Interview - John Patitucci - August 2009
By Eric Nemeyer
After some impromptu conversation with John, we got into the interview, as he began speaking about his experience playing with Chick Corea.
John Patitucci: I remember when I first got the gig and his comping was so fierce. I felt like I was getting blown off the stage by the comping and it was like, “Well, if the comping is better than my solo, I guess I got a lot of work to do on my improvising,” to be strong enough to assert my ideas, to make them sound like they should be there—that was a huge thing. For a bass, it’s like you really have to have power behind your stuff to play with these guys. When they comp, it’s so beautiful and so heavy. Herbie [Hancock] too—unbelievable comping, unbelievable, just incredible, awe inspiring, you know?
Jazz Inside: Could you share some conversations that you might have had with Wayne Shorter that were significant for you in terms of your artistry or just life in general?
JP: With Wayne, he talks about life a lot and he talks about sort of the mission that we all have—personally, as musicians as well as to our families and to each other and he doesn’t like it when people are just music machines and that’s all they talk about and care about—when they don’t really care about deeper spiritual things and developing as mature people. He’s also about the group being so important, and the collective improvisation as opposed to, “I got to do my thing and do my stuff and do my solo,” and that kind of thing.
JI: Sure, which disconnects you from the group.
JP: Yeah—totally. And the truth is, you can never go anywhere near as high artistically if you’re individually focused - as those great bands that we all revere and love, those records we listen to over and over, where there was a band thing where the cats hooked up and they took it to such a high level … which was way beyond their individual levels even though those individual levels were so high, but the group thing became just so much more than that. So Wayne understands that very well, and he fosters that, and he talks to me and he’s a really funny cat too. He’s right next to me on stage, and he’ll say stuff, and he’s really encouraging about me jumping out there, and the texture, and really trying stuff, and really stretching and being bold and just being really reckless which I like to do anyway. He’s really encouraged me to do so—to really try some stuff where I really don’t know if it’s going to come out on the bass, and just go for it and try to be orchestral in my choices. He’s always saying, “I want to be the cello, and you be the flute,” and just thinking more broadly, because he knows that he’s got guys—I mean we’re not teenage kids on the bandstand at this point. I’m gonna be 50, and the other guys are younger than me, but they already are well established and band leaders and everything. So people take it very seriously—the group concept. So it’s not like he’s got to worry that people aren’t going to be connected and play things that make sense for the whole, because we are really committed to that. We really want that, so he feels free then to really push us to try and to be crazy—to really jump of the cliff without a parachute.
JI: That was interesting what you said about him being the cello and you being the flute. That sounds like something I remember reading years ago that Miles would suggest to the bassist, “Don’t play like you’re a bass player.” He didn’t want them to pre-define their role in the band. Now, with Herbie, what kind of discussions did you have with him? I know Herbie and Wayne are close and cut from the same cloth.
JP: Yeah, and with piano players, since I play some piano, I can get with them and say, “Show me this,” or, “What the heck are you doing here?” because you can see it. Wayne wouldn’t be as literal and say to try this or to try this over that. He wouldn’t do that as much, b
he would play stuff that was so heavy and after a while you’d start to realize, “Oh, I think that I understand,” and you’d get a glimpse of how he’s approaching it. He does a lot with pure melodies and he doesn’t play very scale-ish. He’s another one who is masterful at combining the sounds of triads with different things, so even over elaborate harmonies, it doesn’t sound like the usual stuff that guys might try to play. It never sounds like that. He’s got his own way of doing it. I remember when we were doing the “Directions in Music” tour with Herbie, he had this arrangement on “So What” where he had all of these incredible sounds and he wasn’t really playing any minor chords. It was all this stuff built off the dominant [chord], and it was like, “What is it? Come on,” so he let us go around behind him and I wrote the voicings down and he showed me what they were. So you could ask him and he’d tell you. “This is what it is,” or, “It’s this,” and we’d ask, “What are you thinking when you do this?” He said, “Sometimes I just go for shapes and see what my hands find and really explore that and do some other stuff and once I’m in it, I can always find something.” He’s such a quick thinker and has an amazing ear and everything, and Chick was really fast like that too—unbelievable. This is what used to kill me about him, because I was in his band for ten years. He writes difficult changes sometimes on his tunes that aren’t easy to blow on - but he makes it sound really easy. So when he’s playing his solo and you’re accompanying him, you’re thinking, “Oh wow, this is gonna be fun to play, this is gonna be easy,” until you start to play and you are like, “Oh man, oh my god!” (laughs) And we used to crack up because he tended to write the chord symbols in a more simplistic fashion because he knew he was gonna overlay all these different alterations, but with me, I used to walk through it with him, because I liked to write the alterations in while I was learning the tune. I knew that when he said F7, he was playing flat 13, flat 9-13 with a +11, or a sharp 9, you know? [laughs] So that was good training for me—playing with him and ear training and dealing with all those changes being thrown at me and finding ways to improvise and try not to sound like I’m playing licks over the stuff.
JI: With Herbie, as you watched him play voicings, what kinds of things did you observe and learn? Were there revelations?
JP: Well, I’ve listened to these guys so much, so it was just beautiful voice leading and a revelation in that he could arrange the whole tune of “So What” and never play a minor chord. [laughs]. It was all these things off the dominant and these altered things and it sounded so incredible and he made it totally different sounding. So that was the thing about that that was so powerful. He also re-harmonized a ballad that Roy Hargrove brought in for that record which came out sounding incredible. He basically re-harmonized the entire piece, and we watched him do it in a rehearsal and Mike [Brecker] and I were just — our jaws were on the floor. At one point he started to change all the chords and he said, “Roy, I’m sorry I’m changing your tune,” and Roy was like, “Go ahead and change all of it! Go Ahead!” (Laughs) It was incredible. But then with Chick too, he had an interesting way, and I’d say, “What are you thinking about on this thing? What are you blowing over it?” and he’d say “Well, I’m kind of trying this,” and he would make up his own synthetic scales and stuff. He was really free. He was so fluid of an improviser that there were really no chord changes that could stump him. All these guys are like that. It doesn’t matter how deep the harmony is, how chromatic, how the pathway between the chords is unusual, it doesn’t matter. They can just traverse the whole deal without much trouble at all.
JI: How about working with Freddie Hubbard?
JP: I don’t know. He was a total virtuoso as well. He was unlimited in his ability to play through changes. He was like the Coltrane of the trumpet. There was nothing that he couldn’t play through, so in that way he’s very similar actually to those guys and his playing fit very well. I teach at City College here in New York, and when I teach comping, I like to play his record that he plays “You’re My Everything” on. Herbie’s comping on that record is just some of the greatest comping on any record ever. So Freddie fits right in with those cats. He obviously loved it. He loved that approach harmonically. He was right in there with that. And the thing that I remember most about playing with him was his ability to play also at really up-tempos but create brilliantly. Usually us bass players, when we’re going to play “Rhythm Changes,” after a while we’re like, “Ugh, I hope this is going to be over soon, after chorus forty. [laughs] But with Freddie, I remember being on a gig and he was playing “Rhythm Changes” one day on this concert we did, and I didn’t want him to stop and it was really fast, but I didn’t care. I wanted to hear what he was going to do on the next chorus because every chorus was unique and it was unlimited. He had that thing and Joe Henderson was like that too. He just streams incredible fluidity. These guys were very special and it’s really sad that we don’t have them around anymore—Joe and Freddie. Obviously we still have Chick and Wayne and Herbie and guys like Joe Lovano and people who really improvise.
JI: When you worked with Stan Getz, what kinds of things did you get from him?
JP: He was someone who played completely by ear. He could hear all that stuff and play so great, but I don’t think he was much of a theorist or even a reader. Did you know that?
JI: Yes, I read in his biography that because he didn’t know exactly what he was doing theoretically, he was afraid that if one day he lost ability, he wouldn’t be able to re-learn things - or wouldn’t be able to duplicate or continue – as someone who understood their approach backed by some deep theoretical knowledge.
JP: That’s hilarious because he was so brilliant—he was so heavy man. I didn’t play that much with him, but his sound! I was pretty young—I think I was 23 or 24. His sound really made a big impression on me that night. It was huge. We did this concert in San Luis Obispo, California at some concert place. It was the only real concert I ever played with him.
JI: You mentioned Wayne Shorter’s leadership style. What things have you picked up from different leaders that guide you to be the kind of inspiring leader that you want to be?
JP: Well, mainly to encourage guys to really explore and develop and not play it safe and not just play from their trick bag. And also, to pick guys that you feel would really enjoy playing the music that you’re working on at the time, that really have fun doing it and that would really be able to throw themselves into it with the band. That’s the way I like to do it. I try to find guys that are likeminded and say, “Here—here’s a vehicle. Stretch on this,” or, “This is what I’m working on, lets do this,” and I give people a lot of space and that’s what I learned from all these guys. I’m interested in being a composer and it’s important to me to have integrity as a composer but it’s also very important not to overwrite because when music becomes too cerebral, it sort of locks peoples hands up and becomes very hard for them to express and get to a deeper level intuitively if they are struggling so much just to play what’s written.
JI: Have there been moments in your career when you’ve received encouragement that gave you confidence to push ahead?
JP: Well, Chick was very encouraging like I said. He really believed in me as a composer and as a bass player and he believed in the path I was taking. He was really supportive and he was willing to go out on a limb for me, like when he got me a record deal. The record company said, “Well, we want to hear some demos,” and he told them, “No, he can compose, you’ll hear the record when it’s done.” So that was pretty heavy. I was pretty young and was just trying to write and to play and I can understand their perspective too. It was like they didn’t know me that well. But Chick really bought me artistic freedom from the get go, which is a heavy thing. And I would say Herbie and Wayne were very encouraging in terms of the style that I was working out of and playing in. Wayne was always like, “Oh man, that’s great.” He really was pushing me to keep exploring all the different colors and use the bow and doing different things and Herbie too. They liked the fact that I was trying to do some different things and play linearly - more like a horn or a pianist on the bass when it came my time to improvise. But also, just in general, they were just very encouraging. In terms of Wayne’s band, Herbie has been very encouraging toward us in that band too. He comes to see us often and to hear what we’re doing, so we really appreciate that. Wayne is really great with all of us. He gets excited and says ‘yeah man’—he likes it when we stretch and really go for something new and not try to recreate what we did last night or something like that. And granted, we have a lot of music that he’s written too. We improvise a lot, but we also have a lot of pieces that we can go in and out of that he’s written because he keeps writing all of these beautiful pieces and that’s a fun situation because anybody can cue the next tune—there’s no set list.
JI: How did you maintain the freshness and the intimacy and the friendship and so forth for ten years without it getting stale?
JP: I don’t know. It went by kind of fast. (laughs) It was fun and it was challenging and it was so much music. He kept writing a lot of music and we did a lot of projects together.
JI: What were some of the most challenging things at that time for you?
JP: When I was with Chick’s band, he wrote a lot of incredible music, we stretched and I found a lot of new ways to play on the acoustic bass and the electric bass and in the electric situations he was writing a lot of music toward the end of the electric band, before I left it. It was almost like Bartok for electric instruments. It was like Bartok meets Chick. It was some very deep music and we had to really work on it and learn and then improvise on it and that was very heavy. There were also incredible moments with the trio through the years, with Dave Weckl on drums and also later on the group that we had with Bob Berg and Gary Novak. There were different challenges in different groups like with trio I remember one time he decided he wanted to play the music of Three Quartets, but with the trio, and that was some hard music man. But he was sort of figuring out how to do it with three guys instead of the quartet and that was very intense. Then later on we had some of those pieces for the band with Bob Berg—that was a very special group. He had some incredible music written for that too—the stuff we did from Time Warp. It was incredible music man, and that band toured Europe quite a bit and that was really special, and just a challenge harmonically to deal with his music - and sound free doing it. That really shaped me a lot. I learned a lot. Michael Brecker and I were also very close. That’s the reason I moved back to New York in ’96. One of the big reasons was that he was very encouraging about that and we lived very close to each other and he was just an incredible guy, you know? He came to the hospital both times when my daughters were born. With his family, he was just an incredible person and musician — very encouraging. That was a great tour. Of course, Brian [Blade] and Danilo [Perez] and I are very close. And that’s a very deep connection there, with that particular trio and with Wayne [Shorter] too, of course. There is a special relationship there. It’s very much like a family so that’s something I treasure, you know?
JI: Sure. In the course of the conversation, you’ve made it clear that your intentions and your sort of musical ethics are rooted in a deep place. I’ve also read some corresponding perspectives in your liner notes over the years. Given your connection to this, as Wayne Dyer calls it, this “Field of Intention,” or Source Energy, or a Higher Power - maybe you could talk about the connection for you between music and spirituality.
JP: Well I’m somebody that’s been involved in studying and practicing Christian worship since I was about seventeen. Before that even—I was seeking when I was younger, so that’s been a huge thing—not in a political sense though. A lot of people say Christian now, and people think “Oh no, he’s a right wing fanatic.” It’s not that. In fact, the harshest criticisms of Christ were towards the religious pros of the right wing of his day, which were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. So, I’ve been committed to this for a long time, and studying and being involved in churches and doing community stuff and it’s a huge a part of my life, and my family’s life. My brother is a great guitarist, but he’s also a pastor out in the San Francisco Bay area in a covenant church. I go to a Presbyterian church here that was launched from a main one in New York City called Redeemer Presbyterian. Tim Keller, who is an incredible man of faith, also one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in my life has written two incredible books. One is called The Reason for God, which was a New York Times Bestseller and there is another called The Prodigal God, which is great. I’m really into reading a lot of books about this kind of stuff, but also just really striving to be authentic in my life, which is a hard challenge. It’s the biggest challenge to do it, and it’s one thing to talk about and read about or even to help others to learn about it, but it’s another thing to live it, in your house, with your family (laughs)—with your kids, you know? I have an incredible wife and she’s amazing and my daughters are wonderful but when you live in a family, that’s where all your weaknesses are exposed. You find out everything. I always joke with Danilo because he’s got two daughters too and I say, “This is where we find out how jive we are!” (laughs) but it’s good, because you learn a lot—because it’s a challenge. Can you really live it? Can you have enough patience to really be a good a father? Can you get out of your music mode enough to be with your family and relax and give them your time and your energy and your love and not be always so consumed with yourself and your music and your composing, and your practicing? That’s hard man. It’s a challenge for anybody who’s bitten with the bug, and has the disease of being obsessed with music and driven to be an artist. I am earnest and sincere and really working on this stuff. You do it in community actually. You do it by getting involved with other people, by giving yourself to them, your family, and your friends. In our church, we are big into having small groups where you get together with people and you really get to know them and you walk with them through the struggles in their life. You pray with them, you hang with them, you have meals together and you get involved with their families and that I think is a great thing. Communities are where you grow. And that’s why community in the jazz world is so important. When you have a group, it’s a micro community and if it’s really connected on a heavy level—then the music can really go somewhere. So, I’ve found that just being part of that, and also trying to grow spiritually … I read a lot, I try to pray a lot and I’m committed to that kind of willingness to be honest with yourself about what you’re weaknesses are and try to deal with them. In my case, the way my faith works is to let God have free reign to make me a better person. To allow him to point out the things that are not happening and work on them. To not try to side step them and say ‘well, you know,’ but admit it when I make a mistake and try to really face that and move forward. We could talk about that all night. It’s a huge topic, obviously (laughs).
JI: It’s something that really fascinates me. You mentioned being authentic. There is something to be said for being in a family, or having parents, that either allow things for you to happen, or encourage those things and provide you with the kind of support or quality upbringing that ultimately can’t help but produce someone like yourself. I know that you’re originally from Brooklyn. I also spent my first few years there growing up, before moving to Philadelphia. I like the quote from the Department of Health in 1928 that said, “It is difficult for people to overcome what their parents did to them as they were putting their first six birthdays behind them.” Maybe you can talk a little bit about the type of family life that enabled you to become who you are.
JP: I was fortunate because every family has issues and stuff, but what was neat about our family is that people were very connected generally and generationally. We hung out a lot with the grandparents, and we were all sort of in Brooklyn not far from each other so both sets of grandparents weren’t far away. We had a lot of aunts and uncles around too. The first place I actually remember is the second place I lived in Brooklyn. As an infant we lived on 10th and 52nd in Boro Park. Then we had a house in East Flatbush and that’s the place I really grew up. My father and my uncle didn’t have any bread. They both went in and bought this house together. My uncle and his two daughters and his wife lived on the bottom floor and we lived on the top floor. There was an attic that we all had use of and there was also a basement where we used to set up the Lionel trains. So it was a really tight knit family. It was very soulful, very Italian, a lot of cooking going on - massive amounts of cooking and people loved music. Nobody was a musician until my brother and I started doing this. They had no idea about the music world or anything, but they didn’t discourage us like some of the other kids who I think had situations where their parents said, “You’re not gonna do that,” or, “Don’t even think about it.” I know my parents didn’t think I would ever become a musician necessarily to earn a living, but they never discouraged me. They came to all my concerts and they were very much there for us, you know? But it was interesting later on where everything sort of went well. I asked my Dad, “What did you think I was going to do?” And he said, “Well I thought you’d be a salesman or something.” (laughs) So even though he had no idea, because it is a weird and strange world if you aren’t used to it - how does someone make a living as a musician? That’s a great question now-a-days. So people in my family just didn’t know about all that stuff so they were just kind of like, ‘Well, whatever the kids are into, we’re gonna support them’ so that was a big gift for me that I didn’t realize until later when I talked to other people and grew up and went to school and had friends who played instruments where their parents where like, ‘you can’t do that,’ or really discouraged them.
JI: I’ve learned that when people say ‘you can’t do that,’ they mean, ‘I can’t do that.’
JP: Right, or ‘we are afraid for you to try to do that,’ or something like that.
JI: One of my favorite motivational speakers and trainers, Brian Tracy, talks about studies and found that many of the people who failed the most are the ones that ended up with incredible success. So he said to try to fail as often as you can and as early as you can so that, if you’re smart, you can learn from all those failures, and really move yourself ahead.
JP: (laughs) Yeah. Scrape yourself up off the floor as many times as possible. So I was pretty naïve and I just didn’t really know and I had a lot of dreams and just loved playing, so that’s what I did and I didn’t really ever look back. In college I was studying, my teachers assumed that I was gonna play in an orchestra, which I loved, but I wasn’t prepared to give up jazz which they kind of wanted me to do. So I split after three years of college and my mother was worried. She said, “I wish you had something to fall back on,’ but truthfully I never had that mentality ever in my life. It just didn’t resonate with me for some reason. My thing was just sort of like, all the chips are in—this is what I want to do. I was very reckless when I look back on it and see the odds were really stacked against me. I thank God that he allowed me to do what was in my heart, because I had no idea (laughs)…I had no idea how uncommon that is, that you get to do all the stuff you wanted to, you know?
JI: Its great when dreams start coming true, isn’t it?
JP: Yeah, oh yeah, it was exciting. I enjoyed every bit of it and it’s sometimes frustrating because I’m always trying to get to the next place, practicing a lot, trying to get better and sometimes I get frustrated if I’m not improving as fast as I like. But that’s life, you got to accept that.
JI: Years ago I read an article in Esquire magazine called “Mastery.” It talked about how some people know that the path is never-ending. Some think they are already masters – thus knowing everything, and by definition leaving nothing else to learn. The article was about sports, for the most part, It talked about people on the path of mastery and three types who are not – the dabbler, the obsessive, the hacker. For example, the obsessive is someone interested in results, no matter how you get them. He or she starts by making robust progress. But when she finds herself not making instant progress, or having seemingly reached a plateau, she won’t accept it, and redoubles her efforts – making brief spurts, followed by sharp declines and eventually giving up. But the concept for those on the path of mastery is a long-term one, where it is understood that most of the time you are spending are on these plateaus. You make a jump upward to the next level, then a small fallback to a level slightly lower level – but one that is higher than the one you were on. Ultimately by staying on the path of mastery – as opposed to becoming a master - you reach levels of subtly that you never imagined existed when you first started out.
JP: But it’s a process and you got to be in it for life. Once you agree to that, you’re straight. You have to be willing to be in it for life. That’s what I tell my students. It’s not, “I’ll do this for a while and then this and then everything will be cool and I won’t have to learn any more.” No, this is life, you are going to be doing this forever and if you want to wrestle with this instrument, you got to have a lot of commitment, because it’s physically demanding and it takes everything you got.
JI: So that would lead to you perhaps making a comment on the essential qualities or attitudes, beyond musical skills, that people who are pursuing this music or creative path, and are committed to expressing themselves creatively and artistically, need to possess.
JP: Well, I think you have to have a serious work ethic. You have to be willing to put everything into it. You have to be willing to be teachable and you have to be willing to accept and be honest with yourself about the things you can’t do yet, so that you can work on them—instead of just practicing all of the stuff that you know how to do already. You have to be willing to sound bad to get better—in the practice room, you know? You got to be willing because if you don’t, if you don’t sometimes sound bad in the practice room, you’re not practicing, you know what I mean? You’re not going to get better. You got to be willing to slow down and work on some stuff and develop the stuff that just doesn’t come out easily if you want to get to the next level and get more freedom on your instrument. So that’s the thing. You really have to be honest with yourself. I always tell the students, “Look man, I have a checklist. I always know the things that bug me about my playing and I work on them. And there is always something more and that’s part of the fun. I really enjoy practicing, so try to learn how to enjoy the process—that’s a big deal.
JI: This kind of commitment is not for everybody—spending six or eight or ten hours in the practice room. Every one has to do it because we love doing it.
JP: Yeah, and then obviously when you get older and you have a family and everything, you just can’t do that many hours anymore. They just don’t exist. So you have to find a way to be organized and try to get the job done with less, but you still have to try to regularly get in there, so you have to have that work ethic. It keeps you moving forward.
JI: It sounds like you clearly have a healthy curiosity about ideas and people—in and out of music. Talk a little bit about how that curiosity evolved over the years?
JP: I think I’ve always been insatiable in wanting to know stuff. Some people need school to motivate them to learn. They need somebody to be pushing them to learn stuff. I was kind of the opposite—when it came to music anyway. Other subjects, yes, I was just like everybody else. I needed somebody to be cracking the whip in math and all those other subjects. But when it came to music, I was ‘all in.’ 24/7, I was trying to listen to music, study music, pester people who I’d go to hear play if I liked their playing—‘How do you do this? What are you doing?’ I just really wanted to know so I never stopped being like that. I just try to expand the music that I’m curious about and it’s natural, because I like a lot of different styles, and there’s so much to learn. Sometimes you are learning a bunch of stuff and you’re working on stuff and you put on a Charlie Parker record again and it just freaks you out and you go, “Wow. I though I kind of had an understanding of the bebop language and now I can see that it’s just way deeper than that.”
JI: So there’s always more to learn. When I interviewed Pat Metheny he said that the vast majority of the people who will hear this music – and think that it is brand new - haven’t even been born yet.
JP: Right, exactly, and they’ll keep going back and discovering it. It’s incredible. It’s deep music and it’s timeless. It’s not like certain kinds of music, and I like all kinds of music. There’s certain kinds of pop music that’s timeless but there is a lot of pop music that’s not timeless. It’s very tempocentric—it’s connected to a sound at a certain time and then once that goes away, you just kind of go, ‘Well that sounds dated,’ where as if you listen to an old R&B record like a Stevie Wonder record or those old Jackson Five records, or an O’Jays record, its timeless—or a James Brown record. You can listen to that from now to Kingdom come and you go, “Wow, that is really hip.”
JI: With a lot of the jazz, as you were saying, when you go back and listen to it, you realize that so much is there you hadn’t heard the previous time you listened—these subtleties.
JP: Yes, and as a bass player, I keep going back and try to listen as I grow in my understanding of the music and there are a lot of things in what Pettiford and Blanton played that are just really astounding—and obviously, after those guys too. But there’s so much stuff that happened, you know? It’s really incredible. There was so much innovation, you know? There were all kinds of things each particular guy brought to the table and the instrument kept expanding. The bass has just really, really, really grown a lot since, when you think about the first guys like Pops Poster and everything. They were just innovating on the instrument and finding new techniques, and then you fast forward to now and think about all the guys in between, you know? It’s mind boggling how the instruments keep developing and expanding.
JI: We were talking about the educational process and of course you’re involved as a clinician and educator and you’re teaching at City College in Harlem. Talk about how working with students has challenged, supported or otherwise impacted your artistry and the kinds of benefits that you get from teaching.
JP: Well, it’s great because a lot of times when a student comes in with a certain problem to solve, sometimes you wind of accessing stuff that you forgot you knew to solve a certain problem. Then you go, “Wow, I should try using that again because I haven’t used that in a while.” You’ll re-awaken something that you haven’t explored in a while that you learned a long time ago. Or the other thing is that it really makes you have to become clearer in explaining things to people because different people learn the stuff differently. So you have to be creative and find the key to open up each individual kid’s understanding, whether it’s of the instrument itself, which is a huge can of worms, the bass. I make my students work on the classical stuff too, to learn the instrument and really work on their sound. The mark of a great jazz musician is your sound. And your rhythmic feeling has to be just amazing. You have to have a great sound. You have to have a beautiful sound and you have to have a great time feel and have to make the music feel great. So rhythmically you have to be very strong and developed so with those two things you can learn a lot on the bass, by working on sound production with all of the technical things that are a big huge thing when you are studying the bass with classical music. Then obviously we have a whole other set of things that we have to learn to with the language of jazz, or the language of bebop, and the rhythmic language—also the articulations, and the things that make it feel right—the blues. The blues is incredibly important and that’s something that I really try to stress to my students because now you have a generation of kids that all want to play music in odd time signatures all the time. (laughs) But, they have to be able to play a slow and a medium blues. (laughs)
JI: Right, or to play a ballad with intensity. When I was younger and someone told me to listen to Shirley Horn or Jimmy Scott, I probably would have jumped out of my skin. But once I discovered the intensity of her play something like “Basin Street Blues” at an incredibly slow tempo, it blew me away. It was more intense than so much that is played at some super fast tempo with lots of volume.
JP: Exactly, and these are the things. We try to help students develop deep skills and feeling for the music—not to just be cerebral, or play what’s fashionable now. Those things are interesting too. But in particular, when the kids express interest in the odd meter stuff, I try to steer them to the stuff that I think Danilo was pioneering many years back, with the use Afro-Cuban music and not just that but African music in all the Americas—in Panama and Chile and how you can use those rhythms and use claves and different things in different meters. That makes it really more soulful. It has a connection to a groove where you aren’t always counting all the time. Once you learn a rhythmic pattern that you can play off of, then you can expound on that. It’s more of a groove and relating to the African concept which is less about sitting there and going, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, and more about finding a groove within the time signature that relates to a clave or a figure that can be repetitive in your mind. Even when you are stretching on it wildly, you still have a center that helps you so that you’re doing it with your heart and your soul. So it’s visceral and not just cerebral. That’s the stuff when it gets really interesting to me. Not when people play “All The Things You Are” in 11/8, at quarter note equals 350 beats per minute. I’m sorry, that’s not what makes me excited. That’s just me. And I played a lot of music that’s in odd meters. I get asked to do it on records all the time and it could be wonderful if it’s done with feeling in the right way. At City College, it’s great because there is an emphasis on the interactive perspective, where the group sound is more important than just, ‘I got to do my thing.’
JI: John, how do you stay balanced and recharge your battery, given the stress of modern life, and all the things you have going on in your career? Do you ever have to get away from the music or your responsibilities for a moment in order to re-center? If so, what kinds of things do this for you?
JP: Well, one thing that’s nice is that we have some friends that invite us in the summers up to Cape Cod - so we go by the ocean with some friends to hang out and that’s always a great re-charger. You know, it just depends really—sometimes you get so crazed with trying to catch-up on stuff and stay on top of everything and it gets to be too much. I like the Yankees too. My daughter and I a few weeks ago got to go to a Yankee game and that was really fun. I like to watch them on TV too. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into taking vacations and also sort of having hobbies which. I always kind of liked sports. I wish I could play on a team for adults but I haven’t really figured out how to put that in my schedule. Like I mentioned earlier, I like the church life that we have which is really great for me. That really encourages me and recharges my batteries. I also like to cook. My wife and I love to cook together, too.
JI: What do you cook?
JP: I cook a lot of Italian food. My wife can do all that but she’s also a phenomenal baker. She makes all kinds of chocolate cakes and incredible sweets and all kinds of stuff. So I like food, that’s a hobby—cooking, I like wine too—learning about it and stuff. My daughter has a wonderful friend in the neighborhood and the parents are really great so last night we went over there and had a wonderful dinner and talked about a lot of things. Just being with people does it for me. I’m more old fashioned I guess. Now-a-days that would be (laughs), because we’re not texting or emailing. We’re just hanging out and talking, you know?
JI: Can you talk about your new trio album, Remembrance, with Brian Blade and Joe Lovano? How did the idea for the project, and all of the material come about? What are some of the characteristics of the record?
JP: The seeds came from a rehearsal in around 2001 or 2000 when we were rehearsing for a CD called Communion up at Joe’s place upstate and he had this beautiful room with a high ceiling. Brian and I set up in there and we were rehearsing just trio because the pianist couldn’t make the rehearsal and it felt so good and it sounded so good. It just felt incredible and we were just looking at each other like, “Wow! Maybe we should make a trio record.” So that idea stayed with me for many years and I always loved the way Joe played. Obviously, Brian and I for the last ten years have been playing together a lot and become very close and so I guess I wanted to give myself time to get a little better before I tried to do a trio record, because obviously people think of Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite and Night at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins and it’s kind of daunting to think, “Oh gee, I don’t want anybody to even put my name in the same sentence.” Those records are legendary and revered but I do like that format for the bass. Sonically it’s great. You can really have room to make a beautiful and large bass sound because there’s not a lot of density around it, so the bass can be really rich and so can the drums and so can the tenor for that matter, because you’ve opened up this space for them to be. And harmonically and rhythmically, there’s all this room for dialogue which is fascinating and a lot of fun. That’s the main reason and then there are some tributes to people like Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins and Monk and Trane. The idea, Remembrance, which is also the title of the last piece, is for Mike Brecker. But the idea, is for people, musicians and friends that have really inspired me and the idea is to celebrate them while they’re here and be present and appreciative of the ones that are here now as well as remembering the ones that have already gone on.
JI: Sure, there’s a certain reverence about it. It sounds like you grew up in a similar situation as I did when in the 50’s and 60’s with both sets of grandparents, lots of family and a reverence for older people – all making it a natural to appreciate and develop relationships with people who have a lifetime of experience and wisdom and achievement - like Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson – for whom I have so much respect.
JP: Yeah, and you know, I played with those guys, and those guys are incredible. You play with them and you’re like, wow! And I’m going out on this tour with Roy Haynes who’s in his 80’s. Tomorrow we leave and go to Europe and that’s just incredible! The guy is still burning, and playing his tail off. What an inspiration and what a living encyclopedia of jazz. I always call him the walking encyclopedia of jazz. He played with everyone and is so broad stylistically. It’s just incredible.
JI: John, is there anything else that you would like to mention that I haven’t prompted you for?
JP: No, but I hope people will take a listen to my new record, Remembrances, because I think it’s got some different sounds on it … and just to hear Brian and Joe play. You don’t have to listen to me at all. Just listen to the way Joe and Brian play together. They’re incredible. There’s a lot of respect for the tradition but also a lot of forward thinking. There’s some interesting interplay and a lot of different styles too. There’s everything from a West African feel on one tune and then a piece with string octet and alto clarinet and drums with a bowed bass. There’s some real straight ahead stuff on there and there’s also a cross section of different things as well.