08/03/18 New Releases/Tracks

San Francisco experimental Latin ensemble Gilberto Rodriguez y Los Intocables

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Gilberto Rodriguez y Los Intocables

Photo by Fernando Rodriguez

 

Straight from the Bay Area comes some very intriguing modern Chicano soul. Gilberto Rodriguez y Los Intocables are dropping their record on August 31, 2018, on Empty Cellar Records. Might want to pre-order this vinyl, since it’s limited to 500 double-LP albums. The great Helsinki-based soul label Timmion Records is cutting the vinyl, which will be encased in a deluxe Stoughton tip-on gatefold. [Cat with heart eyes emoji.]

Listen to their single “Totonita Encantadora” and you’ll see what we mean.

This sick jam, plus nine others on the new album, Sabor Maracuyá Desnuda, were recorded in Oakland and led by bandleader Gilberto Rodriguez on guitars and vocals, Ahkeel Mestayer on percussion, Ruben Sandoval on keys, and brothers Carlos and Jorge Rodriguez on trumpets.

“ ‘Totonita Encantadora’ came together in the studio after dinner,” Gilberto Rodriguez says. “We wanted to spend the rest of the night unwinding on a cumbia arrangement that would eventually become the condensed thirteen-minute track you’re listening to now. Looking back on the album, there’s a rare sonic experimentation delving into the depths of weird Latin soul that takes no precedence over any specific genre but rather is as fluid as the shifting demographics of the U.S. today.

Lyrically, I wanted to approach the track like an incantation using as minimalist an approach as possible with room to improvise over erotic verses. Multi-percussionist, Ahkeel Mestayer dominates the rhythm with timbale giving light to cumbia sonidera territory while Ruben Sandoval’s Rhodes keys hypnotize the listener, break after horn break by the Rodriguez brothers, Carlos and Jorge. ‘Totonita’ is an invitation to infinite pleasures, whispered caresses, and tropical sweat perspiring amongst the most intimately aroused flesh.”

The record has the stamp of approval from Chicano Batman’s Bardo Martinez, who says “Sabor Maracuyá is a sonic reflection of a long journey. It has the ethos of Caetano Veloso’s Transa, full of Afro-Latin grooves with a spontaneous lyrical flow that transcends labels. It’s a feeling that is unique to the thoughts and the mind that created it.”

07/24/18 Guest Blog

Daymé Arocena: Voice of Cuba’s Future

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Photo by Casey Moore

 

Daymé Arocena is a burst of light energy. A million shattered pieces of Orion nebula in the form of singer-composer-star, spreading love, positivity and ancestral blessings—a interstellar body in the constellation of Afro-Cuban world music. Her smile and deep hearty laugh illuminate any space, and is just as much a source of joy and resilience for the African diaspora as it is an indication of the new era of Cuban sound.

Sete, 2017.

I first met Daymé just before she performed at the Theater la Mer, an amphitheater on the Mediterranean coast, in a tiny canal town in the South of France. Fresh off of Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura Sessions and inking a deal with Brownswood Recordings, then 25-year-old had just released her debut album, Nueva Era.

Dressed in the traditional whites of Santeria, she chanted and danced barefoot across the stage using her voice as a bata drum for an entranced audience. Critics were already drawing comparisons to La Lupe and Celia Cruz but you could tell there was something different about Daymé’s approach to Cuban music, something fresh. She was still so young, and her music leaped genres so fluidly, it didn’t seem as if she intended to be categorized at all. I made the decision then, that I’d eventually take a special trip to her native Havana to talk to the singer-composer in person— about her spiritual practices, multi-genre approach, and breaking the traditional mold of Cuban jazz.

Havana, 2018.

I arrive from Guanabo via taxi to a traditional building in central Havana. Things have changed a bit since last year, (one of which is Dayme’s recent grammy nomination) and I’m excited to get into a conversation about it all. Daymé’s cheerful, raspy alto greets me from the top of the landing and the first thing I notice in her cozy apartment is color. Sharp blues. Sultry Reds. A vinyl dust jacket for Cubafonia, her most recent and arguably her most celebrated work,  sits aside nonchalantly on a coffee table, unaware of it’s own splendor. When I ask how recording in Havana has been different than recording in London and what she’s learned in the process, she guides my attention towards her alter(s) to Yemaya—the Santerian Orisha to which she pays homage. Daymé orders lunch from a local spot, and as the drums of “La Rumba” play in the background I remind her of the first time I heard her half way across the globe, on a stage surrounded by water, and asked her how what I heard on stage relates to what she’d just showed me on the altar.

 

Photo by Brownswood Recordings

 

So… Santeria clearly influences your music.

Santeria is music. I fell in love with Santeria’s music before anything else. Music was the way I was introduced to it–it was the conduit to Santeria. Not the opposite. I remember being a kid living with my grandma—her ceremonies, learning about the orishas, that Yemaya rules the waters. But I wasn’t interested in any of that then. I remember when my grandma was crowned in the practice and became a saint. She was the only link I had with Santeria.

 

Photo by Nina Manandhar

 

When did you officially make the connection?

When I was seventeen there was a competition in Havana for young composers of classical music. I used to write a lot of music for choirs. I really wanted to win the competition so I said to myself, I need to do something authentic. Something different. So I started investigating old deep Cuban music. And I discovered Santeria batas and I was so amazed because, like, these three drums can do anything. You can feel them as they move you forward—there’s something magical with bata drums. I tried to play them but I wasn’t good. So I decided to take bata drums to the choir for us to sing them. I made a cycle of songs—one for Ochun, one for Yemaya and one for Oya. All the choir had to do was the sing the rhythms. [beat boxes] I split the drums into separate harmonies—hearing the choir sing all those drum cadences in so many parts—my love for Santeria music deepened after that. Then I started getting more into the religion. I started writing music more connected with Santeria but my music is a fusion of many different styles because I’m a classical musician I feel so close to classical music, jazz, I feel so close to everything.

 

Photo by Marina Garvey Birch

 

Tell me what’s behind the name of the album Cubafonia and how you’ve grown since the Havana Cultura Sessions.

Fonia is Latin for musical sound. Cubafonia is the musical sound of Cuba. I don’t have the ego to say I’m the musical sound of Cuba. The main difference between the new album and the first is I didn’t record the first album in my country. I wasn’t with my people when I made it. I was in mostly in London. But with this album, I’ve come back to my roots. For me it’s an album, where every single track is a rhythm of Cuba. “Lo Que Fue” is bolero, and chachacha.  “Maybe Tomorrow” has some guahira. “Mambo Na’Mà” has mambo. “Como” is cuban pop. Then there’s changüi, old rumba, tango congo, bolero, pilon… all of those rhythms are Cuban but from a new point of view.

I wrote the music of this album while traveling, but I came back to Cuba to record it. I came back home, where after traveling I was rediscovering my own world. I felt all my ancestral influences—I was deep into my culture. I’d listen to some of the tracks after recording and sometimes I couldn’t believe those were my songs. I was feeling like wow. I couldn’t have written this. Someone else must have written these songs. I’d listen and think I didn’t write them, they must have been a gift from somewhere.

 

Photo by Ruby Savage

 

At what age did you begin performing?

When I was four years old my parents took me to a party they were having at my uncle’s hotel. There was a singing contest and whoever wins the contest wins a toy. My mom didn’t want me to do it because I was only four. My father pushed me to enter—he thought I could win. I sang “Yo Tenia Una Esperanza” by Selena. At the time she was all over Cuban television an my father had some of her recordings—so I’m singing and moving my arms like crazy on the stage—I was only four and won the competition. My mom has pictures of me holding the toy with cake on my face and balloons. That was the moment that my parents said, oh. We think this kid has talent. After that they went crazy. They got a piano teacher for me.

You graduated from one of the most prestigious music programs in Cuba. I hear entry is extremely competitive.

Yes, music education in Cuba—in general, when it’s special like musical school or sports or something like that—they have to select really carefully, who’s going to get the opportunity to study, because they have to give you everything—the instruments—everything. In Cuba, we don’t have much industry for instruments. Most of them are donated to us by other countries. Each music school can choose about twenty kids each year. We have four musical schools in Havana. I went to Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. To get into that school is so competitive even for little kids because again, there are only twenty slots per school. It took me two years of auditioning to get in. I tried out at eight years old but didn’t get accepted until I was ten. I auditioned for four schools, each school a different instrument—flute, trumpet, guitar, saxophone. I finally got accepted for voice and choir conducting. I studied for five years until I reached the professional level and became a classical musician.

 

Photo by Nina Manandhar

 

Then you started an all female band just out of high school?

Yeah, I decided to make the band all female because I was nineteen years old and always the only woman at the concerts and festivals, in the band, in the schools—I was like where are the girls? Jazz is a type of music based on improvisation. When you take the stage you don’t know how it’s going to end—you just have to trust the musicians, but it’s risky. And women—most times, we aren’t pushed to be aggressive. We don’t want to go to the stage without knowing what’s going to happen. Until a few years ago we didn’t invite many girls to have a shot. So in jazz it’s like we have to have courage and be just as aggressive on stage as men because they aren’t afraid of experimenting and making mistakes. Sometimes we need few mistakes to make jazz. So the band was an example of girls getting on stage, taking risks with the music. Improvising. This is the message that I say to every little girl that comes to me and says “Oh, I like jazz but I don’t know where to start”—I say go, take the stage and see what happens, don’t worry about the mistakes! Go for it! You have the power in your hands to say I don’t care. I’m going to do it, I’m going to take the chance because I believe in myself. It’s just that.

 

Photo by Emily Moxon

 

Internet service in Cuba is functional but limited. Do you think it helps or hurts your creative process not having round the clock access to the internet?

I think this isn’t a phenomenon—what we’re living now in Cuba. This has been for a long time. There were always barriers. In the old days, listening to English speaking music was prohibited. Rock, The Beetles. They said that was the music of the enemies. So the musicians in Cuba started to make newer and newer rhythms. Because people were bored of listening to the same type of music, musicians started creating new Cuban music, different rhythms—of course, we need internet because we need to know what’s going on around the world, but without constant internet we keep our authenticity, our creativity—we keep the spirit of the country—because we have to make new things and are not copying other cultures, it pushes the Cuban culture forward.

When people think of Cuban contemporary music they think of the artists who left us a legacy, like Buena Vista Social Club–but those musicians are so far away from the reality young Cubans are living right now. Most of them have passed away. And the ones that are still alive are in their eighties. What’s happening with young generations of Cuban musicians is so creative and progressive—there are so many different genres and rhythms that we are creating ourselves. There are new artists making Cuban music in another way. And we’re showing this new side of Cuba to the world. 

 

 

Find Dayme at daymearocena.com and on instagram @daymearocena.

@tamarapcarter is a TV drama series writer by day, music geek by night. Wax Poetics is her favorite magazine.

06/19/18 Mixtape

Steppin’ Heavy Mix Series #2: Electro Freaks

Compiled by Induce for Wax Poetics

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For the second instalment of Induce’s Steppin’ Heavy Mix Series, we are excited to share Electro Freaks : an all-vinyl, original-pressings only, live mix of “Electro Funk and Beyond.”

In his own words:

“With this sister mix to Boogie Bangers, I wanted to showcase not just Electro Funk aka Modern Funk aka Electro Boogie, but basically the various niche genres that fall under the umbrella of what was happening at the time that also include Disco Rap, Garage House, and whatever doesn’t fit nicely under the Disco and Boogie labels. Even some R&B cuts like the Mac Thornhill and the unreleased Dez (Prince & The Revolution) record exist somewhere between Boogie and Electro Funk, but can’t be pinned down to either.”

Tracklist:

1. Affinity – Don’t Go Away (Mango) 1983
2. Plunky & Oneness Of Juju – Jackpot (N.A.M.E. Records) 1983
3. The Brothers Supreme – We Can’t Be Held Back (Street Talk Records) 1985
4. Double Vision – Clock On The Wall (Profile Records) 1984
5. James Cobbin & Prime Cut – Caught In The Middle (Tuckwood Records) 1984
6. Love Club – Hot Summer Nights (West End) 1983
7. Sha-Lor – I’m In Love (Gertie Records) 1988
8. Formula V – Killer Groove I (Write On Records) 1983
9. Jamie Jupitor – Computer Power (Egyptian Empire Records) 1985
10. Free Style – Are You Lost (Music Specialists Records) 1984
11. Lonnie Love – Young Ladies (Profile Records) 1981
12. Mac Thornhill – Make Life Worth Living (Savoir Faire Records) 1983
13. Yvette Cason – Cash Play (Beantown Music) 1983
14. Hit Man – Computer Game Blues (Philly World Records) 1982
15. Dez Dickerson – Modernaire [Previously Unreleased] (Citinite Records) 2008

 

Stay tuned for the next mix, and find more from Induce here:

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06/04/18 Articles

Deep jazz from Japan

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various Japanese jazz albums

“Geek culture,” replies a frequent visitor, perhaps rather flippantly, when asked to provide an explanation for the Japanese term Otaku. That hardly sounds approving.

 A relatively recent term, Otaku has in it short life been linked with obsessive fandom of anime and manga. Also the notorious Otaku Murderer, who abducted and killed four young girls in the late 1980s. It has been burdened with such negative connotations unfairly.

Rather than a pejorative, Otaku can alternately be defined in a positive light; dedication, learned, committed, passionate, well versed, determined, aficionado. To generalize any ethnic group, using even such laudable attributes, would be wrong, a gross stereotyping. Yet it is true to say that the positive traits of Otaku can be traced within Japanese culture and society, time and time again, long before even the term was coined, and not least within the Japanese love of music.

“I think the Japanese can be an obsessive people and they often have a great attention to detail,” reckons Irish photographer Philip Arneill who, having spent nineteen years teaching and documenting music culture in Japan, has an informed view. “When they get into something they don’t do it by halves, they really go the whole nine yards.”

Arneill’s previous photography projects in Japan have covered the jazz dance scene and rockabilly culture. But more recently his efforts, alongside researcher James Catchpole (who runs a English language Japanese jazz listings site), have been directed towards documenting jazz kissa bars. These aged outlets, part cafe bar, part shrine to jazz music, have been an integral part and unique expression of Japanese jazz culture for over half of the century in which the country has embraced the music. In their owners’ dedication and knowledge, within the serious record collections they hold and in their often pristine soundsystems, something similar to Otaku is clearly evident.

“We went to this place Pithecanthropus Erectus, named after the Charles Mingus album and that’s where it began,” says Arneill of the ongoing project, which has in recent years grown to include institutions far from the Tokyo city boundaries. “We did a couple more and before we knew it we’d done twenty. Then it was forty. Then we were approaching the 100 mark. It’s 120 now.”

While these bars are gradually being edged out of profitability and popularity, Catchpole and Arneill’s increasingly urgent documentation of the venues has found a home both on their website and as the artwork of BBE’s new J Jazz compilation.

J Jazz sleeve

This collection of music, culled from the personal archives of co-compilers Tony Higgins and Mike Peden, showcases some of the heaviest and best examples of Japan’s rarely recognized, homegrown, modern jazz scene. In their collision, these two endeavors offer a glimpse into a little known and fast fading musical world.

“It’s always been easier to access American records,” reckons longstanding U.K.-based enthusiast and record collector Tony Higgins, whose credits include music management, music TV production and work on several previous compilation. “They were broadly imported, it was easier to go there and buy them and there’s no language barrier. A lot of the music contained on this compilation has never left Japan. Many of the records were pressed in small numbers, never exported and almost none of these artists ever played outside Japan. It has remained largely unknown outside a very small group of die hard collectors.”

Jazz music arrived in Japan in the 1920s and its dances became popular social occasions, but with the rise of the military and a move towards fascism the music was outlawed, viewed by those who came to power as being too American and polluting the culture and identity of Japan. When the war started, jazz effectively disappeared. By 1940 all dance halls had closed and some associated instruments viewed as Western were renamed, like the saxophone which became kinzuoku seihin magari shakuhachi (roughly translated as “bent metallic flute”).

“After the war, Japan was occupied for about ten years by American troops,” explains Higgins. “And a bit like in Germany and Austria, where the Allies used jazz as part of a strategy of de-Nazification, it was also used in Japan to counter the fascist, isolationist sentiments of the previous two decades.”

First Flight

“During the war bebop had developed in America. So, when black musicians who were also servicemen brought that to Japan it blew the minds of the Japanese. But there was this crushing sense of inferiority; they’d just lost the war, the Emperor had been proven to not be divine, the Atomic bomb had been dropped on them. It was a massive psychological shock. In the context of that backdrop, Japanese jazz musicians were faced with the arrival of this new music which had a delivery and skill they’d never previously known. They felt an urgency to catch up.”

Japanese jazz players did catch up. And quickly. Playing to segregated bases, their versatility would be put to the test as they catered on differing nights to either white or black audiences. Jazz embarked on a huge revival in Japan and in the 1950s and 1960s the likes of Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis would tour there. Initially slow to recover economically from the war, the imported sounds of such musicians were not within the fiscal reach of many Japanese fans and so the jazz kissa bars were born. Their owners were often devotees of certain American artists, bars commonly being named after them or their recordings. Within their walls, all of the latest American sounds would be available to hear, their record collections an investment ensuring the venue’s popularity.

“The one that most people know and that many will mention is called Basie, up in the middle of the northern part of the Honshu island,” says Arneill. “It’s somewhat become the stuff of legend; still run by the original owner, a very colorful character, very slick, wears a lot of jewellery and sunglasses indoors. A very cool guy. He’s met a lot of very famous jazz musicians through the years and he still holds court there every day. The soundsystem in there is particularly great.”

"Swifty" Sugawara at his cafe Basie. Photo by P. Arneill.

“Swifty” Sugawara at his cafe Basie. Photo by P. Arneill.

 

The popularity of American jazz in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, bolstered by kissa bars and the tours of visiting artists, is still evident within some of the documentation by the Tokyo Jazz Joints project. This adoration however proved stifling to Japan’s ability to find its own voice within the music.

“Japanese musicians saw Black jazz musicianship as the touchstone of what they should try to attain,” says Higgins. “But, of course, they could never be Black. They copied the fashions, some even went so far as to take on the drug habits of these musicians. Drugs in Japan were virtually unknown, yet some Japanese players became heroin addicts because they thought it was key to emulating the Americans.”

Higgins identifies classically trained pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, who was discovered by Oscar Peterson when Peterson was on tour in Japan, and Sadao Watanabe, the saxophonist/flautist from Akiyoshi’s band as key players in the country finding an original sound in jazz. Both went to study at Berklee School of Music in the U.S. and demonstrated to the next generation of Japanese musicians that a new and distinct voice was possible.

“Their first records would show elements of hard bop, funky jazz, but they were starting to use Fender Rhodes electric piano. They were starting to stretch out,” says Higgins of this next generation of Japanese musicians such as Terumasa Hino and Masbumi Kikuchi. “Elements of freeform, less structured, some of it was almost psychedelic. Impressionistic music. Like in Europe and America, jazz in Japan wasn’t hermetically sealed, so the influence of other music, like rock, started to seep in. By the late ’60s they’d started to make some pretty far-out music. And that’s where our compilation really starts.”

BBE’s J Jazz compilation offers an odyssey through such varied, progressive and sometimes experimental post-Coltrane sounds, from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. Though much of it will be new to the ears of even jazz aficionados, it is incredibly rewarding, accessible and distinct.

“The sociological context of jazz in America just didn’t exist in Japan,” says Higgins. “You could never have that political frisson, that charge, that undertow, that weight that’s always there in American jazz. It can’t exist. It’s unique to the Black American experience. Japanese jazz has a different soul to American jazz.”

 

The tell-tale signs of Otaku run throughout these selected recordings from the highly considered writing, through the studied, expert musicianship and the faultless engineering and production. The mastering and pressing of the original albums they are taken from are pristine. But what, if not the Black American experience, is the backdrop or soul of the music found herein?

“It’s an interesting question,” ponders Higgins. “Possibly a desire to exert one’s individuality while remaining part of the group dynamic? Several years ago I interviewed the American bass player Gary Peacock. He lived and worked in Japan for several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, moving there ostensibly to study macrobiotic cooking and meditation. But, of course, he ended up playing there. He told me that he hadn’t realized that at that time the notion of individuality in Japan was relatively alien. There was an amazing album called The Individualism of Gil Evans and he told me a story where he had to explain to Japanese musicians what was meant by individualism. Part of their culture was about maintaining the harmony of the group, not being an outsider. It’s different now, of course, but back then it wasn’t a fully formed idea. With that in mind, the music of the late ’60s to late ’70s, saw a lot of musicians trying to break away from that group mentality, that stifling of individuality, yet still remain within a coherent whole. They were trying to redefine the balance.”

Those musical efforts, like the dedication of the jazz kissa bar owners, can now be discovered by a new audience far from the restricted locales they have inhabited for the last half decade. In combination, Arneill’s photographs and the J Jazz compilation justly set center stage an exciting and undiscovered soundtrack to a beautiful, disappearing backdrop. Not before time.

J Jazz is out now on BBE Records, and the Tohru Aizawa Quartet LP Tachibana, which contains “Dead Letter,” among other killers, will be reissued by BBE this summer.

05/30/18 Tracks

Pat Van Dyke drops warm jazz vibes with new LP, Hello, Summer

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HelloSummer_PVD_12_Cover-new

Drummer/composer/producer Pat Van Dyke drops his single “Lotus,” the first from the upcoming album entitled Hello, Summer—a funky, upbeat, and cheerful jazz record that hits the spot for heavy summer rotation.

Written, performed, and produced entirely by PVD, “Lotus” features soloists Zac Colwell (tenor saxophone) and Jesse Fischer (Fender Rhodes) over the foundation laid by Pat’s guitar, keys, bass, and percussion work. The veteran K-Def mastered the record.  

“Lotus” hits digital and streaming platforms this Friday, June 1, and the album kicks off the summer season with a Jun 22 release on vinyl and digital (Cotter Records / Stereo Vision Recordings). 

Pre-order the “clear pool blue” vinyl via Fat Beats here.

05/16/18 Articles

Pianist Ahmad Jamal charted a new popularity for jazz

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In 1958, a small, dignified, Pittsburgh-born pianist, composer, and bandleader named Ahmad Jamal recorded a show tune entitled “Poinciana” at a hip, Black-owned venue called the Pershing Lounge in Chicago’s South Side. His elegant, Errol Garner–style pianisms, buoyed by drummer Vernel Fournier’s second-line syncopations and the rich, rock-steady bass lines of ex–Benny Goodman sideman Israel Crosby, transformed that song into something rare for the jazz world—a hit record. With the release of “Poinciana” as a single, and on the million-selling LP, Ahmad Jamal Trio at the Pershing: But Not for Me, Jamal emerged as major force in jazz, or as he prefers to call it, “American classical music,” and has been so for five decades.

Jamal is a true scientist of sound: his use of space and dynamics, along with his tight, intricate arrangements, were a big influence on generations of pianists from Ramsey Lewis to Jacky Terrasson. In his autobiography, Miles Davis declared that Jamal “knocked me out with his concept of space, his lightness of touch, his understatement, and the way he phrases notes and chords and passages.”1 Davis was so enamored by Jamal’s conceptions that he recorded various compositions from the pianist’s repertoire, including “A Gal in Calico” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Davis and arranger Gil Evans even transcribed Jamal’s “New Rhumba,” a track from his 1955 LP Chamber Music of the New Jazz, note for note on their big band album, Miles Ahead. 

Born on July 2, 1930, Jamal started playing piano at the age of three. He was heavily schooled in the European and American classics, and was working professionally at the age of fourteen when the jazz piano giant Art Tatum declared him “a coming great.”2 He left home with bandleader George Hudson after graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1948, and has recorded and performed in a myriad of settings, ranging from big band, choral, symphonic, to small ensembles, executing a number of styles, from straightahead and Latin to fusion and funk. He released over seventy records, and several of his songs have been sampled on hip-hop tracks: “Swahililand” (“Stakes Is High,” J Dilla and De La Soul), “Pastures” (“Feelin’ It,” Jay-Z), “I Love Music,” (“The World Is Yours,” Nas), and “Poinciana” (“Stop Frontin’,” KRS-One).

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Jamal’s release of “Poinciana.” In this interview, conducted by phone in Paris, and from his home in Connecticut, Jamal unveils the story behind “Poinciana,” his early struggles in Chicago, and how his artistry lives on in the twenty-first century.

 

What brought you to Chicago in the early ’50s? 

I came to Chicago in 1948 because of my girlfriend at the time. I couldn’t work because there was a [union] restriction. I could work, but only at a different place every night, because there was a six-month period when you go from one union to the other. I was caught doing a job I wasn’t supposed to be on, and I was told, “I don’t think you’ll ever get in this union as long as I’m president,” by Harry Gray. [laughs]

How did you straighten it out?

Well, it was straightened out because the musicians started wanting me to work with them. I don’t remember the name right now, [but] there was a great tenor saxophone player. He said, “I want to have this man on a regular basis in my band.” So Harry Gray relented, and I became a member of the union. And later on, he helped me buy my first house! He helped me get a loan from the credit union. So man cannot play God, Mr. Holley!

What else did you do to make ends meet?

I got me a job making kitchen cabinets for eighty cents an hour. That’s one of the ways I survived. I was [also] playing [solo]. I was working all over the place with various groups. Then I got a job as a maintenance man on the sixteenth floor of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building for thirty dollars a week, cleaning up the busiest revolving doors in the world—cleaning up the snow at Monroe and State Street. I worked Jimmy’s Palm Garden [solo]. Ike Davis, the legendary drummer, used to come in and sit in with me. And Nevin Wilson, a bassist that I liked very much, came and sat in with me.

It was during this period that you met two musicians who would change your life: Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby. 

Vernel was from New Orleans, one of the great musical towns in the world, like my town, Pittsburgh. He had that wonderful New Orleans [Creole] mixture, which speaks to this ridiculous concept of ethnicity that we have. They say “races.” There’s no such thing as “races.” There’s only one race—the human race. And one of the proofs is the wonderful, wonderful mixture you have, complexion-wise, coming out of New Orleans. I was Israel’s pianist at Jack’s Back Door: a marvelous guy, a wonderful musician, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked my work—like a lot of people did—and, thank God, they did, because that’s how I survived. He hired me as his pianist, and I stayed at Jack’s Back Door with him and [saxophonist] Johnny Thompson for I don’t know how long.

Isn’t it true that you started working at the Pershing as far back as 1952?

I was able to get in there one night. They didn’t want to hire me. But I begged [manager] Sonny Boswell to let me work there. I think he paid me fifty-one, fifty-two dollars for one night [laughs]. But I had to go to Harry’s Show Lounge. I was working in the back room there. And then I ran into Miller Brown and Grant Smith, who bought the Pershing, and they gladly hired me. But that was after I left New York and decided to come back to Chicago. 

The record producer/impresario John Hammond signed you to the Okeh label around 1951 and brought you to New York for an ill-fated Manhattan engagement at the Embers. 

The Embers was a noisy club. You’re an intermission group; you’re not the headliner. People are not paying you any attention. They want requests, and some drunken bum comes up and spills a drink on the piano keys, and his red wine is flowing all over the white keys. So that was it for me. I jumped up, got in my car with Israel Crosby, and we drove all the way back to Chicago. 

So you come back to Chicago from New York for an extended period at the Pershing. What was the club like? 

It was located on Sixty-fourth and Cottage Grove Avenue. And it drew everyone from Lena Horne and Billie Holiday, with her Chihuahua dog, to Sammy Davis Jr.—he was in the Pershing the night before he lost his eye in Las Vegas in that car accident. Everyone came to the Pershing.

 

Jamal LP - Pershing

 

The classic Ahmad Jamal sound emerged during your long association at the Pershing. What were your musical influences during that crucial period of your development?

I had my Pittsburgh influences. I grew up with all sorts of orchestras playing in venues all around the surrounding area. I worked with [pianist/saxophonist] Carl Arter, one of the prominent musicians around Pittsburgh, and Joe Westray hired me. He was one the more successful bandleaders. I was playing at ten years old with people like Honeyboy Minor, a legendary drummer who had all of the best jobs. My aunt sent me a lot of music from Wilson, North Carolina. So I had a vast repertoire. When I was eleven years old, I could play with guys sixty years old. I was making more money in the eleventh grade than my father was making in the steel mill!

So you were a child prodigy.

Well, whatever you want to call it. I studied Art Tatum, Bach, Beethoven, Count Basie, John Kirby, and Nat Cole. I was studying Liszt. I had to know European and American classical music. My mother was rich in spirit, and she led me to another rich person: my teacher, Mary Cardwell Dawson, who started the first and only Afro-American opera company in the country. That’s were I met violinist Joe Kennedy, one of the great masters of all time. She put Afro-Americans in the Metropolitan Opera. And she surrounded herself with all ethnicities. She worked out of the New England Conservatory of Music. She was a unique person: always dressed to the max. You could hear her heels coming down that stairway. If you didn’t have your lessons ready, you were in trouble. [laughs] She was wonderful. And I went to another teacher, [pianist] James Miller: a wonderful man and an exponent of Liszt.

So now you’ve established the Jamal sound. But before you recorded your monumental record with Crosby and Fournier, you were part of an influential, drumless trio called the Three Strings with guitarist Ray Crawford.

The group was a carryover from the Four Strings with violinist Joe Kennedy. I joined his group. And after he decided to go back home [to Pittsburgh], it became the Three Strings: Ray Crawford, [bassist] Tommy Sewell, and myself. So we had string instruments only. Ray Crawford started playing the percussive effects on the frets of his guitar. And everyone adopted that, [including] Oscar Peterson’s group, with [guitarists] Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. Many, many people emulated Ray Crawford. He was replaced, because he stayed in New York when it didn’t happen [for me] in the Embers. He didn’t come back to Chicago, and that’s why I added drums.

Talk about some of the people who helped make At the Pershing in 1958, starting with Leonard Chess. Who decided that it was a good idea to record there?

I decided! I told Leonard I want to do a recording on location at the Pershing. Leonard was always cooperative when it came to whatever I wanted to do musically; he never interfered, so he said okay. He sent a two-track machine out there with [engineer] Mal Chisholm—one of the spectacular, great engineers at that time—and that was it. Four nights and forty-three tracks later, here comes At the Pershing!

What about disc jockey, Soul Train producer, and voice-over artist Sid McCoy?

Sid McCoy was instrumental in encouraging that session. He was very prominent in Chicago. He had one of the very, very important shows in Chicago. Great speaking voice—he had a manner about him and was a nice man.

I want you to set the record straight: in Len Lyons’s book, The Great Jazz Pianists, which also features you, Sun Ra claims that he worked downstairs in the Pershing when you were there and implied that you were influenced by some of his concepts.

He had nothing do with my career. I had nothing to do with his. Nothing! We never worked together, and never socialized, and never interacted musically. He was on another planet. And I was another level!

When did you first hear “Poinciana”? 

 I was introduced to “Poinciana” by way of Joe Kennedy [in the late ’40s]. That song was a part of his repertoire [with the Four Strings]. Joe Kennedy was a master at composition, a master at playing the violin, a master of orchestration, and so many things. So he introduced me to a different type of repertoire. 

Your first recording of “Poinciana” was made in 1955 and reissued on The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings. 

We did the [LP] version with Ray Crawford, Israel, and myself. It was one of my favorite recordings—gorgeous! It was so pure and so elegant and great to listen to. 

The song, by Buddy Bernier and Nat Simon, was originally from a Broadway show.

Yes, I don’t know too much about “Song of the Tree,” better known as “Poinciana.” It was a hit, of course, but we revived it. I don’t think anything was ever as big as “Poinciana” was on 628 [the original label number of Ahmad Jamal Trio Live at the Pershing] turned out to be. And so many people tried to cover that and tried to emulate that. When we developed “Poinciana,” we developed it chorus after chorus, until it got to the point where I said, “We got to record this.” 

 

Jamal LP - Poinciana

 

The biggest change from the epic, drumless trio rendition of “Poinciana” to the Pershing version was, of course, Vernel Fournier. Talk about how he anchored you and Mr. Crosby and created the “Poinciana” that made you into an international star. 

It was a combination of things: Israel Crosby’s lines, what I was playing, and Vernel—if you listen to his work on “Poinciana,” you’d think it was two drummers! [laughs] He was so multidimensional: a master of brushes, master of content, master of metronomic time, and feeling. All of those elements from all three of us made that recording. [The song] was seven minutes and some seconds long. There are five different choruses, and each chorus is an entity into itself: a statement that builds and builds and builds. Each chorus became a stepping-stone to something higher. And when we got to the fourth chorus, [laughs] that was it! We had a hit on our hands! 

The album stayed on the Cash Box and Billboard charts for 108 weeks. How did it change your life?

You mean, how is it still changing? [laughs] It’s still changing, Eugene! It never stopped because of that. I’m sitting on the phone with you, talking from Paris, and you’re in Delaware, so I’m all over the place because of that record.

Yes, but at least financially your life changed?

Well, life has many challenges than it did before. Success has to be measured on all levels. And if you’re not content, you’re not successful. Just because you got fame and money coming in, [it] doesn’t make you successful. The successful person has peace of mind. And if you don’t have peace of mind, the money can be a very difficult thing to handle, let me put it that way.

Was it difficult for you at first?

It’s difficult for all Afro-Americans who have ever been exposed to financial gain. Look at Joe Louis; what happened to him? He was very successful, wasn’t he? He worked for the government and ended up owing the government taxes. And I don’t know if they relented or what—the rumor is that Frank Sinatra bailed him out. Maybe I’m just talking nonsense. But Joe Louis had all kinds of people come along and tell him to invest in this, and invest in that. So most of us in the Afro-American community weren’t educated as to the whys and wherefores of how to handle money, and, in many instances, that’s still true.

After At the Pershing, you did something that most Black people at that time didn’t do: in 1959, you went to Egypt and the Sudan. There was a New York Times report of your trip.

Oh, I’ve been planning the trip since I was eleven years old. I always had some great, philosophical dreams of going to Africa, because I knew that’s the background of our folks here in the United States. So I was planning this way before the Pershing [LP]. What the Pershing did was implement that [trip].

Who told you about Africa at eleven years old? That’s extraordinary.

I was always thinking. I was always an introvert—always a loner and a thinker at that time, and music made me more introspective. And I thought of faraway places. My faraway dream was to go to Africa, and I accomplished that by way of my recording. I broke Count Basie’s record at the Blue Note in Chicago. Frank Holzfeind was going under, and I saved his club. Frank gave me an extra five hundred dollars to enjoy my trip to [Africa], and there I went. The ex-minister of the interior of the Sudan hosted me, and Dr. Mahmoud Shawarbi was my host in Egypt. I didn’t play a note, and that what was so surprising to the New York Times reporter, because I didn’t go there to play piano. I spoke at Al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.

Another benefit of your “Poinciana” success was your own South Side restaurant, the Alhambra, which opened for a few months in 1961.

The Alhambra was a very nightmarish venture, encouraged by a lot of people around me. It was conceived as a place for me to work whenever I wanted to. But it didn’t work out that way. And I hired the wonderful bass player, Ahmed Abdul-Malik in my absence. I had forty-three employees. I didn’t need a restaurant. Who needs a restaurant if you’re a musician? So I left Chicago, moved to New York, and have been here ever since.

Here’s another attempt to set the record straight. Your club did not serve alcohol, and there were rumors that you were forced to close the club by gangsters.

Oh no, no, nothing like that at all. That’s what people want to hear. But I had no constraints. To the contrary, I was more dictatorial than anyone else. I closed it myself, because I didn’t need a restaurant. And the headache that goes with the restaurant. I had a big house at 4900 Greenwood that time—sixteen rooms, six baths. I didn’t need that either. The only major, major conflict at that time was my divorce, so I moved to New York.

After you moved to New York, you thought about retiring to study at Julliard. But you eventually formed a new trio with drummer Frank Gant and bassist Jamil Nasser.

Before I put that trio together, I had Papa Joe Jones, who used to be with the legendary Count Basie, and a bassist from my hometown, Wyatt Ruther, with me at the Embers. That was the first job I took, coming out of semiretirement. Jamil and Gant had a reputation long before they joined me, so I hired them based on their backgrounds as great musicians. They stayed with me for ten years. 

At various stages of your career, you’ve specifically hired drummers from New Orleans.

I had four drummers from Louisiana: Vernel Fournier, Idris Muhammad, Herlin Riley, and James Johnson, from Shreveport, by way of Pittsburgh. Idris is one of the great, great legends out of New Orleans, drumwise. He’s really a sensational musician, and he has more [stuff] on the Internet than I do! 

I want to talk about something I’ve seen every time you play live. Please decode for me your mysterious hand signals.

I’m conducting. [laughs] My finger pointed to the top means I’m going to the top of the composition. When I cross my wrist, that means either I’m going to the bridge, or I’m going to cut the time. And sometimes I do verbal cues. I don’t always confine myself to hand signals.

 

 

You recorded some great LPs in the ’60s and ’70s with your new trio: Extensions, The Awakening, and one of my all-time favorites, Outertimeinnerspace.

I knew you were going to mention that. That was done in Montreux. The interesting thing about that [LP] was that the Fender Rhodes was broken; it was only working on one side of the speakers. So it’s an interesting record, because the Fender Rhodes was giving half of what it was supposed to. [laughs] It was an “electronic malfunction.”

Fifty years after “Poinciana,” you still take songs, put the Jamal touch on them, and make them your own, like on your new CD, It’s Magic, a collection of original compositions and selections from motion picture soundtracks.

It’s the strongest thing I’ve done since At the Pershing! Most of the time, I’m not entirely pleased with everything. But this is a special, special gift from the Creator. It was produced with the same formula I used for 628. I used the same editing formula. I recorded for four days in Strasbourg, and I only chose nine tracks. So, history repeats itself!

 

Eugene Holley Jr. is a Delaware-based journalist. His work has appeared in many publications, including Down Beat, JazzTimes, Hispanic, The New York Times Book Review, Philadelphia Weekly, Vibe, and The Village Voice.

 

Notes

1. Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, Miles, the Autobiography (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1990) 178. 
2. Eugene Holley Jr., “Ahmad Jamal: A Lasting Impression,” American Visions, (October/November 1994) 47.