It’s been five years since I have been out to Matt Balitsaris’ wonderful studio in Pennsylvania, which he calls Maggie’s Farm (inspired, I believe, by the Bob Dylan song with the same name). This converted barn has been responsible for the recording of hundreds of wonderful albums, many released on Palmetto Records (the label Matt B owned for many years). I recorded five of my albums here (Still Evolved, La Espada de la Noche, In the Loop, The Mancini Project, The Creep) and several others by Ben Allison and The Herbie Nichols Project. Although Matt B sold Palmetto Records a few years ago, the studio is still active.
Drummer Matt Wilson and I have always had more fun playing duo than should be allowed. Our concert at Merkin Hall a few years ago was a combination of jazz, theater and comedy. (You can see a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ2uj8C09DA) The duo was also the subject of an infamous appearance one summer in a small venue in The Hamptons, a restaurant with a side room where they featured small group jazz on the weekends. When Matt Wilson was asked to perform a two-night stint at this out-of-the-way venue he thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit some of the recent duo explorations that had worked so well in concert.
Well, maybe what works on the stage doesn’t translate well to a place where people are sipping Chablis and eating crab cakes, trying to impress their dates, and hoping for a romantic setting to help solidify desired future evening’s events. Clearly the sounds piped in from the jazz room that night weren’t helping this goal to be achieved. Maybe it was the lack of chordal instruments, a requirement I learned later (when I released my piano-less quartet The Creep) was necessary to get your music played on the radio. Or maybe it was the piccolo/snare drum duet on Monk’s Four in One. Could also have been the kiddie toys Matt was playing into the mic while I blew on my sax neck. Not sure. But whatever the reason, the booking agent called Matt at the club and said that people were running out of there with their ears covered (they weren’t) and the owner had a headache (very possible).
Anyway, we weren’t asked to return the next night and schlepped back home with our instruments and tails between our legs. Maybe it was a triumph not a disaster. Don’t know.
But here, at Maggie’s Farm, Matt and I are now set up, ready to go. Matt is sequestered in the booth and I am in the large room, standing a few feet back from a vintage tube mic.
My reason for this session is threefold: first, I miss this studio, Matt Balitsaris and the beautiful country setting. Second, any opportunity to make music with Matt Wilson is always a blessing. Third, I have a specific project in mind, one that will be a challenge, but one I am excited about and ready to take on. It is based on the concept I used to compose the music for my Presidential Suite (which will be released this summer on Motéma). For this recording I transcribed the actual pitches of political speeches and then established thematic material, a context, and harmonic support to create the pieces. The process had me come up with musical themes and environments I would not have otherwise discovered.
My thought for recording duo with Matt Wilson is based on this concept. He and I will record two or three hours of completely improvised music and I will later transcribe it and compose music based on these improvisations. A kind of backward approach - the compositions come from the improvisations.
We got sounds and adjusted our headphone levels. I looked at the four instruments I had set up, ready - my alto sax, soprano sax clarinet, and flute - and grabbed the soprano. I turned to Matt, seeing him through the tiny window on the door leading to his booth. He smiled. We started playing.
I met Joe when I moved to New york in the late 1970s and played one of my first gigs with Chuck Isreals and the National Jazz Ensemble. Joe was playing baritone. He was really old. He was like in his forties.
Needless to say, at nineteen I was pretty green, and when we were rehearsing Duke's Ko-Ko, I was coming at it with this very bright, modern sound. After all, I was a musical product of the 70s, exposed to jazz-rock and fusion. Joe yelled at me in his thick Scottish accent: “Ya gotta play it with a dark sound. This is Duke Ellington.” Sal Nistico, playing tenor, even chimed in: “Yeah, man, ya gotta play it with respect.” I did try, but I thought these guys are old fashioned. I'm the new shit.
Chuck one night said to me “Do you recognize Joe's genius?” I didn't know how to answer that. I didn’t know how to answer it because I wasn’t capable of answering it. I still was drawn more to fast notes and phrases, things that hit you over the head, and less interested in melodies and spaces.
Within a few months Chuck closed down that band and moved Washington State to teach. I didn't see Joe much except on a few Bobby Rosengarden club dates. But I was growing up. I started to pay attention to the big, warm, fuzz sound emanating from Joe's vintage Conn baritone. I was starting to recognize Joe’s genius.
I few years later, probably in the early 90s, I ran into Joe at the musicians union. I had heard he was playing with Wynton Marsalis, someone I had always wanted to play with (but figured never would). I asked Joe how it was playing with Wynton and the band. His reply: “Wynton plays with such humanity.” It was such a beautiful answer for so many reasons. I had expected him to describe how Wynton runs the band, or give me some dirt. But Joe got right to the soul of the matter. That’s Joe. No BS, just pure soul.
Joe was a teacher. Not just in the sense of being in a classroom, but in the sense that he always said and played exactly what he felt and heard. He taught all of us how to find the meaning in the music.
There was a point the other night when Wynton Marsalis took his bow after we finished performing his Swing Symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when he looked around at the band and I could sense a strong wave of emotion. You could see it in his eyes - a deep sense of pride. Not the kind you might get from the standing ovation he was currently receiving, or the clear admiration from the members of the orchestra and conductor, But the kind you feel when you realize for the past 60 minutes your colleagues have just put 100% or their soul, ability and feeling into something you’ve created; made it come alive, jump off the score with humanity and love and expression.
I often feel the journey is the most important part of creation - the research, discovery, trust, instinct and problem solving that you go through when composing a piece of music. The performance has often felt like a smaller part of the overall experience, that the deepest part of the experience came from the creation not the performance. At times the latter it even felt anti-climactic. All that work and it was over in a flash. But in that moment the other night, while Wynton looked around with a spiritual fullness at the band, I could feel that, especially when it involves so many people making their own personal journey through interpreting and giving themselves to the music, the performance can even surpass the creation.
When the right musicians bring their insight to your music it is a blessing. Having composers play your own works is a huge privilege - it’s as if they understand the journey you have gone through and become part of the composing process.
Jazz is such an amazing form of music because much of the accompaniment is improvised, so it’s different every time. Improvisers are often described as instantaneous composers.
In February, 1966, drummer Mel Lewis teamed up with trumpet player and composer Thad Jones to start a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard in New York. 50 years later, with both Mel and Thad gone, the band (now called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) continues the tradition to this day. Realizing such a landmark has arrived, I have been reflecting on my own association with this great orchestra.
Mel and my father, trombonist Dick Nash, were roommates in the Tex Beneke Band in the early fifties. I had met Mel a couple times during family gatherings when I was a kid, too young to fully comprehend (or care) what a swinging drummer he was. When I moved to New York City at age eighteen, one of the first things I did was go to the Village Vanguard and catch the band. I was confused because I couldn’t figure out which one was Thad. I assumed he would be out front leading the band. My confusion was not without reason: Thad had just left the jazz orchestra and Mel was leading the band now.
Mel invited me to hang out at his Upper West Side apartment later that week. When I got there I sat in his living room flipping though old music magazines as he explained on phone in the other room to jazz writer Leonard Feather the “printable” version of how he and Thad had just split, how they felt it was time, that Thad had found a good opportunity in Denmark, that it was amicable, how and Mel was supportive of his decision. When he finished the official story he then said “Okay, off the record…here’s what really happened.” He went on to explain things that were a bit adult and complicated for me to make complete sense out, only hearing two out of every three words as I waited in the next room.
Mel finally ended the call and joined me in his very lived-in living room. He lit up a joint. I was too shy to say no, and in a foggy, self-conscious haze I listened to recordings he had made over the years. “Here’s another one I did with Marty Paich.” It felt like I was there for hours, hearing his stories and music. Mel Lewis wasn’t afraid to talk about himself.
He said I should come down and sub in the band. He let Dick Oatts know, and soon I was called to come in and sightread some of the most challenging saxophone music in existence, with its fast and technically difficult sax solis. Dick was very supportive. I continued to sub on and off for a couple years (the regular second alto player was Steve Coleman at the time).
In 1980 Mel and I performed together at a jazz festival in Orlando. My first record had just been released on Concord Jazz, and I started to get some work under my own name. The festival was set up sort of like mini jam sessions. For one set I played tenor in a band with Mel on drums and a very swinging older bass player who I hadn’t met. His commitment to swinging was so profound and at one point during the set I turned to him and asked his name. “Gorge Morrow” was his reply. THE George Morrow. The guy on the Clifford Brown/Max Roach record with Sonny Rollins, where they played the iconic version of Pent-up House. THAT George Morrow.
At the end of the gig Mel asked me to join his big band. There had just been an opening on one of the tenor chairs. I was ecstatic. Of course…duh, yes, I will join the band. But, when I got back to New York and talked with Dick Oatts he explained that he was moving Gary Pribeck over from baritone to the tenor chair to make room for the great Gary Smulyan to become part of the sax section on the baritone chair, something Dick had wanted to do for some time. Besides, he really liked my alto playing and was anticipating and opening in the alto chair at some point soon. And he was right. Steve left within the year and I joined the band, an association that would last ten years (1981-1991).
When I joined the band Bob Brookmeyer was the musical director. Mel brought him in a couple years after Thad’s departure, and the direction of the band’s music changed quite a bit during that short time. Bob had written modern, through-composed pieces featuring several of the key players in the band. Although the music was great - exploring new textures and harmonies - a few of the band members resisted the new direction, preferring the more traditional repertoire. I would see Bob standing in front of us, trying to engage the full support of the band, and over time feeling dejected. He finally quit. The band went back to playing primarily Thad’s music.
Mel encouraged us to write for the band. Earl McIntyre and Jim McNeely had already been contributing to the repertoire. Ed Neumeister, Kenny Werner and I were the next ones to jump in. Ironically, both Ed’s and Kenny’s writing style came strongly out of Brookmeyer’s.
When the band first performed in the mid-60s it featured groundbreaking arrangements, based in the Basie tradition, but expanding outward on every level. And there was something slightly exotic and appealing about the band’s presentation as well. The fact that one leader was black and the other white spoke very much about how music transcended the racism and segregation that was rampant at that time.
Thad’s and Bob Brookmeyer’s composing and arranging became the new standard and influenced so many great composers who came up after. My first arrangements were written for the band and it was a great opportunity to develop this skill in what was almost a workshop environment. We almost never rehearsed so if you brought down a new chart it was sightread at the club.
Extended solos were another thing that the band featured, as opposed to the short solos of the swing era. My Uncle, Ted Nash, was a featured soloist in the Les Brown Band in the late 1940s and had to get to his shit very quickly. In the Mel Lewis band we often were given several chorusses to develop our solos, for better of worse.
For ten years I sat between Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano, and I can think of no players on alto and tenor I like more. They both had a tremendous influence on the way I play.
I regret to not have had the chance to get to know Thad. I did get to know Mel quite well. He was optimistic, honest, always swinging, very dedicated to the band and the musicians in it. Sitting in the Village Vanguard kitchen between sets would often be an education. Mel would lean back in the creaky, vintage office chair and regale us with stories, sometime about the old days, sometimes about yesterday. Sometime he shared things that really should have been kept to himself. But it was always entertaining. He was like the eccentric uncle that you looked forward to seeing every Thanksgiving but glad you didn’t live with.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity to develop in so many ways as a result of being part of this wonderful orchestra.
Although I never met Frank Sinatra, he has been an important part of my family history: my uncle and namesake, Ted Nash, was Sinatra’s primary tenor sax soloist in the 50s; My father, Dick Nash, played the famous trombone solo on I’ve Got You Under My Skin; and my sister, Nikki, was on Sinatra’s touring production team in the 1980s. The closest I got to Frank was playing opposite him at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, with the Benny Goodman Band. (This was a few months before Benny’s death.)
On Saturday night I got a chance to recognize both this iconic singer and my family by performing three songs as part of the “Sinatra at 100” concert at Symphony Space. I was honored to be one of approximately 35 artists invited to pay tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes, performing exactly 100 songs between us. (For a complete list of artists click here http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/8909/Music/frank-sinatra-at-100)
I chose three songs that (on the original recordings) featured a solo by my uncle: Lean Baby, A Million Dreams Ago, and Just One of Those Things. I wasn't familiar with the first two, and transcribed them from Frank's 1954 Capitol Records release, Swing Easy.
Hanging out in the green room prior to going out on stage for my fifteen minutes was an interesting experience, including a tap dancer stretching, an actress worrying about her makeup, and someone who was a friend of someone who asked me who I was and when I answered said "Oh, you're one of the cats!" I'm convinced she never had heard of me.
Finally, the cute clipboard-armed production girl came to get me, all professional smiles, and brought me backstage to be on deck as Russ Kassoff finished a feature with his trio. As I climbed the four steps to enter the backstage area, I passed by and quickly met Tony Danza, who exuded a genuine enthusiasm at our meeting, a nice energy I carried with me on stage.
The MC introduced me. The applause was generous as I found myself center stage facing face a very large house of Sinatra fans. Then it hit me: these people probably know everything about Frank’s music; every nuance of his recordings, every tempo and feel. Maybe they would be disappointed to hear renditions of their favorite songs played by a tenor saxophonist.
I turned to the band and counted off Lean Baby, which I arranged to have a group vocal intro - "Do, do do-do, do-oo-oo." The house trio, now in their sixth marathon hour, embraced this with surprising optimism and willingness. We swung our way through the opener then slowed things down for A Million Dreams Ago, a very sweet song I would definitely play again. We closed with an uptempo version of Just One of Those Things, which gave everyone in the rhythm section a little taste. We ended by vamping out, building the energy to high point and ending on a sharp bang.
In addition to the applause from the audience, I heard some strong “yeahs” from stage left, and as I walked off I saw it was Tony Danza, "Yeah, man, great. Great to meet you." Big smiles. He was introduced by the MC and a moment later was on stage, charming the audience just as much as he he charmed me during that short meeting.
My Uncle talks about Sinatra in his (as of yet unpublished) memoirs. Here is a short quote about the end of a party Sinatra had hired him to play at his house:
“After showing them all out, Frank came over as we were packing up and loosened his tie. (I think we were the only three people on earth to ever see Frank with a loosened tie.) I think one of his innermost desires was to prove to the world that a kid from Hoboken, New Jersey could do it with class - hence the tie. Not wanting the evening to end right there, he went into the kitchen, poured out three drinks, and handed me a ripe nectarine. For the next hour, the four of us sat around telling big band stories.”
I boarded our tour bus this morning at 6:00 and after getting settled in for a long ride I reflected on the past four days in Santa Fe. I am sure I was Native American in another life, because just looking at the turquoise jewelry, Navajo baskets and brightly colored, hand-woven rugs, makes me feel, strangely, at home.
It was very unusual to be in a city for four days with only one concert, and I took advantage of the free days by exploring this quaint, quirky town. I started by walking with no particular objective and found myself in a square eating Frito-pie from a street vendor. In a small paper bowl a man, perhaps 65, with leathery skin, emptied the contents of two small bags of Fritos™, added grilled chicken, then topped it with a creamy mix of roasted corn and green chili. Obscenely delicious, and I will probably never have it again.
Next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, where I enjoyed, in particular, the work of artist Meryl McMaster. (Her web site: http://merylmcmaster.com/home.html)
The next evening, after enduring (and, I admit, occasionally laughing at) twenty minutes of corny one-liners from Brad, the limo driver, photographer Frank Stewart (another one-liner specialist) and I were delivered at the beautiful home of Pam and Randall Onstead for a reception and fundraising event for JALC. When I walked in the front door I heard some very swinging flute and upon entering the room I saw it was Ali Ryerson, who I had met and heard for the first time almost fifteen years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Joined by a local piano trio, she sounded great.
Wynton and drummer Ali Jackson arrived some time later. Wynton was invited to say a few words to the crowd of casually dressed, mostly wealthy New Mexicans. His fifteen minute speech was text book in how it expressed the importance of jazz, and culture in general, and the need to continue to support the many educational programs offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, while embracing everyone in the room and making them feel part of something special. It was honest, insightful and artful.
Wynton sat in with Ali Ryerson and her group on some blues and later invited her to join us the next night on our concert, which she did, and sounded relaxed and expressive on my arrangement of Chick Corea’s Windows. It was a nice concert over all, presenting a real cross-section of the band’s diverse repertoire.
The final day of our residency in The Land of Enchantment was one of those special days, one that will go down in the history books. Victor Goines and I were picked up in front of the hotel by clarinetist Eddie Daniels, who moved to Santa Fe more than twenty years ago. Eddie, coming straight from his tennis lesson, drove us twenty minutes to his beautiful home where the three of us spent a solid two hours playing clarinets, alternatively comping for each other on the piano, playing tunes, trading fours, creating counter lines, and having absolute musical fun. We then repaired to his kitchen for some of his signature margaritas and were joined by his lovely wife, Mirabai, for a home-cooked meal.
Next stop: Midland, Texas.
From 1975-1977 I played lead alto with the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band, performing in the hot, outdoor September sun on the Lyons Stage to a crowd of thousands of jazz fans. Yesterday, exactly forty years later, I returned to the Lyons Stage to play with the band, but this time as a guest soloist. Wynton and I joined the band playing “Una Muy Bonita,” an arrangement I did of the Ornette Coleman classic. Seeing and hearing these talented kids put their youthful spirit and energy into the music brought back so many memories and feelings from a time when my brain and soul soaked up everything musical around me.
And there was so much to soak up back in the mid-late 70s. Appearing at the Festival then were Bill Evans trio, Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, Horace Silver Quintet, The Heath Brothers, Joe Williams, Paul Desmond Quartet, not to mention the guests that played with the All-Star band: Clark Terry, Benny Golson, George Duke, Chuck Mangione and Pat Williams, to name a few.
After we finished Una Muy Bonita yesterday, I stayed back stage to listen to the rest of the group’s performance. I ran into Darlene Chan, the stage manager. We gave each other a hug and laughed, remarking on how we had first met forty years ago an that exact stage. She was stage manager then and I was an enthusiastic teenager. Darlene commented that we had come full-circle. I looked out at the band, still performing their set, and wondered which one of these youngsters would return to Monterey in forty years to be standing where I am now, thinking the same thing.
Here’s a video showing the highlights of the 1975 Festival.
Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted its first jazz summer camp this year, which took place for two weeks in July at the estate of the world-renowned musician and conductor, the late Lorin Maazel. It was a life changing experience for both students and faculty. I wish the Maestro could have been there to share this camp with us, the first jazz education program to take place at the estate, which normally focuses on classical forms.
I’ve never had roommates before, but living with eight other people - sharing a bathroom and kitchen - reminded me that I never went to college (and never had roommates). It was everything I imagined living in a frat house might be, except that I’m over fifty. Maybe that’s why it actually went so well: all the inhabitants were experienced, respectful and clean. And could cook.
Of course, I can’t speak for the residences that housed the forty-two students who were in attendance for this very intense fourteen days that included workshops, classes, private lessons and performances. The focus of the camp was more about playing in ensembles and preparing for live performances, rather than say, advance theory and improvisation, or composing and arranging.
It was life changing for me because I learned and gained so much from the experience of mentoring the young musicians, whose ages ranged from fourteen to eighteen. Seeing these young, eager minds and souls assimilate in a very short time a pile of new information and turn it into very high level performances was nothing short of inspiring.
Last week my quintet performed at Dizzy’s for three nights of music that was a bit of a retrospective. Warren Wolf (vibes), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Ben Allison (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) helped indulge me in a journey that embraced “my mythology” - the music and experiences that have shaped who I am both musically and personally.
The program included film music (my father and uncle were prominent studio musicians); my first composition (which I penned at age fifteen and three years later recorded on a Louie Bellson record); movements from original long-form works; and songs by other musicians that inspire me.
This was the first time we five had ever played together, and it was magic. The combination of the coolness of the vibes with the varied attitudes of the guitar, mixed with flutes, saxes and clarinet, created a colorful and evocative front line that was supported and further uplifted by the groovy and creative interpretations of Ben and Matt. The quintet did everything I had hoped for and more.
The performance was lived-streamed and I am hoping it will be archived for future viewings.
Colorado is like a planet of its own. The air is thinner, the trees are greener, the people are nicer. It makes anything you do feel like you are doing it in some otherworldly place. Like you’ve passed through the Looking Glass.
The first few days of our “Blue Engine” tour took place in this idyllic state, starting off with Breckenridge, which, at 9,600 feet elevation is like base camp to Everest. Climbers usually have a few weeks to acclimate, but we jumped right in, playing a full concert the day we arrived. Cats in the band were struggling with reeds that wouldn’t speak, and having to take more breaths during long phrases. The next morning the band had what felt like a collective hangover.
Our second concert was in Aspen, which is a little down the hill. At 8,200 feet the band was still gasping a bit, but I think overall the band sounded better. During the day Elliot and I played tennis, which made my lungs feel like they were going to explode.
Aspen is a popular retreat for celebrities and rich business folk. The drive to the venue takes us past a tiny airport lined with private Lear Jets and later through quaint neighborhoods where modest homes start at around three million dollars.
We have played here several times over the years. In fact, during my first year with the band (1998) we were rehearsing in the conference center at the hotel, preparing for our concert which took place in a huge tent (the concerts have since moved to a beautiful performance space, whose design recalls the tent of earlier years). During this rehearsal things got heated between a couple (former) members of the band and words were exchanged, some of which were of such extreme passion and expression that Wynton had to call an immediate break and ask our student audience to kindly leave.
Our concert here the other night felt better than in Breckenridge, although those of us using reeds were still having sound issues. Despite this we did manage to get a few sweet notes through the horns. After the concert, the very suave actor Robert Wagner came backstage and enthusiastically complimented us.
Next was our return to Denver’s Botanic Garden. The audience, many in shorts and T-shirts, were spread out with lawn chairs, plates of food and jugs of wine. Despite being an outdoor gig we felt intimate and connected to this enthusiastic audience. After our set closer, a ripping version of Dizzy’s Things to Come our long walk back to the main building had us squeezing through cheering and high-fiving fans. A couple rain drops appeared, and despite the insistent ovation, I assumed we wouldn’t do an encore and went to use the restroom, which was a bit of a walk. When I came back to the green room I saw a couple cats putting their horns away and I began to do the same. Boss Murphy, our tour manager, always cool, approached me and said they were looking for me on stage. It was decided we were doing an encore after all, a piece that featured a smaller band. When I arrived at the Garden and made my way back through the crowd, people yelled “There he is. He’s here” and applauded as I stepped up onto the stage where the band was waiting.
Our last concert in Colorado was in Boulder and at just over a mile elevation, the band was well acclimated. This was clearly one of the best, most swinging concerts we have played in a while. We performed a complete range of material, from Duke to some of our band members’ original compositions. Everyone played inspired solos and the ensemble was tight and loose at the same time.
Leaving Colorado felt a little like coming back Planet Earth.