Oscar Peterson

I have said, and will say again, that Oscar is in MY top ten, actually, top 5. In terms of evolution of the piano, and the trio, I think that Ahmad, however, cannot be ignored. For sheer brilliance of piano playing, I hearby award Oscar an honorary tie for the tenth position. Ellington, as I have said, would have easily made it if he had made more piano records as opposed to his orchestra.

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Every picture tells a story

I know why I love New York, but this picture said a lot for me. Looked a little Edward Hopper … but all the drunks were in the back. I needed a little nosh in Penn Station while rushing to the subway, and I decided to give this little place a try. First of all, check out the open bar on the right, with the fetching young bartender. Any beer you want (not just the Bud Light), AND any of the harder stuff. Like good scotches. On the left, another very cute young lady serving the soft drinks, and the pizza-dough-making apparatus to her right. Notice to the left of the word PIZZA on the marquee a tiny NY Rangers sign. No corporate banner, just THIS IS A SPORTS BAR. And NO LOUD ROOTING FOR A BOSTON TEAM. Sports TV blasting inside, and guys drinking, eating, talking and listening to the game. (Celtics and Miami. Not so good for the guys in green.)

But the pizza. $2.75. I got the marinara, no cheese. Bit into the hot slice. Perfect crust, not too doughy, crispy, slightly burnt, with a delightfully light tomato aroma and a fresh, slightly sweet flavor. Ahhh. A little perfection in the heart of the big city.

Had a few other slices as Wanda and I ate our way through town during the last week. But this was as good as any.

The other day we took the subway to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and walked all the way through Greenpoint to Wanda’s old neighborhood in Long Island City, Queens, and I took this photo from the Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek (a Superfund site).

Of course, I love New York, but I especially love New York when I’m there on vacation with someone really fun, and have enough $$!

We have had many great meals, including at Coppelia, on 14th Street near 7th Avenue, Scarlatto’s, in the theater district, and at our neighborhood haunt, French Roast, at 85th and Broadway, which serves a delicious chicken with lemon and rosemary.

Jazz is at its finest in NYC this time of year. We saw a great Brazilian group at Dizzy’s, with the pianist Helio Alves, drummer Duduka da Fonseca, bassist George Mraz, reeds player Anat Cohen, trumpeter Claudio Roditi and singer Maucha Adnet. At Small’s we heard drummer Tim Horner (who was part of my trio gig at Kitano this week) with sax player Marc Mommaas, guitarist John Hart, bassist Dean Johnson and pianist Jim Ridl.

We also heard the great Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and we’re going back to the Vanguard tonight to hear pianist Renee Rosnes with Peter Washington, Lewis Nash and Steve Nelson.

And … there will be food.

Only three more days. Waahh!

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Can a machine help you relax when you play?

Recently I sat down with the delightful Dr. Rob Watson, professor of piano at Cal State Fullerton and director of the CSUF Smart Applied Music Studio. He explained the new machine that Fullerton had just acquired, a sort of combination of a digital grand piano, a PC, a video camera and an electromyograph (which measures muscle tension electronically). I would be hooked up with sensors on my shoulders and my lower arms, and the machine would measure my muscle tension as I played.

The red (upper) lines in the graphs measure the tension in my left and right arms, and the blue (lower) lines measure the tension in my left and right shoulders. You can play back the video, and the audio plays back in sync with the video, so, theoretically, you can find the exact place where tension occurs.

As you can see, my shoulders (represented by the blue lines) are pretty relaxed. Rob noticed, however, that there were a few places where my right shoulder tensed up. He wondered whether that correlated with the video evidence that my head was a bit far forward over my shoulders; this could create tension. I tried to balance my head a bit better, that is, move it over my shoulders rather than slinking as I normally do, and the reading was a little lower.

Next I suggested to Rob that I try to form a sort of “biofeedback loop” and WATCH the graph as I played. The result is below.

Notice here that I have made a real attempt to correct my head position, making sure my ears are over my shoulders. AND I’m watching the graphs as I’m playing. Pretty amazing result. Shoulder tension has been reduced almost to zero, and my arm tension is lessened as well.

I tried to keep a cupped hand whenever possible, letting the hand and arm, instead of the finger, reach for the note. Tried to make it all feel a little floppy. Bingo!

A few minutes a few times a week on this machine, and I think I’d play a lot better.

Kathleen Riley, one of the software developers of this system, hooked up the great pianist Garrick Ohlsson. He got the best relaxation reading of anyone who’s tried this machine.

But why are my shoulders tense as I’m typing? Hmm. Maybe I need to buy one of these things. Anyone got 50 grand lying around? Take credit cards?

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Bill Cunliffe’s top 10 jazz pianists of all time

In the spirit of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, I’ve decided, just for fun, to take a crack at the 10 greatest jazz pianists of all time. Greatest can mean most popular, or it can mean the most important in the development of the music. I have considered both in relatively equal measure in coming up with my list. Erroll Garner was one of the most popular and is in my own top 10 of favorites, but he’s not in my top 10 in terms of importance. Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley are certainly contenders for the top 10 in importance, but not in popularity. I have given a slight preference to pianists who are great composers, as what is improvisation but composition on the fly? And I’m limiting this to jazz with a swing perspective. Then I don’t have to deal with Eddie Palmieri (whew) or any of the great Latin jazz artists.

Here’s what I think.

#1 Art Tatum
This shouldn’t be a surprise. He took the legacy of Fats Waller completely to its outer limits and combined it with a virtuoso technique and a harmonic and rhythmic imagination not excelled by any jazz pianist since. And he was almost completely blind, to boot. If I had to pick one desert-island pianist, it would be Tatum.

#2 (tie) Bill Evans
Everyone who plays a ballad plays some Bill Evans, but his influence was so much more than that. He was one of the greatest composers of jazz standards and perhaps the most important interpreter of jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. And a multiple reinventer of the piano trio, first with LaFaro and Motian, then with Gomez and Morell, and last with Johnson and La Barbera. Evans took George Russell’s important harmonic theories, part of the structure of Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” and made them jazz piano mainstream, and incredibly beautiful. In addition, he was one of the first jazz pianists to bring the sonorities and aesthetics of classical music to jazz. He pretty much played only trio and solo, and, like Jamal, that was part of his genius, to know himself, what he wanted to do and should do.

#2 (tie) Herbie Hancock
This is also a no-brainer for the top 10, and, in my mind, he is the equal of Evans in influence. He is one of the great composers of jazz, from both popular and artistic perspectives. As a player, he is one of the truly great “compers” and is a true innovator as a soloist, in his ability to synthesize a creative vision out of merging hard bop and European classical music. And probably the greatest quintet pianist ever, in the greatest quintets of jazz: those of Miles Davis. As a leader, he had many triumphs, the early Blue Notes and the jazz/funk experiments of the ’70s probably being the most significant. Hancock is one of the most collaborative artists as well, and brings his sensitivities to many pop artists. Results are sometimes mixed, but that’s what happens when you’re an improviser, and Hancock has always embraced chance-taking. His use of electronics in jazz was pioneering, and often wonderfully innovative and satisfying.

#4 Bud Powell
If not underrated, definitely underappreciated because of his personal struggles and uneven recorded output. Bud Powell created a piano idiom completely parallel with that of the great Charlie Parker, but completely original. We all play the way we play now largely because of Bud, the first piano master of the modern improvised line. And a major composer as well.

#5 Thelonious Monk
Another of the easy ones to pick. Probably in the top five of most performed jazz composers, with an utterly original style grounded in the Harlem piano school but escaping to the outermost regions of logic and structure. He completely exemplified modernism within the bebop school, in an idiom melodically often quite separate from that of his close friend Bud Powell, who showed much of Monk’s influence in his own work. His style echoes in all great pianists today.

#6 Keith Jarrett
One of the most spectacularly accomplished musicians of all time, Jarrett has made fine recordings of Bach, Shostakovich and Lou Harrison, some of the greatest jazz trio records ever, the wonderful European quartet recordings with Jan Garbarek, and the record “Spirits,” on which he overdubs himself on ethnic flutes, voice, soprano saxophone, guitar and percussion instruments. Furthermore, Jarrett invented a new genre of solo piano playing with events like the Köln Concert after he had shown complete mastery and individuality within traditional solo piano jazz and gospel music with the album “Facing You.” And that’s in addition to his contributions to Miles Davis’ groundbreaking ’60s and ’70s music.

#7 Fats Waller
Waller is the complete culmination of the Harlem stride piano school — the most important development of early jazz piano — and a great technical player and creative improviser. Jelly Roll Morton was important both as a composer and as a pianist, but Fats took it to the ultimate place. In my mind, James P. Johnson was a worthy rival and a fine composer as well. But if you have to pick one guy, Fats wins hands down, especially given his tremendous popularity as a bandleader and singer. And you wouldn’t have Tatum without Waller, as Tatum sometimes said. “Fats, that’s where I come from.” Sadly, a way-too-short career.

#8 McCoy Tyner
Technically among the most proficient of the post-bop generation, Tyner developed, largely during his work with John Coltrane, a completely original style of harmony and melody that has affected almost all pianists since. A brilliant sideman with the great John Coltrane, he later led many wonderful groups that kept the flame alive. A compelling composer as well, McCoy would have been known as a major talent just for the first five or six records he recorded as a leader for Impulse.

#9 Chick Corea
Another amazing musician’s musician, Corea has ranged from delicate quasi-classical solo piano and chamber music to some of the greatest jazz trio music of all time (“Now He Sings, Now He Sobs”), to wonderfully free-spirited duo projects with Herbie Hancock, to compelling Brazilian-influenced jazz, to pioneering jazz-rock-fusion. Although some find the latter category uneven in inspiration, it’s hard to argue that Chick isn’t the most dexterous and soulful lead synth player on the planet. Chick has his imitators these days, but far fewer than when I was in music school. Nevertheless, he remains, today, an astoundingly great pianist.

#10 Ahmad Jamal
When I was at Eastman, I was a member of the Sonny Clark school (he would be in my top 20 on this list and in my personal top 10). We would just say his name and ooh and ahh. Same with Ahmad Jamal. Important, absolutely. Miles stole much from Ahmad, especially his use of space and time, and Ahmad’s rejection of traditional hard bop was a revolutionary statement worthy of Monk. His ’70s output of electric jazz is solid and interesting, but not compelling like his acoustic music, and he’s a fine composer, but not on the level of some of the others. Yet if you want to elect a guy with a magnificent technique and an artistic conception, who practically invented the modern piano trio, you have to give Ahmad the vote. And this guy, at 82, still can play 90 minutes of music that an audience has largely never heard before, and at the end they are screaming and standing and applauding rapturously, and it’s not cheap or bombastic or shallow. His use of space, sound and texture are unique. He has always done his own thing and not been much of a collaborator, and that’s perhaps why he’s only #10.

On the edge

Oscar Peterson

I struggled with this one. Certainly one of the most popular. But important? I think so. He was technically the greatest pianist of his time, had a ballad touch and swing feel that were completely his own, and was a major figure in the development of the piano trio. The knock on him has always been the lapse into cliché in the improvising, and I sadly have to agree. Tatum had his stock phrases too, but the breathtaking creativity of it all made it work for me. But it remains that Oscar’s pianism is near flawless in execution and swing, and full of passion. And he has many, many followers. My favorite pianist in my formative years.

Duke Ellington
Probably the most important composer in jazz, Duke was also one of the most important and innovative pianists. He made the transition from Fats Waller-era Harlem piano to avant-garde piano minimalism effortlessly; every big band pianist has to go through him and Bill “Count” Basie. It seems to me you wouldn’t have Monk without Duke, even though Monk rarely cited him as an influence. His few trio records, such as “Money Jungle,” are revelatory. With some misgivings, we place the Duke “on the edge.” But we love him madly.

Brad Mehldau
Brad has captured the imagination of the jazz press, and of the public as well, with his marvelous trio records and strikingly creative solo piano playing. I really enjoy the collaborative records as well, such as those with Pat Metheny. A true innovator harmonically, rhythmically and melodically, Mehldau may crack the top 10 as time passes.

Near misses

Nat “King” Cole
Easily the greatest of the transitional pianists from the swing to the bebop era, and perhaps the inventor of the modern piano trio (with guitar and bass). Because Cole left serious instrumental jazz in the ’50s, we leave him off the list, with a reluctant sigh.

Teddy Wilson
Along with Count Basie, perhaps the most important pianist in the swing era, inspiring a whole raft of imitators and innovators such as Jess Stacy, Joe Bushkin and Mel Powell. To me, not a major innovator on the level of the top 10, although I’d accept some arguments on this issue. His touch and style were unique and unsurpassed.

Tommy Flanagan
The most lyrical and personal of the post-Powell generation, he spent much of his career as accompanist for the great Ella Fitzgerald. But his presence on the scene was always felt as an important sideman and as a leader of one of the greatest trios in jazz for about 30 years.

Hank Jones
Often mentioned in the same breath as Tommy, Jones was an astoundingly great solo and trio pianist, with a distinctive sound, and is regarded as an important transitional figure from swing to bebop. He dabbled in modernism, with an arranger’s touch, and is more consistently good, in my opinion, than any pianist, dead or alive. Manny Albam once said, “There’s no jam that Henry can’t get himself out of.” And do it with style.

Erroll Garner
During his lifetime, the most popular jazz pianist alive, a great composer (“Misty”) and a completely distinctive sound as a solo and trio pianist, with unrivaled octave technique and a unique “four-on-the-floor” left hand and time feel. After his passing, it seems that no one mentioned his name, at least not in music schools. But remnants of his wonderfully fun and enjoyable style remained, in pianists such as George Shearing. Definitely in my top 10 “most enjoyable” pianists to listen to. And people still love him.

Sonny Clark
Hampered by a lifestyle that triggered a premature demise, Clark fell into obscurity in the ‘70s, but his reputation has been refurbished by the reissuing of all of his Blue Note output, which is amazingly good and consistent. Equally great as a trio and a quartet/quintet pianist, he was an inspired soloist and a great comper. Frank Morgan told me he kept both Carl Perkins and Clark in his band, because he loved Perkins’ comping and Clark’s soloing. When Clark complained about the bread being low, Morgan told him, man, get your comping together. And he did!

Wynton Kelly
Another of Clark’s generation, Kelly turned in marvelously swinging trio, quartet and quintet records and was a major contributor to Miles Davis’ late-’50s ensembles. Wish he had lived longer too.

Dave Brubeck
A fine pianist and bandleader, Brubeck has also been a true innovator as a composer. I was slow to warm to Brubeck’s greatness as a pianist, but when you listen to Dave the way you might listen to Monk, it all makes marvelous sense. He brought out the best in his sidemen, particularly the underrated (these days) Paul Desmond, and has been a great advocate of swinging yet innovative jazz.

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They say Italy doesn’t matter, part II

Joe LaBarbera (left to right), Martin Wind, Scott Robinson and Bill Culiffe.

The great thing about traveling is that you really see how other people live, and how it’s, alternatively, similar and different from the way we do. Things we do better here in America, and things we’ve forgotten, that made us great, initially.

In a similar way, I like to think of myself as a “passionate centrist,” as talk show host Dennis Prager used to talk about himself as, politically. I believe, and I don’t know why anyone would dispute it, that we should keep what is good in society, and get rid of what doesn’t work.

My biggest complaint about our society, and how it’s changed, is that yes, the computer makes everything faster, but then the expectation is you have to do more, so, no time saved. And you have to care and feed the machine, so it’s a net loss. But, I have to look on the bright side and see that  individuals can be creative in a way they never could have before. And artists can totally do their own thing, without bowing to “the man.” So long as the government doesn’t control the internet (Syria!!), we’re OK.

The seminal book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (don’t ask me to pronounce it), “Flow,” talks about the way to happiness being that of being absorbed by an activity that produces flow, which is often described as “time speeding by,” “arousal”, “relaxation,” and “being in the moment.” He describes it as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Now, it makes sense to me that if a society can preserve the things that allow people to do this, it’s to all our benefit.  People would be happier, more productive (my kids at Fullerton work much harder when they are in flow), and I would imagine crime and things like that might go down. What kinds of things encourage flow in a society?

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They say Italy doesn’t matter

Martin Wind Quartet (me and Joe LaBarbera, drums, Martin, bass, and Scott Robinson, sax, with the Orchestra Philharmonie Marchegiana in the Teatro Pergolesi playing my arrangement of Bill Evans’ “Twelve Tone Tune Two.“

They  say Italy doesn’t matter. You know, low birth rate, economic woes, the corrupt politics of Berlusconi, the transfer of quality, niche manufacturing to China, etc.

But you go there and . . .

My friend, bassist Martin Wind, hooked up some symphony concerts featuring the music of Bill Evans with his quartet and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Marche region. We stayed for six days in the small city of Jesi, near Ancona, an industrial city on the Adriatic halfway down the boot of Italy.

Joe and Gillian LaBarbera, with our chef and my girlfriend Wanda Lau.

The hotel was a small pension, fairly non-descript, but comfortable. Our first morning, we took a walk along the main street. Much small business, the usual coffee shops and small appliance stores,  nothing really special.  Lots of cute Italian Fiats  and Alfas, perhaps a bit more stylish and sturdy than I remember as a kid in the US. Passed a very grim 50’s style hospital, and then saw some lovely large homes, somewhat in need of a little tender loving care. Spacious parks, lawns needing a little care, and lots of funeral notices.

Wandering back to our hotel, we went up the ancient steps a few hundred feet in the other direction, and we saw something quite different. A lovely, walled medieval city, with 15th and 16th century churches and homes, beautifully maintained. Quaint little shops, pizzerias, stationery stores, fashion boutiques. Still very quiet. It was 3 p.m., the middle of the afternoon break. We grabbed a cappuccino at a little cafe, and had a seat.

Wanda in Jesi medieval section, middle of afternoon.

About an hour later, the shops all started to open, and the young people started to emerge. Then the parents, and grandparents, and the little children. All walking about, chatting, playing, shopping, eating, and drinking. The ancient rhythm of life, maintained here in the age of the internet and cellphone. Musicians set up to play, duos, trios. A violinist and guitarist actually made it through “I’ll Remember April,” with the right chords!

We had dinner at a delightful little restaurant, Vincanto. Great food, service, and four (count ‘em) desserts. The chef thanked us personally. You felt like you were dining at a friend’s house.  Most restaurants in the U.S. would like you to feel that way, but don’t quite do it . . .  but it really seemed true here.

Now the street was in full eruption, with bars, and young people drinking, laughing all around the  beautiful 17th century Teatro Pergolesi, renamed after the young Jesi composer who barely made it to 26, and inspired Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The merriment continued until 2 a.m., when the bars closed and the young people made their way (perhaps staggering!) home.

Teatro Pergolesi

We did our first concert in the Teatro Pergolesi the next night with the Orchestra Philharmonie Marchegianna,  and their conductor, Massimo Morganti. They were a young group, and they played absolutely beautifully, and with great spirit and sense of fun.

So does Italy matter? I’ll talk about that more in my next blog. You can probably  guess some of the reasons why I think it does!!

Piacere!

Bill

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Bill Cunliffe and the Grammy that got away

Bill Cunliffe and his Grammy from 2010. Cunliffe lost his bid for two in a row to Billy Childs.

This was a bittersweet year for me at the Grammys. I was there because the orchestral piece, “fourth stream… La Banda,” that I wrote for my friend, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and the Temple University Orchestra, was nominated for Best Original Composition, the first time I’ve been nominated in this category.

I regard it as my best work in this genre. The Temple faculty were so excited that a bunch of them came out, including Dean Robert Stroker, conductor Luis Biava, financial officer Linda Fiore, and development director Tara Webb Duey, and some of their family. The night before, we had a spectacular dinner at Spago, and there was lots of anticipation in the air.

In past years, I’ve never prepared a speech, and never thought I had a chance to win, but . . . THIS YEAR!? We rehearsed our moves, what to say, how for them to follow me up to the podium, etc, etc. We had hoped to be the little engine that could, the tough state school with young musicians and a first time nominee in the category.

But it was not to be. Billy Childs, a friend and colleague, and great composer and jazz pianist, won for his Chamber Jazz Project. A masterpiece, recorded with world class musicians.

The air went out of the room among us. But we put on our game faces, and sat through the rest of the ceremony.

I agree with Branford Marsalis when he recently said that today’s popular music isn’t really for his generation, and that he wanted to pursue what interested him in classical and art music. But, as a professor at Cal State Fullerton, I still am always curious about what the young enjoy in music.  I’m usually quite pleased by my students’ taste. They like things that are alternatively melodic, and, outrageous.

The afternoon ceremony was filled with good vibes; the highlight for me was Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spaulding singing an unaccompanied duet on Miles Davis’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Kathy Griffin was hilarious as MC, many of her comments unprintable here.

The evening ceremony, musically not for people over 50 like myself, nevertheless had some high moments. Barbra Streisand, with a huge orchestra sounding very good despite a shaky opening in “Evergreen;” Mick Jagger singing and strutting around like someone at least twenty years younger; Lady Antebellum demonstrating a pleasing country pop with a lovely female lead. And Cee Lo Green and Gwyneth Paltrow were surprisingly funky and fun.

The Grammys have made, I think, the correct choice in making the thing play well on TV, so the requisite Lady Gaga pop production and choreography got the crowd buzzing, as did Eminem, to me he is a one trick pony, but good at what he does. I might add that the trumpeter Conte Condoli said the same thing about Mussolini.

Hopefully see you again next year!

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