For over a decade, the group known as The Bad Plus has been redefining what a Jazz piano trio sounds like. KMHD’s Derek Smith caught up with drummer/composer Dave King to talk about the group’s history, their approach to music and what the live experience is all about.
You can catch the Bad Plus in two performances in Portland this weekend at the Mission Theater, at 3PM and 7 PM. Part of KMHD’s sponsorship of PDX Jazz at the Mission. Listen to our interview below:
Throughout his long and storied career, Michael Cuscuna has been many things: musician, radio host, writer, label owner and archivist. It’s the last profession, however, that has endeared him to Jazz fans around the world. As the owner of Mosaic records, Cuscuna has worked tirelessly to reissue and re-enhance Jazz treasures from bygone eras in the music’s history. I caught up with Cuscuna to talk about his most recent project, never-before-heard recordings from the great Wes Montgomery in 1957 and 58.
Part two in a series exploring cutting-edge modern Jazz in Portland and the musicians that make it.
The Ocular Concern, a Portland-based three-piece indie-jazz band comprised of Andrew Oliver (electric piano), Dan Duval (electric guitar), and Stephen Pacerev (drums) create minimalist, genre redefining music (The band’s website describes their music as “Indie-Jazz and other curiosities).
I recently sat down with Dan and Andrew to discuss the Portland jazz scene, upcoming projects, and some of their favorite jazz records.
Ashawnta Jackson: Can you tell me a bit about how The Ocular Concern started?
Andrew Oliver: We started in April of last year, so a little over a year.
Dan Duval: Sounds about right. It sort of evolved from some more casual playing situations that had been happening off and on.
AO: We’d been playing some duo, just guitar and piano, and Dan, you’d been playing with Dan in some other group, and that eventually stopped happening, so we just put them together, I guess. We really just wanted to augment the duo, but we didn’t want to add bass, we went with drums because it was a little more atypical.
DD: Everyone was really happy when Steven [Pancerev] moved back to town. He’d spent five years in Rhode Island and before he left for Rhode Island, I had met him and played with him one time and then when he came back everyone was excited to work with him again. Andrew and I were some of the first people to monopolize his schedule. It was good timing that way. We manipulated the situation as well as we could [laughs].
AJ: You two are fairly young, and for jazz musicians, that’s got to be kind of interesting, to be so young and so involved in the jazz community. Do you find that jazz community here, especially for young people, is a growing thing, a nurturing kind of community?
AO: I think there are a lot of good musicians here. More than in a lot of cities of this size, I would imagine. The cost of living is not so high and it’s a good climate for artists of all kinds, and that certainly has created a situation where there are a lot of great musicians. There are a lot of opportunities to play with people and to try new things. But, there’s not necessarily as much of a demand as there is a supply, and that’s the hard part. It is possible to make some waves in the music scene and to get people to pay attention to what you’re doing, but it is difficult. I guess that’s the hurdle, but it’s not a lack of talent, that’s for sure.
DD: I think you make a good point that the jazz world often is not a youth culture these days, but there’s some notable people trying to address that. Our friend, Ben Darwish is a great local musician who doing sort of jazz youth outreach, you could say, by having a sort of funk band and all kinds of other thing that aren’t you typical boring, college jazz activities.
AO: There’s certainly some movement in that direction in town people trying to be more open minded about how they define jazz.
DD: The Blue Cranes are very interested in playing in non-traditional venues; house parties, basements, warehouses, art galleries, rock clubs, anything, and a lot of these people are involved in the more traditional forums for playing jazz like the schools or concert halls. So it’s nice that there’s so much cross over in Portland.
AJ: You mentioned that people are really interested in redefining what jazz means; it doesn’t have to be what people have traditionally thought of it. So how do you, personally, define what jazz is?
DD: I’m not so sure I know what it means, or if I even play jazz, but it seems to be the word that’s more appropriate than other words for what we do. It’s by default maybe.
AO: Yeah, I think so. It’s become such a broad thing, you know, and at the same time jazz has progressed, especially since the 60s, post 60s-
DD: Yeah, post Miles [Davis] fusion.
AO: It has become so broad that no one- it can mean so many things and I think that some people have a very narrow definition of it, musicians and non-musicians. And some audience members and people will have totally bizarre conceptions about what jazz is based on the numerous things that have happened in the last hundred years. So it’s hard to say as easily as it would have been in say, 1959, to say that you play jazz and everyone has an idea of what that sounds like. Whereas now it ranges from what we play in The Ocular Concern to some sort of jazz-funk thing to old-time jazz and swing. The lack of good defining genre terms is a constant frustration- for me anyway.
DD: We’ve all [jazz musicians] have had the experience of going to some gig and talking to an audience member or to a cocktail party or something and saying “I’m a jazz musician” and they say “I love jazz! I have two Kenny G records” and you realize you’re not on the same page. We’ve all had that experience. That’s why I’m reticent to use the word; I don’t want to make people think that I’m doing something that’s got nothing to do with what I do.
AO: Or they say “Every time I’ve heard jazz, I’ve hated it, except this was a really interesting concert.” What does that mean, what have you heard? [laughs]
DD: With all that variety out there, people have often only heard one random album from all that variety and they think that’s what it is.
AJ: It seems that people are afraid of jazz sometimes. What do you think that comes from?
DD: I think jazz musicians often behave in a very insular way and it makes other people feel isolated and if you’re not “in” they’re looking down on you. Much of jazz culture is self defeating in that way.
AO: And I think people are also afraid, or wary, of something they think might be pretentious, or not accessible.
DD: Or not fun.
AO: Yeah, maybe not fun and not accessible depending on what they’ve heard.
AJ: What brought you to this music? Who are some of your influences?
DD: [Points to Andrew] Jelly Roll Morton for you.
AO: Yeah, I started with early jazz, 20s jazz and ragtime, because I played classical music for many years and started discovering that music from ragtime. Then I moved into jazz from there in a chronological way. That was pretty interesting because every so often I’d become less dogmatic “Oh hey, maybe music from the 40s is ok.” “Maybe music from the 50s is ok” [laughs} so I’ve gone through in that way, but by no means comprehensively. And recently I’ve been exploring a lot of African music over the past five years or so, West African music specifically, and trying to bring that in a little bit as an influence in composing but now I’m also trying to be more conscious of things that people want to hear it’s possible to be artistic and also not hit people over the head too hard. And sometimes when you’re in a jazz school, for example, or an atmosphere like that, the level of complexity that you hear on a regular basis is quite high and sometimes can actually be unpleasant from a certain perspective.
DD: It can be overbearing.
AO: Yeah. I’ve been trying to listen to my music and other music a little more objectively trying to get outside from a musician’s perspective and see what elements are of interest from that point of view. Just try to ground it a bit more. So, that’s been another sort of side interest for a while. Not dumbing it down, just thinking about who you’re writing it for.
DD: I did roughly the opposite of what Andrew did; I went backwards chronology when it came to discovering jazz as a young person. I grew up on rock and pop music and also studied music and played a little piano and guitar, so I had a framework. Then eventually I found out about Bitches’ Brew. It was the first jazz album I ever had. I heard John McLaughlin play the guitar, and was like, “Whoa, I want to know what’s up with that!” And then I heard Herbie Hancock and Miles and different things from the 60s and kind of going back from there. I had to keep asking teachers questions and they kept saying, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about because you haven’t listened to this other, older record.” And so, all right, I guess I better listen to that. Always, of course, I ended up loving it.
AJ: What are you listening to now?
AO: I’ve really become interested in really straight-ahead west coast jazz of the 50s. As strange as that may seem. The west coast jazz scene was much maligned by the east coast jazz scene, and by extension, at least in my experience, in jazz school. Even here [in Portland], no one is really listening to a lot of that stuff…. there’s a certain attitude that seems to go with that scene. So I’ve recently been discovering all of the great things that took place in LA music scene, and I’ve really been enjoying checking all of that out. There’s some really great arranging. I’ve also been exploring the improvised music of the 70s and 80s more, aside from the fusion movement. Jazz fusion became the most prominent form of jazz in that time period, but there’s a lot of great acoustic music that was sort of underground because there wasn’t so much of a demand for it. Artists such as Waddada Leo Smith, the AACM guys, Paul Bley, Woody Shaw-
DD: Anthony Braxton.
DD: For jazz, I’ve been listening to the Refuge Trio, which everyone should get a copy of. And also, I’ve been listening obsessively to Donuts by J. Dilla because in February we’re doing a tribute show to him on his birthday, so that’s kind of a fun project on the horizon.
AJ: Ok, last question. If you had to give someone just one album to introduce them to jazz, what would it be?
AO: That’s a good question. Of course, the stock answer would be Kind of Blue, or something.
DD: Yeah, that’s the stock answer.
AO: I was so bored by that record for so many years before I learned to like it, I don’t think I would ever start anyone on jazz with that record.
DD: Maybe the current Blue Cranes release?
AO: Ah, yeah. Observatories. It depends on what their background is, you know?
DD: Yeah, what else do they like to listen to?
AO: It depends on what they like to listen to. If they like to listen to, like, modern rock or contemporary indie rock, then I would go in that direction- Claudia Quintet or Blue Cranes
DD: Claudia Quintet may be a sort of litmus test to see how much sophistication they can stomach.
AO: At first listen, it might be a bit much.
DD: It’s one of my favorites, though.
AO: If they like things that are swinging, then maybe- I don’t know, such a tough question….
DD: Bitches Brew was a great first jazz album for me. But maybe that’s just more about me then about jazz, though.
AO: What about Soul Station by Hank Mobley?
DD: I don’t know that record.
AO: That’s the best straight ahead record.
DD: Or Body Talk by George Benson? It’s a great, accessible funk-jazz record from the 70s.
AO: Something like Soul Station would be good because it’s a absolute bible of straight ahead playing. The most swinging record.
DD: Or any Bill Evans-
AO: Oh, Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, that would be great. Well, I guess there’s not just one answer [laughs].
DD: Yeah, there’s ten answers for you [laughs].
You can catch The Ocular Concern Sunday, August 7 at The Blue Monk.
-Ashawnta Jackson, KMHD Blogger
As part of our celebration of Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday on Monday, Dec 6th – we hope you’ll enjoy this interview from 1995 by Raoul Van Hall, host of “Jazz From the Left,” Saturdays 3-6 PM. Brubeck’s music has touched us in so many ways, broken new boundaries in jazz, and helped push the genre forward – exposing new listeners of every generation to American improvised music. Still playing today, Dave Brubeck is truly a living legend!
-Matt Fleeger, Program Director
Listening to the music of Dave Brubeck and his original quartet during my youth was my first exposure to jazz. His music has been extremely influential on my tastes in jazz, and later became the foundation of my jazz radio programs.
R: What were your earliest musical influences?
D: I had classical from my mother. Jazz from my older brother Henry. Another brother, Howard, played things like Gershwin and a lot of the classics. My father was a rodeo roper and manager of a cattle ranch so I heard a lot of cowboy music. My father was born not too far from here In Susanville, and his father had a lot to do with the development of this part of the world. So you can see I come from a diverse background. Being raised in the town I was raised in California, you weren’t hearing some music at a university you know. You were actually hearing Portuguese music once a year at a Portuguese parade, you heard Mexican music, Spanish music, German music, French, so that I write from my background In California. A lot of my music, whether it’s classical or Jazz was from by background. Also, I think that the European composers that have lived through the ages use the folk music of their own culture. The same thing with myself, except that I have many different cultures to draw on. If you think of who’s going to live on in America, you’ve got to think of Gershwin, Charles Ives, Bernstein and the guys that use the jazz idiom, which Is really the strongest influence In our culture.
R: When you look back at your body of work, what are your favorite songs, your favorite album?
D: There’s so many that it’s hard to know. There’s over a hundred LPs, where it’s mostly my music. Then there’s ten big sacred works, there’s three ballets, then there’s pieces for orchestra, pieces for two
pianos and solo piano. You’d have to look at a lot of different kinds of music.
R: I’ve been listening a lot lately to your Blues Roots album where you worked with Gerry Mulligan.
Did you enjoy that collaboration, and do you anticipate working with him again?
D: Well, we’re still friends, and we had quite a few years where we were together. We started as young musicians In what they used to call the “Cool Jazz” period. We both had our own quartets, so you never
know what will happen next. I think we had a few good years there. That’s a good album.
R: You’ve played for every president since President Kennedy. How did you get Into the presidential loop playing In the White House?
D: Pierre Salinger used to work for the Chronicle in San Francisco, and he used to come in almost every night after work to a nightclub where I was playing. Pierre, as a young man, was almost a professional Classical pianist; he’s a very bright guy. So when he started working with Kennedy, and being that we knew each other from San Francisco, that’s how it started.
R: This is probably an unfair question, but which was your favorite president to play for?
D: Well…the most human really was Nixon. He’s a warm guy, and he always took the time to come over and talk to us. Some of the other presidents would just thank you. I remember President Reagan saying, “I have to make the rounds of the room, but I would like to say goodnight to you personally. Go stand over by that door because that’s the door that I’m going to leave by.” The quartet walked over there and he came over and talked to us for about ten minutes about how he always loved jazz and he used It on his Big Band series that he did with Ford Motor Company. And he went into his background as a radio announcer. Nancy was a big jazz fan, and when we played for Reagan and Gorbachev, they took so much pride that they had invited us there and that the Russians really liked us … you can see it in the book. They were very friendly. Other presidents you just had different Impressions of. One that I really didn’t like as a president was Nixon, yet he made one of the most wonderful speeches. He gave a party for Duke Ellington at the White House and Nixon said, “We’ve entertained our first Duke in the White House.” And he said “In this room we’ve gone full circle because Mr. Ellington’s father was a waiter in this room.”
R: So I guess you are the house band for the White House?
D: (laughing) I don’t know. We’ve just been invited back to Washington. We’re trying to work it out. We do appear there a lot.
R: You mentioned your trip to Moscow back in 1988. What was it like to play for Gorbachev?
Was he familiar with your music?
D: Yeh, and his interpreter had most of my albums I Many of the people high up In the Communist Party listened to my albums illegally and bought them, I guess through diplomatic pouches from Washington. Our last album is the first one to be recorded In Russia and put out in conjunction with Melodia, their state-owned label, and the California label called Concord Jazz. We had a lot of nice things happen.
R: That must have been an incredible trip. What is your impression of what’s been happening politically in Russia?
D: Well, you see we were there at a real turn with everything that was going on in ’87 and ’88, and so we were very impressed. We couldn’t believe what was happening!
R: Jazz seems to be enjoying a renaissance on commercial radio stations these days. Why do you think that’s happening all of a sudden?
D: Well like I said earlier, we are truly the American art form that in many ways has kept us ahead of the world in ways that people don’t even begin to understand. The very movement for freedom that’s going on all over the world, If you’re going to pick one art form, you couldn’t pick one more democratic than jazz. Every day the drum beat from my Take the A Train went around the world on the Voice of America, and then went on to the Ellington version.
R: What do you think It takes to be a truly great jazz musician?
D: The most training you have to really express yourself as a musician is in jazz. I mean you’ve got to know things that a classical composer knows, but you also have to put it out immediately on stage in front of an audience, you’re not in your room hiding. I’ve done both, and I can tell you that the knowledge that goes into the great jazz performances of somebody like George Shearing or Oscar Peterson are more amazing to me than almost any composer. If Mozart were alive today I’d want to hear him improvise. I wouldn’t want to hear another symphony! You could hire him to improvise. In the days before classical music got into all written music, Beethoven and Bach improvised in church every Sunday. So what the jazz musician is really doing Is keeping alive the greatest part of what I think classical music is. My mother was a very good classical pianist. And she didn’t understand why I wanted to play jazz until she heard Art Tatum play, and then she understood. You get someone around George Shearing and they’ll go away on their knees. Jazz musicians have to have a tremendous knowledge of composition and classical music to understand how much a George Shearing has right at his fingertips that a president of a college of music who studied all his life may never have. Pow! These people have it. Like a Mozart had it, or a Shearing has it, or an Art Tatum. Then you stop talking about jazz or classical. You’re talking about genius. You can’t say where it comes from. It comes from a great string of DNA or from God.
R: What are you listening to these days?
D: I really don’t get much time to listen these days because I’m always involved with my next project. My favorite composer is Bach. And right next to Bach I’d put Art Tatum, the great American jazz pianist. And Ellington.
R: The introduction of the compact disc seems to be helping some people rediscover your music. Do you enjoy hearing your recordings on CD?
D: Yeah, they’re re-releasing almost everything. They’re going all the way back to the old 78’s before tape. I’m amazed at the quality, especially the old acetate recordings sound fantastic. They sound even better than when we first recorded them.
R: What is your recollection of the song Take Five?
D: Well that’s 1958, written while we were still in California. It was written in Oakland, California up on the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. The two things that are in Take Five were brought to rehearsal; It wasn’t a piece and the quartet put it together and we gave the credit to Paul Desmond. I had told the guys that I wanted to do an album called Time Out where we start using different time signatures. I wanted to really make a breakthrough album.
R: Strange Meadowlark still sounds like a breath of fresh air to me. What can you ten me about that song’s origin?
D: The Meadowlark call is right in that melody. I just built a melody around that birdcall. A lot of my tunes come from nature. Lots of birdcalls.
R: Blue Rondo A La Turk has always been one of my personal favorites. What is the origin of that piece?
D: That’s been recorded, in 80 many ways allover the world. You know AI Jarreau put words to it. He got the Grammy Award for that. There’s even a bird call that’s the exact notes of Blue Rondo A La Turk. One day I was down at my pond–I have a little pond with an island in it–I often go down there and write. I heard all these birds singing Blue Rondo, so I went back down to the house and I got my youngest son and my wife, and I said come down and sit on the island with me, I want you to hear something. And they started laughing and they said that all of the birds are singing Blue Rondo. I have a friend that studies bird calls, and I told him about It. and he said “you’re absolutely right. It’s the exact rhythm in 9/8 of Blue Rondo A La Turk.”
R: What was your most memorable performance?
D: Well, it’s hard to say. But I would say that when I wrote the music for the Pope that was performed at Candlestick Park, that was way up there. And playing for Gorbachev and the Reagan summit, that was was up there too.
R: When you first started your professional career, did you think that you’d still be at it in the all these years later?
D: Who knew I’d be alive? When I was twenty-one I didn’t think I’d be alive to see twenty-two-you know what I mean?
-Raoul Van Hall, host of “Jazz From the Left,” Saturdays 3-6 PM
Tune in today at 2:30 for an interview with drummer Towner Galaher on Lynn Darroch’s All Roads Lead To the Blues.
Galaher moved from New York City to the Pacific Northwest 20 years ago and has played with some of the top names in jazz including Wynton Marsalis, Jon Hendricks, Arturo O’Farill and others. He’ll be performing at Jimmy Mak’s on Tuesday, September 1 in support of his new CD, Courageous Hearts.