You have been ambitious as both a recording artist and a live performer. I’m betting that you haven’t taken 17 months off from performing EVER since you were a teenager. How has the last 17 months made you think anew about the meaning of playing in front of people? Has it also changed the “meaning” of sitting down to make a record of improvised performance?
You’re right about how unique this time has been, this period right now is easily the most civilian life I have had since Junior High School. And it makes me understand why people like civilian life.
The main headline for me in it all is that everyone in my immediate family stayed healthy throughout. It has been a huge blow, however, for the community at large at every level. I especially worry about the younger guys who are just getting going, as well as the folks who work in venues, crew people, club-owners, and so forth who continue to struggle. We are not out of this yet by any means.
In a bunch of ways, staying in a room for ten or 12 hours a day (mostly) by myself working on music in whatever form it happens to take is just about my favorite thing to do anyway, whether anyone ever hears it or not, and that has continued, maybe even gotten more focused, during this period.
I get up very early every day between 4:00 and 5:00 am. I have three kids, so those hours before 7:00 am are really valuable as a chunk of truly uninterrupted grazing time. Plus, for whatever reason, right after I wake up I can get to things from a different angle than I can later in the day. So I have maintained that schedule during this whole period. My thing sometimes is that I can’t wait to go to bed because I can’t wait to wake up.
I have been able to play a lot of gigs over the years, and I feel really lucky about that, and I will always like playing with good musicians. I always try to play every gig like it is the last time I will ever play. I didn’t realize that last March in Auckland, New Zealand was the last time I played a gig. We are going to try to do a tour now—I hope it works.
Having your music played by other folks, musicians you influenced, has to hold special meaning. I interviewed John Pizzarelli about his solo/acoustic recording of your tunes—I know you were involved and approved. But talk about your reaction to hearing those compositions played back at you by a guitarist who—though roughly from your generation—really comes from a different place, stylistically. And how might THAT relate to hearing James Francies or Linda May Han Oh or Joe Dyson interpret your music?
It was so cool that John did that. He’s great. It is always so gratifying to me to have really good musicians take an in-depth look at the thing by playing a tune or two, let alone a whole record.
It is really interesting that there are a couple of generations of musicians around now that have become the players that they are with a musical diet that has a bit of my stuff mixed in with all of their other interests. That gives them a truly organic relationship to how this music can be played. When I first started being a bandleader, it was hard for me to find people who could stylistically do a bunch of the things I wanted to get to. Now there are lots of folks who really understand that way of playing.
One ongoing and notable thing in this department; it is pretty easy for me to find folks who can play really complicated music—I am sure right now with 20 miles of where I am sitting I could find dozens of young players who could play a tricky chart on “I Hear a Rhapsody” in 15/8 that modulates to all 12 keys and no one other than the cats in the band would know where the one was.
On the other hand, it is very, very difficult for me to find people who can play really simple and make every note count. Finding folks to hire who can do both is the hardest thing to find. And that is what this gig requires.
Sort of unrelated but maybe not: It has been a season, for many of us, of thinking about Joni Mitchell—another musician who obliterates boundaries. Your tour and recording with her remain impossible to forget and it pains me now to realize that Don Alias, Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Lyle Mays are all no longer with us. What lessons did you learn from her, from them, from that experience that linger and grow larger over time?
That was an interesting experience for sure on a bunch of levels. It was a real culture shock for me. Literally, I was still at the stage of things where it was me and a few other guys about my age driving around and putting tens of thousands of miles on a van playing every gig I could possibly get for us, to suddenly being in a Lear jet (actually two of them) with someone who was an actual rock star and where the trappings of all that went far beyond anything I could even imagine. I wasn’t really into that aspect of the whole thing.
Musically, to me the best part of the evening was when she just played by herself. She seemed most at home doing that, probably because that was the kind of playing she had done the most often up until then. That was the period where Mike Brecker and I became really tight, and very shortly after that, we did 80/81 which was a real turning point in a bunch of ways, especially for Mike.
People often ask me about Joni, and also David Bowie, since I was able to work with them both and they are both so well known to so many people. And they are both incredible musical spirits, I feel so lucky for those opportunities. But from my perspective, I got to play with Billy Higgins and Dewey Redman a lot. There are a few musicians who I was able to play with even in Kansas City that no one probably would have ever heard of who were some of the best musicians I have ever known, to this day. And Herbie. And Chick and McCoy. Elvin [Jones]. Ron Carter. Charlie Haden was my best friend in life. Jaco Pastorius made his first recordings with me back in the day. Steve Swallow. Gary Burton. Kenny Garrett, and Josh Redman. I could go on and on.
When I think about all of those people, it is just a whole other level of that kind of deep understanding of music I mentioned before. And across years and years of time, I have always believed that good notes have a way of sticking around in ways that go far beyond the hit parade.
I often tell younger folks, most of the people who will really check your thing out are not on the planet yet—they’ve yet to be born. It all takes a while.
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