Monday, January 31, 2011

An interview with Phil Nimmons – Head of State (November 2005)

Clarinetist, composer, conductor and educator Phil Nimmons, was born in Kamloops, British Columbia on June 3, 1923. He later graduated from the University of British Columbia and went on to study at the Julliard School of Music in New York City and at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Nimmons is a founding member of the Canadian League of Composers established in 1950 and was a co-founder with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto from 1960 -1966. Along with leading and composing for his various bands, he is currently Director Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. His compositional work includes contemporary classical works and over 400 original jazz compositions.

Bill King: Reading through your discography with titles like Atlantic Suite, Harbours, Islands, Tides and Horizons, PEI, Jasper and Caribou County Tone Poem, one can’t help recognizing you have a great love for this country. Does the remarkable landscape influence your composing?

Phil Nimmons: In the beginning, as far as writing is concerned, I don’t feel that’s necessarily so. I think the creative process is in all of us in some shape or form. In my case, I think there was this drive to be creative right from my teens.

I think the landscaping tendencies started when I began writing dramatic music for the CBC in Vancouver in the late ‘40s. I wrote some things at the time for Dick Diespecker who was a war correspondent and had written a program called Anthology. I wrote dramatic music for that before I went to New York and studied. That would have been around 1944 or ‘45.

Leaping beyond that, I eventually came to Toronto to study at the Conservatory and ended up writing for J. Frank Willis, who was a producer of dramatic shows on the CBC who came from Halifax. At First, we did nothing but sea stories.

Even before I got to the east coast, I felt I had been transplanted from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. We did a program called the Days of Sail, which was all about the sailboats and slave trade. So I wrote about Peggy’s Cove, Luneburg and Sable Island before I got there.

Eventually, my sister and her husband became residents at the University of New Brunswick. I would say, not overtly, but by osmosis. I’m developing a relationship with the geography of the country. People still ask when I am going to do something about the Pacific Ocean, which I guess is in the back of my mind.

B.K.: Do you have a favourite workplace that inspires you - a room or locale?

P.N.: No, not necessarily. When you ask that question, I wonder how the heck I created some of those lovely things when they came from my debris-filled studio in the basement. It was a mess of papers, pens and ink with cigarette burns on the ivory keys of my piano and glass stains from drinks.

I do like having a piano handy when I get an idea. I really work it to death, trying to see how many mutations I can get into it. Eventually, I often end up doing the original idea.

I used to work at it hard and shout up to my wife, Noreen. ‘Listen to this.’ Then I’d say, ’Listen to this other one.’ Do you hear it? It would be only a difference of a 16th note or something. Noreen would reply, ‘Just write it.’

I know when I teach, I tell my students to be quite curious about the potential for variations. But I can do that in my head, it doesn’t matter where I am.

B.K.: How does the writing process begin, with a motif, an unusual harmonic sequence?

P.N.: All of those things could be sources, but ideally it is to find some kind of motif that is the seed so full of potential that once you start to work with it, it almost writes itself.

I’ve had a couple occasions where that happens. The musical seed will be strictly musical. In addition to that, I look for all kinds of ways of developing ideas, like maybe taking my birth date and make a tone row out of it. You mentioned Caribou Tone Poem, well, that’s based on my birth date and mixed with thoughts.

Being born in Kamloops, I have really vivid memories. We left there when I was seven in 1930, but my grandparents remained. We used to go back and forth all of the time.

I remember Kamloops being so hot you could almost fry an egg on the sidewalk. It’s located on that plateau between the coastal range and the Rockies where all of those cities like Kelowna and Vernon are. I also remember tow mountains, Peter and Paul, which were north of where we lived. There used to be great electrical storms with the lighting bouncing from one peak to the next.

I use my birthday as a tone row and make certain changes to it, I might come up with something that’s not precisely based on my birthday, but becomes the initial motivator to do something different. Eventually, you’ll come up with something that has potential for development whether melodically, harmonically or rhythmically.

I’m a great believer in form. It’s probably the most important thing everywhere - even our lives have to have some kind of form to communicate effectively.

B.K: If you were to sit down at this moment and begin a long form piece, what do you think the mood and tome of the exercise would be?

P.H.: Thankfulness. I’m in that particular mood at this particular time.

B.K.: What would be the instrumentation?

P.N.: Whatever the budget could afford. The experiences I had with the CBC, writing dramatic music without me knowing, was the greatest teacher I had because I heard everything I wrote at the time.Depending on the content of the show or the budget, the instrumentation I would write for could be anything from a trio to a symphony orchestra.

One of the first things I did for J. Frank Willis was The Cricket on the Hearth the Charles Dickens thing. We used English horn, harp and violin or viola. I had never written for harp before, so I got out my Cecil Forsyth orchestration book.

Even when Nimmon ‘N’ Nine was formed, the plan was not necessarily to include 10 musicians. When it first came together, there were only nine people. Then, Eddie Karam comes to town from Ottawa. I can remember Jerry Toth coming to me saying, ‘We’ve got to get this guy in the band.’ Everyone was a studio musician and they were all such great musicians that could play anything I wrote.

Eric Traugott is just mind-boggling in this regard. I have not met another trumpet player who had as great a sound from G above the staff right down to a G below the staff that can be done within a bar.

We never took the horns out of our mouths. Obviously, we were much younger then and played all the time.

B.K.: How much has your writing changed through the years and can you give an example?

P.N.: I don’t know if it’s changed so much. I still try to write melodically. I try to write interesting parts for every player right down to the fourth trumpet player.

B.K.: Was Robert Farnon around then?

P.N.: Yes, I knew Bob at the time. I had two dear friends in Vancouver while I was growing up as a teenager and working at the CBC. I worked with the Ray Norris Quintet when I first started and we had a comedian who played the piano while the late Barney Potts sang. We began lifting Nat Cole recordings.

I was also in Vancouver CBC Chamber Orchestra and two individuals, in particular, became great friends of mine – John Avison, who was the conductor and a great classical accompanist and Lawrence Wilson, who was a trumpet player who was in the mainstream back in the late ‘40’s who eventually became vice-president of the CBC. We would do shows and afterwards go to their homes and listen to recordings from Palestrina to Schonberg. Here, I was 15 years-old, hearing people talk about music all the time – I just soaked it up like a sponge.

B.K: What has been the most difficult assignment to conquer and why?

P.N.: There’s nothing specifically that comes to mind because I’ve done such a variety of things. I did a Commonwealth thing a way back that I had to research and come up with all the national anthems from all the Commonwealth countries, back when there was quite a few of them. It was a difficult assignment and I didn’t want to do, but I did.

Fortunately, I Learned awhile back I had to do things I may have not wanted to do to pay for the monkey on my back, which was jazz. I wrote some Gilbert and Sullivan things, and rather enjoyed it even though it wasn’t stylistically something I really did relate to. The same can be said for opera. I have done overtures from operas and that’s been an education.

I’ll tell you one thing I find difficult is when someone sends me a tape to lift that’s been generated electronically through synthesizer. I have to keep listening to it over and over because I don’t have perfect pitch, but instead a very good ear, and that’s like torture.

I begin to wonder if every old guy generation to generation has gone through this. I try to cope with it. I ask myself is the problem because I’ve grown up with acoustic sounds.

B.K.: I think you got caught in transition. Electronics erased the acoustic studio musician in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, there’s a realization we can work with both. For jazz players, it’s back to acoustic.

P.N.: Fortunately, I may not be able to comment on the question truthfully because I’m 81. I’m just so thankful of the things that are happening.

B.K.: If you had a choice of musicians throughout history to assemble under one roof to play your music, who would be on the bandstand?

P.N.: That would take a lot of thought.

At first, I think I would like to get people who relate to my philosophies, but then I realize it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens on the bandstand.

I’d like to thank Duke for setting the pattern. It didn’t matter when the band showed up as long as they got there. I was privy to a few events when we had the school with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown. We’d go to Chicago for meetings and stay at the Palmer House. After they finished playing the London House, we’d go down to the south side of Chicago around one o’clock to hear Duke’s band play.

One night, we went down there and the only person to show up was Duke, so we went home. He was just so great as opposed to other leaders I know that just gets some uptight. I imagine a third world war might have started on Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman’s bandstand.

In Nimmons ‘N’ Nine, I had all of those wonderful people starting with Roy Smith, Jerry Toth, Ed Karam, Jack McQuade, Murray and Teddy Roderman and Ross Cully.

When the band changed, Rob McConnell was in the band along with Guido Basso, Freddie Stone, Herbie Spanier, Moe Koffman and Eugene Amaro. All of those fellows brought something different to the band.

I was blessed to take something from all of these people. I try to keep an open mind, which sometimes makes things difficult. But, it you do, the benefits are so great. I have lasting relationships with all of these people.

B.K.: You suffered great loss with the recent passing of your longtime companion Noreen. Has teaching and performing helped ease the pain?

P.N.: Yes, but I’m still dealing with the process. I will cope, but I’m not quite prepared at all times. I’m very lucky to be busy which gets me out of the house and away from being by myself.

At the same time, I do that because I can’t help but think this would not have been possible without her. I drank my butt off up until 1970. I did a very good job of being down in the basement writing. I’d come upstairs and Noreen would say to the kids. ‘That’s your dad, not the plumber.’ She had to put up with me and she did.

In retrospect, she looked after the kids. I came from the old school where the woman stayed home and raised the kids and the man worked. I even sold real estate for two or three years. That was not difficult to do because part of my philosophy was that when I got married, I made a contract with a young lady that we we’re going to do something together, and I would have to do whatever it took to fulfill. It’s very easy to say, but not as easy to do. You never know what will happen. She put up with so much, but I don’t think I’m unique in that respect.

B.K.: Loving relationships can be critical in freeing the soul to create and release that which is hidden below the surface. Was Noreen often the keeper of the key?

P.N.: No, I think we both were. I say that because I think that’s a deep desire as well as something I believe in. Nothing happens without two and a lot happens with three. Two people can start, but an odd number can put the vote up for grabs. It creates a lot more interest.

Being the fundamental part of the pyramid as the parents of this family or household, whichever way it goes, it really took the two of us. There has to be a lot of bending, giving and compromise because of what you want to achieve.

I think she bent a little bit more than I did, but I was eight years older that she was. Maybe that gave me a certain sense of conviction.

Plus the fact, I say with great profundity, we’ll never be as brilliant as they are. The male is such a dolt by comparison and I really believe that. Some people ask the question: ‘Would you have done things different knowing what you know today?’ Of course you would, but that will never happen.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Lorne Lofsky - Kind of Blue (2003) (Interview)

Lorne Lofsky Interview

Bill King: You point to one album as being pivotal to your introduction to jazz.

Lorne Lofsky: The Kind of Blue album. It’s one of those things that are hard to put into words. There was something about the music that touched something in me that I’d never experienced before? There was a certain mood I experienced. The fact that it was very understated. I wouldn’t call the playing hard flat-out playing compared to the Coltrane quartet when they were wailing or Miles band later on. There was this cool understatement that was happening and a sense of mystery I got from listening to it. It was something I had never heard before and there was this little light go on in my head that said wow! What is this? I quess I was ready for it.

Many years before I had a friend who played trumpet – I played bad third trumpet in junior high - put on My Funny Valentine album. For what I heard I wasn’t ready to understand what was happening. There wasn’t anything that pulled me in. Not like when I’d turn off the lights and listened to Kind of Blue and try to pick up things subliminally. I was still playing rock & roll and blues at the time and feeling rather limited. I knew my three or four B.B. King and Eric Clapton licks and just kept playing them over and over mindlessly.

Bill: Did you isolate and listen to the flow of certain instruments?

Lorne: I paid a lot of attention to Bill Evan’s solo on “So What?’ It was almost like watching a movie in another language without sub titles.

Bill: Did you search around for private instruction?

Lorne: I did take a few guitar lessons with someone named Tony Braden in the early seventies. We didn’t talk about music per se or improvising. He tried to show me the mechanics of the guitar - some scales and things. I started hanging out with friends of mine who were getting into jazz and listening a lot. We’d go out to places like George’s Spaghetti House. I used to go and listen to r Ed Bickert and Lenny Breau play. Sonny Greenwich. Ted Moses when he was in town. I was just absolutely amazed these players knew what to do and when to do it. I had no idea about listening and reacting and having a certain amount of skills to naturally react.

Bill: Did university studies with John Gittins answer some questions for you?

Lorne: To a certain degree. I was at York in the early to mid seventies as a part time student one year and took some theory. At the time I wasn’t ready for that kind of thinking. I found it to complicated and didn’t really understand it. The next year I went to a jazz workshop and in my free time played constantly. If I wasn’t playing I was listening at home or in a club or jamming. I really didn’t go the music school route. The main thing I got from university was the importance of playing with a strong time feel. The two people I learned the most from were John Gittins and Bob Witmer. Another thing that caught me at the time was that album with Paul Desmond “Pure Desmond” that took me to another universe. I was hearing a guitar that sounded like an orchestra and I had no idea what was going on. I get kind of compulsive about things and go for it. I would spend untold hours lifting Ed Bickert’s solos. I asked Ed years before in this long defunct club called Meat & Potatoes if he taught and I said he didn’t and recommended Tony Braden.

Bill: How about the live playing at the time.

Lorne: Ted Moses opened the Mother Necessity Jazz Workshop around Queen and Victoria and I did some playing. A couple years later I started doing jobbing gigs – weddings and casuals to make some money and club dates playing wallpaper music. The late great Jerry Toth heard me – this I won’t forget – I met him at Mt. Pleasant and Eglington and we were chatting about one thing or the other and he asked if I’d like to work with him at George’ Spaghetti House. I think he was the first to hire me at George’s. I was on cloud nine. It was the greatest thing in the world. After that I slowly broke into playing some of these places.

Bill: Did that opened the door to backing touring international artists.

Lorne: I was fortunate. George’s was going strong and Paul Grosney was booking Bourbon Street and I guess he took some sort of shine for me for a while and started booking me there. I got to play with a lot of great people there - Chet Baker, Carl Fontana, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Phil Wilson, Georgy Auld. It was great for me as far as I was concerned. I was getting paid to learn. I always asked questions. I’d ask if what I was playing behind them was O.K. or if I was getting in the way or did they want me to learn other tunes. I did one gig with Bob Brookmeyer who had these great arrangements that was incredibly educational.

Bill: Is this where Oscar heard you play?

Lorne: No, that was at George’s Spaghetti House. I was there with Butch Watanabe a mainstay of the Toronto scene. Oscar came in to hear the group and I met him briefly. A month or two later he telephoned me about doing a recording. I thought to myself, why me? I was blown away by it.

When it was time to record it was a huge deal for me. I’d never recorded on my own before. I went on to do some playing with him in the early eighties in Edmonton and he featured me at the Forum at Ontario Place that doesn’t exist no more. It’s funny how things work. A few years before I remember going to hear Oscar with Jerry Fuller on drums, Neils Pederson bass and Joe Pass on guitar and sitting up on that hill overlooking the Forum and listening to the band and thinking to myself that one day it would be unbelievable to be down there doing something like this - not necessary with him or whoever. Several years later I wind up playing in Oscar’s quartet for three years and the same thing happened with Ed. In 1983 Larry Kramer and Jane Bunnett had this series at a place called Harpers on Lombard Street. One day Larry telephoned me and asked if I’d like to play in a quartet with Ed Bickert. My hero! I said, “Are you kidding – does he want to play with me that’s the question?”
Needless to say I was quiet nervous the first gig. It was fun and he was totally accommodating.

Bill: Did it take long to find a comfort zone with Oscar?

Lorne: The first gig was at the forum and he actually let me do some trio tunes. What he did in the situation was first play a few trio tunes and then he brought me out as a featured performer with Terry Clarke and John Heard. There I was before this huge crowd. All I remember was it was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Dizzy Gillespie played somewhere earlier that evening and I’m in the middle of a solo with my eyes shut and I hear this wild applause. First of all I know it’s not for me and second I know what I’m playing isn’t that good and then I hear this trumpet chime in on the tune. It was an incredible experience.

I was out in Edmonton with Oscar and Dave Young and we started playing some of Oscar’s original tunes I’d had never heard before. I’ve always had pretty good ears and pick up things quickly. The first night he started playing on “ Sweet Georgia Brown” and he was ripping it up – definitely in his prime. There were flames coming off the piano and as he’s winding down to the last couple of bars he gets down lower and lower on this Bosendorfer piano with the extra bass notes I call those thunder storm notes cause when you’re down so low it’s not the pitch you hear but a storm system moving in off the lake. Anyway, I’m just sitting there figuring he’s going to do more and he just turns to me after hitting this low F and says you got it. So right away I had to do something so I started playing “ Sweet Georgia Brown” by myself. He got me! Every night after that I knew the routine. I’m really thankful about going through the trenches. It’s a great way to learn. Looking back it’s made me stronger player. You don’t get this in music school.

Bill: At present you teach a lot. By choice or evolution?

Lorne: I’ve been married several years and have a son and need a certain amount of stability. I can’t just pick up and run off. I guess if I were a little bit younger and still single I would probably be pursing more traveling gigs and more. The best way for me to take care of business being a musician is teach. I’ve been doing it for years. I do a fair amount at home. I’m now concentrating on just teaching at York University. They’ve instituted private instrument instruction. I can be more selective teaching. I don’t have to take every gig I get called for and realize time is more valuable.

Bill: Two videos: Approaches to Jazz Vol. One and a second New Standards.

Lorne; A few years ago I chatted with somebody by the name Bill Piburn who lives in the Nashville area and hooked up. A friend told he was getting into doing these video things. He did one for Jack Wilkins and a few others. We talked and I found he had a great heart and really supported the projects he was involved in so he arranged for me to fly down to Nashville during a Chet Atkins tribute – three or four years ago. I performed a short set. While there I went into a little studio with a good local bass player, Jim Ferguson and did it all in one day. Jim and I did the performance video first which was good since it allowed us to relax in front of the cameras. It’s not the most comfortable situation. You’re there in this little room with a white backdrop to absorb the glare with four or five cameras trained on you. You’re supposed to be relaxed, articulate and trying to be creative. I have to say most the playing considering the circumstances is quite good. We might make a CD version of the performance video.

We had about an hour break. Then I played for an hour without a break. I had these sub titles jotted down on a piece of paper on the floor so when I got to the end of whatever topic I was talking about we wouldn’t need to edit anything. I went as long as I could. I was on a bit of a roll and went and hour or hour and fifteen and talked about things that are important to me – fundamental things. Things that are practical that I use when I play and a lot of musicians use when they play. The instructional thing comes with a little booklet. They seem to be doing well. I have people e-mail me saying that they’ve purchased it.

Bill: You have a fairly sophisticated website. Does it do the job?

Lorne; There’s a good story behind that. There’s this guy Greg Blake I guess you’d say is a hobbyist guitar player who has some incredible computer Internet skills. We were talking and he suggested I have a web site. I really didn’t have the money to do something sophisticated and didn’t want to do something that looked cheesy. He volunteered to do it for me. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding?” Slowly but surely he began working on it and another dear friend Brian Behie teamed with Greg and they worked together. Greg did a lot of the technical work and Brian had some fabulous ideas. Greg is so skilled he’s in great demand from companies. I enlisted the help of Lucy Frigault. I prepared an ad hoc lesson on diminished harmony and emailed them as attachments to her and she did incredible things in making them navigatible. She posted it and made it available in such a way that it’s very user friendly. She also helped polish the look of the site and help me set it up to do business. She’s a great lady and did such a wonderful job. The lesson is there for purchase.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jeff Healey - In His Own Words - (2002)

Healey Interview:

Bill King: From musician to managing a club. How has your world changed?

Jeff Healey: It’s a learning experience and will continue to be. I could sit here for a couple hours and go over things I’ve learned in the last eight months. It certainly has made me appreciate a lot more from the musician’s side. Also what a club has to put up with when it’s offering entertainment to the public. I try to be as fair as I can possibly be coming from a musician’s side. I hope musicians feel they can trust me being a musician. I’m going to be looking for the best deal for the musician and make sure myself and my partners are able to pay the rent.

Bill: Do you have bands that draw better than others?

Jeff. Certainly! The bands that work out the best are those who have a following. It’s not a guarantee. I’ve had band’s in I thought had a following but did nothing for whatever reason. A priority over having a following is those bands or artists who are willing to get out there and bust their butts to get people out to the show. When we see that happen, by in large that artist will be back.

Bill: Is the club sustaining itself?

Jeff: Yes! We’ve got a long way to go and we’re still in the middle of the forest but I would say we’re a little further along than what most clubs can claim from when they opened up. We’re just eight months in. We’re able to cover bills and pay the rent and take little bit of a salary out of it for ourselves. Money is slim.

Bill: Do you find there’s pressure on you to anchor the club because of your following?

Jeff: I’ve tried to avoid that. I don’t really think that’s the case. I do have musicians come to me who wouldn’t have the nerve to go to some of these other clubs looking for work thinking that I’m a musician therefore I would react differently but I have to be a businessman at this point. As far as the draw on my name – possible to a degree. It’s understood I’m not always there but I try to be there at least two or three days out of the five during the week. I want the club to sustain and people know that any night of the week when they come in, it will be quality entertainment.

Bill: You’re a guy who loves to play. Are you a bit obsessive about that at times?

Jeff: I like playing. I suppose in moments of deep meditation and totally honest with myself – I’d admit I’ve never wanted to be the center of all that attention or receive all the accolades. I like being a musician and am just as happy to sit off to one side in the back of the stage with a guitar you can hardly hear and just strum along. I love music, listening and interacting with quality musicians- and I always will. The purpose of the club was to enable me to book in quality players and get up and play and not call in the songs, tempos or keys.

Bill: How long has Sensation Records been around?

Jeff: We’ve been putting out issues on the label for about two and a half years. It’s intent initially was to be a label that specialized in reissues of vintage material and packages of artists from the classic period; the twenties, thirties and forties. Ironically, in spite of that concept, the first release on Sensation was a contemporary recording by Alex Pangman. It has done extremely well for us. In a time when it’s difficult to recoup a project cost we did it in two years.

Bill: Did the success with Alex help cover some of the expense assembling the reissues and what about the choice of artists?

Jeff: Simple! The choices are people and things I would like to buy myself. We’ve been a little slow out of the gate and over the past two and a half years we only have eight releases. We’ve got at least a half dozen in the can. One of the toughest things about doing these projects is getting the right people to write the liner notes. You can get the material together pretty easily from other people and get it transferred nicely. If you call the right people you can get more than adequate photos of the right thing.

Bill: Not enough survivors from this era?

Jeff: Just not enough people doing this job. Most are swamped. I’ve been waiting on a guy for a year that’s been working on a package and it’s been sitting here mastered and ready to go.

Bill: Do you draw mostly from your collection and a few others?

Jeff: When one goes to put this kind of thing together, you can’t work miracles. You don’t want bad conditioned discs. You want the best copies you can get preferably close to new. It’s telephone and leg work. It’s calling around the world. One call leads to another. I remember a project I did with Jazz Oracle and I was looking for a good copy of a particular performance. Someone directed me to a fellow who had copies of not only that performance but also two other takes we didn’t even know about. All of the sudden the project gets bigger. It’s the fun in the discovery.

Bill: What about re-mastering?

Jeff: My re-mastering has been done by John.R.T. Davis who lives just outside London in Burnham. He is still the master of the art although he will argue against that. He is a first class musician who has been known to play just about any instrument. His main instruments are alto saxophone, trombone – outstanding on trumpet-a bit of piano and guitar. He came to this as a collector and musician and also has the brain of a mad scientist. He has been throughout his seventy-five years trying to find the best way to get the sound buried in the grooves of these recordings to the surface, as fresh and clear as he can. I still think he does the best job.

Bill: Most people know you with a guitar in hand but I mostly see you with a trumpet.

Jeff: Thanks to your photo exhibit they see my trumpet shots here and there. The first time I sort of exhibited this after the Healy Band in the early nineties I took the Hot Five Jazzmakers into the CafĂ© New Orleans. We had a ton of people come out and we’re playing “Jazz Me Blues”, something totally different. I will say ninety-five percent stayed and had a good time, which it was meant to do. The music of that era by and large was meant to entertain. There wasn’t a lot of jazz aimed at the conosuiers- certainly not on disc. They couldn’t afford to. On a then inch disc you only had three to three and half minutes and on a twelve inch disc four minutes, so you didn’t have much time to self-indulge. You had to deliver. I think that we’ve forgotten that music was meant to entertain. There was a conscious albeit serious effort in the early forties by jazz musicians to make a left turn. They did and succeeded. From that point on jazz has been appreciated by a smaller percentage of the public. This is why I don’t buy those who moan why their art form isn’t appreciated. Sixty years ago there was a small bunch of people at Mintons that intentionally meant for it not to be appreciated.

Bill: Early on players soloed off melodies and the texture of the tune. Nowadays many recycle scale patterns.

Jeff: There is no question about it. Charlie Parker is one of the last and probably the bridge between having a strong melodic sense yet having boundless technical facility. If people would look back at what Parker was listening too rather than starting with Parker, you can hear Lester Young and others. It all comes from somewhere. It is sadly astonishing to me particularly that horns do not know how to play a melody. It isn’t something that was taught. The shift away from melody is almost complete. I’d love to find a trumpet player around that knew how to come out and do a first course of a tune like Wingy Minone or early Louie Prima or Armstrong and his big band. These players played the melody off the top- not in a square way. Most know the chord changes but that’s it. I’ve been laughed at by some for insisting on collecting just straight square dance bands from the twenties and thirties. But it’s from that I got a sense what a melody is supposed to be. I’ve got my jump off point.

Bill: What about singers? Do they pay enough attention to the melody?

Jeff: Few! Most don’t try and research where the song came from so that they know what they’re doing. No matter where I’m at in a performance that melody is going through my head. It’s like there’s an orchestra behind me spinning the tune. I work off of that.

Bill: Guitar and blues. Where’s that stand with you now?

Jeff: Let’s not fool anybody; we were essentially a rock band that played some blues, some ballads and a variety of things. I grew up with that. I had the endorsement of Stevie Ray Vaughan and B.B. King that helped the press find and easy niche for me. I got thrown into the blues category. Meanwhile, my most successful song was “Angel Eyes.”What I discovered in high school was I could take the jazz mentality, philosophy and love of it and put it through an amplifier with a lot of wattage and a fair amount of distortion and all of a sudden I turned from geek to cool. If you’re going to get any interest from girls that’s what you’ve got to do.

Bill: You had to have a passion for it. You played it so well.

Jeff: I can do it but once I got out of my teen years are started to think more along Armstrong and Teagarden when I’m playing. Even guitar.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Word with Doug Riley - (Fall of 2001) (interview)

Doug Riley…

Bill King: You’re making a documentary with David Clayton Thomas?

Doug Riley: Clayton and I knew each other when we’re teenagers back in the 60’s.
He just drove up from New York to get me involved in this thing where we can talk about the old days. The Yorkville days and the Bluenote. They want to interview me and want me to tell a whole bunch of lies about Clayton.

Bill: You go back to the Bluenote era in Toronto.

Doug: I was there from 1962-1964. It was Thursday Friday and Saturday nights with Shawn Jackson, Diane Brooks, Sherry Matthews, Steve Kennedy in my band the Silhouettes. We used to go down to Buffalo on the weekends and buy R&B records bring that back and put them in Al Steiner’s jukebox and learn them ourselves. None of them were on the air locally.

Bill: Is this where the B3 was put to good use?

Doug: I didn’t have a B3 then but an M101, a smaller Hammond version. A year or so later I bought my first B3. It went into storage when the synthesizer came in vogue in the eighties.

Bill: Did you ever get used to that?

Doug: No. I refused to play them. I just went back to playing acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes.

Bill: Was it a time thing? The synthesizer came with a new language.

Doug: I would play it in the studio for string sounds and other sounds but if someone wanted an organ I refused to play it from one of those presets. I’d tell them get a Hammond!

Bill: What is your set up now:

Doug: I have two B3s and a C3. I have one B3 in the basement I bought back in the sixties. It was my touring organ especially when I crossed the country five times with Doctor Music. It’s a little wobbly. Otherwise I use a mint condition B3 and C3 and several Leslie’s for my live gigs.

Bill: Coming through the seventies, eighties and into the nineties when you were consumed with studio work did you ever envision a return to live performing?

Doug: No! One of the main reasons was the B3 came back in vogue. I would play piano gigs. After twelve or so years of people trying to replace the B3 all they could say was the instrument they created was lighter. It certainly didn’t compare musically or sound wise. People are hauling them around again therefore I got interested in playing again.

Bill: You don’t hear much about synthesizers anymore.

Doug: No! We know they are out there and have a use and are great for making demos.

Bill: The character of the sounds hasn’t changed much in years.

Doug: You hear the same sounds over and over again on loops and samples and sound patches. You hear the same sounds again and again on every film and television show. You’ve got to get sick of it after a while. At least when someone’s playing a piano or an organ each has a different touch. Therefore you can hear the different musicianship in each player.

Bill: When the Rhodes and Clavinet were introduced in the sixties they found specific rolls.

Doug: And they still do and they are wonderful instruments. I regret getting rid of my Wurlitzer electric piano and my Clavinet. I still have two Fender Rhodes bought the first week they were introduced at Manny’s in Manhattan.

Bill: As sounds changed and the synthesizer gained prominence, the role of the keyboardist within popular music was diminished. It was no longer about performance but coloring. It was more about posing that participating.

Doug: I started writing more and more and playing less. It was something that didn’t interest me. I liked the records Herbie Hancock did with it but it just wasn’t my thing. I wrote and wrote and wrote and made more money than I could ever expect from playing. Eventually you get sick of that and bored.

Bill: Where you writing more for commercials or films?

Doug: A combo. Besides film and commercials I was writing for a lot of artists and many different styles of music. From jazz, rock, pop, country to Placido Domingo with the London Symphony. If someone called I wouldn’t turn it down because it was this or that kind of music.

Bill: Are you still like that?

Doug: Right now I’m more into playing. I’m creating that new balance; more playing less waiting. Writing has been secondary in that sense but primary in my earning capacity.

Bill: You retreat to Prince Edward Island four months a year. Are you able to shut it down?

Doug: I’m semi-retired now. All that means is I’m not really less busy but saying no to many things and only taking that which I really want to do. I’m playing much more golf. Walking on the beach with my dogs, reading books and lying in a hammock. I still fly out of there to do concerts in fact in the four months I was there I probably flew out of Charlottetown ten times. When I go back it’s my center and I’m much more relaxed. The pace is like twenty or thirty years ago. The people are so warm and relaxed.

Bill: Is the atmosphere conducive for composing?

Doug: Oh yes. I write a lot out there. I was commissioned by the Toronto Symphonietta
to write an concerto combing classical and jazz. I’m writing with piano, bass, drums and alto sax in mind and orchestra. I started working on that in P.E.I.

Bill: Are the skills you have for orchestration something you developed early on?

Doug: I studied it when I was at the faculty of music in the sixties. Still again, that was learning from books and studying scores. The only way to learn it is to play it and be made a fool several times. I learned on the job and in the studio. The stuff sounded terrible at times then others pretty good. Eventually, you find ways to make it sound good most all the time.

Bill: Do string players scare you?

Doug: They always did and still do for many different reasons. They will sometimes get to the point in the music and won’t play. They question things all the time. I mean if you put two string players playing a semi tone apart they will always question it. For brass and reeds that’s normal in jazz. In classical training you just don’t do these things. It’s new training for them.

Bill: Do you go through periods where you have to spend a lot of time at the piano to keep the hands in shape?

Doug: When I first started working with singer Michael Burgess six or seven years ago I did a lot of practicing. His performance covers a wide breath of pianoforte. I don’t practice when I’m playing live so much. When I was in university I practiced basically eight hours a day for five years. Four hours in the morning before lectures and four hours after in the dungeons of the faculty. I lived like a monk. If I haven’t done something for twenty or thirty years I will sit down and work my way through it. I don’t sit down and play scales and arpeggios every day and I bet you don’t either.

Bill: You were once part owner of Revolution Records, partnerships with Larry Trudell and Tommy Ambrose in an extremely successful commercial house and other business ventures. Have you closed the pages on that period and work mainly freelance?

Doug: Totally! I’ve eased out of the jingle business and just write for clients I’ve had for many many years. I’m not going out hustling any new business. I did it for over thirty years in a pressure atmosphere with deadlines all of the time, constantly competing with what’s out there and always dealing with committees.

Bill: You’ve going to Edmonton in the New Year to work with PJ Perry.

Doug: Yes! We’re playing the Yardbird Suite in February hopefully in Calgary in January. I want to start recording these dates. I’d love to have a recording with PJ and the B3 quartet. He’s been wanting to do it all of his life. We played last year in both cities and it was just fantastic and had a wonderful time together. I’ve got a duo CD with Guido Basso, organ and flugelhorn that are to be released on Justin Time.

Bill: Always a pleasure.

Doug: Just one other note. I’ve put a new quartet together with Chris Mitchell on Saxes, Jake Langley guitar, Terry Clarke on drums and my son Ben when Terry can’t make it.

Bill: Jake got good mileage out of his debut with you.

Doug: He most certainly did. I’m sure all involved are happy.