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Interview/Conversation with Jazz Pianist, Composer and Arranger, Tony Pacini

March 7, 2008

Tony Pacini

(BK) I met Tony at the Teazone in the Pearl. It turned out to be a fine place to settle in for an extended interview/conversation about Tony's fascinating musical journey. I soon realized the challenge in keeping up with Tony, but it was a challenge I much enjoyed. Rarely did a sentence proceed politely in a nice, neat, subject, verb, object pace; when Tony let go, he was like the film director who constantly flashes backwards and forwards, exhibiting a mind able to assemble a whole series of thoughts and impressions at almost the same moment. In putting the conversation down on paper, I finally realized the obvious: Tony Pacini, with an invisible keyboard in his mind, was improvising his responses and observations as deftly and complexly and fascinatingly as he would a 64 bar solo on a musical theme!                                                                                           

(TP) Bernie, let me first of all thank you for being an intricate participant in the fragile eco-system called jazz. That system includes more than the musicians; it's also people, like yourself, who I've known for a long time, that help maintain the status of America's classical music and represent the promotional and the appreciation aspects of the music, and who, so to speak, keep me alive!
(BK) Most kind of you to say so, Tony. Most assuredly, it is our pleasure! Let's begin, now, with a little background. I have a hunch it goes way back.
(TP) It does go way back, several centuries back, starting with my great, great, great grandfather who was an opera composer named Giovanni Pacini, not to be confused with Pucini. He wrote 92 operas (!), the most famous being Medea. He was known in opera circles primarily in mainland Europe. Diehard opera people would know him pretty well. To bring this into modern times, starting in the 20th Century, my father was first generation, born in this country from Italian immigrants. He had five brothers and three sisters, all of whom were professional musicians. My father was the most prolific of them. He traveled the world many times as a musician. He had me late in life while on tour in Asia. He was playing in big bands prior to World War II, actually leading big bands as well as playing and arranging in them. He then enlisted and played officers' clubs as a big band leader in the United States Army Air Corps. Because of actually being called to duty and having to go to the European theater, he decided, after the war, that he would travel, and he did that for a good forty plus years before settling down with me.
At a later time, he was on a circuit in Asia. What brought him to Asia was playing as a musical director and arranger for the Edgar Bergen show which was doing USO shows for Vietnam GI's. One of my earliest memories of the entertainment business (to make a broader category than just music) was growing up in a suburb of Portland, Milwaukie, and remembering my father on the phone one afternoon saying to my mother,"Yeah… he's coming to the house, so get out the good silverware." And this man came to our house and was carrying what looked like a tenor saxophone case, kind of a lizard skin covered thing. And we had dinner and I heard these old stories about working together. After dinner, right before dessert, the man opened the case and to my amazement, there wasn't a horn in it. There was a dummy in it, though, and there was Charlie McCarthy!
(BK) Ha! I can see how that made an impression!
(TP) And I didn't realize who he was until many years later after my father had passed away. My mother called me one day and said she was going through the attic and had found some stuff kind of assigned to me and did I maybe want to go through it and see if I wanted to keep anything.  So I went to her house and here were all these things such as 8 1/2 by 11 semi-glossy pictures of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy signed: "Tony, when you're a little older, let's all get together and step out sometime." And I remember this dollar bill (I still have it!) and on it Charlie McCarthy had replaced the portrait on the bill which Bergen had also signed.  So there was all this stuff!  I must have been four, maybe five years old when that originally happened.
My father performed quite a bit, but at some point (he was in his sixties when I was still very young) he decided to take a breather from the playing and worked briefly as a booking agent in Portland. Some of the older musicians in town remember Dad, and although Tom Wakeling isn't that old, he's one of the few folks around who remember my dad when he was a booking agent. But for the record, obviously my father didn't care for being a booking agent after being a musician for fifty plus years. Being on the other side is a little darker. Tom, as a teenager, used to get gigs through a piano player who was booked by the agency that my dad briefly worked for. So seeing the business side of it was most of what I saw at home. But I also had aunts and uncles come over and play music, and I got to hear about the bands that they were in. And I'll never forget my aunt, Gloria, who was a classical pianist, getting on my case one day about how to play Bach correctly.  I think I had a sense, early on, that playing the piano was what I wanted do.
I raided my dad's LP collection quite a bit starting about when I was five. He had a huge collection as a result of years of collecting jazz music and of playing big band music. My first obsession and infatuation with swing music was actually with the Lionel Hampton big band. The thing I really wanted to do was play tenor saxophone because I loved Zoot Sims’ solos on these Lionel Hampton recordings. By the time I was six, I probably had memorized all of the Lionel Hampton arrangements. And starting at age five I had formal piano lessons with a classical instructor which continued up until my first year in high school, although half way into that time period, I really didn't want to do classical music. My father refused to teach me on his own; he wanted me to have formal instruction with somebody else. In retrospect, I see that was a smart move. Now that I am a full time musician and a part time private piano instructor, I'm even more convinced of this.
So I took piano. My dad forced me to do piano. According to his words (I'll never forget a conversation he had with my aunt, the only surviving sibling of my father's, the classical pianist) it was like pulling teeth, he said, to get me to practice! By the time I was in fifth grade, I was still interested in pursuing tenor saxophone because of those Lionel Hampton records I listened to so much. We couldn't afford at the time renting a tenor saxophone, so my dad had this clarinet. My father was a multi-instrumentalist who played primarily keyboard instruments, accordion, vibes and piano, but he also played trumpet as well as some reed instruments. So he told me to take the clarinet in to school and see if I could play it (I was in the fifth grade). So I took it in, and the band director told me nothing doing, the side keys didn't work, and it would take a lot of money to fix it.  So I came home and told Dad it couldn't be fixed, and there went my dream to play tenor sax. So he handed me a trumpet and asked me to try that. So I went back to the band and I ended up playing trumpet from the fifth grade until my first year in college!
But all the meanwhile, piano was where most of my energy went, the piano obviously being the instrument to jump from in any field of music because of the key knowledge it provides of musical theory. It's the best thing to start off on. Anything else becomes easy. And I started to fall in love with the piano and as I started to check out more LP's in my dad's collection, I realized that combo playing and piano trio playing were extremely exciting, especially for the pianist. And the freedoms that they took and the complexity of it...when it all came together, it was amazing to me. So I thought: that's what I really want to do.
Let me try to expand on that. My father passed away when I was twelve. At that time I was a rebellious teen, and I tried several different instruments. I actually played electric bass and piano and trumpet. It was a slightly rebellious deviation, but I went back to jazz and in high school I was the music guy; I played trumpet, I played piano in the big band, trumpet in the symphonic band. I actually took third at state on trumpet playing a Haydn piece. A lot of people don't know that. I haven't played the trumpet in years now. So, the piano was always my first love, and it was through piano that I ended up, coming from a poor background, with a full scholarship, the last scholarship Larry McVeigh, who is the founding father of the great music program at Mt. Hood Community College, gave me.
And then he died. So I never got to study under him. But I got the scholarship and I showed up and I played Mt. Hood, and after two years at Mt. Hood, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. So I applied to Manhattan School of Music, North Texas State University, and Berklee College of Music, at that time the three most top drawer jazz higher education colleges. North Texas State had a situation where they would only provide a scholarship to residents of Texas.  So you'd have to pay your way for a year, and after a year, you'd officially be a resident, and then they could provide me with a scholarship. Well, that wasn't financially feasible even though it was the cheapest of the three schools.
Manhattan School of Music... I actually flew to New York and stayed there for a week. It was a great experience. I went around to the clubs and I auditioned in front of a jury at the Manhattan School of Music, and they gave me a full ride, but they wouldn't pay for the housing, and without financial aid, that wasn't enough. So that was definitely not an option. So I sent a demo recording which I did in a studio using a bass player and a drummer that were actually in my trio. When I was eighteen, the summer after I graduated from high school, I landed a trio gig playing at Salty's every Friday and Saturday night for two years, that's the two years when I was at Mt. Hood CC.  That was the first Tony Pacini Trio.
(BK) What year was that Tony?
(TP) 1988. So, I used those two guys and made a recording of three tunes that fulfilled the application requirement for Berklee College of Music. I sent it to Berklee, but never heard from them. I tried to contact the bursar's office that told me the application was still in review. So it looked like I was going to do a third year at Mt. Hood. But one day I got a phone call from the bursar's office and he said we have forwarded your demo tape to the jazz critic, Leonard Feather, and he wrote back and said that he was willing for his foundation to give you a full ride to Berklee College of Music. But they were calling me to tell me that the last day to register was tomorrow! And they said you have a full ride here if you can get in tomorrow and register.
So I said, "Okay," and I packed three suitcases, caught a red-eye that night, flew to Boston, and spent a year at Berklee. Boston, having ninety colleges, and amongst them, quite a few professors who could be great bandleaders and a dozen students who could also be great bandleaders, made the scene very saturated. And fortunately for me, coming from a great jazz scene in Portland-I would describe it as per capita one of the best in the country-I was already playing as a teenager. So the time I spent in Boston definitely took away some of that professional, "in combat" professional experience. Back to Berklee for a minute... the college had an interesting situation where you could test out of classes, so I took advantage of that and overworked myself. I guess I kind of burned myself out. I tested out of 56 credit hours in the first three weeks I was there! I transferred my credentials from Mt. Hood CC. I tried to test out of as many classes as I could. Over time, however, the college backed off of this policy somewhat, recognizing its obvious adverse effect on revenue.
So with a burnout approach to studying music at Berklee and a lack of gigs in Boston (and I really missed my Portland gigs), I decided to go back to Portland and really immerse myself in the talent that Portland has to offer.
(BK) Tony, are we now in about the early nineties?
(TP) Yes, about '91,'92. So, again... I decided to immerse myself in the wealth of talent Portland had to offer. You know too, as a private jazz teacher/general purpose piano teacher only on Mondays and Tuesdays (let me first explain that jazz specialty is my bag. That is what I live for. It's the only thing that basically keeps me alive. It's what I love!), I occasionally do have a jazz student, and I have to tell him/her that there's a considerable amount of academic music study that goes into jazz music. However, that's only half of it. The other half of it is you have to it get from "combat", to use a poor analogy in militaristic terms.
(BK) No, no... it's not a bad analogy at all!
(TP) ... uh, you know, the recruit gets trained, and once he's hanging around with the veterans the veterans point out, "Hey, don't do this. Here's how you do this. This is how you stay alive, etc.” It's the same thing in the jazz world. When I was in my early twenties there was a core group of Portland jazz musicians of similar age, guys like bassist Joey Seifers, drummers, Mark Aalto, Tim Rap, and Kurt Deutscher, sax player, Jay Collins, and trumpeter, John Morrell. Our whole focus was not collectively to create bands and go hiding off in our own little clique group and get gigs and stay away from everyone else on the scene. Rather, the goal was to do your homework and be as good as you could possibly be, so that you could work your way up the alphabet from being a "Z" player to maybe a "C" player, and eventually a "B" player. Then you could work, when the opportunity arose, with the old guys who really knew the ropes.
And I'm happy to acknowledge that a good portion of my musical makeup is not only-and this is very important-is not only from studying the jazz legends and greats, and as many media as were available from LP's to video, etc. and music manuscripts as well. No. A good portion of my musical makeup is from playing with quite a few players that have either passed on or are still on the scene. And my personal opinion is that the music can always get better, and, individually, my goal is not to be famous. As we all know, famous people don't automatically have integrity. My goal is musical integrity! And you get musical integrity from being with as many different players as you can, and from studying the music, and making those the goal.
To expand on the notion of musical integrity... in a nutshell, it's being the best that I can be and not being the best compared to other people. Being the best I can be is like bringing something to the potluck. Musical integrity for me is a very important driving factor. There are quite a lot of people in the music industry, I think, who put an awful lot of emphasis on what I regard as rather superficial or at least of secondary importance, e.g., look how much money I make, see how famous I am, etc. For me-and maybe I'm a foolish romantic for it-being inspired by so many people, famous or not, who are an integral part of that fragile eco-system called jazz, is important to me not only to pool resources from, but also to help me find a voice, my voice.
When painters of any artistic era come along in the timeline of painting they always study their predecessors. I think their goal in this is to mimic and learn their techniques. For some people, this can be a lifelong endeavor; others can get that quickly. And the goal after that is to find a unique thumbprint these artists can call their own, and in so doing bring something distinct to that "potluck" of the visual arts.
(BK) I'm reminded of a Stan Kenton remark something to the effect that everything we play is in some measure a part of an accumulation of sounds we acquire just by being conscious, over time, what we hear all around us.
(TP) Right. If I could expand on that... Phil Woods, the great alto sax player, was being interviewed and the interviewer referred to Phil as an innovator. And Phil interrupted the interviewer and said, "Please, please don't call me an innovator; I'm a craftsman." What he meant by that was analogous to maybe multiple generations of cobblers in Holland, for example. The great grandson is learning his craft through these different generations, but each generation brings a little twist to the clogs that they're making. And in the end, in old world style, you seek out that heritage, that pedigree, that craftsmanship for what is unique about it. And the artistic goal, to me, is to salute, pay tribute to, and be respectful of the vocabulary of jazz, because it is an improvisational vocabulary that pulls on many resources as the vehicles for the improvisation.
When people seek innovation sometimes that old adage- don't try to re-invent the wheel-is important to recall. What the goal is (and I think (Phil) Woods once said this too), is that people like Coltrane didn't set their sights on making innovative or new music. They were instead constantly refining themselves based on what they were involved in within the timeline of music, present, past and into the future. And because of that they would stumble onto the innovations, and I think that if we do that as a goal to the highest degree that we possibly can, we have a better chance of bringing something special to the musical feast.
And in the end, as far as musical integrity is concerned, even though there is a lot of competition in the world, to me, musical integrity is about pushing myself to the maximum that I can. Not comparatively to the other pianists that might be getting calls for gigs where the competition is in the music industry on a bigger level. To me it is an individual thing and it also has to be keeping in mind an artist's objective. It's a thing that I have to relinquish. I've learned over the years that playing music is personal, and in the case of the arts, once artists have exhibited their work, be it painting, sculpture or music, to someone in the public or to thousands of people, they have basically relinquished that piece of work. They still own the intellectual property rights, but now it's open for subjective (critical) responses, and as an artist you have to release that, to let it go.  
(BK) Because it's part of the process.
(TP) That's right. And also, Bernie, music to me, even though I put a lot of energy into it and it's the only thing I truly live for, I also have to approach it light heartedly and with a sense of humor, as well as with various other emotions, because that's just another way of communicating.
(BK) Tony, we may have already touched on musical influences. But, care to elaborate a bit more?
(TP) Sure. As far as musical influences go, there's certainly a portion of my musical makeup that is the jazz greats. When I discovered piano trio playing obviously the big names, Nat Cole, Oscar Peterson, Phineas Newborn, Monty Alexander, Gene Harris, Bud Powell, Bill Evans... these are my favorites. On top of that, though, there are so many other great pianists, e.g., Hank Jones and Tommy Flannigan just to name two more, and plenty of others too, that I pool resources from. I love all things piano. You know, I love the title of Oscar Peterson's autobiography, The Will to Swing! If the music swings, it's the sweetest line of communication to even a non-jazz aware audience. That's what they're there for. You know, sometimes in music, jazz music in particular, the improvisational aspect of it can become so super intellectual, if you will. It's like a language that's been encoded. Unless somebody in the audience has the key to decipher that cipher, the communication is lost.  One analogy I remember... somebody describing why he sought the thrill of auto racing, and in the interview the interviewer asked him, "Why do you do this?" And the driver answered, "When I'm done, and I climb out of the cockpit, here's what I don't feel; I don't feel as if I've just won a chess match!" So, I think we have to be aware of not getting too intellectual, and to communicate on a simple level with swing and groove. Because, we don't want to send the message out that we just won the chess match. I mean, that's just not as exciting as swinging and grooving.
(BK) That's absolutely right. There are people, of course, who will say they simply hate jazz, and I think it's very likely that the reason for this is that they have heard so called over-intellectualized jazz first and exclusively, and that they were simply and utterly confused and put off by it.
(TP) I think that's right.
(BK) So Tony... let's focus, if you agree, on the development of groups in which you are the pianist.
My first trio, with Joey Seifers and Mark Aalto, back when I was in my teens, held down a gig under my name at Salty's on the Willamette. And Joey and I also started working with Dan Faehnle when Dan came to town, and we ended up employed at Atwaters on the 30th floor of the US Bank tower as it was called back then. We spent three and a half, maybe four years up there (Ed Bennett replaced Joey when Joey decided to do some other things... Ed Bennett was on the gig most of those years, Joey only being there briefly), and then it was Mel, Ed and myself and Dan Faehnle. And that started a great rapport between Dan and me. And it started my really strong friendship with Ed Bennett and musical rapport and friendship with Mel Brown.

Then when Atwaters dissolved, Mel took the band to Jazz d' Opus, and Dan ended up picking up the gig as the second guitarist with Diana Krall, which put him on the road all the time. Then Dan Balmer came is as a substitute quite often when Faehnle was on the road. Then Opus went through some funny business changes, so Mel (this was in the early days of Jimmy Mak's) decided to move that band with Balmer over to the old Jimmy Mak's. And we've been playing ever since! Always on Wednesdays.  
So, in a nutshell, Bernie, the musical rapport that I have, and the friendship that I have with Ed and Mel has been going on for ten years now (and with Balmer for about five years) and hopefully that will continue to go on.  Ed has become a great friend and musical companion. He's also the current bass player in my trio, along with Tim Rap on drums, and we've been playing together for about nine years now. We've recorded two CD's.
Doing business with musicians when you have friends in the band and they believe in the music, is not only special, but very important. Then we all hear the music the same way and love the same influences, and it's what makes the magic happen. You know, sometimes you see these festivals where they say- Okay, we're going to take Dizzy and Getz and Stan Kenton, and we're going to put them all together. And sure, they may all be top-drawer players, but they don't play together all the time. So, the rapport is different.
Let me also comment on Dan Balmer, for a moment.  Dan Balmer is a very gifted musician who has a huge amount of improvisational vocabulary and can play many different styles. I consider myself a jazz specialist because I'm a very tunnel-visioned individual. I'm clueless about other forms of music unless it's classical or jazz. And that's because for me it's all-important to put all my energy into that. But I can certainly appreciate this incredible ability to do many different things, and that's what Balmer brings to the plate. I'm just remembering that Faehnle once said admiringly about Balmer, "He's got all that stuff!"
(BK) Yes... I know first hand from both of these marvelous musicians that there was/is genuine mutual respect between them. So, now the Mel Brown Quartet is holding forth weekly at Jimmy's... and things are going well with you...  and may I assume some various recording activities are also in the works?
(TP) Well, yes. Let me elaborate. My relationship with Ed Bennett... Ed has an independent, boutique style jazz record label (Saphu) which basically started off because he made a recording in the early nineties when he lived in LA. The label has since expanded to three CD's under my title, three of Ed's, as well as various artists from California, plus various vocalists around town, and quite a few different players, Tim Gilson, John Keyser. Dick Berk... I mean, there's quite few different artists and recordings there. And the Mel Brown Quartet (MBQ) has two CD's to our credit that we collaboratively produced that are also on Ed's label.  And being a good friend of Ed's as well as being involved in quite a bit of music with him, we decided to cooperatively work on his record label and are going to introduce something this summer. It's an expansion of that record label. And without giving too much away, we're gearing up to put out a gaggle of recordings for digital download. It's always necessary to keep up with the times, as you well know!
Working with Ed has been and is a delight, both performing with him and working on the record label. In addition to doing MBQ arranging, writing and performing, which is something I live for every week, my Trio is recording constantly for this new business model at Saphu records that will be introduced this summer. Additionally, the trio will be performing twice at the Liberty Theater in Astoria this year. The MBQ, on April 23d, backed up vibraphonist, Mark Sherman and trumpeter Joe Macarelli. I've just returned from playing with Dee Daniels at the Sun River Music Festival, the second time I've done that, and in May I'm doing a performance with my trio with Lee Wuthenow in Bend. So, there's been quite a bit going on.
(BK) Wow! Lot's going on and to look forward to. Tony, let me ask you to take a moment to comment on the current jazz "scene" in our city. Most of us are aware of the here-now-gone-tomorrow syndrome that more often than not characterizes new jazz venues... any comments on our current local scene?
(TP) Sure. Portland has always had an extremely strong jazz scene, and with the changes that Portland has gone through in recent times (I'm speaking now as a lifelong Portlander), I've seen a very large town trying to be a small city, dealing with an influx of people and all such growth factors. I can only hope that we drive home the fact that there is this wealth of jazz talent and jazz history in Portland. Bob Dietsche documents that. The late Bob Thompson had recorded quite a bit of that, both in video and in audio recordings. And of course, people like yourself, who are intricate participants in this fragile eco-system in our world called jazz, realize that it's not just New York, LA and New Orleans that have a jazz history. There's a really, really strong jazz history in Portland.
A thing of concern to me is what to do when there are more players than there ever have been before and maybe fewer venues to play in. I don't want to see Portland turn into a situation similar to larger towns that have great jazz players but not a strong enough scene for the professional to work in. What happens in some of those towns is that groups of musicians are aware of the means and the caliber of musicianship and styles of musicianship of many of the players. But... well, they've never met! They hear about people in their own town that play their music, but they never meet. And often times-and this is kind of an old jazz musician thing-as soon as I'm done with a gig I'll converge on either the Benson Hotel if it's a late running gig, or I'll drop in at Jimmy Mak's if I have an earlier gig, and see what's happening. It's like having a glass to the wall with an ear on it. You know, hanging out is important, not only to be seen in a business sense, but to see what other people are doing and to enjoy the same kind of music, and talk about it.
And sometimes I think, umm... it's like going back to that crowd of musicians I ran around with in my twenties... the goal wasn't to form a band and stay away from everybody. The goal was to do your homework and join the group. And I think it's very important that musicians get together. In days past, there was a little more of that.
(BK) I'm really glad to hear you express this. It's been a personal gripe, or perhaps more appropriately, a concern of mine that I seem all too rarely to see musicians at various and diverse gigs I attend. The exception seems to be when an out-of-towner is a featured player with a Portland-based group... then I might see some players come out. Not, though, all that often for Portland players to check out other Portland players, and hang around and mix it up,
(TP) Yeah... let me comment on that. Often times, musicians, if they're working, obviously the conflict in hours is an issue. More of what I was trying to refer to, is, after the gig, when you're done with it, there might be some other gig that's about to end, or it may be over. But, go hang out with the other musicians because that builds camaraderie. Because we don't want to distance ourselves from each other and into little groups.  We can't divide into little categories, you know, these are the young guys, these are the veteran guys, and there's the guys who just moved here, etc. Everybody needs to be involved, musicians and listeners too. We need to keep that alive as Portland gets bigger and more people move here.
(BK) Amen. Tony, talk, please, about Ron Steen a bit. He's been such a consistent, constant player and contributor on and to the Portland jazz scene.
(TP) I have great respect for Ron Steen. His dedication to jazz and to keeping the Portland jazz scene vibrant and alive is commendable. As young .players wanting to play with experienced players, not only because they had the gigs but because you could learn from them, we went to Ron Steen’s jam sessions. And that was a very important thing. You can't learn jazz music from a book. You can learn important things about music from a book; you can learn important things from great recordings. But in the end, you have to see some combat with it. And if you're really serious, that's the place you go. And as you develop, and establish your personal identity, that's where you start to make your connections.
(BK) Tony, care to comment on the younger players coming onto the scene?
(TP) Sure. There's a great wealth of younger players in Portland. I just hope that, both in the audience and in the number of musicians that we have in Portland, we don't divide ourselves. The music scene has ups and downs as far as venues and audience turnout are concerned, so I think it's really important that musicians drop in on each other after their gigs and stay a part of the jazz community. It's just real important to stay in touch with one another. You know, I'd love to see everybody's gig end at midnight, and then everybody shows up in one place, you know, sixty musicians, every night, getting together and talking up the music.
(BK) (At this point in the conversation, I wondered if Tony might want to say a few words about Oscar Peterson who only recently passed away and who, of course, was a powerful influence on Tony. He agreed to do so.)
(TP) I was fortunate enough in the early nineties to spend some time in New York and I managed to see Oscar Peterson do a reunion with Bobby Durham on drums, Herb Ellis on guitar, and Ray Brown on bass, live at the Blue Note, which was made into a recording. I met him, and have always been influenced and inspired by his hard swing and a little bit through osmosis and through directly studying his influences. I also loved Nat Cole as a pianist, not to take anything away from him being as well an incredible vocalist. But I appreciate him even more as a pianist, and Bud Powell as well, and of course, Art Tatum. And those three are essentially what Oscar Peterson's makeup is.
But what Oscar Peterson did with it is truly a camp within piano trio playing that's very specific. In my opinion, there are two camps: there's the Nat Cole camp and the Bill Evans camp. In the Bill Evans camp we can branch off on that limb of the tree which leads to Keith Jarrett, Alan Broadbent, and Chick Corea and all the other players who we might call the modernists. And in the Nat Cole camp came Oscar Peterson and Gene Harris, you know, and the bebop camp developed from that in piano trio playing. And Ahmad Jamal is in there too. In a strange way he's kind of off on his own little limb.
One of the most important things that can be learned in music, especially in improvised music, is that it is a language, so one should take the approach of inventing a new language. We're speaking in English now as we talk, and the vocabulary of improvisation, like English, has its dialects and accents, and so on, and is a language. Playing all the right notes and knowing a certain number of tunes, and maybe arranging, which I love to do, and composing, they’re all great. But in the end, this improvisational language must be conveyed with emotion.
So, one of the most important things that Oscar Peterson brought to piano trio playing was the emotion. And at the highest level, whether it's Oscar or Bill Evans or anyone for that matter, you take it one step further and it's about the emotion that goes into the music. Because it can't just be good notes. Jeff Hamilton once talked about playing with intent. When I was younger I did a ton of Bud Powell transcriptions to learn the bebop vocabulary. When I was really young and exploring jazz for the first time at the pianistic level, I was like most young jazz piano players. I wanted to start with Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and late versions of McCoy Tyner. And I thought that was really old music. And as I started studying under Raymond Santisi and different people, I realized that there is this huge heritage of music. I went all the way back to stride piano and then worked my way through swing and bebop into what I call the golden age, or the heyday of jazz, which are the fifties and sixties. I mean these were incredible times.
Again, the emotion... well... first you have to know the vocabulary. Second, there must be emotion in the music. The inspiration of emotion is essential.
(BK) Tony, thank you so much for your time today.  So much of what you expressed adds immeasurably to my appreciation of your playing and of what all goes into excelling in the art of playing jazz piano!

Bernie Knab


Copyright 2008, Jazz Society of Oregon