on the off-chance that he might give me a shot, and he did. He didn’t have to, because I was an unknown quantity at that time.

LE:  And so you had somewhat of a groundbreaking album with him. What did you learn from Jean-Luc Ponty?

GD: Well, basically it was a real shared kind of thing, because we were trying to do progressive music – as simple as that. What I learned was that it was possible to be your self and make a living. I wasn’t sure at that time whether I could make a living doing music. I was playing at a club in San Francisco and had been there for about three years, starting about 1965. I was playing at a place called the Half-Note Club with Al Jarreau, neither one of us knowing whether we could make a living doing that. When I got the gig, somebody who didn’t know who I was kind of called me up and said, “I’m going to give you a shot at playing in my band and we’re going to go to Europe and blah blah blah,” and Wow, maybe I can make a living doing this.

LE:  And you certainly have. I’m just amazed at all the projects you’ve been involved with, and the number of people you’ve been involved with – everybody from Barry Manilow, to Diane Reeves, to your current compatriots Dave Sanborn and Marcus Miller and the music direction you’ve done. One of the other things that intrigues me was that after being with Jean-Luc Ponty you were with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.  How did that come about?

GD: Actually, through Jean-Luc. Jean-Luc’s producer had an idea, and to make a long story short, we ended up playing a rock club. We did an album there, a place called Thee Experience in Los Angeles. It’s no longer there. And because Jean-Luc was playing a unique, electric violin thing, all the musicians came, because he had made his name, and there weren’t a lot of progressive violinists at the time. Matter of fact I don’t think there were any. He was probably it, and was playing modern jazz. He played music that was kind of close to what Miles Davis was doing at the time. And so Frank Zappa came, Quincy Jones was there, a lot of people. And so I just happened to be there and we did a record called King Kong, an album came out of that. So that’s how I got with Frank Zappa. He heard me playing on that album and eventually called my mom looking for me and found me.

LE:  That must have been a somewhat unique experience in your life.

GD: Oh yeah. That was definitely a turning point in my life and in my career. Frank brought out a lot of things in me that might not have ever been brought out. In terms of humor… in terms of playing electronic instruments… singing. All of that. He just told me basically I needed to loosen up and allow my talent to go wherever it will.

LE:  What a great thing to hear. Let’s fast forward through all the things you’ve done, production, solo work, Grammy nominations. Now, you’re touring with Marcus Miller and David Sanborn. What are you doing with this group that you haven’t done with anybody else?

GD: First of all, the simple answer is we’ve never done this before. This is something which came about in January. A very new idea. I was kind of brought into it late because David and Marcus had already decided they were going to do a tour, and wanted to add a third element. I was hanging around and the word got to me and I said sure, I’m interested and they said great. That sounds like an interesting package. I think the thing that’s interesting is that the more we play together, the more we’re gonna become a band and sound like we create our own thing. We thought about the idea of doing an album, before we did this tour. This is like the third leg of the tour, that we’re embarking on next week. So we’ve already been playing and we’re beginning to develop a band sound, which is really interesting. I would love to see where we go when we do make an album. I think this can continue.

LE:  What have you discovered about playing together so far?

It's all happening at the zoo.

GD: Interestingly enough, I’m not playing as much keyboards where I’m sitting down as I normally do, because there’s a second keyboard player, and there’s no guitarist. So I wind up playing, many times, guitar parts, and I’m wearing the instrument I wear around my neck. I kind of walk around the stage, and I’m having a good time. That’s one thing. It allows me a different focus, because normally I just play a couple of tunes on this thing, not like when I was thirty years old and playing this instrument all the time. I kind of stopped doing that and only do it once a night. Now I’m back on stage playing it half the show.

LE:  Okay.

GD: That’s one thing that’s different. And playing Marcus’s music and David’s music, it’s just interesting because we sound different playing together than they do with their own bands or me with my band. It’s a different level of intensity because you have three musicians on stage who are of equal level of competence and we challenge each other in a good way, so the music reaches another level. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

LE:  You mention there’s a second keyboard player. I assume there’s a drummer as well?

GD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

LE:  Anybody else with you? Vocalists or anybody?

GD: Nope. I’m the only one singing right now.

LE:  Well you’ve a long history of singing and it’s turned out well for you. In coming together did you say, “we want to do a particular kind of music” or is there a philosophy behind this, or is the philosophy “let’s get together and have some fun.”

GD: That’s part of it. The latter. First of all, we didn’t know what this was going to be. Until we actually got on stage and played we didn’t know what this was going to be. There were really no preconceived notions, though we did talk about it. We thought we’d let the experience dictate where we should go. Right now, we’re not really doing any new music. We’re doing music from our catalogs, our respective catalogs. But we’re doing different arrangements on them because of the personnel involved. So it is different because the three of us are out there headlining it. Obviously we can’t play the greatest hits of all of us because we’ve all been around too long.

LE:  Not enough time.

GD: Not enough time to do it all and do it justice. But we hit all the major points that we can, and we’re just having a good time. It’s something that may not ever happen again, but hopefully it will.

LE:  Before I let you go, I do want to go back to your early career. Early on you were a sideman for a couple of Flora Purim and Airto Moreira albums, and you did a Brazilian album. Do you still play Brazilian influenced music?

GD: Oh, absolutely. Even in this show. I bring a couple of my tunes which are more oriented that way. Yeah, that’s played a big part in my career and in my musical world, the Brazilian sound. And of course Cannonball Adderley was a big part of that because I was in his band for a few years. He encouraged me to do that and was actually the first one to take me to Brazil, as part of his band. So yeah, Flora Purim and Airto are good friends of mine. As a matter of fact, my son is in a band with their kid.

LE:  Wow.

GD: Yeah, it continues.

LE:  The circle is complete.

GD:  Yeah, (laughs)

LE:  Well, thank you so very much.

GD: Bye bye.

 


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