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April 2012 interview with Rhonda Peacock, video editor, and Carla Mandili, friend.
RP: How did you become a jazz musician?
LD: At age twelve I couldn’t let music alone. I’d only just started playing piano. I knew some harmony and music theory, gravitated towards learning that more than playing. I was a rudimentary classical pianist, listening to a lot of orchestral music, seeing concerts. At some point I bought pop sheet music, found a way in on that. I liked all kinds of music I was hearing on the radio, things from my friends and my parents. It was all very exciting to me. I still remember the night I heard John Coltrane on the radio. Not earlier, more accessible Coltrane, either – a supposedly ‘more difficult’ track, like “Sun Ship". It really affected me, really hit me hard. I used to channel surf, and I pretty much never put another radio station on after that.
I started high school, took classes at SF Conservatory. There was a good director, Mr. Walker, for the high school jazz band and jazz choir, and a good bassist and drummer in those groups. Mr. Walker put me in both the groups, sort of took me under his wing. We did a lot of performing in school festivals, and a vocalist friend of mine started getting us gigs every weekend. There were outlets for performing the music I was excited about – I was fortunate to get all that experience. I was fascinated —I’d get home after doing something and listen some more.
RP: Did jazz attract you because it’s a high form of music as far as musicians are concerned – is that something that resonated?
the earthiness of jazz appealed to me, the expressivity of it, the power of a great band. Most of all, though, I loved the music. I bought albums and saw McCoy Tyner’s sextet, Bill Evan’s last trio, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Sarah Vaughn – some great bands. The band thing was quite interesting to me. so the music was talking to me on several levels.
RP: Why is jazz ‘musician’s music?
I don’t know how that got started – It seems that any style could become a ‘musician’s music’, depending on the artistry of the people writing and playing. Jazz feels mysterious to the public partly because so many jazz musicians have turned their backs on popular music – Popular music evolves constantly. I don’t really buy the notion that someone who doesn’t know and love “the masters" is uneducated. Education could be part of what’s going on, but it’s a many-sided question. Popular taste keeps moving -- it moved away from Bach and his idiom, away from Late Romantic classical music, away from opera, big bands, bebop, funk, rock. Things just go the way they go.
RP: Do you feel you’re bridging a musical gap between jazz and the larger public?
LD: I’ve had people say just that to me – “I don’t like jazz, but I liked your group playing it because I knew all the songs". It’s great that people find the group accessible. I got there by becoming discontented with playing the same songs, and with the distance between the musicians and the public. I felt restless, and felt a desire to connect to the music of my time that I was hearing all around me.
We’ve played three nights a week for a couple of years (that recently became four nights a week). I feel a constant demand for new material to keep things interesting for me, our public, the bartenders, the musicians…. At the beginning I wanted to play to the tastes of the patrons. I started transcribing a lot of songs, getting deeper into the vocal lines.
Are we bridging a musical gap? Are we leading listeners by the hand? Really, I’VE been led by the hand – playing and listening to a huge variety of music has really changed my playing. For example, we play several Mexican corridos. They seem simple but the bar structures turn out to be quite difficult for jazz musicians.
RP: Tell me the difference between writing your own music and covering someone’s song, or playing a song you’ve written out – You can go into the store, find sheet music or a lead sheet –
LD: First, as far as sheet music, I usually avoid sheet music versions of songs – most of our material comes from me listening to recordings and writing out what I hear. Whoever has transcribed a song (for sheet music) – well, they’re hearing what they’re hearing, noticing what they choose to notice – I’d rather make my own choices about what’s important. I’m like the photographers who say, “I’ve got to develop, it’s got to be me in the darkroom" because it’s part of their interpretation. Making my own choices while listening to a song over and over as I write it out – those are part of the deal for me.
As to original music vs covers – for me there’s a lot of similarity. In either case, we're working with the form and harmony of a song, staying reactive to the group, leading and following at the same time…
RP: Isn’t what you’ve heard on the radio ingrained and hard to get away from?
LD: I’ve become pretty adept at shaking things up. It seems pretty easy to change notes and rhythms, re-phrase, or play other lines at the same time – those things comes pretty readily to me! I’ll often play things quite differently one night to the next, even one verse to the next.
RP: Do you write out bass and drum parts for the trio?
LD: Oh, that’s the best part! Years ago I wrote quite detailed charts for musicians. What I do now is give them parts with a lot of what I’M playing – the vocal lines. I’ll attempt to play strongly and clearly, with a vibe – and give them a good canvas on which to paint, let them react, Then I have to be ready to react to what comes back at me...
RP: So you’re setting the scene. Do you say, do this, don’t do that?
LD: there's a phenomenon film and theater directors are aware of, as soon as they say something, the actors focus goes too strongly to the instruction, and their attention to everything else suffers. Usually the less I say, the better. I’d rather say it through how I play. I’ll often play intros to the tunes, conveying what I’m hearing – we’ll circle for a bit, then go on into the tune.
RP: So you know your musicians very well.
LD: Jerry Kalaf and I have played together 25 years! The bassist we play with, Ryan McGillicuddy, has been on the job for about 10 months. There’s also a new bassist who has been taking some nights – this is freelance musician country out here, and not everybody can do everything – his name’s Gabe Davis, we’re having a great time playing. Drummer Lee Spath also plays sometimes, we have a nice connection. Substitute musicians usually enjoy this group. Knowing each other a long time isn’t that necessary. Being musical, intuitive, interested in this kind of reactive playing, aware of a lot of music – is.
RP: You’d have to fit together, otherwise you’d be competing. Has that happened?
LD: I’ve sure come up against it. It’s made for some long nights sometimes. yeah, that does comes up sometimes...
I’ve worked on being a good trio player – being able to play rhythms evenly, getting rid of accents, dynamics in my playing, even just learning to accept all kinds of interpretation from the other musicians.. About accents: This is from Adele’s ‘Set Fire To The Rain’:
“But there’s a side to you that I NEver knew, NEver knew All the things you’d say, they were NEver true, NEver true…“
---If I make too much of those accents, then drums playing anything else won’t fit – because I’ve limited our possibilities by phrasing emphatically. It usually leads to deeper ensemble playing if I barely state accents or get rid of them altogether. But then I also have to pick directions to give the band something to play off of! It’s kind of a tightrope. Let’s just say that if I don’t keep practicing, I really notice it.
RP: Tell me – where does rehearsal fit into the picture?
LD: Ast the moment, we’re performing four nights a week. —so there’s very little outside rehearsal. A lot of the so-called ‘rehearsal’ happened when I was learning the tune, before I brought it in. If I’m playing with someone different, I’ll choose more obvious music -- we have a lot of songs, I avoid things that might pose a problem. I might say, start with this texture, then figure out what to do. Mostly, I’m not interested in replicating a recorded version of a song – I’m interested in tonight’s interpretation. This doesn’t end up feeling lassez-faire either, because I’m disciplined about my assimilation of the tune – that makes it easy for the guys. If a tune is too difficult to put together in this way, I wouldn’t spring it on us on the gig, if it’s extreme, I won’t even bring it to the group. That’s not just about how much rehearsal we get, it’s also – part of our aesthetic is that I prefer the sound of the group at ease, not scuffling.
When we record –– THEN we have focused rehearsals. I like to arrange for recording – But I like to avoid a lot of the obvious “this sounds arranged, or “this sounds composed" sounds. I don’t know why so many musicians - even great ones – keep using the same "unsurprising surprises" - like movies where you can hear the writers writing.
CM: What do you mean by (album title) The Best Of All Possible Worlds?
LD: in Voltaire’s novel, Candide, Pangloss keeps saying “We live in the best of all possible worlds", even though discussing the devestating Lisbon earthquake... Reading Candide, you’re laughing WITH or you’re laughing AT. It’s a vivid image that attracted me, not a direct description of the music.
RP: So you’re not really combining something traditional with something modern? I assumed that you were.
LD: No -- and basing artistic choices on an agenda never works out for me. The only thing that seems to work, you know, is hearing something, trying it and seeing if it wants to stick around. If I decide by other means than direct experience of sound and playing, I’m fucked. It just doesn't work out, you know? The songs attracted me and I felt we had something to say on them. That’s it. Everything on TBOAPW is from the 70s or later. No jazz standards this time. Jerry’s tune Ersatz Waltz is the most traditional-jazz sounding piece on the CD. His great tune did get a little bit of an arrangement, just to bring it into the world of the other material.
RP: Do you enjoy recording something of great contrast to what the original artist did?
LD: Mostly, when I’m really in the music, previous versions of a song no longer matter. I won’t know what’s possible until we’ve performed a song a few times. Sometimes I’ve heard the original after we’ve been playing a tune a few months and thought, “Ah, you know, there’s something good about this that I’ve lost". And sometimes I’ll try to get that thing back again. So things might evolve in either direction. I might add sections, phrases in other keys. I’m no purist. I object to the idea of purism. If we’re going to be purists, why don’t we all speak like Chaucer wrote? The language keeps evolving, the music keeps evolving. If you’re going to be a musical purist, then which year, which group?
RP: (laughing) So any thoughts of doing a version of the (Beethoven) Minuet In G someday?
LD: Only if I heard it calling to me! I’ve brought some classical music, we play a couple of things… A madrigal by Jacob Arcadelt, the Bach Air On The G string. There could be some nice choices, but thus far they haven’t called to me.
RP: I’ll ask you a recording question. Obviously when you play live, there’s one pianist; one bassist; one drummer. Do you ever overdub new layers of yourselves playing so there are more than three people playing on a track?
I’ve thought about things like that, recording a tune with two drummers or two bassists. I’ve thought about things like that. On these albums there’s very little outside of the trio playing together.
On our version of “All I Really Want", you know, I got a DJ involved. At some point during mixing I had the bass muted, was only hearing piano and drums, and it was like, well this actually sounds interesting; then I started thinking about a turntablist! so I emailed DJ Rob Swift, I’d been a fan for a while. He was great to work with, and he really changed the character of the tune, and I tossed out a good bit of the arranged material, shortened the song to react to what he’d done. I had (bassist) Larry come back and record again, listening to Rob’s work. And then I ended up doing something very odd -- cutting up little bits of the bass lines and layering them, like samples. And that was the right thing for that tune. I’d add a barking Rottweiler if it was right for a tune,
CM: You want to talk about the new album or not yet?
LD: Yeah, sure! So, we’re working on ROCKET SCIENCE, probably will be finished in June 2012 and it’s pretty similar in the external aspects. Ryan McGillicuddy has been playing bass with us for 10 months, and he just brings a different thing, something else to the group. So our playing has evolved through his contributions. We’re nothing if not sensitive! The song choices are rather ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) – pop; folk songs; something of mine; other things.
RP: Jazz versions?
LD: I’m going to have to disavow the ‘jazz’ word here. There’s too much stylistic baggage. I’m a musician of my time.
RP: Huh, hmmmm…
LD: So, anyway, we have the new album… the recording process was similar. We recorded in two days. We had a video crew there one of the days. There was some detailed arranging and rehearsing. So the general process was pretty similar. The group is evolving, it’s sort of a different animal. The CD reflects what I’ve encountered musically over the last year, become aware of. During pre-production I started to over-arrange the songs. I caught myself and tossed out a lot of what I’d done. I’m very glad that I did.
RP: Okay. I have to back up a bit to something you just said. Now you’re sort of saying ‘I’m not a jazz musician’, ‘I’m just playing and it’s not jazz’.
LD: Jazz was once (famously) defined as “the sound of surprise". I like that. I don’t think the musicians and the public would agree with that definition though. The controversies over the years about various artists “killing jazz" with rock, classical, or R&B influences paint a different picture.
Perhaps we are jazz musicians through and through, but don't fit onto a radio playlist or a festival program because we’re playing unusual songs and tempos! (we did have a lot of airplay in USA, but on college radio, much more than the jazz stations)
RP: When you say ‘a tune speaks to me’, I know for myself, I pretty much am always going to gravitate toward minor keys. Do you have those sorts of preferences?
LD: I’m interested in erasing my preferences and predilections. I’m also tired of hearing people natter on and on about the greatest music, movies and books - funny, they’re always talking about things they heard at age sixteen! I’m sick of hearing everyone’s age sixteen imprints... Personally, I’m done with my old tastes. I keep looking for things that I haven’t considered, and wondering how to make them work.
We live in a musical renaissance! If the musicians would stop saying everything new is crap!
RP: How do new sounds influence your own writing of original compositions?
LD: When I write now I often don’t recognize myself and I find that better. That’s so much better. I was just at the Coachella music festival for three days; funny, I didn’t run into any of my jazz colleagues there. I came back and started writing a tune inspired by Snoop Dog’s set. I was thinking, ‘Listen to this tune, I don’t even know who I am anymore!’ and that’s so much better. Boredom is pretty much my secret weapon. I’ve cultivated the ability to become dissatisfied with my own tastes, my ears, my thinking, my world, my culture, my language, my century. It keeps me restless, keeps me searching.