June 14, 2024

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Interview with John Serry: Can jazz be a creative progressive art form? Video

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer John Serry. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

John Serry: – In and around New York.  My father was an accordion player. That was my first instrument at 4 years old.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the piano? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the piano?

JS: – At 11, I realized I didn’t like the accordion. I decided to switch to piano.  My father wanted to teach me, but I refused and taught myself instead. I was already studying percussion – classical  music and popular music (with teachers.) I played drums in two rock bands starting when I was 13 and, soon after, keyboards in a jazz rock band. I learned classical works as well, on both piano and percussion, continuing as an autodidact on piano, as well as with lessons on percussion.  By special permission of legendary timpanist, Saul Goodman, I had private lessons (age 15 to 17) – with his protegé, Gordon Gottlieb – in Saul’s studio at Juilliard.  At university (Eastman School of Music), I had a handful of piano lessons with Bill Dobbins with whom I also took classes in Theory and Analysis , History and Composition.  Most of Bill’s classes were, to some extent, analysis classes which were interesting and beneficial .  I had a couple of lessons with Marian McPartland who was sort of a Nadia Boulanger style mentor that encouraged you to follow your path.  For some years afterwards, when we met in various places (venues in New York, Los Angeles and South Carolina), we played piano duos together.   When I was 30, after having already made my first two albums (and been nominated for a Grammy), I studied classical piano privately for a year with Antoinette Perry in Los Angeles.  The classical studies were enormously enjoyable and almost certainly made me a better jazz player. Still, I am primarily a self-taught pianist and, in any case, no one can give you jazz.  You have to proactively take it.  I have been doing that – per forza, as they say in Italy – particularly during the last ten years.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JS: – Over the years, I listened to more and more music, and an ever wider range of music.  However, I never once thought about my sound.  My sound was my personality.  It simply was and is. In that it developed or changed, I am not aware of trying to make that happen.  I suppose it happened, to some extent, automatically and naturally as I listened to more music.  I was really much more interested in the language – melodic vocabulary and harmonic concepts – of music than in trying to obtain some sort of sound that I heard somewhere.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm? 

JS: – Rhythm is another thing that I did not consciously work on, because so much of it came automatically and naturally to me, probably partially because of my percussion studies and activities, both in very advanced classical music (Stravinsky, Bartok, percussion solo literature, etc. ) and in modern jazz. I am noted for my rhythmic attributes, both as composer and player, but, again, it is something that developed without my working on it with the piano.  Exposure and engagement with rhythmically advanced music over a long period, starting from when I was quite young (in my teens and even before), is probably what accounts for my rhythmic sensibility and attributes.  I work primarily on developing new language for improvisation.  That is more about melody and harmony.  The rhythmic aspects just seemed to sort of happen over time, and I always trusted that.  Of course my early exposure to and activities with complex rhythms (especially in modern classical music) required some thought and work.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? 

JS: – No patterns or harmonies in particular. At this point, I am dealing with so many harmonic materials and concepts, that I cannot play favorites, and I would not want to.  Anyway, I want whatever wants to come out at any particular moment of improvising to be able to come out, without there being a hierarchy or judgment. Everything is good in the right moment, including the simplest thing and the most complex things.  The last ten years have been very fruitful with regard to developing more harmonic approaches.  A lot of things were gleaned by my study of certain phrases of John Coltrane, but also of other maestros, such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Michael Brecker and Woody Shaw.  In any case melody is more important than harmony. It took a long time before I understood that.  Melody makes harmony, not the other way around.

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JBN.S: – What do you love most about your new album 2017: <Disquisition>, how it was formed and what you are working on today. This year your fans like we can wait for a new album? 

JS: – I don’t make an album every year – more like every 10 to fifteen years.  Although now that I am older, the increments between albums might diminish.  I am really happy with Disquisition because it displays the substantial development of musical language that I was engaged in during the last 10 years.  All of that happened after my penultimate album, The Shift, which although it was released in 2013, was actually recorded in 2006.  Today, I am, as always developing new melodic vocabulary and harmonic concepts.  That is what keeps me interested. The other important aspect of Disquisition is that it is my first trio album, so it documents the formation in which I have been playing for the past 8 years.

JBN.S: – Which are the best jazz albums for you of 2017 year?

JS: – I would not know, since I am very concentrated in gleaning more from things that were done previously, especially in the 1960s.  However, I would say that anything new done by Keith Jarrett or Wayne Shorter would be a pleasure to hear – and I am always curious to hear what Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea are doing. Billy Childs and Chris Potter are usually doing very interesting, impressive things, but I have not heard their latest.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us? 

JS: – Too many years. The first rehearsal for my debut album, Exhibition (1979.)  All the parts had been sent to the players well in advance and they were pretty intricate.  Nobody knew how they fit in to those involved compositions until that first rehearsal. We started to play “Care to Dance?” which had two basses at the same time (the exceptional bass playing brothers, Jimmy and Gordon Johnson.)  Somebody made a mistake and I stopped the rehearsal.  Before I could make any comment, all the players started cheering.  That was pretty nice. The personnel, in addition to the Johnson brothers, was Bob Sheppard, Barry Finnerty, the late Carlos Vega and Gordon Gottlieb.

JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business? 

JS: – Do that for which you truly have passion. I did not feel like an authentic human being, not to mention artist, until I concentrated virtually only on doing what I really like – that is, play my own music with my own groups. Since I moved to Europe 14 years ago, that – especially in the last 9 years – is virtually all that I do.

JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday? 

JS: – I don’t know and I don’t care. The more important question is can jazz be a creative progressive art form. There is reason to worry about that.

JBN.S: – Which collaboration have been the most important experiences for you?

JS: – The many collaborations with nearly everyone who has learned and played my music with me.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JS: – You would have to eliminate a lot of verbose individuals or at least stop them from talking so much rubbish – impossible, I would say, given the last 37 years.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JS: – Any time I learn a new thing and use it to express myself, I renew my purpose.

JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?

JS: – Things that are not really very interesting, as they are mostly irrational fears that I have learned to attenuate. Most of the things that people are commenting about – no matter what they claim are there concerns – reduce down to a wish for more money and power. A better idea is to try to develop passion for something, something that you already have inside and do not have to compete with, or fight, others to attain.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be? 

JS: – Nothing. It is exactly as it had to become. I change what I do, not what is outside of me.

JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you? 

JS: – Every new little learned thing, every little, medium or big performance anywhere.

JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?

JS: – Nothing significant for me.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JS: – See the aforementioned masters and add all the other true ones (Miles, Bird, Duke, Monk, etc.)

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JS: – I do not feel nostalgia for any period or place. I am content to move forward in real time – mostly in Europe.

JBN.S: – So far, I ask, please your question to me …

JS: – When will this interview be released?

JBN.S: – When we publish the interview, we send the link to the musicians.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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