In your recent Grammy acceptance speech with vibraphonist Gary Burton you mentioned a common intention among dedicated musicians: “to bring pleasure and beauty to people in the world.” Besides your talent, what kind of attitude do you bring to the piano that allows you to tap into that source of beauty which is music? Does it still escape you some days and how do you get back on track?
I think most musicians and artists enjoy bringing some form of pleasure to their audiences. It’s a tacit, in-built intent. Actually it seems to be native to all people – to want to bring pleasure. It’s a social impulse. I feel like there’s a kind of teamwork involved – whether spoken about or not. This may be the larger “beauty of music” as you put it. The nightly response from different audiences tend to keep me “on track.”
In your performance last year in Reading you spoke about your father’s reverence for Miles Davis. You played with Davis when you were still in your 20s, what is it like to interact so closely with one of your heroes? What can you tell us about your time with Davis that is not evident in the music? What was your impression of this legend as a human being? Could you share a Miles anecdote?
Miles loved music and musicians and everything about them. His caring way of encouraging individual creativity in all his bands is the best example of this. He knew I was uncomfortable sometimes around him – having so much respect for him – he often tried to ease this by talking about things other than music – like cooking, cars or clothing fashions. He was having fun showing me his wardrobe once and pulled out a shirt. He asked me if I liked it – I said “Yeah” – - them he handed it to me – - “Here, it’s yours.”
So much of what I loved about music and jazz got confirmed and strengthened being close to Miles those fleeting years.
I’ve been told you will go solo during the upcoming performance at Musikfest Café, What are the challenges of this kind of show versus the group interplay? What can we expect besides a healthy amount of improvisation?
The challenge is that of keeping an audience interested in one sound – the piano – over the course of a whole performance. I’m never sure what to expect – and so don’t know what to tell you or the audience to expect – I’m always trying different ways to present myself with just the piano.
And speaking of improvisation, could you describe what it feels like to be that close to the music? How much of it can be explain through musical knowledge and what portions of it defy explanation? Pianist Vijay Iyer once told me that music can transport him to state of mind that alters his perception of time. Dave Liebman says that while he’s playing he feels like he is travelling around in the ether. Paco de Lucia says there are moments in which he feels like he is floating and he can say anything. What is it like for you?
It seems to me that making music comes from the most basic impulse a person has – - the one to create – to make something happen – to have something cool to do. I love it when I can successfully invite an audience into this flow of creativity. I think the audience creates as well with their acknowledgements and understanding – - they add the emotional response that tells me we’re going along the same track together. It’s easy to lose listeners by getting too involved in my personal experiments – - although, that even works sometimes if the atmosphere is very relaxed. Making music is a natural state for me – - it’s what all the rest of life should be like – - creative, a pleasure, and mainly an adventure.
I always enjoy your renditions of Bud Powell’s work, particularly when you pluck the piano strings with one hand while still keeping the melody with the other. I know this is one of your many tools. At what point did you incorporate this technique into your performance?What were you hearing within that the 88 piano keys alone could reproduce?
Finding and using different sounds and techniques all are an effort to keep interest – my own and the audience’s. The piano, like any instrument, is the “tool” we use to communicate the emotions and ideas. The sounds must be “beautiful” or “interesting” enough to carry the idea across. I found that going “inside the piano” helped vary the timbre sometimes – - freshen the attention – and just add more sound and atmosphere.
What advice can you give to the young lions of jazz? Which young pianists do you admire?
Well – - I believe that all advice is “cheap advice” – to the degree that the one accepting it and then doing it has the responsibility for the result no matter what the advice was or who it came from. So to trust one’s own final judgement in all matters especially artistic and musical is the only “advice” the always finally works. It’s demonstrable. You can ask every artist this same question and I bet you’ll get some version of “just think for yourself” – or “trust what you hear”.
Another Miles anecdote:
When I spoke to Miles on the phone a few days before my first gig in his band, I asked him “Will there be a rehearsal? How can I prepare?” His immediate answer was “Nah, no rehearsal – just play what you hear.” That was the greatest vote of confidence I could’ve gotten. That’s what I did – - and soon found out that that’s what Miles, Wayne, Tony and Dave Holland were also doing!
Have you been to the Deer Head Inn? Are you familiar with the Jazz scene in the Poconos? What is your favorite kind of place to play Jazz?
I’m looking forward to re-visiting “the mountains.” I like any venue where there are interested people on the scene. But the “jazz club” will always remain my favorite.
Do you ever dwell on old performances? Do today’s shows match the energy that you experienced playing during the 60s and 70s?
I don’t dwell on old performances – which is kind of a “death knell” – and I’ll leave up to you and the audience the answer to the second half of your question.