New York Jazz Workshop Remembers Chick Corea (1941-2021)

The heroes and legends that define this music, our ancestors that we pay homage to are transferring from the earthly realm. Chick Corea, one of the most important modern keyboard innovators and composers, passed away on February 9th from a rare form of cancer.  The following is a brief remembrance of Mr. Corea by New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn. There is really so much that one could say about his vast legacy and influence […]

The heroes and legends that define this music, our ancestors that we pay homage to are transferring from the earthly realm. Chick Corea, one of the most important modern keyboard innovators and composers, passed away on February 9th from a rare form of cancer.  The following is a brief remembrance of Mr. Corea by New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn.

There is really so much that one could say about his vast legacy and influence that truly it boils down to just grabbing a few musical highlights.  Massachusetts born and bred on June 12, 1941, Chick’s career mantra really was exploration.  From his appearances on albums like The Thing To Do (Blue Note, 1964) by trumpeter Blue Mitchell, it was evident early on that the keyboardist was a major talent, as was his ability to be adept in multiple genres as his work with Latin jazz titan, Mongo Santamaria.  When he cut Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State, 1968) with Miroslav Vitous on bass and Roy Haynes, that entire album, particularly with the title track, and now standards “Windows” and “Matrix” that Corea had a particular approach to melody, rhythm and harmony that was game changing, and the album offered a new way of thinking about the piano trio that’s been a template ever since.  Corea’s chamber oriented work with Gary Burton framed piano and vibraphone magically and it goes without saying that the work with both the initial Return to Forever and the beloved edition with Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White provided compositional durability, along with Corea’s unmistakeable touch on both Fender Rhodes and synthesizers that allowed the music to gain a wide range of followers, regardless of genre.

As an explorer, Corea’s take no prisoners approach to free playing on albums like The Complete Is Sessions (Blue Note/Solid State, 1969) Arc (ECM, 1971) and dense, ring modulated Rhodes textures with the rhythm section of Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette in the Miles Davis Quintet was something to behold– Corea, like  Herbie Hancock before him was a conduit to the past, present and future.  The music of the Elektric Band, like that of Three Quartets  defined an era that an entire few generations of musicians grew up with.

Though Corea was so serious and precise in the execution of his compositions, the sense of humor, fun and innocence in the improvisation was truly a joy, he truly did travel into unknown vistas on fantastic recent albums like Forever (2009) Five Peace Band (2009) Trilogy (2014) and Antidote (2019), his zest for life, creation,  and passion for family were all reflected in his life and music, and there will never be another Chick Corea.  Thanks for all the music, and even in Returning to Forever which he has now done, he is still probably writing music and being so creative.

To close, I’d like to offer my own memory of Mr. Corea which started my journey which continues to this day.

I first encountered the music of Mr. Corea at the age of 7, I had traveled with my mother to Los Angeles as a young child, a family member was getting married and along the way, we had gone to the JVC Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, with Michael Brecker and the Modern Jazz Quartet.  Beyond the shock of concert goers in front of us that a 7 year old knew what an EWI was, that night in a sense tied tradition (MJQ) to the present and future of the music.  As I was so young, I’m not sure I remember a ton from that night, but I do recall the energy of the Elektric Band’s music as they were touring in support of their second GRP album, Light Years with the classic lineup of Eric Marienthal on saxophones, John Pattitucci on bass and drummer Dave Weckl.   About a year later my mom’s brother told me about Return to Forever, because I was so immersed in straight ahead jazz at that age, I wasn’t quite ready for that music, I didn’t get heavy into RTF until my late 20’s, and I have re investigated the Elektric Band music in my 30’s.   To be transparent, this period gets unfairly slammed because of the dated synth sounds (I went there too in my purist phase) but there is cool music there, when you open up your mind, but for some with their tastes, that music is not for them.  The keyboardist blazed many trails and was in the best sense of the word, a musical polyglot.

New York Jazz Workshop offers a variety of courses which edify and explain the innovations of Mr. Corea and his contribution to this music.

 

 

 

 

Restless Visionary: Eight groundbreaking Herbie Hancock tracks

Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the […]

Herbie Hancock is a restless visionary and groundbreaking artist. This year marks the 80th birthday of one of music’s most important innovators. Growing up in Chicago, being a classical piano prodigy, and having an insatiable appetite for curiosity, both as a player and technological innovator the keyboardist has pushed the boundaries of genre and collaboration for over 50 years. From his beginnings with Donald Byrd, to his life changing experience as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet for five years, Hancock has walked a musical tightrope of creation.

This piece  focuses on a carefully curated selection of eight  groundbreaking Hancock  tracks that go beyond the borders of jazz and are significant for their enduring influence, and use of new technologies at the time: the Arp, Moog, Prophet and Oberheim synthesizers, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the Sennheiser vocoder, the Linn LM-1 drum machine and the parents of modern digital audio workstations, the Fairlight and Synclavier synthesizers.  One track, “Harvest Time” while acoustic in nature, is included for it’s use of then new digital recording technology and the audiophile direct to disc recording system.

Rain Dance from Sextant (Columbia, 1972).   Hancock left Blue Note in 1969, and signed with Warner Bros for three albums.  Following Fat Albert Rotunda, a soundtrack for Bill Cosby’s television show that introduced funk into Herbie’s repertoire moreso than an initially rejected (but later released) track “Don’t Even Go There” or his soundtrack for the Italian cult classic film Blow UpFat Albert Rotunda still retained the lush rich orchestrations of his final Blue Note albums Speak Like A Child  (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) but  Mwandishi, consisting of Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Bennie Maupin on reeds, Julian Priester on trombones, Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums and Dr. Patrick Gleeson on synthesizer. the band sought something different.  From Crossings (1972) the band’s second album, and the ensemble freely explored avant leaning improvisations, treacherous odd meters and textures influenced by musique concrete and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Additionally, with  burgeoning black consciousness expanding following the civil rights movement each musician adopted African names– Mwandishi, Hancock’s chosen moniker meant teacher or leader in Swahili.  A huge reason for the bands success as a working unit t was not just Hancock, it was the man who introduced him to synthesis, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who not only provided ground breaking and other worldly synth textures to Crossings, and Sextant but also toured with the ensemble .  Background on  Dr. Gleeson is critically important to understanding why “Rain Dance” is such a pivotal track.  Hancock’s primary use of Fender Rhodes electric piano as opposed to his customary acoustic, fitted with an echo plex tape device permitted cosmic and under water like textures that sounded unlike anything else at the time.

Gleeson’s goal was to originally play jazz piano.    Hailing from Seattle, he eventually forged an academic career teaching English literature and was also a significant political activist.  The time of the late 1960’s was a new cultural frontier with Eastern spirituality, the traumas and outrage from the Vietnam war, and growing tensions from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   While teaching, Gleeson’s experience of tripping on acid, led him  to return to music  in a roundabout way.  These events lead to  the creation of Different Fur Trading a community funded studio which Hancock also used for Headhunters. Further, Gleeson’s challenges as a political activist and strong conviction against practices at the university landed him an unjust arrest record, and following leaving the university began his quest of integrating music and technology in unprecedented ways.  His mission was to investigate synthesis in a manner that would eventually lead to innovative, practical applications beyond the walls of an academic institution.

The professor’s first forays into synthesis began while he used San Francisco State’s AV facilities department to record mundane sounds which would be later edited, and used as transitional material between rock groups at local SF venues such as the Avalon Ballroom and the Haight Theater.  As Gleeson  noted in a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy:

“It was electronic music, not jazz. And when I say electronic music, I really mean musique concrète – tape manipulations and that sort of thing. There was no real distinction at the time,” he recalls. He began using equipment from San Francisco State’s AV department to go out and record sounds from his everyday life, which he would then splice with a razorblade. “We’d put on performances of this stuff at places like The Avalon Ballroom or at some theater in the Haight. We’d do it between rock groups. You know? You’d bring your shit in and turn it on. And everyone was out of their heads on acid, so no matter what you did they’d say, ‘Wow, this sounds great!’”

These experiments would later foster a relationship with the Divisadero Street Tape Music Center where Dr. Gleeson would encounter avant garde luminaries such as pioneer composers of so called “minimal” music, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and also Don Buchla of whom he acquired the first Buchla synth unit.  Without Gleeson, or Bwana as he was known in the band, the music of Mwandishi would not have turned out as it did.  During the sessions for Crossings, the final album for Warner Brothers and arguably the group’s most adventurous album, Gleeson further explained in the Red Bull Academy interview:

“I told him about what I’d been doing with Bitches Brew and said, ‘I’d like to get in on this. I can do this.’ And so, David went to Herbie and (I later found out) said, ‘Look, there’s this guy, he’s not in your league – which, fair enough, who is – but he’s been doing synthesizer programming for me and he can play. But what he can really do is set the machine up for you.’”

At the time, Hancock and the Mwandishi band were recording Crossings, the daring follow-up to Mwandishi. Rubinson advised Hancock to bring some of the already recorded material to Different Fur to see what they might add. “So Herbie comes down to the studio with the material they’d already recorded. I’d just bought a 16 track, and it had a loop function. So he tells me to set everything up and he puts on ‘Quasar.’ So we’re listening and he says, ‘Can we hear that again?’ We loop it. He says, ‘I’m thinking of something we can add here.’ So I start patching the Moog 3, and I’m just rushing like crazy because I think I have no time to get this shit together. And then he says, ‘Okay, did you record that?’ And I tell him no because I was setting up the synthesizer for him to play. And Herbie being Herbie, he liked what I was doing and says, ‘Well, why don’t you just keep playing, I’ll be back later, just keep going.’ And by the time he’d come back the next day I’d overdubbed an entire side of the album.”

Hancock’s Milesian instincts to let Gleeson just be himself, set the stage for some of the most intriguing music yet heard in the keyboardist’s oeuvre.  “Quasar” alternates odd meters, swing, unusual electronic textures with voices for something sounding like a soundtrack for a super hero epic, while Bennie Maupin’s strange “Water Torture” lays a few thematic elements that mood wise would resurface on “Vein Melter” the last cut on Headhunters and intense dramatic arc from Gleeson’s synth work amidst highly conversational rubato playing.  Gleeson’s overdubs in a marvel of post production sound absolutely as if he was playing with the band in the studio in real time.

 

“Rain Dance” was the opening track on Hancock’s first Columbia album Sextant (1972). Aside  from Robert Springett’s futuristic cover art continued from Crossings , the track is a microcosm of the keyboardist’s fascination with technology and genre blurring.  Kraftwerk had also laid the template for electronic music producers in the ensuing decades in the 1960’s, but “Rain Dance” with it’s use  of analog synth sequencing at the cut’s opening, hand claps, and panoply of electronic sounds juxtaposed with the acoustic sounds of bass and drums, with Henderson’s heavily reverberant trumpet sounded of the the future.  The burbling, occasionally discordant synth blasts  from Gleeson  (who also makes brilliant textural contributions to Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus) firmly rooted in the tradition of pieces such as Edgar Varese’s “Poeme Electronique” (1958) but also pointing to untraveled places, forming a wall of noise were also ahead of their time and a blueprint for a lot of current trends in electronic music.  The overall sound of Sextant did signal some changes in that it was leaning towards in some respects the funkier direction  of Headhunters.  It is the most accessible of all the Mwandishi recordings but no less challenging and rewarding.  Dr. Gleeson has recently released an electronic interpretation of Holst’s The Planets and for further reading on Mwandishi, Bob Gluck’s You Know When You’ll Get There: Herbie Hancock and The Mwandishi Band is available.

Chameleon from Headhunters (Columbia, 1973)

Hancock’s Mwandishi group, despite being some of the most satisfying artistic work of his entire career was unsustainable commercially.  Their live shows, (of which no tapes reportedly survive of officially recorded material) were legendary for traveling to unknown vistas. Much like former boss Miles Davis, Hancock was looking at new ways of reinventing his sound and gaining a new audience.  He took interest in the music of Sly Stone, and James Brown and sought to reconcile that with his own conception.  Bennie Maupin remained on saxophones, while Hancock added bassist Paul Jackson, the specialist maestro of African percussion, Bill Summers, and drummer Harvey Mason.  The result was Headhunters, a journey into in the pocket but simultaneously elastic funk, jazz improvisation and advanced harmony.  The music was such a change for Hancock in the eyes of Columbia record executives, that he and manager David Rubinson had to fight to get it released.  Also, “Chameleon” itself had to be edited down to 7 minutes from 15 and a half minutes to accommodate single release.

The track’s iconic bass line with Hancock on an Arp Odyssey synthesizer was a bit of a role reversal.  As the Miles Davis Quintet reversed roles with the rhythm section leading Wayne Shorter’s classic “Nefertiti”, Hancock took an active role as a bass player AND guitarist through guitar like comping on the Hohner D-6 clavinet via overdubs.  Bassist Paul Jackson, a former acoustic bassist whose electric bass lines captured an agility of an acoustic, tuned up the electric bass and used it as an electric guitar adding more counterpoint in the thick polyrhythmic stew.  Hancock’s Arp Odyssey solo on the first section explored it’s timbral and textural capacity.  On the third section of the track with rich harmonies often omitted when bands cover the track, the keyboardist has yet another iconic moment with his rich, pillowy Fender Rhodes electric piano solo.  Ironically, the Fender Rhodes was developed in the 1940’s but did not see widespread popular music use until the late 60’s and by the early 70’s, had become the de facto keyboard sound of a decade.  Hancock, along with Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul had developed an immensely personal voice on the instrument,  and along with Corea has been for years one of the most imitated and emulated sounds  in all of music.  While Hancock’s solo made use of the stereo tremolo on the Rhodes, his Arp string ensemble orchestrations were so organic they sounded like a real string section– even more convincing than the analog tape loops used for the mellotron, which can be viewed as one of the world’s first sampling keyboards long before the Fairlight and Synclavier entered the digital realm.

Come Running To Me from Sunlight (Columbia, 1977)

Sunlight followed several albums that included the Headhunters line up Thrust (1974) and the live initially only released in Japan Flood (1975) with the exception of Mike Clark adding his innovative funk conception based out of Oakland replacing Harvey Mason.  Man Child (1975)and Secrets (1976) refined the R&B and funk that Hancock first explored with Headhunters with vestiges of the Headhunters lineups mixed with the cream of the crop of LA studio pros.  The productions became slicker, and more commercial with the aim of really crossing over to the popular music tastes in the black community that were captured by Sly Stone, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire just to name a few.  With Sunlight, Hancock aimed at the disco crowd with it’s title track and thumping lead single “I Thought It Was You”; but there was a distinct difference this time around.  Not only did Hancock play keyboards, but also became a lead singer.

If the thought of Hancock becoming a vocalist seems like a paradox viewed from a jazz purist perspective, it is the root of his next sonic and technological innovation.  Vocoders seem like just a normal part of the musical landscape today, as well as being the technology that is at the core of Autotune, Melodyne and other pitch correction software- but it was quite fresh in the 1970’s.  The vocoder was developed by Homer Dudley, who worked at Bell Labs, first patented in 1928 and used for military use.  The function of the vocoder was to convert human speech and break it down as digital bits garbling, distorting it,  giving a robotic sound.  The intended use of the vocoder originally was for underwater communication.  Kraftwerk was a huge proponent of the instrument, the same time as Hancock.  Avant garde icon Laurie Anderson also had a major mainstream hit with 1983’s “O Superman” in which the vocoder was used to transmit a cold, harsh, robotized voice that satirized the corporate nature that society had morphed into.  The Sennheiser vocoder offered the keyboardist a chance to sing with his imperfect voice.  

 

“Come Running To Me” was a lush love song co written with hit maker Allee Willis, and also contained orchestration from brass, reeds and strings.  Hancock’s arrangement recalled the gorgeous dark instrumental timbres found on Speak Like A Child, The Prisoner and “Tell Me A Bed Time Story” on Fat Albert Rotunda.   The vocoded singing seemed to portray an extra feeling of longing, the detached humanity adding melancholy.  The track has been incredibly popular with hip hoppers, especially the late J Dilla ingeniously slowing it down in a track, and long before Daft Punk, Sunlight was a shining example of vocoder use in popular music.  Hancock would continue to use the vocoder to varying degrees of success on future albums, and as recently as a few years ago began using it again in live concerts reprising “Come Running to Me”.

The Piano (CBS/Sony, 1978)

There is a reason for including an entire album in this list of eight tracks, because it is of a piece.  The Piano was one of eight albums that Hancock recorded for Columbia’s Japanese affiliate CBS/Sony.  Prior to it’s debut U.S. CD release in 2004,  and subsequent reissue in The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 the album was also one of the rarest and hardest to find in Hancock’s discography.  The CBS/Sony connection allowed the keyboardist to record straight ahead albums that the U.S. Columbia branch deemed not as profitable, but they also gave him the opportunity to test out emerging technologies.  Sony had developed the PCM 1600 for digital recording one of the first widely available digital recording systems, and also were actively involved in the audiophile direct to disc process in which a performer played live in real time as a vinyl album was being cut, by a stylus cutting into a lathe, not unlike early pre magnetic tape recording at the start of recorded music.  A back up digital tape was made of the session, but the direct to disc process forced Hancock to cut a precise error free suite of songs without stopping, enough to cover an LP side.  Hancock played a variety of tunes, both standards associated with Miles Davis, and recent originals.  The album sounds absolutely incredible, and is a rare example of him as a solo pianist.

Textures from Mr. Hands (Columbia, 1980)

Mr Hands was Hancock’s last funk album before the next  stylistic change into pop, rock and R&B.  The brief stylistic detour would ultimately culminate in his electro and techno based trilogy with Bill Laswell that through the smash “Rockit” would make Hancock a household name for an entire new generation that did not grow up on jazz.  “Textures” book ended an album that saw Hancock reunite with the original Headhunters lineup with Harvey Mason, Ron Carter and Tony Williams whom he had been playing with in the VSOP Quintet, and Jaco Pastorius.  The track was significant because not only did the keyboardist play all instruments himself, but he debuted a new piece of gear into his arsenal– the digital, sample based Linn LM-1 drum machine.  The LM-1, while not the first drum machine to exist, did change the face of pop music forever as it was prominent throughout the new decade of the 80’s.  Hancock programmed a relatively simple, subtly swinging beat, but it’s striking  in the context of the moody sound scape the track created, which also included his trusty  Sennheiser vocoder.

The Twilight Clone from Magic Windows (Columbia, 1981)

The album Magic Windows was the second in a triptych that saw Hancock interested in more of an L.A. rock, R&B and funk based sound but also still contained disco elements with the track “Magic Number” featuring Sylvester on vocals.  “The Twilight Clone”, the final track is a fascinating pre Future Shock glimpse into the musical world Hancock would inhabit a year and a half later with Bill Laswell.  In some ways the track is even more effective than the Laswell collaborations because there is a real post futurist dystopian grit through the use of the LM-1, Hancock’s synthesizers and the otherwordly tones of  King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew that seemingly suggest a neon industrial city, the stuff of cyberpunk stories like Blade Runner or Japanese animation classics like Akira.

Rockit from Future Shock (Columbia, 1983)

“Rockit” from the first album with producer/bassist Bill Laswell and his collective Material was a game changing track in a lot of ways.  Not only did it elevate Hancock to household name status, he was one of the first artists with a jazz background to take on the young genre of hip hop on it’s own terms.  Previously Fab Five Freddy collaborated with Max Roach, but in it’s scope seemed to be more of something to connect the roots of hip hop to jazz.  With “Rockit”, Hancock was willing to take the music on it’s own terms, and after his string of pop and R&B albums wished to try something new.  Hancock had heard a tape of Material, was blown away by that and the use of early turntablism on a track from Malcolm McLaren and agreed to collaborate with Laswell and together incorporated these elements into the track.  As Hancock detailed in his memoir Possibilities once Columbia executives were presented with the track at a meeting, they heard the sound of a record scratching courtesy of Grand Mixer D. ST (now DXT) at the start of the track, and could not make sense of it. 

 

As with Headhunters ten years earlier, the label felt that this new sound had nothing to do with Hancock’s previous work, had no idea how to market it and Hancock had to once more fight to have the album released.  Perhaps more than the hip hop and b-boy culture embracing the song, it’s video with robotic mannequins created by Jim Whiting had the biggest culture impact.  Hancock won an MTV video award for the bizarre, memorable video, as well as a Grammy, and as MTV was first starting, they refused to play black artists on TV, which is why Hancock only appeared on a video screen.  Along with Michael Jackson, Hancock was the other prominent black artist to get played on MTV, a major achievement that would pave the way for Prince, various hip hop artists and in future generations, Beyonce and Kanye West.  The mechanized feel of the track was also accomplished through the use of the Fairlight CMI, E-Mu digital keyboard and a host of other devices.  The Fairlight, along with it’s competitor New England Digital’s Synclavier were some of the main production tools in pop music in the 80’s and their host of recognizable timbres and samples can be found on countless recordings of the era.

Dis Is Da Drum from Dis Is Da Drum (Mercury, 1994)

A decade after “Rockit”, Herbie Hancock began a deal with a new label and was searching once more to update his sound.  For non jazz projects, he signed with Mercury, and for jazz oriented projects he signed with the legendary Verve Records.  The bulk of his most path breaking music was on Columbia, a tenure that ended with Perfect Machine  the final collaboration for the label with Bill Laswell in 1988.  This new deal offered some intriguing possibilities that would once again place Hancock at the forefront of technical innovation.  The initial concept for Dis Is Da Drum started as an interactive multimedia album, in which the user could choose different mixes, and make choices in the direction of the recording.  The idea/format never really took off in the form it was intended, but Hancock did innovate this 90’s hip hop and dance flavored track with another visionary video that used CGI and early facial motion capture.

(c)2020, CJ Shearn for New York Jazz Workshop, LLC

The New York Jazz Workshop is offering online courses post pandemic with world class instructors and catering to many levels of musicians.  The school has recently upgraded it’s streaming capabilities as well.

5 slices of Dave Liebman

In preparation for One Hour With Liebman at New York Jazz Workshop on August 28th, we present a primer with 5 slices of NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. Of course, we will start from where he made his initial splash, with Elvin Jones. What makes Liebman so important besides being a brilliant educator is that he was among the first generation alongside the late Steve Grossman and Michael Brecker to really synthesize John Coltrane’s innovations […]

In preparation for One Hour With Liebman at New York Jazz Workshop on August 28th, we present a primer with 5 slices of NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. Of course, we will start from where he made his initial splash, with Elvin Jones. What makes Liebman so important besides being a brilliant educator is that he was among the first generation alongside the late Steve Grossman and Michael Brecker to really synthesize John Coltrane’s innovations and  expand on them.  Besides his association with Miles Davis and his participation on the landmark On The Corner (Columbia, 1972) around this period with the band Lookout Farm, he began an association to that has lasted to the present day with pianist Richie Beirach.  He co lead the powerhouse ensemble Pendulum that featured Beirach, Randy Brecker, Frank Tusa on bass and drummer Al Foster, and the tradition of take no prisoners  acoustic jazz continued into the 80’s with Quest.  Both ensembles are underrated within the narrative of the music that helped  spawn the Young Lions movement. 

Liebman has kept his finger on the pulse of creative improvised music, and had several releases on Whaling City Sound with his band Expansions.  The reservation only intensive begins at 12 noon via Zoom and has a suggested donation of $20

 

ONA: New York Jazz Workshop in Conversation at home with Thana Alexa

Welcome to the New York Jazz Workshop In Conversation at home podcast. The music you are hearing is  “The Resistance” off vocalist Thana Alexa’s brand new recording ONA (Self produced, 2020). Her sophomore album celebrates not only the journey of herself as a woman, but women everywhere. In our interview, you’ll hear the Best Jazz Composition PORIN (Croatian Grammy equivalent) nominee and Alpe-Aldria International songwriting contest winner discuss her growth as an artist and human being […]

Welcome to the New York Jazz Workshop In Conversation at home podcast. The music you are hearing is  “The Resistance” off vocalist Thana Alexa’s brand new recording ONA (Self produced, 2020). Her sophomore album celebrates not only the journey of herself as a woman, but women everywhere. In our interview, you’ll hear the Best Jazz Composition PORIN (Croatian Grammy equivalent) nominee and Alpe-Aldria International songwriting contest winner discuss her growth as an artist and human being between her 2015 debut Ode To Heroes and the new record; in addition to the people in her life that served as inspiration for tracks on the album, and her role in organizing the massively successful Live From Our Living Rooms music festival. The festival, which took place in April, was the first streaming music festival of the COVID-19 era, a fundraiser with vocalist Sirintip and saxophonist Owen Broder, that aims to help New York musicians out of work because of the pandemic.

Recorded May 1, 2020 in New York

Recording and post production: CJ Shearn

Podcast produced by: CJ Shearn and Thana Alexa

Music:”The Resistance” (feat. Stacey Ann Chin) (c) Thana Alexa

New York Jazz Workshop Remembers Lyle Mays (1953-2020)

In this blog post, New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a personal, heartfelt statement on the brilliant pianist Lyle Mays, who passed away February 10th in Los Angeles, after a long fight battling a recurrent illness.  The jazz and music world is much poorer now that he is gone.  Shearn’s words are written below: I am still trying to process the news that one of the greatest pianists, improvisers and keyboard players in ALL […]

In this blog post, New York Jazz Workshop’s CJ Shearn offers a personal, heartfelt statement on the brilliant pianist Lyle Mays, who passed away February 10th in Los Angeles, after a long fight battling a recurrent illness.  The jazz and music world is much poorer now that he is gone.  Shearn’s words are written below:

I am still trying to process the news that one of the greatest pianists, improvisers and keyboard players in ALL of music left us yesterday, February 10th… the incredible Lyle Mays. He was absolutely incomparable, his synth orchestrations and harmonic acuity were absolutely non pareil, both in the context of the Pat Metheny Group and his solo work. He was a man of many interests: programmer, architect and pool pro! Like Jimmy Smith, as a listener, Mays had a HUGE impact on me. Not only is his stone classic self titled masterpiece a virtual manifesto on what can be done with composition and orchestration in an area that keyboardist Jim Alfredson once remarked to me was rarely explored, it was new terrain.  The music on Lyle Mays didn’t sound like anything going on at the time from the significant advancements the music made in the 70’s and 80’s– something with his keyboard textures that influenced music as a whole.  It was not (by then) banal jazz rock, or anything one could name;  it was it’s own universe. His famous flutophone (as he termed it) synth lead, in which he aimed to devise something that would start sharp and gradually move into pitch was magisterial.

 

Mays was born in Wausaukee, WI on November 27, 1953 and had grown up playing piano, and organ in his early years, his mother was a pianist, and father a guitarist. He had shown signs very early in development of his brilliance having outstanding relative pitch, as well as heavy interests in math and architecture, at one point even being asked to teach his high school’s math class. Having largely grown up on classical music, being influenced by Webern, Berg and others– Bill Evans’ At The Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve, 1968) was a huge turning point for him, as was Keith Jarrett’s Facing You (ECM, 1972). Musically, his big breakthrough commenced in 1975 when he was a student at North Texas State University, and directing the One O Clock Lab Band, composing for, and writing their arrangements, then moving on to tour with Woody Herman. His meeting with Pat Metheny at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1974, while the guitarist was still a member of Gary Burton’s band, was an association which would last more than thirty years. In Metheny, he had found an ideal partner who thought about music, melody and harmony in much the same way, while having been heavily influenced by contemporary music breakthroughs such as those from the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and contemporary soul and R&B.

 

Though initially approached by Manfred Eicher in 1982 to record a solo album for ECM after his work for the label with Metheny and Eberhard Weber, Mays recorded his first album, self titled, originally released on Geffen in 1986.  He lined up a powerhouse ensemble: saxophonist Billy Drewes, Bill Frisell on guitar, Marc Johnson on bass, Nana Vasconcelos on percussion and Alex Acuna on drums. This was a strong band, it was not  just a collection of big name NY and LA session aces that graced the  sophomore Street Dreams.  Each musician in Lyle’s group had built some sort of previous playing relationship with each other, and the compositions soared.  It was also the second recording after  Metheny’s Song X with Ornette Coleman that was under the auspices of the guitarist’s newly formed Metheny Group Productions banner.  Geffen offered Metheny a deal that was unheard of for jazz artists in that era.  He was given unprecedented artistic and creative control which meant that not only did he not have to consider commercial concerns,  he would own his own masters, and the label would distribute him and associated acts without regard to narrowed genre boxes, thus widening the audience. Metheny’s production company maintains the same practice to the present day under Nonesuch. The keyboardist’s self titled, the  first of 5 as a leader, was a stunning unified vision. While there were some similarities with synth textures as found in Pat Metheny Group albums, Mays’ compositions shared more of a kinship with his classical upbringing, and he utilized intriguing colors such as the Uellean pipes to flavor the Gaelic twinge of “Highland Aire”, and the stark, cinematic “Teiko” utilizes the bass riff from Weather Report’s “Black Market” in a unique, fresh way.  The increased production budget and time to record allowed for the studio to be used as an instrument in a way Metheny and Mays’ previous ECM recordings hinted at but could not fully accomplish.  ECM’s one day to record, two days to mix ethos was one that made Metheny consider other options, as uniformly excellent his ECM output had been.

 

The follow up, Street Dreams in 1988, was a vast departure.  The lead off “Feet First” showed Mays’ love of Steely Dan’s music, even employing Steve Gadd on the track on drums.  The rest of the album was a striking mix of through composed pieces, and tone poems, both in small groups and orchestral settings. The film like four part “Street Dreams” suite was the album center: an enthralling, at times surreal piece, enhanced by percolating Brazilian rhythms, and 12 tone modern classical music.  While the album has been viewed as inconsistent by some critics and fans due to an almost dizzying array of stylistic breadth, it contains marvels of compositional wonder.  It holds up just as well as Lyle Mays, just a different shade,  musically.  From there, he released Fictionary in 1993 with a dynamite trio of Marc Johnson and Jack DeJohnette, which in terms of the ridiculous world of jazz purists raised his stock as a “legitimate” jazz player. SOLO: Improvisations For Expanded Piano released in 2000,is an album that is as much a brilliant technological statement as musical.  In addition to the previous unreleased Ludwigsburg Concert in 2015, a double album with his touring group of Bob Sheppard, Marc Johnson and Mark Walker, the keyboardist had written chamber music and scores for children’s books, and participated in a TED Talks event in 2011, one of his final performances.

 

As a pianist, he was instantly recognizable, and absolutely selfless in his pursuit of contributing to a musical whole, a fresh improviser who again, thought in terms of orchestral potential. His famous solo on “First Circle” for example was a mini composition in itself, a solo of lean logic, and clear structure, it’s goose bump inducing drama perfectly placed. His improvisations were always cliché free and imbued a powerful confidence. He never considered himself a jazz player ironically enough but when called upon, he was a phenomenal swinger– as the solos in “Street Dreams: 2”, the Ludwigsburg Concert album, and “Episode D’Azur” can attest. I’d spend hours with the CD player search function going over certain synth lead sections (such as “As It Is”) and chord voicings because they sounded so great and invoked an intense emotional response in me. The motivic development of “Ascent” is heavenly, the way it builds till everything explodes, as another example.

Mr. Mays was unfairly glossed over in terms of the problematic, linear historical narrative. Very frequently in serious critical discussion outside Pat Metheny fans, the response to him was at times indifferent, wrongly viewed as a Keith Jarrett or Bill Evans clone. Sure, he had those influences, but he had an instantly identifiable voice, and following Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul the next in line of the most significant synthesizer innovators in jazz. He employed an organic sound palette first on Prophet 5, then Oberheim four and eight voice synths, then most famously Korg DW8000 and the Roland JX-10 (later ported to the Korg Triton and I believe Arturia virtual soft synths) that sounded like an orchestra, and less dated than some of the popular digital synths of the time. He is one of the most significant post Corea/Hancock pianists whose influence is heard all over the entire music world, whether people know it or not. All that adds to another mark of his astonishing genius. Let the history books show right now, Lyle Mays as a major innovator. Thank you for everything!

 

New York Jazz Workshop’s offerings such as the Poetic Language of Jazz Improvisation taught by Marc Mommaas can help illuminate Mays’ brilliance for those who choose to investigate.