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With drummer Tony Jefferson and pianist Daniel Kelly
Blind Visionaries: The Seeing with Photography Collective & Daniel Kelly Trio
A unique multimedia event. See and hear art in a whole new way through the lens of blind photographers and live music inspired by their stunning and thought provoking images.
In spring of 2009, journalist Ludwig van Trikt conducted the most extensive interview with me that I'd ever done for the magazine, Cadence. We did it in writing over a period of a few months and I'm including it here in its exhaustive entirety. It will be a brave reader indeed who makes it through to the end, but it's a pretty fair overview of where I'm coming from. Enjoy:
Cadence: You mentioned to me that you are in the process of re-evaluating your musical career. So let's start with you describing your musical and non-musical beginning?
I was born in New York City on Oct. 4, 1960 into a “show business” family. My father had been an actor, director and stage manager on and off Broadway as well as all around the country. By the time I came along, he was more into the management end of the profession and was associated with almost 200 Broadway shows. He was a great man and a true gentleman, may he rest ever in peace. My mother was an actress and singer.
The arts were important in our house; going to the theatre of course, but I also remember going to the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic which were presented by the great Leonard Bernstein. He became something of an acquaintance, even a colleague, of my parents and I remain in awe of him, his musicality, generosity, versatility and humanity, to this day.
While my parents were not strictly speaking jazz afficionados, they made sure that I and my brother and sisters knew who Duke Ellington was, who Louis Armstrong was and so on. My mom, being a singer, knew all the songs and standards from the era when they were popular music so if I heard something on the radio she could tell me about Ella Fitzgerald or Anita O’Day or Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughn.
I started playing the piano at the age of about three, just picking out things I heard, making things up and playing on all the black keys (the pentatonic scale which sounds especially pretty to a three year old). I studied instruments all the time growing up; piano, clarinet, flute, guitar before discovering bass at the age of about 14. I didn’t get serious about bass until about 18 - for one thing, you have to be big enough to play it - but right away I felt at home on the instrument. Just one of those mystical things that can’t really be explained.
Two events stick in my mind from this early period: the first was when I went to hear a concert where the great Milt Hinton was playing bass. At the end of the set, he came right over to where I was sitting - a clueless 14 year old kid, mind you, and began talking to me about jazz, music, who I was, what I was hearing, what he was playing. He just knew. It made an indelible impression on me and knowing him was definitely one of the great gifts of my life. (As an aside, years later when I was living in Dublin, Ireland, there was a horrible fire in a disco and about two dozen young people were killed. The story was big enough that it made the news over in the U.S. All Milt heard was “Ireland” and “young people” and he picked up the phone, called my parents’ house to make sure that I was alright. Such a beautiful man. There was no such thing as race, age or attitude with him. Something to aspire to in music and in life).
The second was when I heard the Irish traditional group, The Cheiftains, in what might have been their first real concert tour of America in about 1972. The purity and power of the music was irresitable and it too opened a door that was only waiting for me to open it.
Cadence: Let's trace your early beginnings on the bass (both formal and non-formal)?
Because of its size, bass is an instrument that you can't start too young. I played other instruments growing up: piano, clarinet, flute, guitar. In fact, I was quite serious about classical guitar for a few years in my teens. I think I can trace some of my right hand technique on bass back to my studies of classical guitar. For example, I still use three fingers to play pizzicato (two is more the norm). Other players who used three fingers are Cecil McBee and the late, great Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, both players who I much admired when I was learning to play.
Bass is not an instrument a lot of people are drawn to play - not one of the "glamor" instruments, if you will. I think one really has to have a strong calling to it. One of the things that Milt Hinton told me that I've never forgotten and think about often is that the bassist's job is "to make everybody else sound good". This and other profound comments he laid on me from time to time are the reason I got started off on the right path. Milt really taught me what music, jazz and life are supposed to be about. Just hearing him play and seeing the way he comported himself around other musicians, the respect and love he gave and received, made a deep impression on me and was the most valuable instruction.
At my high school there was a bass in the music room (this was back in the days when there were actually music programs and instruments in schools), that I was mysteriously drawn to and started fooling around with. This would have been prior to my meeting Milt. One other thing about bass is that since not many are drawn to it, if you do want to play it, people are happy to let you. This led to me playing in shows and performances in and around school. I was playing guitar and bass in different bands, one of which was sort of a Santana cover band and was a lot of fun. Just a thought: I was something of an athlete in those days. In baseball, I played catcher, in football I played center, in soccer (football) I played midfield and fullback, what was called "last man". I've often wondered if I just have what could be called a "bass mentality".
Cadence: Obviously Milt Hinton figures prominently in your growth as an artist.Let's put this into it's full context including any actual studies you had with him.
I didn't study with Milt "formally" in that I didn't meet him at a certain time every week for a lesson or follow a progressive course of study. I would call him up, he would invite me out to his house or to a studio he kept in midtown with Clark Terry and Seldon Powell, I would ask him what was on my mind or ask him to show me something and he would give me enough to inspire me and puzzle over until the next time. One of the first things he took me through was "All the Things You Are", telling me that it was an important and sophisticated tune as it goes through several keys and that all the jazz greats had played it and continued to play it. I went to hear him about a week later with guitarist Jimmy Raney and they played it just for me which was quite a thrill for a musician as young as I was at the time. He would invite me to recording sessions under the pretext of helping him carry his bass or some such, but I think it was really because he liked me, thought I had some talent and saw how keen I was to learn.
As time passed and I began to make my way, I would occasionally play for him or play him recordings I had been on. Even though they were stylistically quite different from what he did, he was unfailingly supportive and encouraging, making wise comments and offering helpful criticism. He said that I had a gift for composition and that I should develop it - a gift he felt he did not have. It was a poignant day indeed when he told me that there was nothing more he could teach me, that I had everything I needed to go as far as I wanted to and that I could call him anytime.
Keep in mind that he was a black man in his 70's originally from Mississippi and that I was a young white kid barely 20 who had grown up in New York City. It made no difference to him. I don't mean to imply that I was unique: I know there are many people of all ages, races and instruments who would tell a similar tale of how Milt Hinton touched and changed their lives and careers. He was a very special man. When he passed on, back in late 2000, the memorial was held at Riverside Church and there were literally thousands of people there including a who's who of Jazz from its earliest days up to the present.
Cadence: The cellist Tomas Ulrich recently expressed to me his dis-satisfaction with the bow technique of most Jazz players he tied it in to a lack of education in that area. Where did you learn your own bow agility?
I've had a fair bit of classical training and experience. I moved to Ireland at the age of 18 and I began studying with a young guy named David Daly who, though only about 18 himself, was already playing in the Symphony Orchestra there. He was (and is) a tremendously gifted player who was very good at teaching by example. My bow technique at the time was quite primitive but he really got me up and running. After a time, I was playing with him in orchestras and gaining valuable experience. David has been the principal bassist in the Bournemouth Symphony in the South of England for about 35 years now.
He began studying with a bassist named Thomas Martin who was an American who had moved to London to be the principal bassist for the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's great Orchestras. I followed David's lead and began studying with him as well. I would take the night ferry from Dublin to Wales and then the train to London, arriving at his place at about 9 in the morning. I'd take a lesson and then hang out in London all day until it was time to catch the late afternoon train back the other way, arriving back in Dublin about 36 hours after I'd left. It was exhausting, but I learned a lot.
I graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a Bachelor of Music degree with a speciality in performance (also with a philosophy degree, but that's another story). Back in New York, I auditioned for the Juilliard School and was accepted into the Masters program. I studied there with Homer Mensch who played with The New York Philharmonic for many years and who played on thousands of recordings, sort of a classical version of Milt Hnton; In fact they knew and respected each other and often appeared on the same record date. Each was glad to hear that I was learning from the other. Homer was one of the great bass teachers of the modern era who could break down any technical issue so as to analyse, improve or solve it. His bow technique was second to none and he really made me get serious about playing bass in general and playing it with the bow in particular. In fact, many years later I was playing at a folk festival and one of the stage crew asked me if I had been a student of Homer Mensch. It turned out that his brother had studied with Homer at one time and he could tell that I had, too, by my bow technique!
There are more and more jazz string players with sound and even prodigious bow techniques. Violinist Mark Feldman is in a class by himself, one of the truly great musicians of this era on any instrument. Violinist Rob Thomas is also brilliant as is cellist Erik Friedlander. I recently played on a recording that included violinists Todd Reynolds and Christian Howes, violist Caleb Burhans and cellist Wendy Sutter all of whom could not only play anything put in front of them but are also first rate improvisers. As bassists, our biggest role model coming into the modern jazz era was probably Paul Chambers who soloed frequently with the bow on a number of high profile recordings. It takes practice to really phrase fluently with the bow in a swinging or jazz idiom. Miroslav Vitous is a true virtuoso who has shown how that is possible in modern, improvised music. I've often felt that the key is to think more like a lower horn player than like a string instrument player. If one tries to transfer orchestral bass technique into a jazz setting, it is often not a good fit: a bit like showing up on a construction site wearing dress shoes. I try to emulate trombone players or baritone saxophonists when playing in this area which is what I think Paul Chambers did as well.
Cadence: Based on the formal Classical studies which you completed, it sounds like you could have had a promising Classical career? Why did you choose Jazz instead?
Well, I don't know how promising it would have been, but it did cross my mind. One reason I continued my studies at Juilliard was to see if I really could move in that world, if it really appealed to me and if I really had what it took to be in an orchestra, for example. While I learned many things there and definitely played better when I left than I did when I arrived, I decided that it was not for me. I decided that I was better at jazz and improvisational music in general and the whole prospect of auditioning for orchestras (which is what's in store for a bassist studying at a conservatory, different than for a violinist, cellist or pianist) didn't much appeal to me.
I would play a concert at Lincoln Center and then do a late gig or maybe go to a session and just feel much more at home and more comfortable. It might be accurate to say that jazz chose me. Don't get me wrong, I have huge respect for my classical colleagues and I think many people don't realize the extent of the skills possessed by even an average classical musician, let alone a virtuoso. As my career has progressed I have acquired something of the reputation of "the jazz guy who can read and play with the bow", and that has led to some interesting musical situations that I have been glad to be a part of.
Cadence: Please talk about when you first emerged on the New York City Jazz scene?
I returned to New York from four years spent living in Ireland in the summer of 1982, I was 21. Like a lot of musicians of my generation, I had the notion and the hope that I would get to meet and play with some of the great older masters, many of whom were still alive and active at the time. While I was in Ireland, I had played a lot of what would be termed "mainstream" jazz with some great musicians who were older than myself. I had also gotten into more free jazz as well as what I guess you could term ECM type music and had met and played with some European musicians my own age and experience level (many of whom I still am in touch with today). This was just before the dawning of what I call the "Jazz Culture Wars", when players began having to declare their allegiance to "The Tradition" or to "The Avant-Garde" or to "Something Else"; an attitude that I didn't understand then and still don't.
I came back to New York partly because it is my hometown and ostensibly to study at Juilliard, but I was as reasonably sure as a clueless 21 year old could be that Jazz was where my heart and true talents lay. I believed a lot of the jazz history and mythology about the whole master/apprentice thing and I remember really wanting to play with Elvin Jones, for example. That seemed the ideal gig for a young bassist though it never did happen for me. ( I did get to meet him however and that was a thrill in itself). It took me a while to realize that that whole era was coming to an end. As I see it, the Marsalis brothers, who are about the same age as I am, really represent the tail end of that whole concept. The number of gigs for a young, white rhythm section player in the bands of the older masters were, while not non-existent, certainly thin on the ground. I began to play more with what could be termed my peers and people writing their own music, making their own bands and defining who they were and what they were about by playing the music of their own time with others who felt the same way.
I met drummer Bobby Previte on some silly gig backing a singer. We immediately hit it off both personally and musically and I began playing with him and some of the people he was playing with: John Zorn, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, Herb Robertson, Wayne Horvitz, Joey Baron, Marty Ehrlich and so on. Through Marty, I met Muhal Richard Abrams and ultimately went on tour with him in Europe in a great quartet that included drummer Reggie Nicholson (one of my true musical soulmates) and saxophonist Greg Osby. That band was never recorded as far as I know, but it remains a special memory for me. I also met pianist Neal Kirkwood who was and still is one of the freshest, most inspiring musicians I've ever heard and who is almost criminally under-rated. The whole Knitting Factory scene (the first one, the real one) started up around 1987 and it became a real focus for a lot of this fresh, new music: electric, acoustic, black, white, other, jazz-related, rock-related, free, inside, outside, all mixed together. The "Downtown Scene", whatever it's been called, that's where I really found a first, musical home in the New York City Jazz scene.
Cadence: You mentioned that you are a contemporary of the Marsalis brothers ;thus I wondered if you could elaborate upon the way that they changed some aspects of the Jazz scene (both on the social & musical level)
This is a charged issue that much ink has been spilled over and while I'm slow to add fuel to the fire, it is a fascinating question. Wynton Marsalis was at Juilliard at the same time I was and we even played together a few times though at that time he was working on his classical records and was wary of hurting his classical chops. Even so, his power and prodigious talent were obvious. I think Wynton has served as something of a lightning rod for all kinds of opinions while Branford has always seemed more easy-going and open-minded. I think it is unfortunate that a mindset has developed where musicians have been divided into different camps; most of the musicians I have known don't think that way and are more interested in making music than in how that music is to be defined.
As I see it, I think Wynton's positive influence has been in getting the message across that Jazz is a serious art form and should be taken as seriously as any of the other serious art forms. I think the fact that Jazz at Lincoln Center even exists is an astonishing achievement. He also got the word out to other musicians that we should take ourselves and our art seriously and present it on as high a level as the great classical musicians in terms of preparation, concept and execution. I think that's what the suits and the high ideals are really about: it's just not cool to shamble onstage wearing any old thing and play some ill-conceived, poorly rehearsed excuse for a program, call it "jazz" and expect to be taken seriously. I think he has raised the consciousness of the listening public while raising the standards of musicians, and the education programs that he has initiated have done a great deal to combat the incredible ignorance about Jazz music in this country.
On the other hand, I find the dogmatism that has followed in his wake about what Jazz is or isn't to be bewildering at best and damaging at worst. While there is no doubt that Wynton and Branford Marsalis are Jazz musicians, the same is as undeniably true of Keith Jarrett, Anthony Braxton, Joe Chambers, Mark Turner, Bill Frisell and so on and on. (We can debate about Kenny G or "smooth Jazz" generally - which I, and I think most of its practitioners, think of more as "instrumental pop music" - but let's not go there right now). Just declaring that something is Jazz because it is "rooted in the Blues" or "references Pops, Duke and Pres" and something else isn't Jazz because it doesn't do those things, is nonsensical to me. Nobody I've ever met listens to Jazz because it is supposedly "America's Classical Music" or "America's only indigenous art form" (a very debatable view: what about gospel music, bluegrass music, country music, Broadway show tunes, tap dancing to name just the first few that come to mind?). They listen to it because it makes them think, laugh, cry, dance, sing, feel good, because it has meaning in their lives.
I have no problem with musicians answering the question, "what kind of jazz do you play?" by saying "free" or "fusion" or "straight-ahead" or "contemporary acoustic" or "latin jazz" or any combination of these and more. I do have a problem with writers and "tastemakers" decreeing from the sidelines that this music here is worthy because it adheres to these sacred principles and that that music there is unworthy because it doesn't. I think one thing that has really changed in the past quarter century is that the music has become so broad, so truly international and genre-encompassing that the days when jazz was one very definable, finite thing are well and truly gone. That is one reason why the old "apprentice system" where musicians would play in the band of an older master learning “what jazz is”, doesn't exist anymore.
Cadence: The trumpeter Scott Tinkler recently told me that he never had any talent for the publicity needed to be an improvising artist. I mention this because some of your early releases had no liner notes ("Never No More" on Open Minds #2401-2 from 1991 and "Mercy Angel" the 1994 session on Upshot #UP111) was that intentional on your part?
With the Open Minds release, I had no say in the matter though I was happy with the way that CD ended up looking and sounding. People still come up to me and ask about that recording and I have thought about re-releasing it myself as people do seem to dig it. It was a "one time only" conglomeration of Tim Berne, Marty Ehrlich, Reggie Nicholson, Herb Robertson and Gust Tsilis with Jerry O'Sullivan as a guest on the Irish bagpipes on one tune. I don't know what I would have said in liner notes, but it was a big deal to me at the time as it was my first recording under my own name.
Mercy Angel was a live recording of a set at the old Knitting Factory that was never intended to be a CD, but I thought the recording and music was so strong, that I decided to put it out. I was in something of a dark period at the time and while I thought about liner notes, I think I was in more of a "let the music speak for itself" type of space. I thought Neal Kirkwood, Erwin Vann and Jeff Williams played my music in an incredibly selfless manner and I probably would have said as much in any notes. We did another studio recording, "Believers", in Belgium in '95 or '96 after some hard but good touring and which has a poem by way of liner notes.
I think publicity or promotion is almost an art in itself and while I think I'm not great at it, I am taking it more seriously and I do think it is important. So few people are interested in our type of music to begin with, I think we need to give ourselves every chance to be heard and understood, to get our message across. Some folks seem to be naturally good at it or seem to grasp how best to do it, and I admire such people. At a certain point, I must admit that I find self-promotion to be a poor use of time at best and somewhat distasteful at worst, but I'm realizing that that is an attitude that I need to change. I was happy to have the chance to write some simple notes for "Don't Count On Glory" and Bob Rusch, the executive producer at Cadence who has always liked and understood my music, added some of his thoughts that were very insightful.
Cadence: The recording "Mercy Angel" (Upshot #UP111 ,1994) certainly shows your unselfishness has a leader. The first composition (your original Corless) featured what might be the highlight of the session. Erwin Vann's saxophone solo still stays in my memory.....Please comment?
That recording was a happy confluence of events and I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I had no outlet for it at the time so I put it out on my own imprint which is called Upshot. Corless was actually a two part piece, the first part being much faster and intense; that's the last chord of the tune that is heard to begin the record. It was a bit too long to include in its entirety which is why I decided to start the disc with the second part which is much more measured and even melancholy.
Erwin Vann is one of the finest men, saxophonists and musicians that I know. His playing is unique and his sound so beautiful that it is really in a class by itself. He is one of the main reasons that I moved to Belgium for two years at the end of the 90's so as to be able to play with him more and learn more about some of the musical scenes that he was a part of. I think that on that performance of Corless, he perfectly captured the mood of the piece which was inspired by the feeling one has when one exposes one's heart to the world come what may, so that that heart is no longer really one's own. That may not make much sense, but that's about all I can say about it
Cadence: So this cat is still playing his horn?
Erwin Vann is alive and well and living in Belgium and is indeed still playing his horn. In fact, I am in the early stages of putting together a new group that he will figure in prominently. I'm slow to say too much about it just yet, but all the people I have approached are well into doing it and I can hear the sound in my head, and that is as good a place to start as any.
Cadence: Getting back to Bob Rusch's liner notes for "Don't Count On Glory" (Cadence Jazz Records #CJR1188) he points out that he see's you being "quite apart (and of an aesthetic distinct) from the so-called typical Downtown Scene". I wondered if you think that so called scene is still artistically vibrant?
I think that that scene has shifted and changed as this music always has and always will. When people refer to the Downtown scene and aesthetic, I think they are talking of people like John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Elliot Sharp et al and music that they and others brought about from the late 70's to roughly the mid-90's as well as an informal network of clubs and performance spaces that fostered the music: spaces which have largely disappeared before the real estate onslaught that is early 21st century New York. It's an art focused on openness and combining influences that had not been combined before. Just for example, I remember a gig from 1984 that people still talk about at a funky loft space called Chandelier which was on 6th st. and Ave C , if my memory serves. The band was John Zorn, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, Bobby Previte and myself and the music was that of Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley. It was fresh and funny and swinging and out and I loved it.
Since I was fortunate enough to play with some of those guys, I was thought of to an extent as being a part of that scene. I don't consider myself anywhere near the conceptualist of a John Zorn (who I think is a genius), and I've been told that I have a penchant for melody which was somewhat unusual in that scene and that may be what Bob was referring to in his elegant notes to "Don't Count on Glory". I think a lot of the more interesting music coming out of New York and by extension, many other places, still has its roots in that aesthetic; Dave Douglas, Brad Shepik, Ben Allison, Brandon Ross, Cuong Vu and so on - and of course Zorn, Frisell, Previte, Berne, Sharp, are all still out here breaking new ground every gig.
Cadence:One of the pivotal gigs which also put you on the map was your work with Myra Melford.Let's talk about her music and your work with her?
Myra Melford was indeed a key person. I actually had never met Myra before she was chosen to play for the first Knitting Factory tour of Europe in April of 1990. This was a very ambitious tour where Michael Dorff and Bob Appel picked three "rock" bands and three "jazz" bands to represent to the world what The Knitting Factory was about. Curlew and The Jazz Passengers were the other "jazz" bands. I put the words in quotes because these terms were already being seen as relative; the point was that what was being done at The Knitting Factory at the time was new and innovative.
Anyway, Myra called me and asked me to play with her. I'm still not sure who recommended me - maybe Marty Ehrlich? - I think we did one gig with Pheroan Ak Laff and then Reggie Nicholson came in which was great because we had played together with Muhal Richard Abrams and we really played well together. Myra was and is a special talent whose music is very unique and personal. At this time however, she was very new at playing in a band; in fact, I don't think she had ever been in a band before, let alone led one. She had about five tunes, not quite enough for one set so we filled out the set with a couple of mine and I think even one of Reggie's. We made something of an impression on the tour and a German agent began booking us in Europe which led to quite a lot of touring over the next few years.
Myra was what you could call "a quick study". From having barely enough music for a set, within a year or two she had really come into her own as a composer and we began to get a real repertoire together. When people used to ask me to describe her playing, I would say "it's like a cross between Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor". Which is not terribly informative but I think she has a real melodic gift coupled with the ability to pummel the piano to within an inch of its life.
We did four CD's with this band (I think), of which my favorite is a live one on hatArt called "Alive in the House of Saints". We'd been doing a lot of playing - for which there really is no substitute for a jazz group - and had gotten to the heart of our group thing which was unique and beautiful. Myra has gone from strength to strength you might say, and while we haven't played together in quite some time especially since she relocated to the West Coast, I always try to go hear her and dig what she's into whenever she comes to New York.
Cadence: You recently made an observation in a national Jazz magazine that some cats are not prepared for the rigors of Broadway pit work, of which I gather you have done your share?
Broadway is a strange form of musical life. On the one hand it is one of the best-paying steady gigs a musician can have this side of a symphony orchestra. On the other hand, it can be beyond tedious to play the same music night after night after night after night... The joke I used to use was, "the good news is, this show is gonna run forever. The bad news is, this show is gonna run forever."
Back in the day when live music reigned supreme, there were so many gigs and so many great players that Broadway was thought of as the bottom of the barrel of musical employment in New York. Who would want to play the same thing over and over again when there were all these great live radio shows and TV shows and recording sessions and big bands and so on? That assessment has changed dramatically as live music work has disappeared year after year to the point where playing on a Broadway show is considered one of the most coveted of gigs. Playing a show may even entitle one to health insurance, something well beyond the reach of most working musicians in this great land of ours. (But I digress.)
I've played and subbed on a number of Broadway shows. For a 12 year period, roughly from 1986 to 1998, it was basically my "night gig", and the foremost way I was able to support my jazz habit. Through the efforts of the musician's union, the terms of employment are quite liberal for a Broadway musician. Basically, you only need to be there about half the time in any given quarter which means that if you need to do a three week tour of Europe for example, you can do it and then come back and sit right back down in the chair you left in the able hands of your subs and carry on. Any musician who finds those terms too onerous must be too busy to need the gig to begin with.
As this line of work became more attractive, I began to see some very fine and very well known players, both classical and jazz (and others) start to try to make their way into the pits on Broadway. I won't name any names, but some of these players seriously underestimated the skills required to do this work. Yes, it can be tedious, but there is also a professional standard, a level of craft if you will, in being able to perform at a consistently high level, show after show. Some of the skills that are of value on the jazz bandstand or in the symphony orchestra, don't necessarily translate to the Broadway pit - and vice versa, of course. I would say that generally speaking, Broadway is on the craft rather than the art end of our profession and not everyone is able to handle that, no matter how much they think they need or deserve the gig.
Cadence:Bob Dylan must figure prominently in your love of his music? after all you are playing with Jewels and Binoculars. Please delve into the history of that band and your playing of Dylan's music?
I consider Bob Dylan to be one of the most important artists of modern times and I think that history will judge him to be that as well. Allen Ginsberg once said something to the effect that every thinking person will go through at least one period in which they confront and consider Dylan and his art. For me, that's been going on for quite some time now. I had played versions of Dylan songs in various groups for years, and there has been precedent for that: Keith Jarrett did a beautiful version of My Back Pages with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, for example.
When I moved to Brussels in 1998, I got a phone call one day from saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore who is a long time resident of Amsterdam. I had met Michael briefly in New York some years before and he heard I was nearby and asked if I felt like doing some playing. I started going to Amsterdam to play with him and drummer Michael Vatcher, another native Californian also living in Amsterdam. We both had a love and affinity for Dylan's music and we played a few of those tunes along with some originals of both his and mine. When we decided to actually make it into a band, Michael wanted to continue to play a bit of this and a bit of that, but I thought that our take on Dylan's music was unique and that we should stick with and develop that.
I've always thought that Dylan's imagery is so vivid and that he has reached so deeply into the collective unconscious, that there is a visual and multi-layered presence to his music that is very profound. In addition to which, he is one of the most fearless and improvisational of artists: anyone who has seen him live will know what I mean. When I would be arranging a tune for the band, I would have the lyrics handy which would guide the way in which the setting of the tune developed. I never saw Jewels and Binoculars as a "cover band" or a "tribute band", but more as a group focused on the work of one artist and the infinite ways in which three improvising musicians could interpret and expand that work; much like the way the band "Sphere" focused on Monk's music back in the 80's.
The band was a collective one and we put out our first two CD's "Jewels and Binoculars" and "Floater", on Michael Moore's Ramboy record label which seemed like a good idea at the time, but which had the unfortunate consequence of misleading people into thinking that it was Michael's band, which was not the case. That initial misconception along with Michael's, shall we say, dilatory approach toward setting the record straight, led to no small amount of friction within the band as well as confusion with the public that persists to this day. The third recording, "Ships With Tattooed Sails", was put out on my Upshot record label, has Bill Frisell as a guest on three tracks (Bill is a fellow "Dylanologist" and I'd been trying to get together with him since the mid 90's on some Dylan related project, so I'm glad it finally came to pass), and in most opinions is by far the best of the three releases. The band did a US tour this past Spring of '08 after which it was clear that we had reached the end of the road, literally and figuratively. But we did some great playing, grew tremendously in the eight years we were together, and I'll always be happy with what I think was an original and beautiful take on the music of this most crucial artist