May 20, 2024

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Interview with Warren Byrd: Music is soul: Video

Jazz Interview with jazz pianist and vocalist Warren Byrd. An interview by email in writing. 

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

Warren Byrd: – I am born and raisedin Hartford, Ct., the first 14 years of which were spent in a neighborhood calledCharter Oak Terrace, a post-world war II housing project from which manycompelling musicians hail. Many of my fellow musicians both influencers andcompatriots share with me this primary geo-cultural origin. For me, it was aformative artistic and cultural cauldron.

I’ve been into musicsince before I can remember. It was an integral touchpoint in every aspect ofmy life on all fronts and its appreciation seemed imbued with my family life. Iwas the youngest of sixteen and one of several who sang earnestly, although ofus, I became the sole professional musician. Essentially, my interest in musicwas never a choice.  

However, it was myfather who spent visceral moments with me as a young child turning me on to bigband jazz, especially Ellington and Basie, and giving me that initial kickstartinto the concentrated appreciation which bears musical tools…and more. 

JBN.S: – Whatgot you interested in picking up the jazz vocal and piano? What teacher orteachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What madeyou choose the jazz vocal and piano?

WB: – Firstly, Simon, evento this day I don’t consider myself at all a vocalist, but rather a pianist whosings. After amassing extensive performing exposure throughout my early years,mostly between church, school, and community/semi-professional theatre, Irealized my passion–and my willingness to suffer–thrived in pursuit of jazzimprovisation and composition, though secretly, I also wished to be a popinnovator. I consider myself about eighty-percent self-taught. However, I’veheard many hands, have mused many voices, and have absorbed much music.Ellington, whom I consider my greatest teacher, said it best, “There’s only twokinds of music: the good kind and the other kind…” (I believe he was cited asquoting Toscanini—still, for me, spot on, corrections welcomed).

Nonetheless, it wasThomasina Neely—who I believe now is a professor at one of our historicallyBlack colleges—who saw my talent and predilection for self-exploration andbestowed me with basic tools to embark on this never ending, circuitous journeyin music, first at our church’s summer music program, then with individualinstruction. It actually comes down to one lesson in particular. Realizing thatI wasn’t so invested in the little tunes and etudes she was feeding me, she sawthat I really love to improvise freely. She taught me the basics of musicaltheory and roman numeral analysis and encouraged me to explore further usingthese tools. I think I was 11 or 12 at that moment. 

I must also mentionR. Leslie Childs, my high school music teacher, who encouraged my singingtalent to such an extent that he helped me earn a full scholarship forclassical voice at a top music college and taught me next level theory. He wasthe only black teacher, in fact, in my high school, yet staff, fellowclassmates, and I rallied lovingly around this man. He was a pillar ofsensibleness and bittersweetness.

The tandem of jazzvocal and piano as myself is merely one stroke of many facets of what is growingout of me. Many great exemplars have preceded me at just about every variety ofpianist/vocalist. I even carry such a tag because of my partner in music andlife, Saskia Laroo.

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

WB: – My first answer isthe one every conscientious artist would give, which is, “It’s still evolving,Man”. However, as far as piano playing, I could talk about how I’d let myfingers do the playing more when I was a lad or so and the contrast ofevolution is that now I allow music to play more. I’ve never been a scion oftechnical purity and efficiency; however, I’ve been at least more mindful ofhow to pamper my dexterity.

As a youngermusician, while I artistically crave the edge and often tried to shock as muchas possible, I’d still somehow balance that quality with the slick or thesmooth, creating tension on the play of these forces. Maybe I can say that I’vemanaged to integrate these two forces more by now…or maybe it’s a merely boorishoversimplification.

Immersion was myprimary mode of mastery, which is to say, at any time I’d felt I’d peaked as anartist, it was because for at least a couple months straight I had beenintensely workin’ my Three Pillars: listening, practicing, and composing. Icould—and can—work any one of the three, as well as any two of the three, andkeep myself at a certain level. However, whenever I’ve worked all threeearnestly and for a solid duration, it’s as if I’d entered a higher dimensionof musicianship.

In the early years,it was all about creating tunes. I’d sit at whatever keyboard instrument andwork a progression until it gelled into a tune. When I discovered bebop, Ibecame quite busy with running eighth notes in my righty with a left hand comp.It was all by heart. Then, I was checking out Oscar Peterson at first, speed& precision master #1. Then discovered Bud Powell—wow! I was blown away byhis completeness and his depth. Then I discovered Horace Silver: hardswinging’, direct, witty, but still dense. Yet, the earth shake for me inpianism, depth, and originality was finally getting Thelonious Monkafter my first attempts (at age 12) left me cold. Truly opening up to his artand his approach basically forged a sea change in my concept of jazz. Sincethen, I’ve explored so many pianist, composers, and agents of originality thatI could never finish the list here.

As a vocalist, I havespent many years as an clutch singer: someone who could help or supportextremely well, who could harmonize at will, who could even coach, but rarelywould I lead, unless it was absolutely necessary. Upon meeting and joining theranks of Dutch Trumpet Player Saskia Laroo, my wife, she insisted that I mustsing lead more. And so I have been. It’s ever I pleasure to exercise mymusicianship with my voice, but oh, so difficult to feel easy with. One singsnot only with his/her voice—as well, one not only plays with his/her axe—butwith their entire body and soul, if they’re really makin’ it. It’s much easierto hide behind one’s axe.

I once referred tothe idea of cross-training–that is surveying literature, visual art,movement/dance, theatre—as a tool for developing one musical approach.Developing one’s artistic mind is to me about opening portals to connection andtransmission of expression and sensitivity. Can a professional career in musicallow for such expansiveness? It depends on the individual. Nonetheless, forsomeone ever seeking to integrate various elements and install layers whetherconflicting or agreeable, it’s a propitious pathway.

JBN.S: – Whatpractice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve yourcurrent musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

WB: – For the sake of allgrumpy, old-school teachers of piano, I sing all praises to deep rudiments: allthe main scales and some auxiliary scales you can bundle and play evenly overtwo to four octaves; basic four-note chords, namely by common progressions,moved around scalar-ly and via patterned intervallic jumps; and learning bebopheads in several keys with left-handed accompaniment or arranged for twohands—my definition of rudiments. I also scat many of my favorite solos invarious keys, at different tempos, and even paraphrase them. I constantlythink/imagine new musical ideas, riffs, motifs, fragments, for an assortment ofdifferent instrumentation and styles—mental practice.

Rhythm is a trickytopic*. The issue is that my basis music, jazz, being highly rhythm driven isinherently rich for its diligent disciples. To embrace its elements, you mustsuffer its challenges. I’ve always understood pulse, meter, and tempo ratherwell. However, up tempos have always been my downfall. I defer to Hal Galper,who I’ve heard recommend to a friend of mine to “practice even rhythms” andthis paraphrased from one of his masterclasses viewable on YouTube, “it’s likea neutral rhythmic position from which you can toggle stylistically orexpressively, rather being a slave to a swing feel.” I find that remainingmindful of the space between notes at each tempo is an important building blockin finer execution as well as helping one “find a lock” with your fellowmusicians. Up-tempoed playing by myself is as simple for me as iterations veryslow to very fast of every exercise I practice mindful that a swing feel isbound to disintegrate. Up-tempoed combo playing becomes about tuning in towhichever pulse keeper matters the most while also being the primary keeper ofthe pulse—AT EACH MILLISECOND! There is some zen here, eh?

JBN.S: – Which harmonies andharmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft,it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. Thereis some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a consciousdecision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

WB: – This questionwarrants no reservations that there is such a thing as no preference. Myanswer: I let my intuition decide. I’ve always gravitated toward nice circle offifth-derived tonal progressions and their advanced permutations. I digstandards much including show tunes, hit parade songs, and jazz originals.Modal pieces can be great too as long as my intuition says, “there’s somethinghere to be discovered, something to be revealed”.

Whether or not to mixand match dissonance is stream-of-consciousness dependent, i.e. once again, myintuition. I think Ahmad Jamal’s answer to such a question about specificmusical choice was also appropriate, “Discipline…”. If we are to bash conceptaround again and again, tension and resolution drives all good art: unresolvedtension and tenuous resolution may be said to constitute much GREAT art. I’vecome to accept the tradition that good storytelling and solid support for thatis what counts in good music. Perhaps it could be said that what comesout. 

JBN.S: – How to preventdisparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

WB: – Do you mean “theother kind of music” in the sense of Ellington’s definition? I’m not sure whatyou are truly asking me here. Besides, I’ve always liked to color.

If your asking meabout being idiomatically correct, that is a direct outgrowth of atonement withwhich ever music is being handled. However, the problem with such an issue forme is that disparate influences is rarely a event to be prevented if done withinsight, or rather, what is more commonly coined as taste.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance inmusic between intellect and soul?

WB: – Lennie Tristano wasan interesting critic of his stellar peers. His favorite musicians besides hismain exemplar, Art Tatum, were Bird and Little Jazz (Charlie Parker and RoyEldridge, respectively). His praise and admiration of them stemmed from thefact that he found them purely musical devoid of ego. He criticized Coltrane,stating that he was all emotion and no feeling. I may or may notagree entirely with Mr. Tristano but he aims to shed light on the issue ofnative source.

Music is soul. Themeans by which you make music is the medium you discover and use to express it.A professional can learn his craft and play well and become successful. Soulquotient? That is nearly ineffable without a context, resonance board on which for it toshimmer. The balance between intellect and soul is as tight and vast as theindividual wills it to be.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-wayrelationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the peoplewhat they want?

WB: – Giving the audiencewhat they want is a part of our work as artists. Yet sometimes, we give themwhat they need. I do not apologize for esteeming the importance of theaudience. It may actually guide one well to think of the audience as a lifelongmate, maybe even a spouse. Indeed, there is ever the moment whereas if we wouldwish for them to grow with us then it is worthwhile to challenge them. We, theartists, bring experiences—that’s is our truth.

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

WB: – I’m bad with my owntales. I never know which one to pick. However, I tend to go withpower-of-music tales, or look who’s-a-jazzman-now tales…like the time it seemedas if my wife and I were hired to play for a special dinner in a ritzy banquethall in Eastern Europe for organized crime lieutenants and their wives,including the big boss: a little guy with balding hair and glasses. I’m alwaysslightly terrified in situations like these, ya’ know, like what if we can’thonor one of their requests, or whatever…nonetheless, it turns out that the bigboss loves standards and takes over the piano and accompanies me on “Misty”. Itwas bugged…and sweet as hell, too, but I was still concerned for oursafety. We, ultimately, were well-treated even pampered and stuffed with richfoods and desserts—too civilized to be true.

JBN.S: – How can we get youngpeople interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a centuryold?

WB: – Start early; do itoften. Make it FUN.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane saidthat music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning oflife?

WB: – Well, Simon,everything is spirit. All existence is vibration. All vibration representsspirit. The meaning of life has nothing to do with it. When we choose to beborn, we each have a mission. Usually we must find it before we can finish it.

JBN.S: – If you could changeone thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would thatbe?

WB: – The one thing that Iwould change in the musical world is that artists would profit as equally asadministrators / executives always. Artists would also take more initiative inthe business side of music.

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

WB: – I’m checking outeverything and nothing. I basically listen to whatever crosses my path, oftenit’s related to whatever projects in which I am involved. Most recently, Idelved into electronica along with a performance 20 stories high during theAmsterdam Dance Event with my wife, Saskia Laroo, and friend and leader DJ OdedNir. Track and Artist names? See me later(LOL). Also recently, I’d spent somedays checkin’  Mussorgsky’s Pictures FromAn Exhibition, inspired to listen in repeat depth after hearing it rendered by the Hartford Symphony. I’vealso been listening in on several radio stations in the Hartford area, namely,WWUH-FM 91.3, WRTC-FM 89.3, WQTQ-FM 89.9, and also my Jazz Radio app on mysmartphone, especially dropping in on their bebop and hard bop streams—I’m eversearching.

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

WB: – Harlem 1938 justbefore Coleman Hawkins would storm in with “Body and Soul” in 1939 and justbefore Cab Calloway would hire a ton of jazz’s next great innovators, justbefore Richard Wright would publish “Native Son”, just before Billie Strayhornwould come in to collaborate with the Duke, etc, that period and place inhistory is for me the golden egg. There was magic for ages to come. Finding away to fall in with it and ride its wave would be a gas.

JBN.S: – I have been askingyou so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

WB: – At this point, Simon,you have interviewed dozens of artists from all over the world. Perhaps youhave noticed one thing or more we all have in common: of what would your listconsist?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers.

JBN.S: – So putting that alltogether, how are you able to harness that now?

WB: – I like the sound ofthis question, even if I don’t understand it. If there’s some way you couldclarify it, for instance “putting [WHAT] all together, how are you able toharness [WHAT] now?”

*By the way, You’veasked this question then conditioned it with “especially pertaining torhythm”  which raises a question in me:is Rhythm an Achilles heel or thorn in the context of your work…or is theresome higher purpose you seek concerning the topic? The reason I ask: 1. endemicto me as a Black-American musician is Rhythm whether myfocus is deliberate or unconscious. It would be scant of me to try and simplifythe topic and my core orientation to it. In essence you’re asking me how do youmanage to keep close to my core. 2. The true essence of jazz and its languageis seventy-five to eighty-percent Rhythm. Okay, perhaps the tolerance varies from pundit to pundit, but when youapproach this music, the disputable question is what constitutes Rhythm and itsvarious dimensions? 3. Rhythm is something that happens best when all thevarious components interact symbiotically ok-ly to excellently with each other,whether those components are people, appendages, fingers, or whatever.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan
На данном изображении может находиться: 3 человека, люди на сцене и в помещении
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