My friend and sometime musical collaborater Leo Ferguson is releasing an album of his adventurous jazz compositions and arrangements.
As part of the album’s extended liner notes, I interviewed Leo on May 5, 2011. Here’s an edited transcript; you can also hear the audio on Leo’s site.
Ethan: I’ve known you for a long time. I met you because you played the drums in a band that my sister had, called the Vestpocket Psalm.
Leo: That’s true, a very long time ago.
Ethan: A little background: The Vestpocket Psalm was the only punk band that I can stand.
Leo: That only says that you haven’t been exposed to the right punk. It’s got nothing to do with our talent or quality.
Ethan: No, it was very cool stuff. A lot of like odd time signatures and anticipating the “no-bass-player” trend of so much contemporary indie rock.
Leo: That’s true. We were early on that.
Ethan: A lot of rapping and more kind of spoken stuff than singing per se. It was really happening.
Ethan: I bring up the Vestpocket Psalm partially out of my personal connection. But also because the Vestpocket Psalm owed a lot to PJ Harvey.
Leo: That is totally true.
Ethan: And PJ Harvey plays into your album, because you do two of her songs. Now, you’re certainly not the only jazz musician arranger/composer who likes the more contemporary types of rock. There are the Bad Plus and there’s Brad Mehldau who does all those Radiohead tunes but it’s still a minority view of sort, right? Given that you generally like this much more kind of harmonically active — like Wayne Shorter where there’s a lot of chord changes that are not very functional, PJ Harvey who’s extremely minimalist is a surprising choice.
Leo: Yeah. Well, it’s funny — not to me. PJ Harvey actually seems not, I won’t say obvious, but you could cover any PJ Harvey tune, even some of the most recent albums, but certainly anything on Dry or Rid of Me — those early albums, because she’s so hooked into the blues, you know what I mean?
Leo: That all of that stuff is so blues inflected. Every time I sit down to do an arrangement I have to be, like, “PJ Harvey is off limits,” because tyou could do an entire album of PJ Harvey tunes and it would work. But I know what you mean. It’s a big challenge for me because I am interested in all of this more modern music, pop music. In particular, I’m really fascinated by getting more hip-hop into jazz. And yet, that has proven to be a huge challenge because it’s so harmonically simple that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it. I’ve actually been working for at least a year or two now on trying to arrange hip-hop tunes into jazz tunes and I’ve got probably the beginnings of about twenty things and none of them are finished. I have one. There’s a Busta Rhymes tune that I actually have a working arrangement of that actually turned out very well. But it’s tricky. I’m on it. I think it’s an interesting challenge.
You think of jazz from a harmonic standpoint and you think about bebop and you think about complicated, difficult harmony, and a lot of functional harmony, then later on, a lot of interesting, weird, nonfunctional harmony. But, of course, there’s all this modal stuff and free, you know, Ornette Coleman, and Coltrane, and late Coltrane. Everything from modal up to free [jazz]. There’s no reason why any of that stuff should then not work well with something like a hip-hop tune if you wanted to cover it as a starting point, as a jumping off point. What they so often did was took more popular songs and simplified the harmonies, right?
Leo: You take a pop tune and cut out a whole bunch of the changes. But, of course, there’s all this pop music that actually — a lot of our music barely has any changes and that stuff might as well be a Coltrane tune. There’s a rich, rich vein there.
Ethan: Yeah. Let’s talk about your writing process. You’re a drummer. You’re a very good drummer.
Leo: My family — I come from a musical family. And in particular, my uncle, who’s an incredibly talented cellist, and pianist, and guitar player. His kids are — actually, his son is a drummer, but his daughter is a bassist and pianist.
Ethan: The other bit of background of our relationship is that we were in a band together for a little while. It was a jazz group that I had that went through many different drummers and you were by far the best one.
Leo: Well, that is very nice for you to say.
Ethan: And the band really sounded amazing right until it broke up.
Leo: As will happen. Well, hey, all of the best bands that broke up — we went out like legends.
Ethan: No, it’s true. But now, the musical standards for jazz drumming are much higher, right, than in other forms of music. You’re expected to have a command over the kit that is much more — I guess, you need to know a lot more music, right? You’re not just keeping time. You’re playing tonal stuff.
Leo: Yeah. I think that’s true. I think that anyone in any form of music can decide to — it’s up to up to bring yourself up to the level — to set the challenge that you want to meet, and anyone can sort of take on this thing. But I think the baseline standard, you’re right, is higher, outside of classical percussion or something like that.
Ethan: Yeah, fair enough. Except that in jazz you also have to be able to improvise, which the classical guys generally can’t do. But even given that sort of general high baseline standard, you also know how to play piano. I remember going to your house at one point and you were working out one the Goldberg Variations.
Leo: Some other Bach thing. I’m a horrifyingly bad pianist. I say this now for the record. I just played a friend of mine something I recorded on vibes ways back as a way of warning him. I was like, “You don’t ever want to hire me to play vibes in your band. Here’s why.” I know what the keys mean.
Ethan: Yeah, fine. But there are a lot of drummers who don’t. You certainly could have had a long and satisfying life as a drummer without ever getting hold of that.
Leo: That’s true.
Ethan: Look, I know a lot of guitar players who don’t know how to play piano.
Leo: That’s true. I think these days, if you go to school for — if you’re a performance major they usually make you learn enough piano to not embarrass yourself, which is — I would say I’m slightly below that level. But, yes. I certainly compose at the piano.
Ethan: OK. But definitely, outside the world of jazz, this sort of multi-functionality is pretty unusual and pretty remarkable. Now, you mentioned the vibes as if to say that, “Oh, well. I play piano so, of course, I play vibes.” But that also is not necessarily the case. Definitely, the vibes, seems like a bit of a lost art.
Leo: Yeah. It’s true. Well, this instruments seems like they go through phases of popularity that sort of wax and wane as it were. You’re right. There’s people like Stefon Harris who are doing really, really badass stuff on the vibes. Chris Dingman, he’s all over New York and he’s a really great vibist, does interesting New Music and also really interesting jazz stuff. But it’s definitely true that the further we got from vaudeville, the less — the harder it is to find people who really want to play the vibes. I think there are reasons. As the styles of jazz that changed, they’ve sort of drawn on the strengths and weaknesses of different instruments more and less. I think vibes, in some ways, are a little bit in the same position as a jazz guitar in a sense that they are sort of… I don’t want to sound like I’m deriding these instruments, but they have a more limited expressive range.
Ethan: They sound how they sound.
Leo: They sound how they sound. And so, I think really up through the fifties, jazz had gone from music that had a more slightly narrower expressive bag of tricks that certain people tend to use to solo. Then, certainly bebop involved a lot of running lines and those things all are very well suited to guitar and vibes and stuff. Then, by the time you get into the 60s, the saxophone just took over utterly as the kind of, the dominant instrument in jazz groups because of Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, and people like that. I think that people got less interested in things like vibes and — it’s not like people stopped playing any of these instruments. Certainly, a guitar, just because it’s so portable and everything it will always be popular…
Ethan: Yeah. Vibes are not portable.
Leo: These are not portable. I think I have back issues that will attest to that.
Ethan: Yeah. I will freely confess to you that I did a film score that had some vibes on it and I did them with MIDI.
Leo: Fair enough. ‘Cause, I would not have schlepped them over here.
Ethan: But that brings up a thing. Let’s talk about MIDI and let’s talk about your writing process.
Leo: Sure, absolutely.
Ethan: When you say you’re writing on the piano, do you mean the piano or a MIDI?
Leo: No. I mean like a shitty Casio keyboard.
Ethan: Well, but are you using the sound of the piano or are you — OK. Let me get a little background for those of you who are not hep to the way music composition works. There is this computer program called Sibelius some people use.
Leo: That’s what I use. Yeah.
Ethan: There’s another one called Finale. Finale sucks. Don’t get Finale.
Leo: Sibelius sucks too. They both suck in their own special way. Every day, I’m like, “I’m going back to writing just with paper and pencil.”
Ethan: All right. But Sibelius is to music notation as Microsoft Word is to writing, right? You can write out your music with a pencil on staff paper just like you can do your writing with pencil on paper. But it’s much easier to just use Sibelius because you can edit, and you can copy and paste, and do all these things. But another thing that Sibelius does is it lets you simulate the sound of all the different instruments, and it does it in a cheesy and fake way, but if you’re, “Oh, I wonder how an oboe would sound playing this part,” you can just drop that in.
Ethan: Is that, in fact, what you do? Do you work out all these parts in Sibelius?
Leo: I do work out all these parts in Sibelius. I used to write with paper and pencil for a long time. I only got Sibelius like two years ago or something like that. But it has just totally changed my whole writing process and made it a shit-ton easier, although I do miss the tactile-ness [of pencil and paper]. It varies a lot from tune to tune and from section of tune to section of tune. There are things that I absolutely know before I even sit down. I know what they are in my head and I know what I want them to sound like. I know what instruments I want them played on or I have some general idea of what kind of thing I want. I need figure out what the exact notes are, what precise little thing is there.
But by and large, I literally am just sitting down with the piano and I’m messing around for fun and then I come up with something weird, something that I want to keep and actually use. Historically the most common approach to composing for ensemble music is to write at the piano… Usually, it’s a pianist, a real pianist, who really just play something on the piano that they like and they write it down and then they orchestrate it after the fact. Certainly, this is how things like film scores are composed where they’re working in a big rush and usually the composer doesn’t even do the orchestration. There is someone sitting there. There’s a copyist, and there’s an arranger, and there are people sitting there who are working with him and he’ll sit at the piano and say, “I think it’d sound cool if when Darth Vader walks into the room, it goes like this.” Then, he might say, “It would sound good with timpani and bassoon,” or something like that and hands it off to — “There’s a lot of horns here,” and then hand it off to an orchestrator who then takes those big chords and decides which notes are gonna go to which instruments and which sections. That is just bizarre to me. I can’t imagine it. Because to me, it’s those tone of colors and all those things, that is the music. That’s it, you know what I mean?
Leo: Otherwise, we could all just listen to everything being played on tubas and we’d be just as happy and we could all go home. We wouldn’t need any other instruments. It’s very funny. In fact, I used to do — when I was younger, I was really into photography and there are lots of photographers who they give their photos to someone else do the printing and that sort of thing. That was always mysterious to me too. It’s like, “Wait. Don’t you wanna make it come out the way you want it to come out?” For me, when I write, I would say that a large majority of the time when I come up with a melody or whatever, I go in knowing what instruments generally it’s going to be on and I write bit by bit towards the instruments that I’m working with. I’ve usually decided already on what palette I have. I know what instruments are going to be in my ensemble for practical and artistic reasons. Then, I start writing towards those instruments. Does that answer your question?
Ethan: Yeah. There’s two schools of thought to approaching a recording. One is to really map everything out meticulously ahead of time and the other is to have the melody written out but then everything else you just come up with in the room.
Leo: Yeah. Well, again, it varies from tune to tune. For one thing, just by virtue of practicality and one of the things, this is just been such an intense learning process for me. You do a project — the learning curve is so steep and you just learn so much doing it and that’s what’s so amazing. Certainly, one of the things you learn is that you have to be pragmatic. If you don’t have an infinite budget, if you don’t have a giant recording company backing you for lots of rehearsals and whatever orchestra you want, then you can write anything you want to but good luck getting it played. I already write music, it’s very difficult, and I have incredibly talented musicians but they have different strengths and weaknesses and I’ve learned to write towards those strengths and weaknesses as much as I can and still get the music that I want.
Improvisation vs composition
Leo: Of course, some of the music of this material that I just recorded is very through-composed. I think if I have any… the closest thing to a manifesto or an agenda, it’s that I’m really interested in bringing composing back to jazz at a level that’s more thoughtful and serious than I think it often has been of late.
Ethan: Now, let’s talk about that for a second because there is a wide misconception in jazz about jazz that everything is just…
Leo: Everything is improvised.
Ethan: Right. You quoted to me from some racist old movie from the 40s.
Leo: Yes, via Branford Marsalis actually. I cannot remember what it was. But basically, it’s just somebody, some jazz musician, probably a white guy in an old movie going, “Well, jazz, you just pick up your horn and play what you feel,” and that’s pretty much it. And I know lots of grown adults who’ve been taught some version of that in music history class or. It is a wide misconception.
Ethan: Right. There is some basis to it. There are some practitioners of jazz who do operate that way.
Leo: Sure, absolutely.
Ethan: But a lot of what you are hearing — either, right, it’s written out in its entirety or substantially planned. Duke Ellington, who we both, I think, admire is the wrong word…
Leo: Too small a word.
Ethan: I think, revere as to a deity. A lot of his famous stuff is through-composed. Right down to the solos.
Leo: Yes, absolutely. Now, I will say, my understanding of Duke’s process is that often, those solos were solos that were improvised and perhaps recorded and then the soloist would then, because it was a hit solo, would probably learn his own solo back off the recording and then play it the exact same way. It wasn’t like necessarily that Duke necessarily thought out every little lick that people were gonna play. But, yes, by and large.
Ethan: Right. Anytime you’re hearing something played by a large ensemble in jazz, just logically, you know that that stuff was written out. You cannot have seventeen people improvise. Coltrane attempted it but…
Leo: There are a number of people who’ve attempted it. I’ve heard some really interesting Sam Rivers stuff. But even that — most of those people — it’s rare that it’s not structured in some way. People don’t usually have the idea of going in with a large ensemble without the idea that they’re gonna provide some kind of structure to it.
Ethan: Yeah. But even so, historically, when people have been through-composing in the jazz idiom they have tended to stick to the formulas, right? The popular-song structures and the blues-based riffs. You have departed pretty wildly.
Man On Wire
Ethan: The first track of your album I would say pretty much the boldest statement on there. It’s called “Man On Wire. Subtitled: Invisible, a mutt like me and other balancing acts.”
Leo: Yes. The title is long like the piece.
Ethan: The musical ambition, the complexity, the through-composed-ness of it, and the length, really all to me suggest modern classical music more than anything. It’s funny that the word jazz at this point — it’s a big tent, right?
Leo: It is a very big tent, yes.
Ethan: It is a very big tent. It’s remarkable that you could — you don’t have to even parenthetically say it’s a classical-jazz thing. You can say it’s a jazz thing even though formally…
Leo: Yeah. As I do this music, especially these longer, large ensemble pieces — I’m very aware of the fact that the shorthand that I think a lot of people would use is, “It’s classical mixed with jazz,” or, “It’s third-stream music,” or however you want to call it. Which doesn’t bother me at all. It is a totally legit shorthand. [But] it’s not even a tiny bit how I think about it when I’m writing it. That’s not at all a goal of mine — to get classical music into jazz or something like that. I just hear some music in my head and I write it down. We associate composition with classical music more than we associate it with jazz.
Once you start throwing oboes and things like that, and bassoons in there, then it gets more “classical-y.” Classical music in general but especially in the twentieth century is just this vast expansion of the breadth of how you can use composition and what you can get at. The breadth of what is, I don’t know the right word — I don’t want to say permissible — but just, modern classical composition has come to… I mean, talk about a big tent, right?
The idea that you can sit there and that a composer can talk in very specific ways or very broad ways using the full language of harmony, melody, tonality, atonality, all these different things to do whatever they want to do musically. It’s incredibly freeing and exciting. It can even be too freeing and too exciting at times. And so for me, what’s interesting is I love jazz — I think of my music as jazz. I’m very proud of that. It’s not because I think there’s something better about classical music. But the idea that you could take the level of ambition that you find in that kind of composition and bring it into jazz composition — taking everything that’s good about jazz: the blues, and swing, and all the things that we love about jazz but saying, “If we’re going to compose…” It’s sort of a pet peeve of mine that you look at any jazz musician at any level of accomplishment — famous, unknown, whatever — and you go to their websites, every single one of them will say such and such is a “saxophonist and composer.” Maybe you are really serious about it. But 80% of them took a class in college, or they’ve written a couple of head arrangements, you know what I mean?
Leo: You’re a “composer” and freaking Shostakovich is a composer. It’s like there’s not that level of seriousness. It’s just isn’t there. People aren’t that interested. I’m not saying that I’m succeeding or that I’m that good but that’s what interests me, is saying if you are going to compose — compose the shit out of some shit.
Ethan: Right. You do compose the shit out of some shit. Yeah. Definitely, the opening sections of Man On Wire, there is a lot of this vocabulary of the 20th century classical traditions. There’s a scraping… what’s the guy’s name, Crumb, right? Where you are intentionally playing “wrong” sounds on the instruments.
Leo: Sure. A lot of very closely spaced dyads and that kinda language where you’re getting sort of strange sounds.
Ethan: Yeah. There’s a repetitiveness to it. Now, of course, jazz is very repetitive but in this music the repetition feels very different. It doesn’t feel like the repetition you would hear on a blues song or a pop song. It feels like a repetition that you would hear on a Philip Glass piece.
Leo: Yes, right. The repetitions are of a much shorter time spans so that it obliterates melody a little bit and you see these figures, repeating figures. Yeah, what can I say about that. I think if you listen to this music it would not be at all surprising that I dig Steve Reich a lot.
Ethan: All thinking people do.
Leo: Yeah. Again, I don’t think that this music particularly sounds like that but there is a vocabulary that I find really, really appealing. There’s something about that he has. There’s a sound word that he kind of goes into. That was actually one of the earliest things that got me into classical music when I was a teenager. That I find really resonant and it was definitely something that I knew was going to crop up in one form or another in my music. I think it makes for a pretty interesting contrast but then you have this very stretched out long solo improvised section that it makes for an interesting contrast. I’m not the first person to do this by the way. I think I’m kind of almost the first person. You might hate it. You might think it’s the wrong thing to do but I do think it’s kind of original. But I am drawing a little bit on the work of Pete La Roca, who’s a really interesting jazz drummer.
Ethan: Oh, right. I didn’t know that.
Leo: Yeah. Who played with Sonny Rollins and Coltrane a little bit, and a number of other people, and then kind of dropped out of the scene for a long time. He has I think two albums as a leader that he recorded in the 60s, which one of which especially, Turkish Women at the Bath, he clearly was listening to early minimalists. I don’t know, La Monte Young or I don’t know who he was listening to, but it’s in his music in a big way and it was the first little clue that I had that there might be something there that you could be. It was like, “Oh, wow. You could get this into jazz somehow,” and bring these languages together in a way that actually made some kind of sense. That’s a beautiful fascinating album.
Ethan: Let’s talk about Coltrane for a second, another colossal figure on the landscape. He’s somebody who really, especially in his later years, took these short phrases and would repeat them and repeat them and repeat them and then move them to different keys. I do wonder if he had lived longer, it seems like he would he was starting to explore overdubbing a little bit. It seems like he would have found about Steve Reich eventually. It’s sad to speculate.
Leo: I know Steve Reich used to go see Coltrane.
Ethan: Oh, really?
Leo: Yeah. He’s talked about that in interviews — going to see him at the Five Spot or whatever.
Ethan: Yeah. Given that this interest in repetition between Steve Reich and Philip Glass and the entire world of jazz is such a thing, that seemed inevitable that there’s gonna be more convergence.
Leo: Yeah. This actually goes back to your earlier question about the software because although I think I would have done this regardless because it was something that interested me, there is something funny about the fact that if you’re repeating a phrase, you’re cutting-and-pasting. There’s something about technology making it so easy to just sort of… It’s right there in front of you. You almost feel like, how could you not go through, you know, at least a phase?
Ethan: Speaking of phase. There’s something that happens in the piano in this piece which is really neat and I want to ask you about it. I’m just gonna queue it up on the iPod here. Yeah. Definitely hear Steve Reich in there.
Leo: Oh, yeah.
Ethan: Now, was that done with overdubbing?
Leo: Nope. That was not. That was live in the studio, my friend.
Leo: Absolutely. This piece was recorded — it’s written for two pianos and was recorded with two pianos, which was an undertaking and a half…
Ethan: Wow. That was impressive.
Leo: …finding a studio and everything. Everything that was there could have been done live basically. It just was a matter of budget and reality that without an infinite amount of studio time there’s gonna be mistakes in things that you want and go back and fix later. But that was absolutely tracked as heard. That’s Alex Marcelo on the left channel and Heather Hall on the right channel, and it goes right into Alex’s really pretty stunning piano solo.
Ethan: Yeah. Alex is pretty badass.
Leo: He’s really bad ass.
Ethan: It’s interesting because in places it’s very lyrical, and then in places it’s insanely hectic, and all the way out into Cecil Taylor land.
Leo: Yeah. I could just gush about Alex for hours. Everyone who’s heard it they just exclaim about the piano thing. I’m in awe of him. I can say that I have a real affinity for a jazz piano. I really love piano in general as an instrument. There is no one — you can give me an infinite budget and you could give my pick of Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, or whoever, whatever you want, and I would still want to work with Alex. I just find him to be a great and I feel I have a real connection with his playing. But one thing that maybe should be clear and what was interesting to me, if you look at all the different pieces on this album, they range all over the place. Because I’m just really interested in — I love jazz as a form and I’m really interested in many different kinds of jazz and many different periods of jazz and want to get it all in there somewhere. One of the things I love Alex’s playing is that he just seems to have it all inside of him. He can turn on a dime from playing something completely wackadoo and Alex to playing something that sounds like it comes out of Duke Ellington, and anything in between. He’s somehow seems to have just be able to channel all these different ideas and influences that seem to touch on every different moment in jazz, from the 30s to the 2000s, and it’s really amazing.
Ethan: Do you pretty much just wind him up and let him go? Or are you saying, “OK, in measure 57, I want Cecil Taylor and then…”
Leo: Yes. I chart it all out by influence and bar number. No. I wind him up and let him go. It’s interesting. That was actually one of the first times that we really got stretched out and played together. These solos on this actual recording are the first time we ever just dug in and played together. I was very comfortable. That’s one of the things about jazz, it’s just the trust. I sit there at the piano and I can try to plan for every little thing and the music is pretty detailed and there’s a lot of, you know, but then you have to be open to the complete opposite when you get in the studio. You don’t know what’s it’s gonna sound like. I had no idea what he was really gonna do once we started playing any more than I really had a great sense of what I was gonna do. But I trusted him and I think the result is pretty cool. Now, I’m in rehearsals with him in a smaller quartet of my music also. There is this little more time to talk about it and figure things out but even there I’m much more interested in being about trust and leaving it to breathe like that. We’ll try stuff out in rehearsal and there might be some section where he ends up playing a little stride piano kind of line because it just sounds cool. Then I’ll say, “OK. That’s really cool. We could do that the next time we play too,” if that works really well there but I generally leave that open to him or for all of my musicians in general and those contacts, I’ll say, “Or whatever else you think would work there.” Because I want them to be free to just have a wacky idea on this spur of the moment and go. It’s much more interesting than planning it out.
Ethan: All right. I’m going to play another part. This is coming out of your drum solo, which is very quiet.
Leo: It comes from playing drums in my apartment and not wanting to annoy my neighbors.
Ethan: Twenty minutes into the piece, everything somehow feels very lyrical and very tonal and really pretty. There’s a real kind of film score quality to this passage.
Leo: Oh, cool. That’s interesting.
Ethan: It’s very evocative. It does that one-to-flat-six move. It’s an interesting sound because it’s dark but it’s not dissonant or threatening.
Leo: Yes, it’s moody.
Ethan: Yeah. It’s not quite full blown Freddy Krueger but it’s definitely not happy. It’s a really complex emotional quality to the sound.
Leo: Well, I think it’s the thing too. That’s a perfect example why I find it so strange to think about composing without thinking about the instruments that you are composing for. Because that works in a very particular quality that has there because I just can’t imagine any other arrangement of instruments making that work in that particular way. You got oboe and a flute playing this very floating, pretty line above the piano playing this bombastic almost kind of chords. Then you got the horn in there giving it this slightly, I don’t even know how you describe it, but it’s certainly a grand kind of quality announcing that there is something happening here. Then you’ve got the freaking glock giving it this kind of shimmer that adds a certain, I don’t know, slightly mysterious or something ancient. But the whole point of it is you couldn’t do it really all that differently and evoke anything that was really quite the same thing.
Ethan: Yeah, no. For sure, if it was a bunch of synthesizers and electric guitars it would have…
Leo: A very different feel, yes.
Leo: Frank, Frank Zappa, is that you?
Ethan: All right. Let’s talk about the title. The title is obviously autobiographical. Like Barack Obama, you are…
Leo: Mixed-race… Jew. Well, he’s not a Jew.
Ethan: No. He’s not a Jew.
Leo: Half Muslim, half terrorist.
Ethan: No. But he endearingly once referred to himself as a mutt and you evidently think of yourself in that same way.
Leo: It was one of my favorite moments of loving Barack Obama to death. I think it was during the transition between when he was elected and when he actually took office. They were asking him about the dog that he was going to get for his daughters. They asked what kind was it gonna be, and just off the cuff he said, “It’ll be a mutt like me.” And that’s where that’s come from.
Ethan: Now, Invisible…?
Leo: That’s a play — I wasn’t sure how that would read — that’s a play on invisible man. What I’ll say about the title is, I started writing this in the summer of 2008 so it was right in the middle of the campaign, the presidential campaign. And I, usually, when I write things that are longer they end up having very specific subjects. Almost invariably. That’s not necessarily true with the shorter pieces, which are often just like, “That sounds cool,” and then I come up with the title. But anything that’s more than a couple of minutes long usually ends up going into a place of having a very specific meaning which for me is just because otherwise I don’t know where I’m going. You can come out of a certain amount of material that’s just interesting and sounds pretty to you sitting in a piano but at a certain point you have to start writing towards something. You have to know whether it’s gonna go left to right or up or down or whatever. For me, that’s usually a process of… Every now and then, I actually sit down and start writing [an arrangement] to write about something. But most of the time, it’s more likely that I just start thinking, “What is this making me think about? What is it making me feel as I hear these sounds?” That’s another advantage of being able to play them back from the computer so I can lie back and close my eyes, and be like, “What is this?” you know?
Leo: Then, my head kind of goes somewhere and that’s usually a very inexplicable, free-associative process that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, but it’s part of what makes music abstract music without words so interesting to me, is how that can happen. And so in this case it was like this whole collection of things about — I was in the middle of writing it and I saw that documentary Man On Wire about Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center towers, which I find incredibly moving and fascinating and it was right in the middle of the presidential campaign and I think at the exact same time I was reading Dreams from My Father, which is Barack Obama’s book.
Ethan: Which by the way, people, whatever your politics…
Leo: Go read that book!
Ethan: Read that. If he decided to just go be a law professor after writing that, you would still want to read it. It’s a page-turner.
Leo: It’s really amazing. I think right after Dreams from My Father I reread Invisible Man, and in somewhere in the middle of all that I realized that the music that I had been working on could not be about anything other than about this whole idea of being… This not entirely specific but general idea of being mixed race. And not even being mixed race, but really being black in a white country, but also being mixed race and all of that seen through this lens of balancing — the idea of balancing and balance. And that’s where the rest of the piece came from. I probably wrote the first few minutes of the first section — which isn’t even recorded so you can’t hear it — just writing music that I thought was pretty. But from there on to the end it was all written towards that idea.
Ethan: Well, it certainly comes through in the music. It inhabits many worlds simultaneously. It inhabits the buttoned-up world of European classical and the gutsier, funkier world of the blues and all that. I actually think that it paints a pretty clear autobiographical portrait.
Leo: Well, that’s very cool. It’s the one thing I assumed is that I could say all that stuff but nobody would know what the hell I was talking about so it’s interesting to hear that you actually hear it in the music. That’s pretty cool.
Ethan: OK. After this initial epic thing then you have..
Leo: Should I chop it up into more than on track, by the way?
Ethan: I don’t know.
Leo: Technically, it sections two and three so you can put break in between where the things come and so you won’t have to wade through like half an hour of music trying to find a spot that they like but I don’t why. But we can talk about this after the interview.
Ethan: No. It’s a fair question. I would say it’s a bold statement having it be that long. I say, if it’s supposed to be experienced as a unit…
Leo: It is supposed to be experienced as a unit.
Ethan: Yeah. If you don’t want people skipping around then don’t give them the option.
Leo: It’d be more radio friendly. One of the funny things as I was doing the mix — I mixed and mastered this whole thing myself and sort of taught myself Pro Tools and just went through this whole process of me doing that. Which was a really interesting and fun process, that also made the thing take a long time but…
Ethan: Let me interrupt you for a second.
Ethan: Now, Pro Tools. We should talk about what Pro Tools is. Pro Tools, there are many different computer programs that you can use to record, mix, and edit music but Pro Tools is the industry standard. Not necessarily because either it was the best thing but they kind of got there. They are like the Microsoft of audio. If you record something in my apartment it’s on Pro Tools. If you go into the Hit Factory it’s all Pro Tools.
Leo: The Hit Factory being a giant recording studio…
Ethan: Thank you. If turn on the radio I would say, what, 95%?
Leo: 95% of what you hear went through Pro Tools at some point.
Ethan: Yeah. Pro Tools is extremely powerful but not the world’s most user friendly or approachable piece of software.
Leo: Which is why I recorded it last spring and it’s only now done this spring, almost exactly a year to when we did the recording.
Ethan: Yeah. It has acquired the nickname Slow Tool so, yes.
Leo: In any case, I say that only to say that one thing that was interesting in doing all this was hearing — actually I can’t remember why I got out on this jag. What did I say? I was started to say something about — oh, radio friendly. What was amazing was then going and comparing what I was doing as what I would often do with other jazz recordings by my heroes and older things, and it’s amazing to hear how compressed, and polished, and radio friendly so much of the stuff from the 50s and 60s was made to be. It’s like the thought that there was a time when they were thinking, “Well, this has to go on the radio so we’ve got to make it like that,” you know what I mean? I find myself laughing. I’m, “Oh, my god. I can’t be believe that there was a time when that was a big consideration,” which is kind of funny.
Ethan: No. Round Midnight by Miles Davis was a jukebox hit.
Leo: Yeah. Right. It’s crazy. I know but it’s funny because my inclination originally was to mix up a classical album. I just assumed that that would make the most sense. That it would be to have a really wide volume range or dynamic range and there’d be almost no compression or whatever. Of course, as I got towards the end I was, “It just doesn’t sound right if it’s not at least,” you know? It’s sort of in between. It’s still quieter than your average commercial Blue Note album from the 50s. But it’s definitely louder than some orchestral whatever audiphile recording.
Ethan: OK. 3 Variation. I assume the title refers to the fact that it is in 3/4 time.
Leo: Yeah, it is. It’s the most unoriginal title. It was literally — I had a bunch of different things branching off from the same little beginning and that was just literally the name of the computer file. It was 3 Variation. Let me just stop.
Ethan: Yeah. Three-four time…
Leo: It’s one less than four.
Ethan: It’s one less than four, yes. A little musicology for all of you. There was a time, what, in the late 1800s when every piece of popular music was in three, right?
Leo: That’s right.
Ethan: The waltz. If you went dancing, you went out waltzing. Then, I don’t know what happened but maybe around the turn of the century the 4/4 time became the thing.
Leo: There’s an action packed, biopic movie here somewhere? And Vin Diesel as 4/4 time…
Ethan: Yeah. Jazz is no exception. The waltz is not unheard of in jazz but it definitely is very underrepresented. Did you just think to yourself, “I want to write a waltz,” or did this piece of music just come out in three?
Leo: It just came out in three, for sure. I think it’s funny, people say — I don’t think of it, maybe because I listen to weirder or different-er shit than people. I never think of three as such a bastard stepchild of , you know? I think in particular because I probably grew up listening — I listened to a lot of Coltrane when I was first was getting into jazz and he plays in three a lot — three and six.
Ethan: That’s true, yeah.
Leo: It’s true. I don’t know if it’s 20% — 15% or 20% of [jazz]… It like every album will have six tunes, one of which will in three. That’s kind of the standard… I feel like that’s the thing for a long time in term of jazz recordings. But, yeah, I’m sure wasn’t like I wanted to sit down and write a tune in three. I’m sure, for me anyway, that thing of being into three for instance — in particular early-on — listening to just so much goddamn Elvin Jones… I really — honestly, three and four kind of feel like the same time in my head a lot of the time because it’s so rare that I’m playing boom-chick-chick like your traditional waltz — emphasis on the first beat and then less emphasis on the second two beats. I can’t think of my music theory right now. But, so the stressed notes — what’s the fucking name of the — anyway, the ictus..?
In fact, I actually have to force myself to get out of it. It’s become a little bit of a thing. I keep writing these tunes that are kind of all the same tune and sort of have that [feel]. Because a lot of times what happens I will sit there — because when I write into the computer one of things that is crazy is — it’s like I’m not thinking in a time signature. But then when you want to play it into the computer you have to have to pick one and then it becomes a whole issue and whatever. So I probably just figured out that set of riffs and then at some point was like, “What is this? Is it three or four? What is going on?” Then — I think actually goes back and forth. Or, no, it’s just very syncopated.
Yeah, it wasn’t something that I set out to do ahead of time. It just was what it was.
I mean, listen to Man On Wire, just to go back for a second. That section just before the solo starts, that whole thing is theoretically in triple meter. But the piano figure, the left hand of the piano figure, is essentially in four on top of the three — two on top of the three And then the right hand piano figure is basically a nine. It’s a triplet on top of the three beats. It wasn’t like I planned — it wasn’t like I said, “I’m gonna write some crazy shit with a two and a three and a nine.” It was just they all sound the same to me in a weird way, which probably isn’t true than a lot of — I have many other failings as a drummer and a “rhythmatist” or whatever but that’s not one of them. I feel pretty fluid about my metric modulation in that sense.
Ethan: Yeah. Definitely a lot of other people would need to really plan that out hard.
Leo: Yeah, no. In fact, if anything it wasn’t until I handed it to the piano player and heard her exclaim about it that I was like, “Oh yeah. I guess that’s kind of hard, huh?”
Ethan: All right. There are some cool chords in here I want you to identify.
Leo: Oh no! The ear-training portion of our…. I don’t know. [These chords] right here?
Leo: Yeah, I have no fucking idea. What is this? The answer is it’s probably something not all that complicated. It’s probably voiced in a really weird way and it’s such close voicing that it ends being very, very dissonant sounding. A bunch of this stuff — and this tune in particular — it’s actually somewhere underneath a very, almost hokey chord progression. It’s something that would have been right out of a pop tune in the 40s or 50s or something. Just that it’s buried inside of this very, very dissonant and weird sounding wrapper that mostly had to do with getting with really weird sounds out of the piano as like, a sound production tool less than it had to do with thinking about the harmony. So [it’s] not my goal, but what I think I often end up doing — and I just hear it again and again in my writing is — I’ll write something like that and this is what always happens. I’ll walk into rehearsal and people start playing it and start figuring it out. And at some point I find myself going, “So, like, that makes sense, right? It’s logical?
Because to me there’s logic there. There’s actually a functional progression somewhere in there. I just never stopped to try and figure out what it is. I heard it that way and I just assumed… I tend to think that unless you set out to write something really atonal, chances are you’ll find your way back [to tonality]. I have no ambitions to write serial music so I came up with this set of what I thought were interesting weird sounds that went in the direction. And as soon as it felt like it was telling a story I just figured somewhere buried in there is a chord progression that actually made sense and I think there is. Actually, I did figure it out at one point a little bit because it does go into changes that are based a little bit on the introduction when the sax solo happens. But the bottom line it’s like a lot of slash chords. All of that stuff [in the introduction] was just written out as the actual chords for the piano player to play so there’s actually no chord notation until it gets to the solos.
Ethan: You mean you are spelling out the chords one note at a time?
Leo: I’m actually spelling, exactly.
Ethan: OK. I want to unpack this a little for the non-technical listeners listening to what you’re telling. In classical music, when you write a chord you write all the individual notes in the chords. If it’s a C chord, you write C, E, G in a stack. In jazz, you can do it that way although it’s more common to just write the letter C and then however the pianist or guitarist wants to interpret that, they can play C, E, G, they can play C, E, G, A, they can play their notes in different order.
Leo: Right. And each one of those will have a different color, a different sound. It’s where a lot of the creativity and improvisation in jazz comes in. It’s from that sort of slight — the fact that there’s a structure but it’s up to the musician to color that structure and make it sound particularly interesting.
Ethan: Yeah, which is something we actually used to do in classical music.
Leo: Right, absolutely.
Ethan: Like Bach used to do that all the time — would just say, “This is the chord progression, and this is the bass line, and whatever specific notes you wanna play, Mr. Harpsichordist, knock yourself out.” But it definitely, now, if you really want to really freak out a classical pianist you write and hand him a melody with a bunch of chord symbols on it and very often he’ll be, “What inversions do I play?”
Leo: Right, absolutely. I remember in the Andy Jaffe’s jazz theory class at Amherst that all the classical musicians who wanted to stick their toes in the jazz thing would always immediately start writing out all the chords for themselves as soon as someone handed them the thing…
Ethan: But, yeah. If you do want these really crunchy cluster-filled things that a person wouldn’t necessarily reach for. Yeah. I guess you do have to write them.
Leo: Yeah. I work them out not even because I — literally, that was the tune. I wrote that first and then I came up with the idea that there should be this wind [part]…. so that part was written piano first and then the winds that make up the rest of the thing. In fact, it, well, whatever, that tune in particular. It became a thing of like I really didn’t want the winds to end up dominating the… There’s no melody, you know what I mean? They’re playing… They’re adding color and tension and interesting-ness or whatever. But as far as I was concerned, basically, that piano part was the tune. Yeah, I just wanted to see how much you could do with just chords kind of in terms of building a song out of chords and not really out of melody.
It’s like I can write a melody but I tend not to. It’s like I have to kind of push myself there. It’s not the most obvious thing to me most of the time. I’m interested in all these other aspects [of music]. That might come from being a drummer, I don’t know.
Ethan: Let’s talk about the glockenspiel. That’s a real feature for the glockenspiel. You don’t hear a lot of glockenspiels…
Leo: Wait. What are you listening to? That’s all I hear.
Ethan: All right. This isn’t just any glockenspiel player. This is your percussion teacher.
Leo: It certainly is. Glock is an instrument that I just love and I think it’s really cool and it kind of tends to be used in a dumb way. Sometimes it’s used in a cool way. Those very high-pitched percussion instruments — generally, people don’t know what the hell to do with them. I even once had the idea of actually having someone play glock as if it were vibes essentially — improvising and soloing and whatever — which I may yet do someday. I don’t know. It could get to be a little bit much…
Ethan: I mean, the only equivalent I can think of that, like the only precedent is celesta. It’s basically just a glockenspiel with a keyboard on it.
Leo: Yes, yes.
Ethan: Every once in a while, Duke Ellington would bust it out. And Monk used it on “Pannonica.” Actually, it was kind of awesome.
Leo: You just reminded me of that great Oscar Peterson/Joe Pass Porgy and Bess, where he plays clavichord.
Ethan: Oh, yeah?
Leo: Just one of my favorite things in the world. I love that album. Anyway, someday — grant people, rich people, who want to commission me out there — I absolutely want to write some whole thing for clavichord or something like that.
Ethan: Just clavichord, yeah.
Leo: I think it would be amazing. Anyway, back to the glock.
Ethan: By the way, it’s so gangsta when you call it the “glock.”
Leo: Yeah. Totally, exactly. I just wanted to be hardcore, add some street cred. I figured this is how I do it. Basically, what it came down to is I once I think — I don’t remember the exact order of operations, but basically I probably decided that I wanted to have it in Man On Wire early on. It was a sound that I really wanted in there. Once I had decided that, then it becomes this combination of pragmatism and artistic challenge where it’s like I’m gonna have to actually get somebody to come in and play glock on this thing and they’re gonna have to learn — we’re gonna be in the studio. At that point, I might as well put glock in all my other tunes because you know…
Ethan: It’s right there.
Leo: Once you’re schleppin’ thing there it’s, you know? Then it becomes this interesting artistic challenge of, “All right, cool.” That’s how a lot of this, I mean, how this kind of sort of ensemble got put together, around each one of these certain things that I do. It’s like you start, there’s sort of a tent pole around which then you start building all the rest of the music where and so in this case, it was definitely I think Man On Wire first and then all these other stuff got written or revised to live in the same little sound world and take the best advantage of the instruments that we’re gonna be on hand and make something really interesting. That’s how that glock got in there in a big way.
I knew that once he was there he could play other percussion stuff but it seemed more interesting to be like, “All right, fine. Let’s go. What can we do with this glock?” I mean, it’s a beautiful sound. Also knowing — I mean, this is the other thing that I’ll gush about Rex for a second. I’ll say two things. First of all, he’s such a stupendously prodigiously skilled player that once I wanted to have glock in there, I also knew that I could write an incredibly involved glock part and he would be able to play it and play it incredibly well. I think that’s amply reflected in the recording. That that is a very difficult mallet part and he just nails it utterly and makes it look almost effortless. The other thing I will say is that this recording could not have happened without Rex, who not only played those parts incredibly well but also ended up acting as our sort of concert master/de facto conductor for a lot of it.
Ethan: Yeah. I was gonna ask you about that.
Leo: Yeah, absolutely. Sure.
Ethan: Because to play in the drums, which does kind of prevent you from conducting because you’re playing the drums.
Leo: Right. I mean, in a lot of rehearsal I didn’t actually play the drums. There was a lot where I might just keep time by tapping on a music stand or something like that and then basically just be following the score along. But for me, what I was saying about the learning curve… A big part of it for me is I didn’t go to conservatory. I’m pretty much self-taught as a composer and so I don’t have the stupendous ears of a trained conductor or even a really incredibly skilled musician who’s just been doing this for years and is incredibly well-trained in that sense so I really have to concentrate on listening. I’m trying to figure what’s working and what’s not working, and who’s playing in-tune and who’s not playing in-tune, and stuff like that. It’s hard for me to multi-task in my head. It’s hard for me to play the drums or count or do, you know — I kind of have to pick one and then just do that. That was a big challenge in getting… If anything, my biggest disappointment in this recording is… I played drums adequately but I don’t think I — it certainly isn’t the stand-out feature of the album, isn’t the drumming. And I think it’s because I was worrying about every other aspect of it other than my own actual playing up until the moment the count-off when I had to actually play.
Rex made it possible for me to do that. That was what was so cool. It’s that he’s just so skilled and so experienced in every kind of music, and in the recording studio, and in rehearsal that he was able to give me the space, and the organization, to keep the rehearsals on track and do all the things that made it possible for me to actually listen, and play the drums when I have to play the drums, and listen to what was going on. Not too worrying about counting for everyone, and not losing time for these complicated parts, and I can actually listen to the complicated parts and figure out if they were working or not working, so that was just awesome.
Both he and Batya, the oboist who’s also my dear friend, lost a family members sadly right in the middle of our very compressed rehearsal period of about a week and a half, two weeks, and had to fly to other places to go to memorial services. And then just displayed the most incredible dedication and flexibility to do all that and not let this music, which had to in many ways, very legitimately could have been the last thing on their minds. They just went incredibly above and beyond. Flying off and then flying back to make it to the recording session and it’s just amazing. Thank you, guys.
Ethan: Yeah. That is remarkable.
Leo: Yeah. It really is.
Leo: And not because of the massive quantities of cash that I was throwing at them.
Ethan: Yeah. Here’s one for you, how does a jazz musician wind up with a million dollars?
Leo: Start with fifty and work for a while.
Ethan: OK. The last track on here, now I’m gonna have to admit that I did not realize that this was a Wayne Shorter tune. I thought you wrote it.
Leo: No, no. I wish I was. I should have taken credit for it. “Oh, yeah. It’s all me.”
Ethan: I had all of these questions planned about your writing of it which now I have to adapt.
Leo: I arranged it.
Ethan: OK. Well, let’s talk about the arrangement because it’s a blues.
Leo: Right, sort of. Yeah.
Ethan: Or it’s like a very densely re-harmonized blues.
Leo: Yeah, yeah. OK, sure. Yeah.
Ethan: OK. For non-jazz people, all right. There’s the blues: the genre, and the blues: the style and the mood and the vibe. But then there’s also this technical sense of the word when you say that something is a blues, which means it follows this 12-bar form. There are approximately 70 trillion jazz tunes written using that form and it’s a very versatile one. You could have it be very kind of down-home and folky or, as in Wayne Shorter’s case, you can have it be very intellectual and abstract. This segment falls into that — intellectual abstract.
Leo: It’s funny. Everything you say is true. I tend to just think, “Oh, that’s a nice tune.” I never even think about — I mean, you’re absolutely right. Wayne Shorter’s the king of that; amongst the most intellectual writers and certainly among the most talented writers and jazz composers. A real composer, who interestingly — the other thing about — this is a total diversion back to what we were talking about before. But the other interesting thing about jazz is there’s a great tradition in jazz of people who are clearly composers with a capital “C” but who did not necessarily write epic, long from, overwrought things like me. They —Wayne Shorter and Monk and any number of other people — Gigi Gryce and all these people wrote amazing little gems of head arrangements in three-minute, five-minute songs that are just as much — just as thoroughly composed and thought out as anything written by Ellington or…
Ethan: Yeah. Well, Wayne is an interesting character for you because here’s a guy who, first of all, when Miles Davis him to be his tenor player, those albums that he plays on — he writes all the tunes. Miles Davis wrote some pretty good tunes himself. So it’s pretty significant that Miles Davis would be, “You know what, we’re gonna play your material.”
Leo: Well, Miles never had that much of a problem… I don’t think Miles ever cared that much about being a composer and was also perfectly happy to steal other people’s compositions, which made it even easier for him to…
Ethan: Well, that’s true.
Leo: But, no. I know what you’re saying. It’s certainly true. It’s like that’s the thing. If you got Wayne Shorter in your band why would you write any tunes? There’s a couple of Ron Carter tunes that show up every now and then. Interestingly, Herbie — I don’t know if he has… Does he a single songwriting credit at any of these Miles Davis albums?
Ethan: I don’t know.
Leo: It’s not like he’s a slouch at writing tunes, you know?
Ethan: Yeah. That’s true.
Leo: It’s very interesting to me but, yeah.
Ethan: But Wayne is an interesting guy because his stuff is very complex and very out there. But it’s also very catchy, which is a neat trick because usually you have to choose.
Leo: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, to me, this goes to a thing. This is a big way to answer a small question. I guess, I’ll back up and just say I love … that Armageddon tune. I think it’s awesome. It’s in one of the albums that were in my house growing up in my dad’s record collection… Partly, it was just that I thought it was great tune and I wanted to arrange it. But it’s certainly a part of it that’s a little bit like if you’re gonna sit through an hour of weird avant-garde, my crazy avant-garde shit — like, let me give you something just nice to go out with and it wasn’t like that was not a consideration. But I think there’s something about — I think you’ll agree because I think you have the same sort of taste and interests in a certain sense that a lot of the most interesting music comes right from that collision between art music and pop music, right?
Leo: Or sort of those kinds of worlds colliding. It’s like pop music is kind of lame most of the time and I don’t sit down to listen to a lot of Schoenberg who I respect and I find him interesting. But honestly, when I get home and I think about what I want to throw on, it’s just not what immediately springs to mind. And so there’s, to me, it’s like that’s just so often the most interesting space to play in, where you have this collision of ambitions. When you have people who want to get paid for what they’re doing and they want to get it on the radio, or they’re interested in that kind of space. Even this is certainly an almost an intellectual way to talk about something that I just think is the most natural and sort of inspiring and interesting part of what makes jazz so interesting.
These working musicians who were living during a time when you could make a living doing that. When it was important to make music that would let you be able to pay the rent. But at the same time, because of the backgrounds of these guys, and that’s a whole other riff that I can go on to gladly for way too long — that they were fascinated by this more complicated, more interesting music… that they’re interested in classical music and the things that they’re colleagues were doing that were sort of “out” and interesting and wanted to keep setting challenges for themselves and exploring the shit that they had to explore to be creative. You get this great tension — this great fascinating tension.
It’s certainly the best of those people are like the best of everything, right? Wayne is exactly what you said. It’s that guy. He’s the guy who could write the tune that was catchy, that especially with say, when he was with the Jazz Messengers — you could dance to that stuff basically. Yet at the same time, you’ve got these great re-harmonized tunes that you can’t even tell are a blues anymore and so, yeah, anyway.
Ethan: Well, so your arrangement of this tune…
Leo: I’m sorry. I’ll just jump in. I would say this is actually what I was talking about last night when I was hanging out with Stacy Dillard who plays the tenor solo on that song, on Armageddon and on 3 Variation and is an incredibly — just amazing player who I was very lucky to have playing in this album, and is also a funny and sweet guy. We were having this conversation about race and jazz and the history of jazz. It started to get me into thinking what an interesting thing… It got me to thinking about that I think one of the interesting things about race and music, and this is here my controversial statement, so it’s get ready people — this is, “Headline, Leo says: this.” Anyway, when you think about the role that white people have had in sort of re-interpreting black music in the 20th Century, one of the things that I think is so interesting is, for example, black people invented rock and roll. But when I listen to rock-n-roll, I know that but I don’t go and listen to that stuff. I listen to the Beatles like everybody else. And the reason that I listen to the Beatles because that other stuff just ins’t that interesting — early rock-n-roll actually isn’t that interesting. I think what’s happened often, and this is certainly the case I think with rock, is that you have — like rock and roll, early rock and roll, was essentially poor- and working-class dance music, right, basically.
Ethan: Right. Yeah, party music.
Leo: Party music, right? But it wasn’t what upper class, even upper class black people were listening to and it certainly isn’t what upper class white people were listening to. Then what you have is you have these white kids who are basically middle class or working class white kids, who come from families that are have a lot of classical — they have a piano in the house, they hear classical music around, and they bring in this broader interest and experience into it, and so take something that’s, like, whatever — pop music — and they make it weird, you know?
Leo: They make it broad and that’s what makes it exciting and interesting, right? And so with jazz, like jazz is like middle class black music, right?
Ethan: Yeah, right.
Leo: Essentially the blues and other pop forms form the early 20th century, that’s like the poor and working poor, whatever, the music that anybody could play. It’s hip-hop circa 1985, you know what I mean?
Leo: The jazz as we know it — the jazz of the late 30s and 40s and 50s and the 60s is middle class music. It’s music that was being played by black people whose parents where schoolteachers and who had an education or valued education and are working poor but they had enough money to pay for instrument lessons basically that’s what it comes down to. These are the people whose parents could afford to pay [for lessons]. This is what I find so interesting about jazz — it’s that it’s like the history of the 20th century — in America anyway — is right there, right?
Ethan: Right, yeah.
Leo: There was a class divide in jazz in who appreciated jazz and who made jazz within the black community because for the first half of the 20th century there was a thriving middle class black community in America, full of educated black people, who despite segregation and all these other things — there was enough of an economy that these people could afford to send their kids to [school]. They might have been all-black schools but they were good schools, you know what I mean? You don’t get this kind of racial divide… It’s only in the post-war years and the second half of the 20th century that that whole [generation]… By then, jazz was becoming less and less popular music so that same issue then moved on to rock and roll and other places where then there’s a racial divide because there isn’t a black middle class anymore. Then you have white people are the people who are having the weird ideas and have music lessons and who can come in and do something more interesting with your kind of like, folk music that’s cool and more funky that anything they’ve listened to but not particularly developed. Anyway, so that’s my little monologue about Wayne Shorter and pop music and race and jazz.
Ethan: Well, OK. What I was gonna ask you, that all sets up really well, which is Birth of the Cool. When I heard these arrangements I thought, “Wow, yeah.” Birth of the Cool, if you don’t have it run out and buy it. It’s Miles Davis’s first album as a leader, which is ridiculous. That’s his first album.
Leo: Well, it was the first album released with his name as a leader. It was a little bit…
Ethan: OK. Yeah.
Leo: Yeah. I’ll caveat it a little bit. It would have gone to whoever the most photogenic and sort of famous and interesting person… But not that he wasn’t an organizing force but it’s just it’s like…
Ethan: But anyway, this album from 1949 it is unusually compositional. It’s a larger ensemble but it’s not a big band and it does occupy this kind of, this more intellectual space than jazz had… Now we know it was hyper-intellectual from the very beginning but Birth of the Cool was a really overtly…
Leo: Yes, that’s true. Right, absolutely. It’s, “Look, we’re wearing black turtlenecks and we have horn-rimmed glasses,” or whatever.
Ethan: “And we’re not smiling.”
Leo: “We’re not smiling.” Exactly.
Ethan: Right. There’s some sounds on there. There’s French horn and whatever else, that you didn’t really think of as being part of the jazz palette. Yeah, and some of those really close chord voicings. Where you have notes a second apart.
Leo: Right, absolutely.
Ethan: But not in a way to kind of freak people out. It’s still a consonant sound but it’s definitely, it gets your attention. It’s not an easy listening kind of sound.
Leo: For sure.
Ethan: Even though the mood of it is very kind of relaxed and low key and nobody’s screaming, but the idea is that they’re sort of quietly murmuring to you very challenging ideas.
Leo: Yes. I like that, “quietly murmuring to you very challenging ideas.” That’s good. I’d like it on a t-shirt.
Ethan: All right. Well, that’s everything I kind of prepared. Anything I…
Leo: That’s great. No, that’s fantastic. I can just fucking talk about shit for hours and hours but someone’s gonna have to transcribe this and they probably want to go home and have dinner. I think, yeah. I don’t know what else to say. To be compared to Birth of the Cool is more flattering than my brain can handle so I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that and shut up there. I don’t know what else to say.
Ethan: OK. Well…
Leo: Thank you very much. Those are great, great questions. It’s just an honor. I feel what every musician wants is they put all this effort into something and then what they really want is someone to…
Ethan: Listen to it and pay attention?
Leo: Listen to it and pay attention. Think about it a little bit, which is very exciting to have put — whether it’s sucks or not, it certainly took a lot of time and effort and attention and blood and sweat and tears for me. It’s really exciting to play it for someone who gives a shit. Or at least is willing to pretend to for an hour and a half, so thank you very, very much.
Ethan: Yeah. Well, my pleasure.