Jazz interview with jazz celloist and composer Mike Richmond. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Mike Richmond: – I first became aware of music as a child when my mother was playing her classical orchestral and opera records in the house. She was also fond of the big bands (Count Basie and Duke Ellington) attending concerts during and after World War II. This was in Philadelphia where my family settled after moving from Russia and Ukraine. Also, my parents and I went to a Bill Haley & The Comets rock & roll concert when I was 7 years old which grabbed my attention. At that time in the 1950’s and 1960’s all of the television shows from the east and west coasts had small jazz groups and big bands. You could see and hear the greatest jazz musicians in the United States on the various variety shows every day. I first started on guitar taking classical lessons then switched to bass violin at 12 years old, playing in the school orchestras through college.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the cello? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the cello?
MR: – I’ve spent most of my life playing the bass violin and electric bass. In 2001 I decided to buy a cello (125 years old from Czechoslovakia) because I always loved the vocal quality of the instrument. Also growing up, I was a fan of a great cellist from the Philadelphia Orchestra Elsa Hilger. She had the most beautiful tone! Fortunately I had a chance to perform with her when I was in college. I’ve never had a formal teacher on cello but I apply my college bass lessons with Edward Arain (Philadelphia Orchestra) with left hand position and when playing arco. Keeping in mind there is different left hand positioning with the cello and bass. Jimmy Garrison (bassist with John Coltrane) was my jazz bass teacher after college. Re: teachers, in addition to all of the great jazz musicians (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Red Mitchell, Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Art Farmer, etc.) I have listened to from high school to the present.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
MR: – My sound and tone has been influenced as much by singers (Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams) in addition to classical bassists Gary Karr and Ludwig Streicher). My tone is built on sustaining every note as long as possible when playing pizzicato and arco with a slow vibrato.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
MR: – With regard to rhythm I never practice without a metronome or some type of rhythm computer application. I play slow scales every day in different positions with varied fingerings for intonation. For compositions I’m going to record I program the chords and practice improvising on each tune many hundreds of times until I discover beautiful melodies built on the scales of each chord or common tones through harmonic phrases.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic 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. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
MR: – I always try to play as melodically as possible and swing when playing jazz. Every harmonic pattern works if you know the basic diatonic scale of every chord, try to build melodies, AND have every great jazz solo from the last 90 years in your head.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
MR: – I love all musical and beautiful influences with music, art, modern dance, whether disparate ot otherwise.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MR: – It is more than possible to be soulful and to intellectualize the music at the same time. Listen to the sophistication of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and Thad Jones arrangements, plus the melodic, soulful and harmonically complex impovisations of John Coltrane.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
MR: – Audiences are almost always open to a musical presentation. My primary concern is listening to and blending with the musicians I’m performing with. The audience will feel the sincerity.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
MR: – I have had the opportunity to perform and record with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Joe Henderson, Ravi Shankar, Jack DeJohnette, Michel Legrand, the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Orchestra, Mingus Dynasty, Pat Metheny, plus many others. On the cello playing with new music ensembles I have had the chance to solo with symphony’s from Peru to Mongolia which has been a treat. Each experience was the highlight of my musical career at that moment.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
MR: – Jazz education is the answer! Many of the jazz standards were written more than 50 years and will always be beautiful. People still love Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and that’s not considered old. Think Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schederazade, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
MR: – Everyone that loves and performs music has this spirit. From Master John Coltrane to a tribal percussionist in Africa, to an oud player in Turkey, or a child in an elementary school orchestra anywhere in the the world.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
MR: – Music has developed over the course of time and it is exactly where it should be. Although it would be more than beneficial if musicians that had formal training were aware of music at least from the early Gregorian Chants. And … from the rhythms that began in Africa, the Middle East, and India.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
MR: – I perform and record most weeks of the year (in addition to my position as Professor at New York University) so there is not much time to listen to music. If given those rare moments I gravitate to Indian ragas and Tibetan meditation music.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
MR: – As a student of history and knowing what I know now, I would go back 200 years and try to prevent all major wars. Musically I would loved to have perform with John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday, Bach, Beethoven, Brahams, and Rimsky-Korsakof.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
MR: – How long have you been following the music of jazz?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. More than 20 years.
JBN.S: – So putting it all together, how are you able to harness that now?
MR: – Every day is exciting! And always has been. I still have the opportunity to perform and record with wonderful musicians on a regular basis. I have been performing/traveling internationally since my early 20’s and the train hasn’t stopped!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan