Not since the glorious Jazz Yatras of the 1980s has Mumbai witnessed such a gathering of jazz giants. This fortnight, the JazzMatazz festival at the National Centre for the Performing Arts will headline ensembles headed by pianist Cedar Walton, trumpet player Jon Faddis, drummer Louis Hayes and trombonist Steve Turre, in addition to veteran Indian guitar player Carlton Kitto and a host of others. Ahead of the jamboree, Walton and Faddis looked back on their careers in interviews to Time Out.
The bop don’t stop
Cedar Walton is 77 but he hasn’t lost his taste for late nights. Though it was around 1am New York time when Time Out phoned his home in Brooklyn in New York City, the pianist was still chatty and energetic. To begin with, he wanted to chat about his last performance in Mumbai two decades ago. His memories of the 1992 Jazz Yatra at Rang Bhavan are still sharp. “I remember it was just a great audience and they had a great staff to take care of us,” he said. At that concert, Walton was accompanied by an all-star band consisting of the drummer Billy Higgins, the bassist David Williams and the reedman Dewey Redman, who alternated between the saxophone and a traditional Chinese instrument called the suona. “It sounded very like a snake charmer from a mythological,” Walton chuckled.
Walton is among the most revered keepers of the tradition of hard bop, a style that coalesced in the mid-1950s as a reaction to the esoteric bebop genre that had been popular in the preceding decade. Hard bop married the sophistication of bebop with funky elements drawn from gospel and rhythm and blues. One of the incubators of the hard bop style was the Jazz Messengers band led by the drummer Art Blakey, who had a talent for sniffing out the brightest young jazz musicians, helping them mature – and then sending them on their way so he could begin the cycle again.
Blakey invited Walton to join the Messengers in the early 1961. His band mates included the saxophone player Wayne Shorter and the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, both of whom would go on to become major figures in their own right. “I met Art two years before I joined him,” said Walton. “When he called, I was almost shocked that he remembered me. Freddie Hubbard and I joined the band same day.” The drummer encouraged Walton to work on his own compositions. Walton stayed with the Messengers for three years. “Blakey would encourage us to go out on our own to perform and then get new musicians,” said the pianist. “He believed strongly in the rotation.”
Before he joined the Messengers, Walton had worked with another legend: the saxophonist John Coltrane. “It was like being in the presence of God,” Walton recalled. “He was more devoted to the music than anyone I’d met. He would play all the time until he fell off for a nap, then wake up and start again. He was a fanatic – but in a good way.”
Though the pianist hasn’t composed many of his own tunes lately, preferring to work on interpreting classics by musicians he admires, he has a respectable list of songs to his name. Among the most popular is one called “Bolivia”. “I have to confess, I had no connection with the country. I’ve never been there or never wanted to go there.” he said. “But it’s a beautiful-sounding name and it fit the music perfectly.” Walton has a three-point checklist to follow when composing a tune: “I want to make sure I like it. I want to make sure I haven’t heard it before – I don’t want to write the national anthem again. And I want to make sure that the other musicians in my band enjoy playing it.”
For now, Walton isn’t sure precisely which tunes he’ll perform at JazzMatazz. As always, he’ll wait until he arrives to get a feel of the space and the audience. But, he promised, his set list will include his regular mix of originals and hard bop versions of standards. The only tune he has already decided to perform is “Dear Ruth”. He explained, “It’s about my mom, who started me out.”
In the Faddisphere
Jon Faddis is among the most accomplished jazz trumpet players on the scene today. He’s been delighting fans since he was 18, when he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band. His greatest influence was his mentor, the trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie. Over the decades, 58-year-old Faddis has led prestigious ensembles, including the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and taught extensively at such institutions as The Conservatory of Music at Purchase College-SUNY.
You were influenced by Louis Armstrong when you saw him playing on TV as a child. What went through your head, then?
I was seven at the time. All I do remember is that my family and I really loved his performance. Not too long after, my parents asked me, “Jon, if you had to choose an instrument to play, which one would it be?” I remembered Louis Armstrong’s appearance on TV and said, “Trumpet!” and that’s how I came to play the trumpet.
What made Dizzy Gillespie so special?
Oh, my! When I was 10, my trumpet teacher, Bill Catalano, told me that Dizzy Gillespie was the greatest trumpet player in the world. That’s when I told myself, “If he’s the greatest, then he’s who I want to sound like!” So Dizzy became my trumpet hero. When I was 15, Dizzy let me sit in with his group, and after I arrived in New York in 1971, he continued to do so. As our relationship grew, Dizzy became like a father to me, and then, as I matured, we became more like brothers. I think that what made Dizzy special to me was his generosity and his willingness to share what he knew with others. That’s what I learned from Dizzy and that’s what I try to impart to others...that, and rhythm.
What was the inspiration for your album Teranga?
Around 2000, I played as a guest with Steve Turre’s group in Oakland, California, which is both Steve’s and my home town; also playing with Steve was a fantastic Senegalese hand-drummer, Abdou M’Boup. The sound coming out of Abdou’s djembe was unbelievable! Abdou and I became friends, and when I wrote the song “Teranga”, I had Abdou in mind. I also asked Abdou if it would be appropriate to title my song “Teranga” and he said, “Yes, because you are Teranga!”, which was very kind-spirited of him. [Teranga is a Wolof word that means hospitality.]
I’m not sure that “Teranga” was about breaking ground as much as finding good, common ground. I just wanted to share the music that I had in my heart with people – the musicians in my group, friends for whom I wrote some of the music, and of course, audiences. Happily, “Teranga” appeals to many people, and that’s a satisfying feeling.
What’s the secret behind your astonishing range? How do you hit those high notes?
There really isn’t a secret to playing high, just a lot of hard work and hearing music in that register. Theories can abound about the shape of one’s mouth, but it’s not really about that; achieving great embouchure is possible with almost any mouth, and it’s important for people to know that – it’s one of the reasons why early and universal music education is ideal. The key factor for me was wonderful teachers, and that’s also one of the reasons I teach so much myself too – it’s important to share that knowledge.
Another major factor is listening well. One has to be able to hear the sound, to imagine and shape it, before ever picking up a horn. Then, one has to practise and practise and practise, and practise intelligently, without injuring or overtiring your “chops”. You can’t just listen, or play, at loud volumes; it’s crucial to be able to play at the softest, most gentle levels, just as passionately as at higher ones. Practising softly matters, too.
What gives jazz the ability to keep reinventing itself all the time?
Jazz is a music that many, many people believed in and died for. It is spontaneous, creative and unpredictable; it’s sustaining. One never knows exactly what one will hear at a jazz concert. With so many musicians coming from so many different cultures, jazz has the ability to absorb many of the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of those cultures, while remaining true to itself... sort of like the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans with the French, Spanish, English, Haitian, African, Creole and American influences, coming together to help to create jazz. Indian rhythms have been and are important to jazz, too.
What can we expect to hear you play in Mumbai?
Depending on the feel of the venue and the audience, I’m planning on playing some things from Teranga, some jazz standards and a few surprises. Unless I’m in a symphonic or orchestral setting, my preference with my quartet, and for that matter, my big band too, is to be prepared for many things and to shape the concert “a la minute” as much as possible.
What do you hope to see in the city?
This being my first trip to India, I hope to see as much as possible, to make new friends, to hear some great Indian music and to eat some great food! I was a vegetarian for nearly 40 of my 58 years, and I must say, other than my wife’s basil pesto and grilled lamb, Indian food remains my favourite – malai kofta, channa masala, mango lassi...yum!
By Naresh Fernandes on October 13 2011 6.30pm