Robertson : The OFN Interview
Could you tell me a little about your current / most recent
activities? I'm particularly interested in this tour from which
you've just returned, any pending recording releases, plus what
you see happening for the remainder of the year (or the term of
the foreseeable future of your choice).
I just did two tours this summer with the Barry Guy New Orchestra.
One on the west coast in San Francisco and Vancouver at the De Maurier
Jazz Festival to promote his new release, Inscape-Tableau on
Intakt Records from Switzerland. The other one was at the new music
festival called "Konfrontation" in Nickelsdorf, Austria.
That band includes Evan Parker, Marilyn Crispell, Paul Lytton, ao.
I also did a few gigs with Andy Laster's Hydra in NYC.
Just did another CIMP recording with a trio consisting of 2 trumpets
and drums under Jay Rosen's name. (Paul Smoker and myself on trpts.
and Jay on drums) In Sept. a gig for Judi Silvano (Joe Lovano's
wife) with John Lindberg and Gerry Hemingway and another Satoko
Fugii big band recording, I guess for Leo Records again. I then
go to Paris for 10 days to do Marc Ducret's new project. As you
can see I have a lot of sideman shit which is keeping me pretty
busy for the fall. This of course takes me away from my own stuff
but the bread is better! We could all use a little of that sometimes.
After Ducret's project ends, Oct. is dead except for the upcoming
release on Leo Records with the Simon Nabatov Quintet recording of
The Master and Margarita double CD set with: Mark Feldman,
Mark Helias, Tom Rainey and myself. Also, Winter and Winter is re-releasing
the whole JMT catalogue, 3 a month, starting in Sept. with my first
record as a leader from 1985, Transparency with Bill Frisell,
Tim Berne, Joey Baron and Lindsey Horner. This recording will be in
CD format for the first time! That's good news! Towards the end of
Oct. another Barry Guy (BGNO) tour in Scandinavia. I then go to Copenhagen
to play and record with guitarist Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra.
Back to the good'ol USA to tour the Northeast with the Fonda/Stevens
Group then back to Italy for Roswell Rudd's project. Let's finish
the year in Dec. with a European tour with Andy Laster's "Hydra".
My next record as a leader is on Splasc(H) Records from Milano with
the Milanese musicians "Nexus" called something like: Herb
Robertson and the "Legend of the Missing Link", due out
early in 2002.
When posed this question as the summer of 2002 nears its dog
days, Herb shows few signs of having slowed at all:
Just got back from the 10 day Copenhagen Jazz Festival with Tim Berne
and we played every day and night there. It was great! We were a hit
and the wildest stuff at the festival. Real nice scene and so amazing
that the crowds loved our music. It was great to see such young (20
year olds+) digging it. Copenhagen has a great scene and the music
students there are way advanced and open. I can't even think of any
place here in America that has such a hip jazz and new music environment.
what ever happened to NYC and Boston?? Anyway, it was great
and more to come. The European summer festival circuit seems very
vibrant this year.
My next thing is the Lisbon Festival with Barry Guy the first part
of August. Looking forward to it. As for now
I love to BBQ and will have a blast doing that and also swimming at
Jim Hart's place. Probably do the free jams and cookouts that I love
to do so much. I also have to compose some new music for my sextet
for the Autumn festivals.
Could you tell me a little about your very first musical experiences,
both as a listener and as a "player"? And why trumpet,
or, more generally, why brass instruments? (I hope that's not too
My first experience in listening was radio when I was a kid about
7 or 8 years old around 1958. Living in the NY metropolitan area,
there were many radio stations broadcasting live over the am band
at the time. Lots of different types of music: big band, dance band,
jazz, rock and roll, etc. My dad always had the radio on in the
mornings before he went to work. It was very early in the morning.
I would lie in my bed listening to him try to whistle along with
the music. He wouldn't even come close! It used to drive me crazy.
I would tell him that he was off key then he would just laugh at
me. I thought he whistled out of tune on purpose just to drive us
all crazy. But after a while I finally realized that he was tone
deaf. Couldn't carry a tune to save his life! Of course many years
later I always believed that it was my father who gave me the love
of atonal music through all of that!! But at that time I started
to realize that I had an ear for music because I would try to correct
him and whistle it right for him. He hated when I did that for him.
I said to myself: "finally I'm good at something". Until
I took the music test in 4th grade and failed. The test was basically
this: the teacher played a note on piano and then played another
note. I had to tell her whether the second note was higher or lower
in pitch then the first. I guessed wrong (must've been a bad day)
and failed with flying colors. So I had to wait until 5th grade
to take the test again. Obviously I was completely bummed out for
the rest of the school year, wasn't allowed to take up a musical
instrument, was the laughing stock of 4th grade, and became the
shyest boy in the class because of it. So in 5th grade I took the
same test again (must've been a better day) and guessed right. I
was now allowed to take up a musical instrument. I took up the trumpet
because it was loud and that's what instrument boys were supposed
to play. Girls played the clarinets and flutes. Boys played the
brass, saxophones, and drums. It probably is still the same today
in most elementary schools in America. Finally I could show everybody
that I wasn't shy any more. Just loud and out of tune. You see
I was born with a heart condition and couldn't take gym class because
I was too weak and would collapse in class. So the trumpet was my
way of showing everybody how strong I was. Little did I know how
difficult the %$*&ing instrument was to play; especially getting
lessons from the grade school music marm, who kind of played the
clarinet. But I was determined. I loved listening to the radio and
the big bands. This was my favorite thing to do when I was a kid.
Hearing the trumpets sing right through the music and then change
timbres and textures when they would put the different mutes on.
It sent chills all over my body. I would dream about playing that
great ever since I started the trumpet. But I was struggling with
the horn because no one showed me how to do it. I was on my own.
Until I was 12 and my junior high music teacher, who was a trombonist
and a composer and who introduced me to jazz. Immediately he set
me up right, told me to buy the Arban's Conservatory Method for
Trumpet bible, told my parents that I had talent and that he would
come to my house to give me private lessons (although I mainly thought
he was attracted to my mother), and then asked me, "Did you
ever hear of Miles Davis?". I was 13 years old from Piscataway,
NJ, and immediately was addicted to jazz.
Even though Miles' tone sounded strange to a 13 year old trumpeter,
I was very captivated by the mysterious type of music that his band
was playing. It sent chills all over me. And I was totally blown away
from the technique of the instruments. The speed in which they played
floored me and the music that they produced was otherworldly and made
me laugh and feel good for the first time in my life, as far as I
could remember at the ripe old age of 13! That was it! I immediately
started finding places to buy this music with my meager earnings as
a paper boy. I found local department stores that stocked all the
"Bluenote", "Impulse", "Atlantic", "Prestige"
and "Columbia" jazz records. And this in suburbia New Jersey
no less! Doesn't exist like this now! Yeah
the sixties was a great
time for the arts. The avant-guard [sic] was seeping its way into
the mainstream, besides having its own deep place. Hardbop, funky
jazz and even "Columbia" jazz had the "new music"
infused into it. For me, as a teenager, there was no "retro"
in any of the styles. Just pure, honest, revolutionary music. My schoolmates
had their "rock" and I had my "jazz". I just had
to find some kindred spirits to start playing this music. In "white
suburbia" this would be hard. I was alone
but I started searching.
In high school I found a few guys in the high school band and I formed
a small group (5 guys) to play dances and stuff, but my main idea
was to jam and blow on the Horace Silver and Art Blakey material that
I started to gather. Of course this started clearing out the "dead
wood" and again I was left by myself wearing out my LPs and scat
singing all of the solos from memory along with the records. I finally
realized that I had to find players from the other neighboring townships
to get the jams really rolling in my parent's garage when they weren't
home and also to drive my neighbors crazy. Eventually I realized again
that the other teen "players" couldn't keep up with me and
after seeing an ad in Downbeat Magazine about Berklee School of Music
in Boston, I knew that in 1969 that's where I had to go. So when I
got accepted there I was on "cloud nine" and my parents
even saw how happy I was and they let me go. That summer of 1969 was
the first time that I heard a live professional jazz band. The first
and only Rutger's University Jazz Festival in New Brunswick, NJ, right
next to Piscataway. I heard Blood Sweat and Tears, Tony Williams Lifetime,
an unknown singer who was taking Nina Simone's place named Roberta
Flack, and the Miles Davis Bitches Brew Band! For an 18 year old jazzer
I almost died, it was so great! After that I listened to live jazz
every chance I got.
I'd like to come back to your father, the garage bands, and the
kind of jazz you heard over the radioyour generation was probably
of the last lucky enough to be able to hear this music in that format;
I have a friend here in Dallas whose experiences are similar to the
ones you've described, but also include the phenomenon of the jukebox.
On a side note, do you remember finding "jazz" on jukeboxes
in suburban New Jersey?
Basically my father left me alone to do my own thing concerning my
trumpet. Once I started progressing on the instrument I was totally
into practicing it all of the time. It was my sanctuary when I was
a kid. My dad was a bricklayer by trade and my mom worked part time
as a seamstress in the Italian sweat shops in Plainfield, NJ. My father
was Scottish descent and my mom is Italian descent. My father's mother
was also Native American descent. My mom had good pitch even though
she had nothing to do with music. As I checked back in my family's
history, I came to the conclusion that I was the first one who did
music; in fact, in Art period. As I said before, dad liked dance bands
and had a few albums kicking around. (Jan Garber, Lawrence Welk, some
Glenn Miller) I just attached to the trumpets and then was on my own.
He even told me once that when I was 12 yrs. old he didn't understand
what I was listening to and that was it. So when I discovered the
FM band on our console and found the jazz station WLIB out of NY (no
just pure jazz, 85% instrumental, I had my 2nd space
in the house. (my bedroom was my practice space and the living room
was my listening space) My parents had the "rec room" where
the TV was at. So the stereo console was "mine". I couldn't
wait to get home from school so that I can lie on the living room
floor and blast the music before my parents came home from work. It
was all the current stuff of the 60's: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers,
The Horace Silver Quintet, Donald Byrd's bands, Lee Morgan's bands.
They were playing mostly all of the Blue Note recordings. And of course
all of Coltrane, Miles and Cannonball. It was rich with all of the
music. I would try to play and sing along with the music, the whole
house to myself! At the time I thought that everybody was into this
music and was getting high from it like I was. My parents were very
accommodating and at first and would let me play my albums and jazz
radio all the time. Then one day at the dinner table my dad finally
said to me: "Do we have to listen to this crazy music all the
time, even at dinner?" That's when I finally realized that there
were people in the world who didn't like jazz or anything creative
for that matter. After that experience I bought a pair of headphones,
closed the lights and listened to the music in a reclusive state beginning
to realize that I was pretty much alone. My only social outlet with
people when I was a teenager was when I got together with some band
musicians to jam somewhat in my parent's garage. The players weren't
too good so there was limitations on what we could do. But at least
it was an outlet. I had to look around in the different towns to find
the right players to play the charts that I started to accumulate
during my teenage years. But it really wasn't until I came back from
Berklee during summer recess that I started finding the right musicians
to do justice to this music. The garage jams during the summer recesses
became more serious and more disturbing to the neighbors because the
music started becoming more complicated and intense which in turn
started making the locals suspicious and believing that we were out
of our minds for playing stuff like this. It was time to move on.
Because of the jazz students at Berklee
there was some pizza
joints and coffee shops close to the school that had jazz on their
jukeboxes for the benefit of the students. But in NJ I don't recall
any jukes that had jazz. I think it was an environmental consideration.
Also, I'm probably a little younger then Jim Sangrey and by the time
I was a teen any jazz phenomena in that format was almost extinct.
Some readers might be surprised to learn you attended Berklee,
as a certain reputation has been attached to the more recent graduates
that school who are active in jazz and improvised music. Could you
talk a little about the campus climate in your time there, and about
the important eventsmusical and otherwisethat occurred
while you were a Berklee student?
I was at Berklee from 1969 to 1973. You can imagine the "cultural
shock" that a teenage suburbanite would get being thrown into
an environment of anti-war demonstrations, students galore (Boston
has the most concentrated of colleges, all in one area), high creativity
and social activity, etc. Berklee at that time had a gathering of
great players and also hippies who played folk guitars. (Berklee
was a good place to go if you wanted to stay out of Viet Nam). In
fact, I would have been in the war had it not been for the fact
that I was at Berklee. You see; that was the time of the draft lottery
that Nixon started. My number was 112 and they were definately going
above that number in 1969 so if I didn't get accepted I would have
probably been a Canadian citizen today! Well anyway
as you could
imagine, it was an amazing time. There was so much music at Berklee
then. All kinds of different classes. I was an Instrumental Performance
Major; which meant that I didn't have to take any academic courses
for teaching, so all the courses were "playing classes"
and all things related to becoming a professional musician. I had
ear training courses and ensemble and repertoire like crazy. In
fact, I started to work my way into more and more big band and improvising
group classes because performance majors had a lot of free time
granted them for private practice. So I took advantage of this and
edged my way into extra ensemble classes. I was obsessed with playing!
I used to leave the school every night around 10:00 pm, staying
in the practice rooms late into the evening if I couldn't finagle
my way into an ensemble. When I was there I had about 25 to 30 hours
a week of playing in ensembles! I wanted that, because I knew in
reality that after I left school for the real world I would never
come close to playing that much. I was building up my reserve. My
improvisational skills were developing along with my reading and
interpretation of charts. There was the dichotomy. Was I going to
become a jazz musician or a professional studio musician? Where
would destiny take me at such a turbulent time in history? The studio
scene was diminishing unless you came to NYC and that was a pretty
closed and tight scene like the symphony orchestras. Becoming a
professional jazz musician seemed pretty ludicrous at that point
with all the rock music taking over. So I decided not to worry to
much about it and just enjoy my experiences in Boston and see where
it will all lead. As long as I didn't have to go to war and could
study this amazing art form to the fullest, I knew deep inside that
I would be contributing somehow to the preservation of the species
and felt a strong desire to continue on the path of finding out
more about where this mysterious process comes from and why when
everything is working, you become an observer and the music flows
through your body all by itself or comes from a place of power that
all creation comes from and then keeps moving without any conscious
effort on the part of the delivery system. These were inclinations
that were starting to come into my perceptions and I believe THAT
is when I first started to realize that I finally had a purpose
in life and that it could very well sometimes be a lonely life.
I knew then that I would probably be living a life of the road.
When I was at Berklee some of the students there at the time were
Art Baron, Bill Pierce, Joe Lovano, Billy Drewes, George Garzone,
etc. John La Porta, Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano,
Phil Wilson were some of my teachers. All in all a great experience
except for some political stuff that always goes on at schools.
I remember starting my senior year: I had to come back 2 weeks late
because I was recoupertating from a major injury and when I went
back many of my advanced courses were filled in and I was upset.
I went to the administrator to complain and he said basically "Too
so what". I was one of the top players in the school
and it didn't seem to matter, so I left and went on the road to
Canada playing in jazz-rock cover bands with some other Berklee
"alumni". But I must admit, Berklee taught me a hell of
a lot and even though it seems like lifetimes ago and my music has
changed so much since then, I will always cherish the great experiences
of that time in my life; the social upheavings and all.
Were there many "out" jazz listeners among your colleagues
at Berklee? Or, how did the more avant-garde improvised musics relate
to life in general at the school?
When I delve into my memory banks about the avant garde scene at
Berklee, it seems to me that this type of jazz was kept "kind
of underground" at the school, mirroring what was happening
in society. It wasn't the selling point that the school was trying
to promote. I was curious about this music so I sought it out. I
seemed to be attracted even early on to different sounds and dissonances.
I was very curious and I feel that I was in the minority at the
school who would accidentally on purpose hear these musics at the
school, which usually happened after hours in the evenings and early
night before the school would close for the night. What amazed me
when I heard this music was how much technical ability you had to
have on you instrument and the "weird knowledge" that
went along with it. I never dismissed it as bullshit as most of
the others at the school did. I always thought that you had to be
amazing to play this type of music and always kept it in the back
of my mind, even though I was into a different type of music back
then. Even the more adventuresome big band compositions attracted
me. A couple of times I heard John La Porta conducting one of his
arrangements with the Recording Band, which was the top band at
Berklee. It was totally modern and they played it great. I said
to myself "this was it!" and eventually became a member
of the band, which was under the conduction of Herb Pomeroy. But
again, those were special moments which happened at Berklee and
the Recording Band was the ensemble that took those orchestral endeavors.
Charlie Mariano also had some great adventuresome improvisational
small band ensembles that I participated in. But the biggest interest
was the "regular" jazz and big band ensembles: recruiting
grounds for Buddy Rich's and Woody Herman's big bands. Obviously,
this was one of my goals also. Remember, I was a kid, played the
trumpet, had fantastic range on the instrument, could read music
great and had great lead trumpet conception. A perfect Berklee recruit!
If you can, could you detail a couple of tips of particularly
memorable lessons imparted to you by Herb Pomeroy?
I didn't really have private lessons from Herb Pomeroy. I had him
as a director of jazz ensembles, specifically with the Recording
Band. He was the first teacher that I met on my audition day though.
I remember playing a blues for him in a key that I chose and then
he chose a key. Performance majors had to do that to be placed in
ensembles. I did pretty good at that time because Herb placed me
in some nice ensembles my first year; very challenging improvisational
workshops. The main thing about Herb Pomeroy was his fantastic ear.
I was blown away by the way in which he could pick out certain parts
in the ensemble that were played wrong. Even the most dense musical
passages; he could hear every part just by following the scores.
And this was a composition that even he was hearing for the first
time! He showed us how to listen to each other and phrase together,
if necessary. His was an improvisor's approach towards the music.
He was also a great trumpet player, very lyrical with advanced ears.
In fact all the teachers at that time had great experience in playing
with the Masters. Herb Pomeroy knew talent when he heard it. He
is a true musical genius. His Line Writing course and Duke Ellington
course were two of the best composing and arranging classes at the
school. All of the best arrangers tried to get into those classes.
Since I was a Performance Major I never had the chance to take those
two courses. It was only offered to the Comp. and Arranging Majors.
I did have some nice arranging courses though because when I entered
the school I took advanced placement tests and immediately went
into 5th semester. So when my third year rolled around the school
had to give me comp and arranging because I had already exhausted
all of the Instrumental Performance Courses. Herb Pomeroy was always
on my side. He and Phil Wilson kind of took me under their wings
at the time because I was an improvisor and also had these super
chops for lead trumpet which was kind of lacking at that time when
I was there. They always told me that the best lead players were
also great improvisors. That was the history of the big band trumpet.
It wasn't until I left the school that my creative direction took
a major detour.
Could you talk a little more about the differences between the
ear training and ensemble courses with which you filled up your
Ear training courses and ensemble courses were completely different.
(so I thought!?) In ensemble, the emphasis was on performance. Whereas
in ear training, courses were more geared toward the physical body,
as opposed to the "apparitional body" (instrument). In
other words, we never "used" our instruments (obstructions).
Afterwards, these advanced ear training courses (which incidently,
Instrumental Performance Majors had to take in the most extreme),
would be applied to performance in ensemble or private practice,
with the student's perspective instrument or voice. That would be
the testing ground for instrumentalists and singers; whether or
not they could hear and execute the desired musical gesture. The
goal was set. Instantaneous realization and immediate interpretation
had to be accomplished. Is this not the definition of improvisation?:
To get to music one has to go for the discipline necessary to achieve
that goal. Spontaneity and physical reaction ARE the goal. To achieve
this quantum state of mind requires instantaneous reaction and intuitive
acceptance; a letting go, so to speak. Freedom is not chaos; although
to get to it, you definitely have to journey uninhibited through
the muck of chaotic chance, which has an order all of it's own.
We're human beings for God's sake! We try to go for the impossible.
(creatively speaking, I would hope) But can we achieve it? Our physical
structure has some kind of order. Don't'cha' think? It's not completely
random. And there is a resistance. Can you feel it? If we give in
to it, (the body that is), which is usually the case, we become
complacent. But what would happen if we didn't give in to it? There
would be disorder. But we would still try to create order out of
chaos, which in itself is a highly defined state of complexity and
orderliness. Catch my drift? Teaching improvisation strives for
this, or at least it should. The student of the world has to catch
that. When THAT realization is recognized, then and only then can
the differentiation be cognized. There's the difference between
ear training and ensemble. CHANCE CONNECTION! Let's savor the mystery.
Then the physical body says, "Yeah
that's it!", and
the dissolution process takes over. That's very powerful! "We
This notion of becoming a studio professionaldid this stay
with you after you left school at that first group that went to Canada?
You've also spoken of your love for big band (swing-based large group
music? Did you get the opportunity to apprentice in any of the jazz
orchestras of the 1970's? It often seems to me that, perhaps especially,
the most daring of the high-wire trumpet playing I've heard on your
recordings still works from a balance or center of gravity that theatrical
players such as Cat Anderson, Maynard Ferguson and even Harry James
even in Canada I still had this inclination to eventually
end up in the NY studios. But a lot of those desires started to
fade at that point. In one sense I knew that I could "kick
ass" if I did venture into the subserviant level of being a
part of the biological jukebox
and then there was this urge of
high creativity that was also overwhelming my consciousness. The
dichotomy of those two systems transformed me, and in a way still
does to this day. But then when I would think about which choice
would be the one for me?
creativity won out. I knew that inside,
becoming an artist was the only way that my life could go. Music
and art has kept me alive and I realized early on that in America,
if I would survive, it would be the arts that would do it for me.
It was then at that time in Canada that I realized improvisation
would be my destiny, because I completely collapsed physically and
this was a sign. I discovered Carlos Castenada's books and they
gave me the strength to pursue my artistic urges.
Sure. When I was a teenager I was totally into big band jazz. In
High School I cultivated these amazing high note chops which put
me in touch with the lead trumpet parts that no one else could play
because of the extended range that the parts called for. Psychologically,
this was an attribute that I will always cherish. By overcoming
the fear of reading high trumpet parts so early in my life, I developed
confidence and an edge of comfortability about playing the horn,
which gave me the power that I needed to claim my destiny and choice
in life about whether or not I would become a professional. That
and my ability to improvise put me over the top about my career
choice so early in life. I wanted to play in Buddy Rich's or Woody
Herman's Band. Maynard Ferguson and Cat Anderson amazed me and I
studied their approaches to the horn intensely. I knew that there
was something wrong in the mechanics of the player if you didn't
have a good usable three octave range on the trumpet. I wanted to
touch upon every detail of the instrument, so range, power and dynamics
were the conerstone of the instrument, at least as far as I was
concerned. After all, even Satchmo, Dizzy, and especially Roy had
this fantastic range and power. It's all in the tradition. As far
as apprenticeship, I was ready to go with Buddy's band when I was
at Berklee. My trumpet teacher at the time was Lin Biviano, a prodigy
of Bill Chase, and he left to play lead in Buddy's band. He was
ready to call me to come on the band but I had an accident and broke
my leg and immediately had to leave the school to recoup. I feel
that if I had gone with the band my life as a player would have
been completely different and I wouldn't have become what I am today.
Thank God I broke my leg!
This was the first of two major catastrophies in my life that affected
me in such a profound way. The second was when I was on the road
in Canada (after I left Berklee) playing in an extremely loud jazz-rock
type band. I blew out my chops completely, quit and went home, and
there completely changed my direction. That's when I started meditation,
Eastern Philosophy, Quantum Physics and modern Art. I transformed
myself into a different type of player. This was around 1975 or
so. The late 70's were a great time. I never completely recovered
my extreme high chops but I did retain and gained some of it back
and the results are what you hear.
Is it at Berklee that you met Mack Goldsbury and Ed Schuller? According
to Tim Berne, in the liner notes to The Ancestors (Soul Note,
1983), the three of you had "played together for years".
Also in the liners to The Ancestors, Berne indicates that he
met you through Ed and Mack? Could you elaborate a little on that?
A good many listeners probably first learned about you through those
records you made with Tim Berne. By the time your work together had
begun to be documented, Tim had started down his dedicated DIY path,
much like the punk rockers that were his neighbors in NYC. What were
you immediate impressions of Tim's music? How did you approach it,
absorb it, and transform it into a vehicle for the very personal expressions
we hear in performances like Mutant Variations (Soul Note,
1984) and Sanctified Dreams (Columbia, 1986).
No. I didn't meet them at Berklee. I first met Mack around 1976 in
NJ. A few of us decided to start a couple of rehearsal big bands at
that time. We started gathering charts and wanted to get a core group
of musicians and then fill up the ranks with local musicians. We figured
that the best way to find enough musicians quickly would be through
the local musician's union. Some of us belonged at that time and were
in contact with the better players in the local unions. It just so
happened that the band started to get concerts and we were especially
lacking soloists in the saxophone section. The bass player in the
band had heard of this new cat that had just moved up here from Texas
and a saxophone teacher in the Perth Amboy, NJ local was in contact
with him. It was Mack Goldsbury. We had a gig with the band in Trenton,
NJ and Mack came in with his big Texas tenor. Knocked us out! I was
known mostly as a lead player player and was called upon to to fill
that post in all the big bands. I kept my improvisational skills for
the smaller ensembles in secret because of all the experimental stuff
we were doing. There was a secret society of "Free Players"
in NJ and I was involved with that, also. I didn't want that to seep
into my gigs playing lead so we kept that on the other side. Mack
knew me as a lead player at first and as we got to know each other
we discovered that we were into the same free improvisational movements
that were happening in the late 70's. It all started to cross over
and the musicians kept telling me that it was totally amazing that
I could play great lead trumpet and also be into and play all the
"free shit" and go "nuts" playing it. It was a
rare combination. Mack and I started playing a lot of wild sessions
together and that is where I met Ed Schuller. He was living up at
Mack's house in Towoco, NJ. I used to go up there with Herb Fisher
a lot for jam sessions. It was really starting to sound nice. We had
a unique thing going. great free music. I started bringing some of
the younger cats like drummer Tom Sayek up there also. Lots of percussionists
as I recall; the late Peter Le Maitre was there and we started to
go into NYC at Peter's place also to do these rituals. The word started
spreading around that there was wild music being played at Peter's
place in Chinatown and musicians all wanted to be a part of it. We
considered it "sacred music though and would only invite certain
players who we thought would fit in and could ritualize with all of
us. This was around 1978-79. Ed had been playing with Tim Berne and
was also recording with him. One day Tim showed up to one of our rituals
at Peter's in Chinatown. We played all day and night. Tim and I instantly
hooked up. We were thinking and not thinking together. There was no
meaning. The music just connected instantaneously between us. His
alto and my trumpet became one. We were phrasing and playing contrapuntal
lines together. I believe we both went into shock. Afterwards we couldn't
even talk. We just looked at each other and couldn't stop laughing.
It was probably the most profound musical experience of my life. Tim
was recording with Ed and Mack and Paul Motian for his own label,
Empire: Songs and Rituals in Real Time, but was also organizing
a tour for him, Ed and Paul in Europe. First was the concert at the
School of Visual Arts in NY with Mack, Ray Anderson, Ed, Paul, Tim
and me, in which half of the recording became "The Ancestors".
The other half is still in the vaults where most of my hard core playing
is. This was my introduction to the "jazz world".
We haven't really covered your relationship to so-called "classical",
especially "modern classical" music. But its clearly an
important part of you life as a practicing musician and as a listener.
[In fact, your first record as a leader, the recently reissued Transparency,
contains a piece dedicated to "György"Ligeti,
perhaps?] Could you talk a little about how you hear and play such
I was first attracted to this music around 1970 when I was 19 years
old; although in high school I did have a curiosity about classical
music. I remember when my folks bought their stereo console. Back
then it was considered furniture and that was where you bought those
big cabinets: furniture stores. I guess I was around 15 or 16 years
old. I went with them and I remember the furniture salesman giving
us a free LP to go along with the purchase. It was a recording of
George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" which also included
"Variations on I Got Rhythm", "Concerto in F for Piano",
and "Cuban Fire Dance". I devoured this double LP set. It
was my first time hearing a symphony orchestra. This was the 20th
century; especially "Concerto" and the "Cuban".
With classical music for me, it had to be the brass and percussion
sections, for obvious reasons. I discovered that it was the 20th century
that opened my mind to "unusual" music. The brass and percussion
came into their own with modern music and subsequently modern harmonies
and rhythm was the consequence. Then in 1970 I discovered Ligeti and
Varese. Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey had just been
released in 1968 and I loved goin' to the movies. This film had a
major impact on me as I guess with a lot of people. I was particularly
attracted to the "weird music" that was happening during
the film. I remember some comments made about that music afterward:
you mean that stuff that sounded like a bunch of bees."
I knew it was voices and instruments. It really had a profound affect
on me. I went back many times to see that movie and listen to the
score with Ligeti's music. I thought that I "got it". 2001
made perfect sense to me and Ligeti's music had helped me understand
the meaning of that great film. Every chance I got, I would get together
with a few other musicians and listen to all the weirdest stuff that
we could get our hands on. I was totally into modern 20th century
classical as much as jazz. It created the same effects on me physically
and emotionally. So here was a music that was mostly through composed
and I was totally captivated by it. Again, it made total sense to
me (just like jazz), and I knew inside that I wouldn't have to intellectualize
it to make it legitimate. I trusted my gut feelings and that was it.
My favorites were (in no particular order): John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti,
Charles Ives, Krysystof Penderecki, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky,
Edgard Varese, Elliot Carter, Arnold Schonberg, Anton von Webern,
Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen. They were my "saviors"
along with all of the jazz that I was listening to.
After a time of absorbing these these musics carefully and playfully
on intense listening sessions, I started realizing how interconnected
the more advanced forms of jazz and modern classical was. Jazz had
the distinction of evolving very rapidly because of radio and recordings.
Classical music had a much slower and in the process, deeper time
to develop. It wasn't until the 20th century that classical music
also had the privilege of recordings and live broadcasts. At the
turn of the 20th century it had already evolved into atonality and
bitonality. Jazz was embryonic at that point but immediately started
it's quick evolution perhaps because of the accelerated social process
and higher integration of instrumentalism. I came to a realization
that there was no distinction per se as far as I was concerned about
the theory and practice of these two wonderful musics. It all became
a unity and that's when for me, listening to Andrew Hill or Circle
was no different than checking out Elliot Carter or Ives. I immediately
started incorporating these aspects into my music and playing. I
enjoyed wandering around uncharted territories and the synthesis
of all these things granted me that possibility.
Playing lead trumpet in a large jazz band, having those kind of
"chops", and being able to instantaneously realize the music,
as you've described itit seems to me that being able to explore
these physical and psychological limits are a key to collective improvisation
as they are to playing Schoenberg. Where do you see the connections
or confluences of what Gunther Schuller has described as the three
streams of modern music? Do you see any relationship between Third
Stream as practiced by artists such as Mr. Schuler and Ran Blake and
your own music?
What I meant by "instant realization" was coming from more
of a command of your instrument. To be able to transcend the physical
blocks of the instrument. This is one of the challenges of musicians.
The joy of finally getting "over the hump" of the mechanics
of the instrument is a great realization with enormous exhilaration:
a "Peak Experience" so to speak (if I may borrow from Abraham
Maslow). This can possibly happen a few times during one's lifetime,
but I believe there is that one great moment in a musician's life
when that particular experience is pretty damn overwhelming. It seems
to me that music interpretation and invention arrives as a sort of
gift or reward for all of the hard work through the years of practicing
and getting past the blocks of the instrument. At the same time, a
thorough saturation of all the music that your particular instrument
encompasses throughout history has to be desirable. So YES
on that level is exactly the same as playing and interpreting Schoenberg
or Bach. The approach is the same. I believe that being able to read
music on a high level is also imperative if you want to create on
such a high level. But I also feel that letting go and trusting our
human frailness, being completely vulnerable, allows the communication
aspects to be released. Then and only then will the snobbiness end,
and the audience will FEEL that emotion and enjoy what is being created
for them. It can be totally entertaining at that point and everyone
can have fun with it! The mistakes can happen and then problems that
will arise in the process will be looked at in a good way and there
will be enjoyment in solving. A very nice game, indeed. I can and
did appreciate "third stream" music, especially the early
70's when it was more "popular". I believe that album by
Joe Zawinul, The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream with music
by John Fischer was hitting pretty good at that time. Gary McFarland
also had some interesting projects happening, especially with Steve
Kuhn. I really liked his stuff. But one thing really bothered me about
that music: the separation of the different styles. In fact, it was
too stylistic. It seemed that there was the "classical"
sections and then the "jazz sections and then the blah, blah.
The synthesis of the music was missing for me. It wasn't gooey enough
for me. Maybe it was too embryonic at that point, I don't know. With
my music or any type of total music experience
I want it to get to
a oneness on some level. No differentiation. All mixed up and almost
unrecognizable as separate entities. That's my goal. And if I can
achieve it during my lifetime, I feel that I might have accomplished
What was it that finally led to you beginning to work as a "leader"?
The leader thing didn't figure into the picture for me until six
years after I had already been going to Europe, which was around
1987. My first record came out in 1985 and afterward I was encouraged
to tour with my own band. Mark Helias and Tim Berne kept trying
to push me in that direction. Up to that point I was already writing
my own music and Mark and Tim always encouraged me about becoming
a leader. Even Bill Frisell admired my arranging skills and they
all kept trying to convince me of that. The problem for me was the
pychological thing. I always considered myself a trumpet player
first, which meant that I was a professional sideman. Even to this
day I fight with that thing. The leadership aspect was intimidating.
If anything, I fell into that position unconsciously. I never wanted
to really deal with it. All I can say is that if I am a leader,
it has to do with my abilities on the horn, and was a by product
You mentioned that very little preparatory work factored into
your initial musical meetings with Tim Berne. When you lead projects
now, what sort of discussion or rehearsal or pre-musical social
interaction , if any, do you rely on to lay the foundation for the
First of all I have to be comfortable personally and improvisationally
with the musicians if I decide to do a project. As is the case throughout
the history of the music; even if the musician is a "monster",
if the social and personal aspects don't gel with the "leader"
of the date, it ain't gonna be a high level experience. Sure
there may be amazing feats of acrobatics, but we're talking about
art and communication, not ego and conflict. That's the first prerequisite.
Of course what happens during the music in the heat of the moment
may be intense at times emotionally, but at that stage the trust is
already established. I also want to be able to hang out and enjoy
being with the musicians. If we can do that and start to appreciate
each other's sense of humor, sarcasm, and short-comings, then we can
play music together and take it to that exhalted state. Now we can
start working on the compositions. I also like to play free improvisation
sessions with everyone first and try to get a couple of these in to
see who's interested and who's not. When the core is set, then and
only then would I bring in any written music. I would also know what
to write for the person because I tend to write for the individual,
not the instrument. That's also a historical aspect of the music.
The next thing is the luxury of rehearsal, which is getting harder
to do these days in such economically hard times. If I write hard
music, I would hope to have many rehearsals so that everyone could
play together comfortably. Since musicians are busy and also have
personal lives, this is almost impossible (unless you can put them
on a salary and pay for rehearsals
yeah right!!). So
music and utilize more improvisation. No wonder there are more and
more free improv recordings around lately. This is no accident. Even
my recent recordings are in that direction. I can't afford to pay
what I would want and what the musicians truly deserve. I want to
compose my music on a high level and I sacrifice. Oh sure, I've had
musicians tell me that they would play my music for nothing and I
would do the same if I really believed in someone's product and enjoyed
playing with them. After all, what it really comes down to is making
an investment and in this "business" we make a lot of investments
and some of them pay off. That's what seems to be happening with Music
for Long Attention Spans. I'm just starting to get offers to go
to Europe with these recordings.
When did you begin doublingand tripling, etc.on the
other brass instruments in your arsenal? And when and why did you
begin incorporating the "little instruments" into your music?
I remember one day in the summer of 1969. I had graduated high school
and got a job that summer in the mail department at a large manufacturing
plant in North Brunswick, NJ. It was a fun kind of day gig
for hippies. I just had to hang out all day and make 4 runs through
the factory on an electric motorized delivery cart that would tear
through that large plant. There were 2 of us. The other guy was a
rocker who was planning on going to the Woodstock Festival. He was
completely out of his mind. He happened to have a funky (smelly) old
valve trombone and brought it in one day. We preceded to get high
and have little jam sessions in the factory
crazy duets. I noticed
that it was easy for me to play the trombone with that bigger mouthpiece
and had a ball doing it. That's when I decided to go to NYC and buy
one so that I could always play it along with my trumpet. My brother
also had a bass clarinet and I would honk on that thing every time
I had a chance. I realized early on that I enjoyed playing other instruments.
It was fun, and I was discovering all these different sounds and how
to adapt them to my principal instrument. But it was my teacher, the
late, great Dr. Donald S. Reinhardtbrass instrument specialist,
who told me that doubling on other brass instruments (if done correctly)
could only help and improve my trumpet playing. He was right. All
you had to do was make sure that the outer embouchure ring was always
concentric on the lips and then there would be no distortion or the
so called "choke" taking place against the teeth on the
inner embouchure whenever the inner and outer rim size between mouthpieces
would make such a drastic change. It made perfect sense. So after
that I also started to incorporate the tuba and Eb alto horn. I only
enjoyed reading in treble clef so all written music had to be transposed
to that clef no matter what instrument I was doubling on. The "little
instruments" came into their own for me when I had the summer
gigs in the Catskills where Herb Fisher and I started our intense
duo improv sessions. The music started evolving into all sorts of
different sound areas and I would just start gathering everything
possible, including the grand piano, to make sounds on. That was around
1975. As far as incorporating the whistles, flaegeolets, toys, etc.,
I believe it was the improvising trios with percussionists that made
that all possible. There was this one great percussionist that drummer
Tom Sayek and I always played with. The late Jack Winters
everything at his studio: classical percussion, exotic drums and percussion
from all over the world, horns and every kind of sound producing device
you could imagine! We played all day long about 4 times a week. It
was a musician's delight. That was from 1977 to 1980. I started aquiring
all of my arsenal of stuff at that time. I just loved improvising
on all kinds of things. The trumpet at that point just became one
of the sound devises. For me, the penny whistle and the trumpet were
equals as far as I was concerned. Creativity was not limited to one
instrument. It was all music. I wanted orchestral capabilities with
duos and trios and that was a way to accomplish those ideals.
Your earliest recordings for Stefan Winter's JMT label are much
less well-known than your recent dates for the CIMP and Cadence labels,
partly because they've been unavailable for some time. But Transparency
(1985), Shades of Bud Powell (1988), X-Cerpts: Live at Willisau
(1988), and Certified (1991) collectively contain a rich variety
of musiclyrical, boppish, combative, at times surreal, in settings
that are both very "free" and meticulously arranged. What,
from your retrospective vantage, connects all these works?
The love of all kinds of music. I'm one of those specimen who is
never really satisfied. This can be both detrimental and a blessing.
I can experience all emotions within a short period of time. And
that's the advantage when working with music. Within a short period
of TIME, you can travel the whole gamut of human expression, if
you let yourself go. This is why musicians can reach such a high
(spiritual) level when performing. Time and space actually become
warped when the music reaches that level. When I compose music,
I'm trying to put those sentic cycles in the composition. My goal
in this situation is to hopefully quicken the spiritual response
when the musicians finally start playing my music. It won't happen
all of the time, but if it's done right there is always something
that will happen. The "hit or miss" percentage drops and
at least there will be some satisfaction happening if we're all
hooked-up with each other's intention. So when I'm composing, I'll
let my emotions go and I'll also do this by incorporating all the
different styles of music that I've been exposed to during my life,
so that once we start performing, if something is working we can
stay there for a while. If things get a little shakey, we can shift
and continue in another zone and then try again. When I start with
an improv section or play a totally free piece, then we can start
from scratch and try to develop something from nothing. With my
skill as an arranger, I know how to add or delete and changing styles
is my way of utilizing my whole experience but at the same time
letting the other musicians also have the freedom to question my
composition and come up with better solutions for the music; even
if it means changing the written material. I want it to be a total
democratic process where we're all equals. My music would be meaningless
without the players, who are the real composers. You see, I love
contrasts. And this is what the goal is for me: to be able to play
contrasting elements with everyone while at the same time feeling
that sense of connection. If this happens, then the parts of the
music that become synonymous also happen spontaneously, and that's
a neat feeling for a moment, but let's not dwell on it. Change it
up again. Try and stay away from the obvious. Let the emotions flow
and change. Of course, this doesn't always work in a social situation.
Sometimes you have to put the mask back on. The gig's over with.
Save it for the next time.
Your career as a "sideman" or gust artists has been
a long and distinguished one. In my own private collection, I can
hear you perform with Lou Grassi's Po' Band, the Fonda-Stevens Group,
Nexus (Italian drummer Tiziano Tononi's sextet), Barry Guy's New
Orchestra, Mark Helias, Michael Moore, and Terry Jenoure. In some
ways, I can imagine you as the post-modern counterpart of Clark
Terry. How do you adjust to the demands of so many different projects?
Do you approach this work any differently from your work as a leader
of your own groups / projects?
If I look at my discography, in my own collection alone I'm on
about 90 recordings of which around 80 I'm a sideman. Most of these
are out of print and are probably collector's items! I started recording
in 1982 so yes
that's 90 records in 20 years. Sure
nice recording career that I'm proud of. All said and done, I'm
pretty satisfied with that aspect of my career. Historically speaking,
I'm in the books. Now
still to this day, who is Herb Robertson?
I still have people come up to me who tell me that they are avid
jazz fans but they have never heard of me. Something else. In Europe
I guess since that's my stomping grounds, people are more familiar
with me. But I am finding out, since the American tour scene has
started to open up, I find fans in little pockets of the country
who are familiar with my work. So
yeah, nothing is done in vain.
But let's get back to what you asked about, my approach to other's
music and recording as opposed to performance. No matter how "far
out" I love to play, the reason that I can make this happen
is mainly because I'm a "traditionalist" at heart. You
could also say that I'm a purist. So when I'm presented with another
colleague's music, the first thing I do is assess it to the point
of where it's coming from and what the composer would like me to
do with it. If it has strong swing elements then I would utilize
my abilities toward that persuasion. My position as a musician has
to be my belief in another's music and if I see the music for the
first time at the initial rehearsal, I will "skeletalize"
my part to the most basic elements and this could mean to the point
of over-simplification. This is really prevalent in the case of
studio recordings. Usually there has to be preparation, it seems
to me, to be in the position and mind set that we will be doing
more than 1 take on each composition during the recording. This
is why at the rehearsal I will try all different kinds of elements
during the improvisatory moments
just to be prepared for having
things available at my disposal in case I have to do those other
takes. In that way I'll always have something new to say and won't
"blow my load" on the 1st take. Plus I always "bow"
to the composer and let them decide how much freedom will be granted
to the musicians. But if I'm asked to record for someone, I'm always
allowed to make decisions for myself. I established that reputation
and the leader of the date knows that I won't destroy their music
unless they ask me to as part of their own approach. We all know
that the less takes the better and that is the best thing that can
happen. Live recordings are totally different in that you have to
do it the first time no matter what. The energy level is completely
different than the studio. Both ways are fantastic. All musicians
should have both studio and live performances of their playing.
My approach is definitely in this direction when I do my music but
I don't dwell too much on the written material. I really want the
musicians to have their power available for the improvisations,
solo or otherwise. If the written music is unplayable and I don't
have the luxury of too many rehearsals then it's time to edit the
music and make it work.
It seems to me that a musician in your position is faced with a
difficult challengework consistently, or turn down projects
until you find exactly the right situation, one that will allow you
full creative reign. How do you balance the demands of "work"
and "career" (making a name for yourself as not just a musician,
but the kind of jazz renaissance mastermind so many listeners are
interested in; figures like Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and Derek
Bailey). To go completely one way or the other naturally would require
sacrifices. What do you see as the main advantages of each path, and
do you see yourself on the road you ideally would choose?
When I was starting to come to a realization that I had an original
voice and the feeling of doom changed to empowerment, that's when
I decided to pursue the right avenues of acceptance. I had an innate
feeling that I would have to let go of the "club date"
service mentality. It really started to eat away at me and if I
didn't let go of that totally, I would have had a difficult life
that would reach a point of mental and spiritual damage. I knew
deep inside, I had a calling. Just being on one of those dumb bandstands
and knowing that what I was playing was heavy shit but at the same
time being ridiculed and made faces at from band leaders and audiences
man.. that was it! I completely severed the cord. My work
and "career" became inseparable. I had to sacrifice a
good paying job as a professional and try to get by financially
as a performing artist. This was a heavy decision and I had to do
it. There was no way around that. I'm glad that I made the right
decision! I don't own a house or condo or even a car for that matter.
But I knew that this would be the payoff for a career in the jazz
avant-garde. So whenever I get any offers for gigs, I take them
because I only get creative offers and when there's that layoff
period, I know how to utilize my time for heavy wood-shedding, reading,
listening, composing (if inspired), and self-reflection. All of
these components have been part of me from the beginning. After
a "sabatical" I always come out fresh with something new
and different and when I apply this to my horn, a new style emerges
and I'm ready for the next outing in the adventure of creativity.
If you can tap that source of your own growth cycle and connect
with the expansion of the universe it can be one hell of a roller
coaster ride. The goal is that Transcendental Object or Omega Point
which is traveling in front of us at the same speed. The joy is
in the ride. In Quantum Mechanics there are these sub-atomic particles
called "tachyons" that seem to travel faster then the
speed of light. Since we are the universe and tachyons are here
also, it seems that we can latch on to these particles and in the
process we start to catch up or get closer to the beginning (Object).
Every so often we touch that "stillpoint" and all knowledge
floods us and brings us to a higher level of evolution. That's in
the sabatical. Build the structure, add to it, change it
utilize it, explore it, even tear it down. After that, it's time
to build it again. The process goes on forever like that. These
are things that I go for and it never can get boring because the
results come out in the music. So I would say yes, this is the road
that I've accepted and I'm very proud of the outcome. The sacrifices
are there and I do have some consequences that I have to endure
by living non-materially in a materialistic world. But I accept
it and I deal with it as best as I can. It's the only way for me.
You spoke earlier about long-form improvising, editing, and the
ritual aspects of the kind of music you create. Music for Long
Attention Spans, released in 2001 on the Leo label, seems to me
very much animated by these ideas and concerns. But there is also
such a strong sense of internal organization to the pieces on that
recording. How do you understand structure as it pertains to your
The first aspect of realizing a free form piece is I believe, patience.
This not only applies to the musicians but also the listener. It's
probably a main reason why there is not much of a large fan base
for long improvised pieces. The musicians require a mind capable
of remembering important musical moments that they already created
instantaneously, or someone else created. When that realization
is cognized in the concious mind, then and only then can the subconcious
come back into play and start creating variations, recapitulations,
and new material unrelated to anything previous. All of what I said
happens in micro-seconds (light speed and beyond), and must, or
else there will be "dead spots" and some second guessing
of musical input. That's form and organization, and can create the
most strangest music palatable, if done so at that point intuitively.
That's why I want history and music's vocabulary to be an important
prerequisite in my music, and any music that I decide to enjoy and
listen to. I firmly believe that we can create the strangest, most
mysterious music and also listen to the wildest, heart-wrenching
sounds if the psyche is exposed and has a firm understanding of
universal laws. After all, rules are made to be broken, but only
when they are indelibly engrained in the being. That is form
that is chaos
that is joy; or, "It don't mean a thing if
it ain't got that swing".
Could you talk a little about ritual too as it relates to your
recording of duet(s) with drummer Phil Haynes on the CIMP recording
With special individuals
and I've only had the good fortune to know
those kind of characters
Ritual is the experience! With Phil it goes
back to the days when we were living in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Phil had a playing space where he lived and would have sessions there
on a regular basis. Around 1989 we started doing duos together pretty
regularly. The ritual aspect came into play because we would always
set up the environment first by lighting candles and maybe incense,
and then darken the room since there was no music to read. I would
have my horns and my "little instruments" spread out in
one part of the room and Phil had his drum kit and small percussion
in his spot. He always had great sounding drums and cymbals. After
the set up was ready we would always take a nice break first to get
focused and then gradually start to make the ritualistic sounds. It
would be like traveling around the ancient world to exotic cultures.
The music always took us there. Sometimes there were also very extraterrestrial
moments and I believe that is when we decided that we would have to
document this music at some point in the future. There was something
unique happening here. We were granted that opportunity when Bob Rusch
at Cadence offered to record us for his CIMP label. The result is
Ritual which we did in one take. Phil and I were already up
there to record our quintet and after that was completed, Bob, Phil
and I decided to record the duo. So we took a long break to get fresh
ideas and in the evening we set up Bob's Spirit Room for the ritual.
We took the large carpet out so that we could get some natural sound
reflection and also requested candles and a dark room to set the environment.
I think Bob and Marc thought that this was all pretty amusing, but
then again the Cadence crew had been recording musicians up there
for a few years now and were definately used to unusual requests from
the different, colorful artists that passed through there. I have
to say that Bob Rusch with his CIMP label came into being at a time
when creative improvised music in America needed documentation. CIMP
gives that opportunity to many improvising musicians who would otherwise
never get a chance to have a product and perhaps in some instances
launch a new career. Just historically down the road many will look
back and say, "Wow
there was that record label in America at
the end of the 20th century that released some very important and
challenging music. CIMP will help keep America in the forefront of
creative music and that is so very wonderful. Up at Cadence there
are no time restraints and that is the most necessary ingredient for
recording improvised music. Bob Rusch allows that to happen. I'm really
glad that I had the opportunity to do some nice recordings for him.
Phil Haynes and I thank him for those two wonderful days.
Dave Douglas [whose recording debut, I might add, was with hard-bop
alto stylist Vincent Herring], one of the most admired and active
jazz musicians of our time, has cited you as a primary influence.
How did you first come to know and work with Dave Douglas? Can you
hear a little of yourself in his music? What other trumpet / brass
players of a slightly younger generation have you had similar relationships
I first met Dave I believe in 1985-86. I was playing trumpet in
Walter Thompson's Big Band at the time for a couple of years. That
band was a meeting point for all of the new musicians in NYC. We
rehearsed once a week and would do concerts around the Greenwich
Village neighborhood. Check out the roster of some of the musicians
who were in THAT band: the late reedman Thomas Chapin, violinist
Mark Feldman, cellist Tomas Ullrich, guitarist David Tronzo, bassist
Joe Fonda, trombonists Steve Swell and Bob Hovey, and the amazing
trumpet section: Dave Douglas, Steven Bernstein, Frank London and
myself. I was kind of the mentor in that band. All of the cats told
me how much my music had influenced them. It was a kind of awakening
for me because up to that point I never new that I was inspiring
other musicians. That was the first time I started to realize that
I was adding to the history of jazz. It was a wonderful feeling
that I was now being respected as an innovative musician instead
of the disrespect that I was used to, by being in the wrong place.
Dave Douglas and I always liked each other and he used to tell me
many times how much he loved my playing. I remember even in the
concerts he used to always ask me about how I played extended free
solos over the band and how I could make it so interesting and enjoyable.
I used to say to him, "Geez
I really don't know, Dave. I
guess somewhere deep inside and just trusting my heart and going
for it, I guess!!??" I remember telling him
strong chops". That was about the extent of it. I knew that
he was more of a straight-ahead type player, and he was interested
in adding some of the "out" stuff in his music. He's good
at intellectualizing his music where as I'm more of a chance player
who dosen't mind stumbling around a bit. In fact
I cherish those
moments of uncontrollability. Dave's a master at synthesizing musics,
and I suppose that's what gives him his charm. I'm real happy for
him. He found a place for his music that can reach larger audiences,
and make a repectable living doing it. As far as younger trumpeters
that I may have influenced
(besides the ones up above) I know
that they are there. Dave Ballou, Cuong Vu and others have told
me that I have had an impact on their playing. But let's not forget
about my dear friend, Paul Smoker! He's 10 years older than me and
he's influencing players left and right also. I've had the great
pleasure of blowing next to him on the bandstand and his power made
me play at a higher level immediately. He is someone to be reckoned
with. He's really the only trumpet player I know who can send me
back to the practice room! That's scary. Paul Smoker can and will
deflate anyone's ego
How did you come to form the trio with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen
documented on Falling in Flat Space (Cadence, 1996) and Sound
Implosion (CIMP, 1997)?
That trio formed after Dominic and I had a session with a few others.
Again it was a free session, and afterwards, Dominic told me that
he had enjoyed my playing for quite sometime now. After that session
he suggested that we should do a trio session with drummer Jay Rosen,
whom Dominic had been playing with in Mark Whitecage's band. So Dominic
rented some time at a rehearsal room in Brooklyn and we got together.
It came off great and the three of us realized that we had an instant
connection. Jay also told me that he had checked me out many times
and that I was a big influence on him. We taped the session on cassette
and checked it out. It was really good, so Dominic decided to bring
the trio into the studio and record it to try and shop it around.
So the second time we got together was at the studio in Long Island.
I remember it was a blizzard in January 1996 and Jay and I drove out
to the Island. Dominic sent that tape to a few record companies but
just got rejections. So Bob Rusch at Cadence offered to put it out
if we couldn't sell it. That's what we did after the frustrating rejections.
Bob released it on his Cadence label and that was how Falling In
Flat Space came to be. Bob Rusch offered, as part of the deal
of having this powerful trio recording, the opportunity for us to
come up to his place to record for the CIMP label. So a couple of
months later, the trio went up to record Sound Implosion; another
great free improvisation CD. It's too bad we never had the occasion
to get together again. That trio had only gotten together about four
times and two of those times became those two wonderful CDs. Some
of the timing was off because part of the reason we never got together
again was the fact that I was moving to Berlin, Germany soon after
all of that. By living in Germany from 1998 to 2001 that trio never
had a chance again. But I'm back here now, so maybe Dominic, Jay and
I will have the opportunity again. That's something to look forward
What would be your "dream project"? I mean, given
the cash, the time to prepare, and the collaborators of your choosing,
what would you like to produce?
I've always had the dream of going into the wooded mountains, renting
a log cabin with a grand piano in it on the edge of a secluded lake
quiet with no people and limited access to a telephone. There I would
love to stay for a year or more and compose a large piece of music
for a large ensemble of all of the players that I have enjoyed improvising
with during my duration on this planet. It would be open and free
to do what I want at my own pace but with a deadline, because I need
deadlines to compose music. That's just the way I am. During this
period at the lake, I would invite certain musicians up at my expense
and have non-linear ritualistic playing sessions that could last 2
to 3 days if need be. This would happen a few times during my stay
in the mountain cabin. I need the fresh inspiration that free improvisation
gives me to keep my mind constant with ideas for composing. I know
that I would be able to come up with some neat stuff. After this adventure,
I would bring what I have written to a great recording studio in NYC,
lock out two weeks of time and rehearse the ensemble in the room we
will record in for a week. After that, and having the recording engineer
there the whole time, I would listen to the rehearsal tapes and make
the necessary adjustments, if need be and then get the musicians together
for three days of recording. Since this project is financed to the
hilt, I would make sure that the musicians would be the highest paid
and be taken care of to their satisfaction. It's a funny thing
you treat people with respect, they will give you their utmost in
all of their abilities. I've seen musicians used and abused too damn
much (me included
even to this day)
it's about time that creative
artists get the rewards that they deserve after devoting their whole
lives to creative music
at least one time during their lifetime.
That would be my dream
just that. With the rest of my "unlimited
funds", I would have a place for performing creative music
acoustic), with a staff and crew who were into music of this nature
environmentally correct. The restaurant part would keep us all supported!!
What music do you listen to in your time away from performing
music? What music gives you the most pleasure as a listener?
I actually go through long periods of not listening to any music at
all. As long as I can remember, I was always like this. Up until I
was about thirty years old, I used to listen to music say
a day. That was my period of absorption and assimilation. But I would
say since then I have these long hiatuses from listening, especially
when I finally developed my own kind of music. I didn't want to be
influenced any longer by other music. I do have a knack for absorbing
music quickly, and I feel that that can be detrimental sometimes for
my development. If I create my own music from my own processes without
any outside influence and then I'm told that so and so is doing the
same thing, I realize it's the muse that's in the exosphere influencing
situations and then that's fine with me. It's "in the air"
so to speak
a morphogenetic thing. A good example of this phenomenon
(that everybody involved in jazz knows about), is when Sonny Stitt
was accused of ripping off Charlie Parker's "riffs" and
calling it his own. Sonny always insisted that he had never heard
Parker's music at that time. (They were both there in the beginning
of Modern jazz
before it was coined bebop) He was in a different
part of the country and started playing the same type of music, simultaneously!
I believe that this happens and is now being proved scientifically
by great scientists like Rupert Sheldrake, Ralph Abraham and Terence
McKenna. So YES
if I listen to music now (when I'm in the mood),
I will listen to classical, older jazz (60's and before), and some
singers like Joni Mitchell and again some very weird stuff. Frank
Zappa has always been a favorite. But again, just very sporadically.
I will go through periods of checking out my own playing once in a
while, just to re-evaluate and to see if there is anything in my playing
that I forgot and see if I can re-incorporate it back into my playing.
That's about it as far as my listening experience goes. But I can
listen to almost anything, even good new age music (if there is such
a thing!) Music of other cultures (Folkways and Nonesuch)? Yeah
can dig that. I'm getting in the mood again. It's a beautiful thing.