Posted on

Straight No Chaser – Podcast: A Conversation with Brandon Wright

It’s a treat to hear a musician coming into his own. A few listens to Journeyman, the second CD release from Brandon Wright, gives you a chance to hear a saxophonist  who has the verve and fire to become a major player. His debut CD, Boiling Point,featured his tenor sax alongside trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. Two years later, he’s the sole front man in a quartet with David Kikoski (piano); Boris Kozlov (bass); and Donald Edwards (drums).

The New Jersey native has been a solid contributor and soloist with the Mingus Big Band, as well as ensembles led by Chico O’Farrill, Doc Severinson, Chuck Mangione, and Max Weinberg.

Journeyman is a mix of Wright originals and inventive covers, including tunes from the soundtrack of The Muppets Take Manhattan and by rock bands Oasis and Pearl Jam. The veteran pianist Kikoski, who played with Wright in the Mingus Big Band, helps hold together the band, which gives as good as it gets from Wright’s driving sax.

I spoke with Brandon the day Journeyman was released, and his enthusiasm for the band, the record and his future are clear from our conversation. Click here to listen to our discussion, including musical selections:

Brandon Wright – “Walk of Shame” from Journeyman. A slice of funk (Wright often gigs with James Brown/P-Funk legend Fred Wesley) that allows drummer Edwards to set the tone right off the top.

Mingus Big Band – “New Now Know How” from Live at the Jazz Standard. Both bassist Kozlov and pianist Kikoski took home Grammy Awards for this New Year’s Eve 2009 recording. Kikoski shares solos with Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton on this Charles Mingus tune.

Brandon Wright – “Better Man” from Journeyman. A teenager in the nineties, Wright has let that side show with covers of Stone Temple Pilots on Boiling Point, and Pearl Jam and Oasis on Journeyman. He takes a melodic approach to the tune, showing that there may soon be a whole new set of candidates for the position of contemporary classics in the modern jazz repertoire.

Abraham Inc. – Title Track from Tweet Tweet. Wright is a key player in this multicultural combo led by Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, funk legend Fred Wesley and rapper Socalled.  Guitarist Sheryl Bailey joins in on this track.

Posted on

Here’s an amazing interview with alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius….

The Jazz Session #362: Patrick Cornelius

Saxophonist Patrick Cornelius’s latest CD is Maybe Steps (Posi-Tone, 2011). In this interview, Cornelius talks about the new record as a continuation of his previous full-band writing, after a break for his trio record; why it’s important to him to tell stories during his live performances; his time in the artist diploma program at Juilliard; and the economics of jazz records. Learn more at and follow him on Twitter at @PCorneliusMusic.

Posted on

AAJ take five with Noah Haidu…

Meet Noah Haidu:
Pianist and composer Noah Haidu is evidence that 21st century jazz can be adventurous, fresh and swing hard; that an exciting, modern pianist can play memorable melodies and soulful grooves. His powerful new Posi- Tone Records CDSlipstream is garnering impressive reviews and radio play: write-ups in All About Jazz, JazzTimes, the Financial Times, Downbeat, and eight weeks in the top 50 national Jazzweek charts. Noah has also gained the attention of the jazz world through live appearances or recordings with heavyweights such as Mike Stern, Jeremy Pelt,Ambrose Akinmusire, Benny Golson, Jon Irabagon, Eddie Henderson, Billy Hart, Duane Eubanks, and Winard Harper.

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Noah was exposed early on to all kinds of music: classical, avant-garde, rock, and jazz. His high school years were spent in New Jersey and Los Angeles, where he was increasingly drawn to jazz and blues piano. His father, an avid music fan, took him to countless concerts, lessons, and band rehearsals and his first jazz shows. He moved to Brooklyn, New York and it wasn’t long before he was constantly performing.

Now one of New York’s leading young jazz pianists, Noah combines new rhythmic ideas, harmonic sophistication, spontaneity, soul, and swing into his own unique approach.


Teachers and/or influences?
Teachers: Kenny Barron, Barry Harris, David Hazeltine, Bruce Barth.

Influence: Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland, Wynton Kelly, Gene Harris.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when…
I got my first record as a kid, around seven years old. It was Thriller by Michael Jackson. I listened to it beginning to end every day after school. Couldn’t decide which was my favorite song. I liked it that much.

Your sound and approach to music:

I try to build from the soul and groove that really got me into music in the first place, the common ground where Blues and Jazz meet. That said, my music is Jazz from right now, not some other period. I believe in tight arrangements attractive melodies and improvisation that goes somewhere. The goal is take the audience into the music, forget their surroundings and feel something.

Your dream band:
At some point i would like to play with Jeff “Tain” Watts. As a fan of Kenny Kirkland’s I’ve listened to him on so many great recordings. His swing and forward momentum are amazing. I also have great respect for his composing, he is one of the few people now that actually have a sense of humor about their writing, that are both working on a high level but not taking themselves so seriously that they are afraid to have fun with the music.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

Renaissance by Branford Marsalis.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

I try to get outside of my own head with the music. It’s not just about playing the piano. When I play I do get lost in the music. But the way I do that is I connect with the musicians I’m playing with and the audience. I can’t enjoy performing without the audience and the band to inspire me. I use modern techniques as tools to add to a performance, not tricks to impress my musician friends.

Did you know…

Haidu is a common name in Hungary. Almost like Smith is in the United States.

CDs you are listening to now:

McCoy Tyner, The Real McCoy (Blue Note Records);
Joe Ford, Today’s Nights (Blue Moon);
Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert (ECM Records);
Mark Turner, Yam Yam (Criss Cross).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
I’ve talked about this a lot already. The music is healthy to my ear. But because there are many musicians competing for few gigs the camaraderie among the players has been somewhat eroded. It still exists, but it’s harder to come by then what I’ve heard about earlier generations.

What is in the near future?

The first thing is the Kitano performance in New York Thursday March 15, 2012. My trio, joined by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt who has a great feel for my music. Then the band will head to D.C. for a weekend gig at Twins Jazz, May 4-5. I’m excited to be playing new music, things I’ve been writing for my next CD. The record features my trio but will also have pieces for a larger group with several horns. There will be new compositions and also music by pop and jazz composers. Some of the “standards” will be tough to recognize because the arrangements really push the possibilities the song. I’m very excited about the project.

Also the group Native Soul that I have worked with for several years will be recording another CD in the next few months. This band has reached a new level on the bandstand recently. The fact that it’s a consistent quartet with the same members for over five years makes for a special groove and interaction on the bandstand.


Posted on

AAJ interviews Noah Haidu….

New York-based pianist Noah Haidu came to jazz through the blues, listening to the searing, soulful guitar moans of Buddy Guy and Albert King. But his training, at the age of six, had its advent in classical music. He also likes to experiment with electronics.

All these things go into the musical blender of one of the New York scene’s young piano talents; out of it comes Haidu’s open approach to the instrument—part in the jazz tradition and part willing to extend into other territories.

Haidu grew up in the 1980s, listening to a variety of music. He recalls when rock band The Police broke up and its renowned bassist, Sting, formed his own group, surrounding himself with jazz men including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, drummer Omar Hakimand bassist Darryl Jones to accent his unique sound and bring a sparkling edge to his rock/pop offerings.

“There were some jazz solos on those records. I heard the band play live and that caught my attention pretty well,” says Haidu. “I was hearing jazz, Branford Marsalis albums from the ’80s. Blues. I used to play guitar as well. I would go hear Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Albert Collins. The blues guys really caught my fancy, [but] I started getting more into jazz. Some of jazz pianists that have a blues attitude in their playing, like Gene Harris, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly—anything with a bluesy, soulful thing” attracted the young man’s attention.

“I always think that’s an interesting way to get into jazz. Blues. You follow bluesy jazz guys. When you get down to it, Charlie Parker is a bluesy bebop player. Sonny Stitt and Parker have a lot of blues in them. There’s a lot of continuity in that music for me.”

There’s also evidence of that continuity in Slipstream (Posi-Tone, 20101), Haidu’s first album as leader. It features an array of fine musicians like trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and drummer Willie Jones III. All the songs, save a quirky, catchy arrangement of “Just One of Those Things,” are penned by Haidu. It’s an album where the songs really lock into a sweet groove and the soloists are outstanding. A funky soulfulness invades the first cut, “Soulstep,” which has the delightful feel of a 1950s Blue Note recording. Meanwhile, “Break Tune” has an edgy, modern, funky feel with which Pelt, Irabagon and Haidu have plenty of fun. Pelt, one of the most superb trumpeters on the scene, blazes throughout the disk, while Haidu is rich and swinging.

“I wanted something that had melodies people could easily relate to,” said Haidu, who is already writing for his second record. “I’ve heard about people that have tunes a half-hour long with lots of over-the-top arrangements. I just tried to do something that has a sophistication and hipness to it, but with melodies and groove that people could relate to. That’s my approach to music. It can be as complex as you want, as long as people can get into it and it doesn’t push people away. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to understand it and enjoy it.

“There are influences on there, everything from ’70s R&B,” says the pianist, “a little bit of Earth, Wind & Fire on one of the tunes, to stuff that’s influenced by Kenny Kirkland, the pianist, that kind of goes a little beyond straight-ahead. There’s even a touch of some of the more jazzy hip-hop artists, like Me’Shell NdegeOcello. Subtle influences I work in from different places.” Swing, he admits, is also a big part of his style and it’s a sweet, swinging production.

The band he assembled, which operationally gets to play the music on gigs, consists largely of cats he met at New York City’s jam sessions over the years. He and Pelt were new on the scene when they started playing sessions at [New York club] Cleopatra’s Needle. He says of Pelt, “He’s one of the few people who understand how to play a melody. He can really get into the song both as an improviser—the feeling of the song—and also in the melody.” Haidu met Irabagon most recently at a gig he was called for. “Right from the rehearsal—the same kind of thing with Jeremy—[Irabagon] understood the tunes and the harmonies. It didn’t matter if it was a modern tune or if it had kind of a swinging, soulful attitude. He seemed to be able to bring all that together. He’s a cutting-edge improviser, I love hearing him play on my more modern tunes.”

Bassist Chris Haney is an old friend from Brooklyn, and Haidu employs two drummers—Jones andJohn Davis, the latter also a Cleopatra’s Needle cohort, as is Haney. He said he called Jones for his great swing. “Whatever it was, it was all going to have a great groove. He’d have all the arrangements down perfectly. He always brings a lot of fire.” Davis, on the other hand, “has a nice relaxed, swinging groove. He’s comfortable on both the soulful, swinging jazz attitude, and also the modern compositions, different harmonies and unusual forms. That’s his stuff, so he’s all over that. He has a good groove. I love his beat.”

Haidu says he’s already had his eye on the next recording project. “I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. I am envisioning what that session is going to be. I’m looking at things I’ve already written and seeing what would fit with the instrumentation I have in mind, with the players I have in mind, and what things do I need to write to fill in what I don’t have. It’s a process.”

Meanwhile, he’s been involved as a sideman over the years with the likes of bassist Curtis Lundy, trumpeter Duane Eubanks and drummer Winard Harper. He’s also part of a cooperative band Native Soul— which also had a 2011 release, Soul Step (Talking Drum Records)—with drummerSteve Johns, saxophonist Peter Brainin, and bassist Marcus McLaurine, playing music that draws from funk, swing, and Latin.

“It’s a pretty diverse music that we do,” Haidu says of Native Soul. “Everyone in the band writes tunes. Some of the tunes have a soulful, bluesy or gospel element. I play a little bit of Hammond organ and even some Fender Rhodes. Some of the tunes on that record also have some electric bass. They [the group] do a funky version of one of Jimi Hendrix’s tunes [‘Castles Made of Sand’]. There’s a tune, ‘Soulstep,’ that is on my CD, that ended up being the title track of the Native Soul CD. On my CD, it’s a quintet with acoustic piano. On the Native Soul thing, it’s a quartet. It’s got soprano sax, and Fender Rhodes. It has maybe a bit of a Herbie Hancock fusion kind of thing to it. … There’s a little bit more of the electric stuff in that band, although all the music works very well with acoustic stuff. It’s a little different attitude.”

He explains, “I do play around town with different groups playing electric keyboards. I’m still active in that genre,” but notes that electric piano is not really his instrument of choice right now. “It’s part of making a living,” he says lightheartedly. “If I didn’t have to make a living, I would have to decide whether I just wanted to focus on acoustic piano; I think there is a place for keyboards in jazz, [but] I’m not sure if I’m going to be one of the people that explores that—or not right now. But it’s a possibility.”

In that regard, Kirkland’s Kenny Kirkland (GRP 1991) had synthesizers on it, and Pelt’s electric band WiRED—last heard on Shock Value: Live at Smoke (MaxJazz 2007)—is something he enjoyed, and could influence his future explorations.

Haidu—whose piano influences run from one of his teachers, Kenny Barron, to McCoy Tyner, Hancock and Kirkland—comes from a family full of classical pianists. A native of Charlottesville, VA, he really did his growing up in New Jersey, where he took lessons from his grandmother (a classical player) at a young age. His mother and two aunts also played classical, and his uncle, Ian Hobson, performs all over the world at concerts and festivals. All that is on his mother’s side of the family.

But there was plenty of influence from his father as well. “He took me to a lot of jazz and blues concerts, things that I was interested in when I was younger. Rock. Everything.” As a teenager, he began to see that music would be his career path. “It’s not an easy thing as a teenager to convince your family that’s what you’re going to do,” says Haidu. “I felt pretty clear about it from a young age. I played piano and guitar. I used to work on both of them. It took a while to sort out which of them was going to be my main instrument.”

Out of high school, he went into the jazz program at Rutgers University, where piano, and also jazz, jumped into focus. He studied with Barron there.

“He didn’t show me a million technical things on the piano,” Haidu says of his teacher, “Just playing with him, I would really pick up on his musicality and his soulfulness and his phrasing. He’s the type of guy who can take a standard like ‘Darn That Dream’ and at any given time—you could call him up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Hey Kenny, it’s two in the morning, can you play ‘Darn That Dream,’ and he would probably play a masterpiece. It doesn’t matter where or when, what town. Every time he played it, it was incredible.”

He played jam sessions in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and even a little in New York City, while in school. “That kind of musicality seemed like something I couldn’t learn in school, so in a way, I think Kenny [Barron] was the catalyst for me quitting Rutgers,” he notes. “I took a little time off, investigating the scene in Philadelphia. I started getting a few gigs in Philly, but I noticed it was very hard to break into that scene. I ended up moving to New York. I wasn’t a very strong player at that time, but I knew I wanted to move to New York and be around the heart of the jazz community and start to make a living. That’s when I started playing the electric keyboards. That became mighty quickly what I was doing to survive.”

Playing jam sessions and other small gigs got his name around, and his buildup on the scene was gradual. “I still feel it’s building,” he says. “Over the years, I’m getting more and more busy and more in demand with certain people. The schedule filled up to the point where you’re running from gig to gig. Then people want to study with you [he teaches at the Brooklyn Conservatory]. I’m lucky with students and stuff.”

Meanwhile, Haidu has met and played with other rising musicians like trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Gregory Rivkin. “There’ve been a number of people that have called, who I’ve enjoyed working with.”

He’s not just checking out the younger cats, but learning from jazz icons as well. “Recently I got to go hear Keith Jarrett for the first time. I had never heard a concert at Carnegie Hall, and I went to hear him play solo. I was very taken by the music; it was one of the most musical concerts [I’ve ever seen]. There wasn’t a whole lot of ego going on. He just sat there and played music.

“One of the things I try to do with my own group, when I play music, is have a certain variety,” Haidu continues. “I don’t want to play a whole set of ballads, or a whole set of up-tempo. I want to do both. I want to do swinging stuff, modern stuff. As long as there’s feeling in it, I think it’s all there. Keith Jarrett was incredible because he did all of that, all by himself, at the piano. There were moments of gospel, moments of modern classical. There were standards. There were things that sounded like boogie woogie. He never played like anybody except himself. His own voice was there the entire time. It was a beautiful concert. That definitely had an impact.”

Haidu takes on the challenges of being a Big Apple-based jazz musician in trying times, and does so with a positive attitude. And it’s working for him; the cat can play his butt off. “Even though it’s difficult, there’re a lot of people playing. We can all check each other out and pick up things from each other. I’m happy about that. I think it’s a good time for jazz.”

“Even though there’s a million people and not enough gigs, I like all the different people who are playing and all the different influences right now. Brad Mehldau is on one end, then you have Keith Jarrett. Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis. There’s a great variety of approaches to the music and attitudes about the music. There’s a lot of good stuff going on, a lot of different stuff going on. I’m open to anything new. If it seems musical to me, I’m all for it.”

Posted on

AAJ interview with Nick Hempton….

“I like to chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets absurd; sometimes I’m quite happy with it. And sometimes I’ll spin some nonsense story, it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me. Sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time.”

The Business (Posi-Tone, 2011) is a milestone in the career of Nick Hempton. Since arriving in the USA from his native Australia in 2004, the 35-year-old saxophonist, composer, and bandleader has slowly but surely worked his way up the ladder of the notoriously competitive New York City jazz scene. Hempton’s second date as a leader is a testament to his talent, dedication, hard work, and to a willingness not to take himself too seriously. The disc is distinguished by an unusually cohesive band of strong-minded individuals, compositions by Hempton that sound genuinely original even as they stay within the broad confines of the jazz mainstream and, perhaps most importantly, his mature, assured voice as a soloist.

A Band Sound

All About Jazz: Congratulations on the release of The Business. It’s definitely a worthy successor to Nick Hempton Band (Self Produced, 2009), your first date as a leader.

Nick Hempton: I feel like it’s not an improvement but a development from the first record. I actually listened to the first album about a month or so ago. I’m happy with it. It still stands up. The band as a whole has developed over the last few years. And I think that the band sound is really what I’ve been going for.

AAJ: That’s one of impressive things about the new record. It really does have a band sound. These days, that’s something unique.

NH: There’s more and more of that happening. There are people putting bands together with the same guys. But I still think that it’s a relative rarity. I think that it’s very obvious—you can hear it straight away when a band’s been working together for a long time, as opposed to a pick-up group. In the old days they used to talk about keeping a band together. I think that’s a concept that really doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe in the ’50s you could tour enough with a band, and constantly work as a unit. Unless you’re someone like Branford Marsalis, you can’t do that. For most people, I think, that’s beyond us. Having the same guys working together once a month or so—that’s about as close as we can get.

AAJ: It’s really a shame that the economics work against it.

NH: Well, there are really a lot of factors as to why that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.

AAJ: There used to be a circuit—in this country, anyway—of clubs where bands could work on an ongoing basis. Certain bands would tour for six months a year. Louis Hayes used to tell me stories about working regularly with Horace Silver.

NH: I’ve heard those stories, too. That sounds like a dream to us now.

AAJ: Even though guys didn’t always love being on the road, at least they worked consistently and bands got tight that way. You can hear the results of it on their records.

NH: Horace Silver is a great example of that. He had the ideal working band sound, with the same guys working really hard for ages, touring a lot and making records. Those were some of the tightest bands ever, I think. That’s what we’re all aiming for. We all do what we can.

Working with a Producer

AAJ: How did you make the connection with Marc Free of Posi-Tone Records?

NH: I think I bugged Marc for a couple of years. When we made the first record—I put that out myself—I contacted him when I had the masters ready. We had a couple of meetings, and he liked it. But I guess it wasn’t the right time for either one of us. I called him after it came out, and it was reviewed quite well and was getting radio play. I got in touch and told him we were getting ready to do another one. And I guess he thought we were all ready to work together. It worked out really well.

AAJ: Describe the differences between working with a producer and an established record label as opposed to doing everything yourself.

NH: I would say that having a label has it pros and cons. I kind of got used to having complete control over the product. Having said that, Marc has been very good in working with me. There’s a lot of give-and-take in our working relationship. I don’t feel like decisions have been made that I’m not happy with. It’s been a very positive experience. It takes a lot of pressure off the band to have a producer who says, “This is what I want.” And then we have a discussion. The entire weight isn’t on my shoulders. It makes things easier. Also, it took a lot of pressure off of me in terms of putting out the entire record.

Adding the Tenor Saxophone

AAJ: Unlike your first record, in which you played the alto exclusively, there are a couple of tracks on The Business featuring your tenor saxophone. Was the tenor your first horn? Please comment on your decision to include the tenor on the new record.

NH: Alto was definitely my first horn. When I was living in Sydney, there were jazz gigs, but not as many as one hoped for. So we did things such as rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, and various other kinds of gigs. At that point, I played jazz on alto and rock ‘n’ roll on tenor. I would put the tenor into the jazz gigs now and again, but it was never really a focus. For the last few years, I felt like playing it more and more, and have put more work into it. It’s not equal to the alto or anything, but more and more I’m trying to get it in there. It’s been really interesting to me. I’m learning the differences between the two horns. Like I say, I’ve played both of them side by side for years, and now I’m working out the real intricacies of the two instruments, like tone production and technique. I’m hoping it’s going to change and develop.

AAJ: Based on the record’s two tenor tracks, the character of your improvising on the instrument is a little different than on alto. It’s kind of a nice change.

NH: It is a change. In fact, in the studio, Yotam Silberstein, who plays guitar with us—but doesn’t play with the band that often—says that from alto to tenor it sounded like two different guys. I’m kind of happy with that because I think that you have to treat them as two different instruments. Like, playing my alto licks on tenor just sounds like an alto player playing tenor. I’m working on getting a different vocabulary on both horns. Eventually the idea will be to meld some sort of style that works on both of them.

AAJ: Sonny Stitt’s playing on alto and tenor created very different sounds.

NH: He’s really the guy I look at for inspiration. I think he’s been my favorite saxophonist forever. Tone-wise, he’s the guy I copied on alto most of all. No so much on tenor because I must say that I like his alto playing better than his tenor playing. You’re right, I think he has quite different styles on the two of them. His tenor playing seems to go back to much older styles.

Stable Personnel

AAJ: With one exception, the personnel is the same on both records. You’ve managed to keep a band together for the past few years despite the challenges of finding steady work. What’s your secret?


From left: Dan Aran, Marco Panascia, Nick Hempton, Art Hirahara
NH: It’s not really keeping the guys together. As much as I’d like to have them on a salary like the old days, that’s not really the case. I think that we work often enough, but not too often. They’re always ready and looking forward to the next gig that comes along. They’re not getting bored with the material and taking some other gig instead of mine. Generally, the guys have a great time playing. That may be the secret behind it. That’s really what I want to bring to the bandstand—the band having a good time—because I think it will lead to the audience having a good time. I think that’s really it. The guys just enjoy doing it.

AAJ Please offer your impressions of the band and their contributions to The Business.

AAJ: I think that the reason the band works well together is because [bassist] Marco Panascia, [drummer] Dan Aran, and [pianist] Art Hirahara have different personalities. I was just lucky that it worked out that way when I put the band together. It’s wasn’t really scientific. I just found the guys that I liked the sound of. Marco is a great swinger. He loves nothing more than to swing at a medium tempo, laying down a solid groove. Art’s very adventurous. He likes to stretch out, and takes me in new directions. Dan has an extremely strong groove, and also takes inspirations from world music and other styles of music. He has really open ears. So he brings all styles of music to the band. Certainly, all three of them push me in directions I have never gone before, every time we play together.

So that’s certainly what keeps it interesting for me. I think that it’s possible to play with the same guys for years, and it would become boring, but I’ve never felt that way. Hopefully, that comes across on the record. Generally, that’s how I feel when we’re playing on stage—and even in that fairly uncomfortable studio setting.

AAJ: The studio is a rather sterile environment.

NH: It’s not made for great creativity. It’s fighting against that. But even in the studio I found that they were introducing new ideas and really pushing me to go in different directions, which is quite a talent on their part.
The Business

AAJ: What exactly does The Business refer to?

NH: Many different things. Obviously, the music business. It’s [also] an expression that we use in Australia and in England, which never really came across here. I can’t think of a version that you would be able to print. It actually means “the shit”—we’re laying something down, and this is the way it is.

AAJ:The real thing, or something like that.

NH: Exactly. That’s what I meant. I was aware it didn’t really mean that in this country. It means enough other things that it’s going to work on other levels as well. So we pushed a little bit with the record label. I think that Marc was a bit nervous about it. It was one the battles that I managed to win.

A Sense of Humor

AAJ: Your absurd sense of humor comes out in website posts, the liner notes of the first record, and some of the titles of your original compositions. Does humor surface in live shows as well?

NH: Well, I like to think so. Certainly, I like to have a chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets more absurd than others. Sometimes I’m quite happy with it. And sometimes I’ll spin some nonsense story, and it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me, which is ok. And sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time. I know that when I go to hear a performance, if it’s just song after song, it may be great, but I like the break and getting to know the performers—even if it’s not a description of the music exactly, just some kind of vocalization of what’s going on the stage.

AAJ: It makes the audience feel closer to the performer.

NH: Absolutely. And it comes naturally to me. I’m quite happy to pick up a microphone and just talk nonsense for awhile. There’s not much of that on the new record, sadly. There wasn’t the room for it. I quite enjoyed the liner notes on the first one, because I could do whatever I wanted. There was nobody telling me that there’s no place for this kind of nonsense on a CD jacket.

AAJ: The notes on the first record were a refreshing change from the serious, art-for-art’s-sake kind of stuff on most liners.

NH: I could have done that, but it didn’t really feel like me. I like to have a laugh at ourselves when we’re playing this music. We’re not changing the world. It’s jazz. We’re having a good time. You have to have a sense of humor about yourself and about your band mates and the type of music you’re playing. That’s kind of how I feel about it. I would feel strange to put out an album with deadly serious liner notes telling about how important that music was.

Consistency and Change

AAJ: On The Business, you’ve added Yotam Silberstein’s guitar on three tracks, and Art Hirahara plays electric piano on one track. Despite these changes in instrumentation, the band’s overall sound remains consistent and the record hangs together quite well as a whole. Even on a funky track like “Cold Spring Fever,” it still sounds like the Nick Hempton Band.

NH:That’s the best thing I could possibly hope for. I’m certainly glad you said that. I like to have a little bit of a change in there. The band is a quartet. Yotam has been part of the band from the beginning, at various times, especially if there’s the money for a quintet, or Art can’t make it. He’s always been part of the organization. I thought that dropping him in on three or four tracks would be a good idea, to just change things up a little bit. And with the electric piano, we’ve always done plenty of gigs where is no piano, which is never an ideal circumstance. So we kind of got used to this idea of the Rhodes sound in the band, and I wanted that sound on this record. And I wanted to have that with the guitar to sort of bring a whole new sound to the thing, but like you say, keeping the band together and a similar sound to the rest of it.

Do you remember a club in the East Village called Louis 649? The place is still there, but they don’t have music anymore. It was sort of an instrumental club for us. We used to play there every couple of weeks. It was a great club. No cover charge. The times we played, it was always packed. We did Friday nights there. The place had no piano, so we brought the keyboard along. I think that’s what really got the Rhodes sound into the band.

Non-Original Compositions

AAJ: Aside from your original compositions, you’ve chosen some tunes that aren’t often played by modern jazz musicians. Benny Carter’s “Lonely Woman” is on Nick Hempton Band. Don Redman’s “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” appears on The Business. The new record also includes a Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition that references Sidney Bechet, Don Byas and Fats Waller. Please explain your affinity for these songs.

NH: I’m really happy that I found the “Lonely Woman” tune on the first record. It’s such a great song. I learned it from Sarah Vaughan’s version. She did it in a session from the ’50s, withCannonball Adderley playing lead alto in a big band. It’s beautiful. She’s just heartbreaking. I learned it years ago, and we play it every now and again. When the first record came out, I was really into playing sad ballads—the most heartbreaking ballads I could find. The lyrics of the song are just devastating. I just had to try to get it down, and I’m glad I did because not many people play the song.

I’ve been listening to Roland Kirk forever. A teacher early on said that a lot of people overlook Roland Kirk. He wasn’t just some sort of novelty with the three horns and that kind of stuff—he was one of the best tenor players ever. And I realized that it’s true. Whatever horn he’s playing, it’s just beautiful lines. I started getting into his playing and composing. That track on the record is actually two tunes stuck together. It didn’t end up that way on the record cover; I think there wasn’t enough room to put that on there. Halfway through the tune, you’ll notice it speeds up, and it becomes a tune called “Rolando,” which is another Roland Kirk tune. I was glad to put something by him on there because not a lot of people play his tunes.

AAJ: The acceleration into the fast tempo works very well.

NH: We had a couple of gigs where that was not always the case— close to a train wreck. Fortunately, it worked quite well on the record.

The other one was “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” It’s one of the tunes that often comes up with the traditional-style players, who I love. It’s a great old tune.
Traditional-Style Playing

AAJ: You just used the phrase “traditional-style players.” It seems that the traditional players are a little more deliberate: storytellers with a narrative flow instead of cats just running licks. There is a lot of that in your playing, particularly the narrative flow aspect. It’s more like human speech, rather than someone simply trying to burn.

NH: I’m glad it sounds that way. I feel like that’s the way my playing is headed. Like I said, the Sonny Stitt style of alto playing is where I came from—and there’s a lot of running changes in that. I think I’m moving more and more away from that to just playing melodies.

There’s a lot more interplay between musicians in traditional styles. I find that in modern jazz there seems to be a lot of soloing and accompaniment. One guy is tearing it up and the others are supporting him. But in the traditional style of playing there’s always interplay between the horns—the front line—and the rhythm section. There’s real group improvisation. That’s what I love about it.




Posted on

Interview with Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Posted on  by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview forAlternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove,Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen,Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White,Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, andDonald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keeping up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6″ are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Posted on

Take Five with David Gibson…..

David’s newest recording, End of the Tunnel, is currently available from Posi-tone Records. It’s a set of music that evokes the essence of ’60s Blue Note soul-jazz in combination with the modern elements you’d expect from today’s current crop of jazz musicians. The mixture of trombone, alto saxophone, organ and drums presents the listener with an assortment of sonic moods while staying grounded in the fundamental groove and swing.

Gibson’s early experience in New York had him performing with Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Roy Hargrove, Jimmy Heath, James Moody and others. In 2003, he was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Trombone Competition, and subsequently released several recordings, as a leader. Posi-tone’s 2009 release, A Little Somethin’, marked the debut of David’s current ensemble with organist Jared Gold, saxophonist Julius Tolentino and drummer Quincy Davis. Though Gibson’s compositions make up the bulk of their music, this eclectic group’s repertoire also runs the gamut with arrangements of material from Wild Bill Davis to Carole King.

David is busy performing with and composing for many diverse artists in New York City, including Roy Hargrove, Orrin Evans, George Gee and Nickel, in addition to teaching at SUNY Geneseo and Columbia University. Legendary trombonist/composer Slide Hampton says, “David Gibson is one of the very talented, truly dedicated musicians on the New York scene today.”

David plays Rath Trombones.

Trombone, composer, arranger.

Teachers and/or influences?
Studied trombone with Dr. Kent Kidwell and Dr. John Marcellus. Biggest influences on the trombone:JJ Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton. Others: Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, John Coltrane.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when…
I was 13 years old and attended a summer jazz camp at my high school. At the time, I was assessing my interest in music and had considered dropping my musical pursuits, but was shocked when I heard the jazz ensemble at my high school playing at a very high level. Music had always played a significant role in my life, but the melodies and rhythms of jazz inspired me to continue and commit more deeply. That kid would be pretty happy with the results. I should consult him more often.

Your sound and approach to music:
Music has to feel good….has to feel sincere and authentic. Time is the main ingredient and voice is the tool.

Your teaching approach:
I approach music like dissection. I want my students to understand the constructs of music and have ideas about that so that they may be inspired to communicate those ideas to an audience. With that kind of understanding, they can collect musical vocabulary which will be employed to deliver their ideas to audiences and musicians alike, rather than stringing a bunch of patterns and phrases together that are in search of a unifying idea or principle.

Your dream band:
My ideal band consists of honest humans with a great sense of groove and melody.

Favorite venue:
Blue Note, Tokyo.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
End of the Tunnel is my latest and my favorite. I love the eclectic nature of the band….and I just love the cats in the band. We have a ball on and off of the bandstand. This record illuminates that to my ears.

The first Jazz album I bought was:
John Coltrane, My Favorite Things (Atlantic).

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
I am determined to use the trombone to make music. I am dedicated to bringing the trombone back into the minds of musicians and listeners as a valid tool of music, rather than the labels of “clumsy” and “comedic” that it has been tagged with in recent memory.

CDs you are listening to now:
John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound (Atlantic);
Herbie Hancock, The Prisoner (Blue Note);
John Swana, In the Moment (Criss Cross);
Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations(1955).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
The university environment is an imperfect place to become an artist. It can be a great place to learn how to think, but how does one grade that? So, it becomes a place to collect information…scales, chords, patterns, licks….but these are simply tools with which to communicate ideas. Unfortunately, many young musicians know little of ideas and lots of patterns and flash their patterns to audiences and one another in search of recognition. Few are risky enough to say what they really think. But, humans still hear ideas when they’re present…they still feel music when there is sincerity. I don’t know about the “state of jazz today,” but there are embers of authenticity still burning.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
Study. Dissection. Honesty. Sincerity. Humility.

What is in the near future?
Writing for Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band and George Gee’s Orchestra. Performing with my Organ 4tet and also doing some “jazz meets hip-hop” gigs with Nickel and Dime Ops. Working hard.

If I weren’t a jazz musician, I would be a:



Posted on

New interview with Orrin Evans….

Orrin Evans: Jazz cat with a plan – and deep Philly roots

By A.D. Amorosi
For The Inquirer
‘My plan is always to be playing,” says Philly pianist, composer, and arranger Orrin Evans.Judging from the last 18 months, the plan is working. He and his quartet play two shows Saturday night at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, but that’s just the latest in a very busy year and a half.

In January 2010, he put out, under his own name, a celebration of saxophonist Bobby Watson titled Faith in Action. In September, he cut an album titled The End of Fear with his avant-funk collective Tarbaby. In March, his large ensemble released the eponymous album Captain Black Big Band. Another one under his own name, Freedom, dedicated to Philly’s jazz giants, comes out Tuesday. This summer, he’ll record another Tarbaby album, which may be released before year’s end, then he’ll go to work on an album of his solo compositions. Factor in a constant touring slate for all of those bands, plus occasional teaching gigs, and you get an idea of his schedule.

That schedule is even tighter when you consider that Evans, 36, is married to singer Dawn Warren, with two children (Miles, 18, and Matthew, 13). They live in Mount Airy.

Neighborhood, Philly, family: These things are crucial to Evans and his music. “This city is everything to me,” he says. “Has been since I moved here from Trenton as a kid.” He loves the “simple things,” like being able to hit the post office and the grocery store with ease as well as play music with the extended jazz family he first met at age 12, when his father took him to Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus in Northern Liberties.

But changes are happening. “Moving to New York is inevitable,” Evans says. His Captain Black Big Band has been expanding to include as many New Yorkers as it does Philly jazz cats. And there are fewer and fewer places in Philly to make a living playing jazz. But with characteristic loyalty, he says, “I will always find a way back to Philly.”

The hard-bop acolyte has always been restless, always productive. Since arriving on the jazz scene in the mid-’90s, he has steadily made albums such as Justin Time and Grown Folk Bizness on labels such as Criss Cross. So his recent productivity simply continues a work ethic shown when he started recording as a leader or playing gigs with artists such as his mentor, Bobby Watson, and the Mingus Big Band, among many others.

All players who work with him must be members of his extended family, people he’d like to break bread with. The word has long gone around about Evans: If you’re not his friend, you’re not his collaborator. “That’s exactly it,” he laughs. He readily acknowledges the hugeness of the Captain Black Big Band – 18, or 36 when you consider he requires a second string. Still, he says, the rule remains: “I have to play with cats I have a bond with – spiritually, personally, something.”

Then there are the bonds of blood. His uncle is sax great Ellsworth Gooding, his mother is local opera singer Frances Juanita Gooding Evans, and his father was Don Evans, an educator, director, and playwright who died in 2003. The elder Evans staged plays such as August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and wrote theater works that included Mahalia and One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

“When The Cosby Show came out, I remembered that’s how I grew up,” says Evans, who went to Settlement Music School and Martin Luther King High. “Except my folks and their friends weren’t lawyers and doctors. They were artists. We always had people reciting in my house, discussions about books, or mini-concerts where people got up, played and sang.”

He was all about jazz from childhood. Evans started on the household piano. Then he changed to clarinet and bass clarinet when the classically oriented Girard Academic Music Program he attended didn’t suit his needs (“They didn’t get my ‘Giant Steps’ stuff,” Evans says with a laugh, regarding his love of John Coltrane), going back to piano when he hit MLK High. His influences included anyone who could “translate those dots on paper” – jazz piano greats such as Lennie Tristano and McCoy Tyner, men who accompanied his mother during recitals. Soon, that would include the cast and characters of Ortlieb’s and the Clef Club.

After his parents were divorced, his father picked him up every Tuesday from Orrin’s job at Au Bon Pain in Liberty Place. They’d buy a scratch-off Lotto ticket and head to Ortlieb’s, where Orrin fell in love with roost-rulers such as fellow keyboardists Trudy Pitts and Shirley Scott.

“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t around Trudy and Shirley,” says Evans. At 13 he showed up with skills and a look-at-me attitude. “But there was no point looking at me because Joey DeFrancesco was making the rounds,” says Evans, recalling the prodigious talents of the young Philly organ great.

Evans would come to lead the Tuesday jam sessions at Ortlieb’s before the club closed. Pitts, Scott, and all the legends of Ortlieb’s became his family. “What they did will always be the constant,” he says. “Whenever I teach, I tell the young ones over and over that they have to know the constants, the past, of what Miles and Trane and Shirley and Sid Simmons did.”

His new CD, the sometimes meditative, always spirited Freedom, is dedicated to Pitts, Simmons, and Charles Fambrough. It is also about the heart and soul of Philadelphia jazz. All its songs have some local connection, with several written by local giants including Scott, Fambrough, and Eddie Green, and featuring legends such as tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna.

“This record says a lot,” says Evans. “There is history here about black people and music.”

But there is more than history and dedication to this new album. It is an emotional farewell of sorts. “It is about my freedom from Philly, as well as knowing that I will always be connected to it. I can’t deny it. I want to always do records with Philly cats as well as celebrate this city. But I already have an apartment in New York City that I use when I work there. As soon as my kids grow up, I wouldn’t mind moving there full-time. It is not too late for me. As long as there is a New Jersey Turnpike and planes, there will always be a scene for me somewhere.”

Freedom, then, is not necessarily a Philly swan song, but it is a look at this city in a rearview mirror. Mention that to Kevin Eubanks, another local who got out – first as a renowned guitarist and later as bandleader for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show – and he laughs. “Orrin is a close friend of mine and a good friend to my family,” says Eubanks. “He’s great enough to call his own shots. He should be where he’s happiest.”

What makes Orrin Evans happiest, no matter where he plays or lives, is having a plan. “Hannibal on The A-Team always said, ‘I love it when a plan comes together,’ ” says Evans. “I may dig going to the bandstand and not knowing what is going to happen, but I thrive on knowing what the possibilities are.”



Posted on

Amazing interview with Travis Sullivan….

Travis Sullivan composes and arranges with a fine flair. For about the last six years, he’s proven himself a strong leader of a large band, running the Bjorkestra, an acclaimed unit that plays slick, intricate and sometimes burning jazz versions of songs by popular Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork.

It’s a band that’s an audience pleaser and one that musicians like to play in. In Milan, Italy, in December, trumpeter Dave Douglas was the guest soloist. “That’s a really fun group,” says Lauren Sevian, who has played baritone sax in the group (a chair she also holds in the Mingus Big Band). “The music is so cool—Bjork music for big band. It’s unbelievable. Travis Sullivan does a great job. Most of the arrangements are his. The musicians are all so incredible.”

Sullivan also working on special music to commemorate the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy in New York City.

So, if you ask some people, he’s a big band leader who’s adept in that arena. And they’re right, sort of. If you ask Sullivan, he’s an alto saxophonist who enjoys the challenge and adventurous interplay of small groups, and loves to improvise on his on his axe. His latest recording, New Directions, released in May, 2011 on Posi-Tone, attests to that. It’s a quartet that exhibits an alto player of strength, dexterity and imagination; it burns with a sympathetic and cooking rhythm section. It may come as a surprise to people who followed Sullivan’s work since coming out of the Manhattan School of Music. But it probably shouldn’t be. This cat is a player.

“It was time to start focusing on my own music and playing. That’s where my heart first and foremost lies,” he says, eagerly looking forward to the CD release. The title sums up those feelings and the fact that he’d like to focus more on his playing. “I definitely wanted to sort of make a statement about that. It’s a new direction based on events of the last six or seven years.”

“I consider myself, first and foremost, an improviser—a composer, second,” explains Sullivan. “One of my role models is someone like Wayne Shorter, where the composition and the improvisation try to integrate themselves into one whole. But when I created the Bjorkestra, it was always with the intention of creating a context for improvisation with her music, within a big band context. In theory, that’s great. It works. But I’m also a very democratic bandleader. When we perform, I try to spread the wealth very evenly in terms of solos. It makes it more accessible for an audience to hear over the course of an evening. Several horn players play, the different personalities and everything, rather than just one main soloist. The consequence is that I would only get to blow maybe one, possibly two, solos a night.”

The Bjork book is also primarily modal, so chord changes and similar attributes were not usually employed. “The improvisation side of things wasn’t always necessarily that challenging for me, in terms of what I practice, what I’ve studied and everything. So there was a part of my artistic expression that was put aside for the sake of performing this music,” says Sullivan.

“Where I draw most of my inspiration from is from jazz, and what I practice is definitely jazz. I transcribe a lot of artists, study the work of a lot of artists that are considered jazz artists. So I would like to think of myself as being a jazz guy. I think that with the Bjorkestra, it was questionable for a lot of people whether this music can really be considered jazz or not. I feel like it is. Jazz, for me, is taking and interpreting the best music of what’s going on right now—Bjork was an example of that—and making it one’s own: reinterpreting it, contextualizing it for improvisation. I really consider myself an improviser. That’s an integral part of jazz.”

Sullivan is joined on the record by Mike Eckroth on piano, Marco Panascia on bass and Brian Fishler on drums. The tunes, eight of ten originals, have different feels, but are all in the jazz realm. They find Sullivan with expressive swagger at times, and at other times with a more smooth, peaceful, but probing mode. Everyone in the rhythm section is on top of things, supportive, creative, and tight. “Tuneology” is the closest to hard bop, and the band gives a fine accounting on that front. “Autumn in New Hampshire” (Sullivan hails from there) is a ballad that shows how Sullivan can wring emotion from a nice melody.

He wrote the music for the record with a small group in mind, and some of the writing goes back several years. “The oldest one was written about 10 years ago,” Sullivan says. “I was always writing when I was leading the big band, but having the intention to play it with a smaller ensemble. I’m very pleased with the way it came out. We did it all in one eight-hour session. … There are always things about myself as a player that I would like to do better. But I feel like the spirit and the energy is there. It comes across really well, and everybody plays really well on the record.”

Spirit and energy are things that come across in Sullivan’s jazz. But as a kid growing up in the 1980s in New Hampshire, he didn’t hear a lot of jazz. He was playing sax from the age of 10, and piano at 12, and it was quirky events in high school that led to a jazz enlightenment—but not the usual path. A friend in high school, a fellow saxophonist, had a collection of records, but it wasn’t the mainstream type of jazz that most people cut their teeth on. This friend had “all these avant-garde things—late Coltrane and stuff. We listened to that stuff, like Coltrane “Jupiter Variations.” We had no idea what was going on. We just thought it was kind of trippy and cool. … I got into jazz backwards. When I was in high school, I was listening to Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Dolphy.”

He also had an English teacher who started bringing him albums to check out. In that bunch wasPharoah Sanders and Art Ensemble of Chicago. “Then, one day he said he just got Sketches of Spain on CD. It blew his mind because he could hear everything. He started getting rid of his LP collection. He let me go through them and buy them for one dollar each. That’s what happened. I ended up buying about 30 albums from him. All this avant-garde jazz. … I got into (jazz) backwards.”

When Sullivan went off to college, he wasn’t majoring in music. He studied biochemistry. But the music department had a couple of big bands, and he played in one. “I played in the second big band my freshman year. Then I played in the top band my last three years there and ended up playing lead alto, which was great,” he recalls. “That exposed me to something.”

Trumpeter Taylor Haskins was a classmate, and trumpeter Dave Balou was getting his master’s degree there at the time. But for Sullivan, “I was interested in a totally different set of music. … Everybody there wanted to play straight- ahead stuff. I was a one of the avant-garde outcasts. I was interested in playing free jazz and free improvised music.” However, after exposure to more mainstream stuff— Clark Terry was an adjunct professor there, and there would be visits by people like Marshal Royal, Snooky Young, Al Grey, Milt Hinton and Frank Wess, Sullivan started going back to examine the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and others.

By his junior year, Sullivan knew he wanted to pursue a life in music. He finished his degree and took a few years off, but continued studying music with George Garzone. That relationship lasted about three years, and it was Garzone who urged Sullivan to go to New York. Sullivan got into Manhattan School of Music, earned his master’s degree there and has been in New York ever since.

“When I got [to New York], I was blown away by the level of everybody there, as well as the city in general. I was going out a lot and hearing a lot of music. I played a few gigs here and there. After I graduated, I was doing a lot of quartet, quintet stuff that I was booking on my own.” In 1999, just after leaving the Manhattan School, he did his first recording with a quartet called As We Speak, with Rez Abbasion guitar and Ari Hoenig on drums.

By 2001, playing opportunities thinned out and he says he was “starting to get a little bored with the challenges of not making a lot of money. Doing the small group stuff … I was getting a little bit confused about how it was proceeding, how I was moving forward with the music. Then I started getting into the music of Bjork and started writing those arrangements. That evolved into forming the big band.

“The Bjorkestra started unfolding in a very magical way. From my perspective, it seemed to just have this energy behind it—sort of like a flower unfolding. I didn’t really try to have any control or expectations. So that’s what I’m trying to do now with these other projects: put them out to the world and see what happens.”

The Bjorkestra, even as its popularity grew, never got a huge amount of gigs. But to keep it moving, Sullivan would sometimes break it into a seven-piece group. “It gives me more opportunity to solo and really be out front as a saxophonist. That’s another thing too. I think a lot of my colleagues really forgot that’s what I was,” he says with a touch of humor. “A saxophonist first, not a big band arranger. A lot of my friends and colleagues in that band were people that I worked with. [They were] moving ahead with their solo careers. I’d look at that and say, ‘That’s really what I want more of.’ The difficulty with that is that it’s definitely the road way more traveled. I think it’s a little more challenging too [in a small combo] to stand out above the rest.”


Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra in Performance

So Sullivan is working with smaller groups, not just the quartet he recorded with, though he hopes to tour later this year in support of the CD. “Small groups are easier to work with,” he says. With the Bjorkestra, “I spend so much time contracting musicians, rehearsing, dealing with all different personalities … I want to make things a little bit easier on myself.”

Sullivan also has a project called the Casual Sextet, which has a rotating cast of members. “We gig every once in a while. I write more extended compositions for that group. I have another group called the Identity Crises, which has been going for about three years now. We’re starting to get a little bit of momentum. That’s more of a pop/jazz/fusion type of project. … That was the other stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. I listened to a lot of popular music. I still have a deep love for that music. And a lot of prog rock.” He notes, “There are a lot of different avenues I have for expression. I consider myself very lucky in that sense. It’s a matter of finding places to play, which I find challenging at times.”

Another band is CSP, which he leads with singer Kit Calvosa. Sullivan plays piano in that setting. “I enjoy that a lot too, being able to play with some great musicians and play that instrument as well, in a different context and different style than I usually find myself in. … We [Sullivan and Calvosa] have been co-writing songs for a couple of years now,” he says, but adds, “Really, the past couple of years for me have been taking the ship of my music career and trying to shift it; trying to figure out what the next direction is.”

The 9/11 project is called the Pilgrimage project, supplemented by a grant from New York State. It came about via a book of photographs Sullivan and his girlfriend came across in 2007 at a bookstore in Brooklyn. “It was a book of about 70 black-and- white photos of people looking at Ground Zero. This photographer called Kevin Bubriski had gone down there in the months following [the collapse of the World Trade Center] and taken photos capturing people’s expressions, just looking at the disaster. I had this real visceral reaction to it. It put me back in that moment where I was one of those people. I went down there back in November [2001], when you could see the towers still partially standing. It was a very deep emotional reaction.”

His girlfriend noted that the 10th anniversary would be coming up and that Sullivan should write music to accompany the photos. Sullivan loved the idea. He contacted the photographer, who was also enthused.

“I really want to do this thing right: get the right musicians for it, pay them well. Just do it right, so it will be a really nice tribute in memory of the 10th anniversary of that,” says Sullivan. “The plan is to debut it the week of 9/11. That’s when I’d really like the first performance to be. I don’t have a venue set yet. I’m kind of holding back and waiting to see what the money situation is going to be. If the money’s there, I might even try to do something at a less-than-traditional performance space. I’m not sure what it would be.”

In the meantime, Sullivan, like many Big Apple musicians, is hustling for gigs, getting outside work when he can, teaching some students. He’s also pushing more sideman gigs, of which he didn’t get many because of the perception he was more of a big band guy. “But I’ve been trying to get out there a little more—play other people’s music. I am really interested in that.” Posi-Tone is already talking about doing another album with Sullivan, he says, and a new Bjorkestra album, “Live at the Jazz Standard,” is likely to be released later this year.

ullivan knows there’s work ahead and see positive things continuing. “I am very lucky that I have the opportunity to play with all these great musicians—the opportunities I’ve already had, things I’ve already done, bringing a full big band over to Europe and getting to play with Dave Douglas. If somebody told me that five years ago, I’d be like, ‘Jeez. I can’t believe that.’ Now that it’s over, I’m like, ‘Why am I not doing that every day?’ It’s the sustainability and developing some continuity that is really my next endeavor.”
Selected Discography

Travis Sullivan, New Directions (Posi-Tone, 2011)
Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, Enjoy (Koch, 2008)
Sean Nowell, Firewerks (Posi-Tone, 2007)
Travis Sullivan’s Project One, As We Speak (Travsul, 2001)