Milwaukee Shepherd-Express

In the early days, what led you down the path to a career in music? More specifically, what drew you to jazz?

I grew up around music – my dad and all the musicians and his band, plus my dad’s record collection, which consisted of the great jazz music of the times – early ’40s. I loved it all and felt a part of this group from the very beginning.

Following on that same theme, what attracted you to keyboards? What are the advantages and limitations to playing keyboards compared to other instruments?

I think the creative imagination knows no bounds. I just happened to choose the piano from the very beginning. I just liked it. A combination of percussion and melody and harmony all wrapped into the same instrument.

You performed a lot with Miles Davis during several of his most influential periods. Any thoughts on what led Miles down the musical roads he traveled when you knew him? What did you learn from him, both as a musician and as a person, during your tenure together?

Miles was unrestrained, creatively. He had an independent attitude toward music and life and held to it with integrity. This artistic integrity he demonstrated his whole musical life and is what really inspired me so greatly.

I once saw you perform with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra with Bobby McFerrin conducting. I believe you played something by Mozart, although I’m not sure. Can you contrast and compare performing classical music with performing jazz, particularly in terms of what goes on in the mind of the musician performing it at the time?

This is a very interesting subject, and one which I’m highly interested in. It’s the bringing together of what has become two almost separate worlds of music. The world of improvisation and the world of written music.

The only answer for me is to continue to play any music that I play with the same aesthetic approach – which is to make it beautiful and have it communicate to the listener the best I can.

I’ve grown up with improvisation as my main musical approach – so the rendering of classical music scores and even my own fully written music scores is another technique and discipline which I’m learning more and more about – the results which I’m very excited about pursuing.

Who were your main musical influences? Did any one keyboard player or other musician stand out in the impact he/she had on you? Please explain.

Really, the list is quite long, although you can put at the top of the list the pianists that came through Miles Davis’ band just before me, including Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Horace Silver. Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were the first pianist/composers that really inspired me and whose music I transcribed a lot to learn the techniques of.

Also, Duke Ellington is a favorite pianist of mine and of course a very inspiring composer. But The Man is and always will be Art Tatum!

Tell me about the Akoustic Band you’re performing with on your current tour. What can listeners expect musically from this group compared to some of your other collaborations?

Dave, John and I are having a big blast playing together as an acoustic trio again. We’ve made a new live recording which we’re offering on tour, and playing a relatively new repertoire including some old chestnuts as well.

You’ve collaborated with a wide variety of master musicians over your career. What collaborations came most easily, which were the most challenging, and why? And who would you like to still collaborate with?

My first duet collaborations were with Gary Burton and then with Herbie Hancock. These associations were like stepping into old, comfortable shoes – old friendships – mutual admiration – a shared musical language – and easy rapport.

I continued my duet with Bobby McFerrin for a long time as well. This was a more unusual one for me, because of the specialness of Bobby as a vocalist and a musician. Playing with a singer usually has me as an accompanist. But with Bobby it was always a real duet musical relationship.

Another unusual duet, but one that I love, is my music making with Béla Fleck. A slightly unlikely combination – piano and banjo – but with a musician like Béla really an adventure and a lot of fun.

Shorter term but very fruitful and adventurous piano duets I’ve had are with Makoto 小曽根 真 Ozone, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Stefano Bolani, Hiromi, and more recently Brad Mehldau.

I also very much enjoyed playing the Mozart double piano concerto with Keith Jarrett many many years ago – the one memorable time we played 2 pianos together.

In the late Sixties you were involved rather heavily with Scientology, saying that it helped you better connect with the world and your audiences. Can you explain to me briefly how that greater awareness came about? Are you still a practicing Scientologist?

I’ve been studying L. Ron Hubbard’s work and using it in my life successfully since 1968.

There’s so much in his written words and lectures to learn from. I immediately connected with his basic tenant that truth is what is true for you. I have come to understand the idea more and more that what makes great art is the artist maintaining his individual view of creativity.

Following on that same theme, what do you want most for your audiences when you play?

I’m happy when I see my audiences smiling and enjoying the music, or in some way experiencing pleasure from it. I’m sure each individual in the audience experiences the music his own personal way. But live performance of music is one of those archetypal experiences where I see the results in front of my eyes while I’m playing.

Music and Art are a kind of antidote to the Darkside of life – so it’s a pleasure to be able to deliver this every time I play.