May 21, 2024

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Interview with John Covelli: I want people to experience the magic of music and the miracle of its physics: Video, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz trombonist and keyboardist John Covelli. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

John Covelli: – As a child, I was very shy and was not an overachiever in sports, so I spent time on other kid stuff, such as riding bikes and playing with friends. Music was something I immersed myself in at an early age, and I greatly enjoyed improvising melodies and playing along with records.  My parents enjoyed music and other cultural events, and so our family engaged in cultural events around town, as well as at the movies.  Two distinct memories of this were attending Fantasia and The Sound of Music, which made a huge impression on me.  I became obsessed with listening to records of musicals, and when I first heard West Side Story, I was fascinated.  I became immersed in Bernstein’s merging jazz and classical music and would listen to that album over and over again, as well as reading the synopsis.  I tried to emulate that story-telling tool with this album, Live at The Last Hotel.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound? 

JC: – My musical tastes evolved over time, in a big way.  From those childhood days of pop, jazz and classical, to rock ‘n’ roll in high school, and so went my desire to play and be a part of these styles.  I learned to play bass so I could learn Beatles songs and played in a rock band before going off to college.  There, I chummed around with musicians and theater majors, and was exposed to film.  The local theater here in St Louis played double features (a thing of the past) every night of the week.  This, combined with FREE admission to the college film series, I became more deeply interested in film music.  In 2020, when I started composing the songs for this album, it quickly took the shape of a musical/movie in my mind, and I knew pretty quicky I had a story to tell.  Along the way, I learned keyboards for the rock band back in the day, and even still play keyboards in The Grooveliner, although I would not consider myself a competent piano player.  I worked extremely hard to play piano in a local Queen tribute band but was very nervous during performances.  Freddie Mercury was an amazing pianist!

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?     

JC: – In 2019, I designed a program dedicated to celebrating John Coltrane’s album Giant Steps.  It was performed on January 4th, 2020 as a 60th Birthday of the album.  To prepare for that, I spent a great deal of time learning that language and working on exercises in various books to learn Coltrane’s solos and patterns.  9 Years ago, I performed an entire program of Wayne Shorter.  So, my “routine” is usually to choose an insurmountable theme, LOL, and immerse myself in it to learn as much as I can.  I am a slow learning and a poor reader, due to some mental limitations, ADD and OCD.  I must balance all of that in my daily practice sessions, which are near the first thing in the morning.  I am also studying in David Baker’s series of books, especially in the playing against the grain techniques.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why? 

JC: – When I listen back to that Wayne Shorter performance, which I did not release until November 2021, more than 8 years ago, I hear that I haven’t made any progress in the technical flaws that I seem to have.  I hear the phrases I play and can almost spell out the notes I MEANT to play, but could not seem to execute perfectly.  Where I have evolved, is in learning how to at least TAKE ACTION on those shortcomings.  First, I have learned to accept that my shortcomings contribute to my “unique style” such as it is.  I don’t gravitate to trombonisms and clichés for that instrument, primarily because I am aspiring to play like Joe Henderson, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.  When I tell someone who my influences are, and I name saxophonists, I feel like I sound ridiculous.  So, I have evolved to be more comfortable with that, and take action rather than daydream about it.  Another thing I have evolved into is someone who asks for help.  I have had several trombone lessons with Alan Ferber, who has recently relocated with his family to St Louis.  He is a really nice guy, and when I heard him play, I IMMEDIATELY identified his stylistic attributes that I wanted to learn about.  But instead of sulking about it, I walked up to him, and introduced myself.  It was an open jam after his performance, and he had just heard my playing in the jam session.  I asked if I could have a lesson, and he said YES!  Years ago, I would have been too shy and overcome with shame to do that.  So, my growth has come from overcoming my own personality and getting out of my own way by asking others for help and following up with action.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina? 

JC: – This is a great question, and had I known the answer I will give you here 20 years ago, I may be further along the path of being a better player.  One thing I have learned while doing this group Hard Bop Messengers, is that the best way I can prepare is to know my parts and know the tunes as best I can.  I cannot control the band members, and whether they will prepare, and whether or not THEIR musicianship will carry me.  I need to stand on my own.  This was the first group for me as a leader.  I have been a side man or band member for 40 years now, and this experience has taught me how to be spiritually fit to lead.  For stamina, there is no substitute for regularity, and so I play my trombone every morning to stay I shape.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Hard Bop Messengers – Live at the Last Hotel, how it was formed and what you are working on today.  

JC: – Listening to this music reminds me of how amazing the experience was having the six-month residency at The Last Hotel.  As I said, my experience as a leader was minimal, and up until the residency, had only been able to find minimal gigs for a full quintet playing THE EXACT Hard Bop Classic I wanted to play.  The Last Hotel booked us to play EVERY FRIDAY Night for 6 months in the lobby by the bar.  I got be very comfortable leading the group and dealing with subbing players and choosing repertoire that aligned with MY vision.  When I wrote the songs on this album, I was thinking specifically about the sights and sounds of that scene and composed music that captured that experience.  It makes me happy to listen to each song and think about what part of the story it tells.  Today, I am promoting the album’s release in several ways, including making little video shorts explaining each song on the album.  I am also collaborating with others to create short music videos for some of the songs.  On the back burner, but staying warm, is the next album.

Buy from here, click on the CD cover

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album? 

JC: – As a bandleader in my jazz group, Hard Bop Messengers, I identify and elevate skills and talents of the musicians and encourage a more shared leadership on the stage.  I am always looking for musicians who are listening to the others in the group.  Above all else, sensitivity and dynamics are of the utmost importance to me, both as a listener and a bandleader.  In the case of this album, these guys were all a part of the 6-month residency, save for the vocalist, Matt Krieg.  He was a special find for me: we were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, and immediately hit it off with aligning on our ideals for vocal styles.  Before I met Matt, although I had written backstory, character descriptions, and lyrics for some of the songs, I had no intention of having vocals on the record.  After meeting Matt, and hearing him sing, I began applying lyrical intent to the compositions.  It flowed like a faucet, and rest is recorded history, for which I will be forever grateful.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? 

JC: – I move my body when I perform, and I always have.  A bandmate once pointing this out to someone else said, “look at Covelli!  He can’t possibly play out of rhythm because he’s feeling it, man!”  Although that was many years ago, and I am also doing a lot less knee drops and jumping around, I still cannot stand still if the music is heart-felt.  Conversely, I have also always had a difficult time with reading music and processing what is on the page while keeping up with the rest of the group.  In college, reading chord changes and attempting to play through the changes was sometimes an insurmountable obstacle course and often I would just close my eyes and go for it.  My teachers wanted me to be reading the changes and I was simply throwing caution to the wind.  My goal now is to find a creative balance between those two poles.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

JC: – Since I was a kid playing in bands, up until now, probably 90% of my gigs have been playing music for the enjoyment of the audience.  For better or worse, I am a people-pleaser at heart, most likely because of my personal relationship with music.  The Hard Bop Messengers’ previous release – Mining Silver, Live! captures the mission I laid out for this group: delivering the vibe of classic jazz of the 1950’s and 60’s.  This set was recorded just before our residency at The Last Hotel.  I wanted to attract new audiences into jazz by showcasing the music of Horace Silver, my favorite Hard Bop pioneer, and in my opinion, an unsung jazz hero among today’s jazz culture.  In the continuing surge in tech and incorporation of jazz elements into modern music, it is easy to forget that in the late ’50’s and early ‘60’s, Hard Bop was cutting-edge. Blue Note and other labels treasured their talented musicians and put great investment into bandleaders such as Art Blakey and groups like his Jazz Messengers.  I wanted to pull together some of our top talent here in St Louis and showcase the vitality of Hard Bop.  My plan to attract new audiences really gained traction during our 6-month residency at The Last Hotel, but this particular date gave me the confidence that my idea was sound. The restaurant was packed, and I could see that the attentive crowd was enjoying the music immensely.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

JC: – Actually, some of my greatest memories go back to my days in The Unconscious, an original-music band in the late 1980’s with horns/keyboard/guitar/bass/drums.  We traveled around in a big school bus painted black, and played loud, and really turned the crowd on.  Getting to play in legendary venues all around the Midwest, Austin, TX, New Orleans, and New Your City were super fun.  We opened for some big bands in some huge venues, too.

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

JC: – This is a great question!  Since it serves as my mission, this album is an experiment to that end.  By using the Hard Bop genre as a starting place, and incorporating harmonies and rhythmic feels from other styles, I want to see if young music listeners can feel the energy and enjoy the music.  Then I want to see if they can listen to the rest of our catalogue and take that next step of exploring on their own the other bands of the Hard Bop era.

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

JC: – Now at this point in my life, my belief of a higher power greater than myself is my compass.  I ask that power every morning and throughout the day for help to be the best version of John Covelli, in order to be of maximum service to others around me.  That is the purpose given to me, and I try to show my gratitude every day.

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

JC: – A few years ago, my wife and kids were out to eat dinner with another family, the dad being a college buddy I have known since back in the 1980’s.  He asked me if I had heard the new David Bowie album Blackstar.  I told him that I hadn’t yet heard it, so after dinner when we all went back to their house, he put it on, and we listened to the entire album, start to finish.  Incidentally, when I woke up the next morning, I learned the new of Bowie’s passing through the night.  I began to realize that since the college days of sitting around dorm rooms, spinning records, and sharing across genres, I had not listened to an ENTIRE album with friends in a long time.  On-Demand music listening has ruined the experience- my extreme assertion- is what I would change.  How?  I do not know!

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

JC: – Contrary to my opinion in the previous question, I am amazed that I can listen to an unlimited amount of Grateful Dead live recording from 1972-76 and I find myself listening to a lot of that.  I also LOVE the Silk Sonic album.  Last week I fell down a Police rabbit hole, and I am also a HUGE Steely Dan fan.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music? 

JC: – That Jazz is NOT DEAD, but very much ALIVE, without using hip hop beats to sell it to non-jazz listeners.  That’s the harsh way to put it… I want to present fresh compositions with acoustic instruments that tell a story and draw the listener in, the I have been.  I want people to experience the magic of music and the miracle of its physics.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

JC: – In the 1960’s, so that I could witness The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in night clubs; Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Keith Moon, the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne, Herbie, etc… that period probably has most of my favorite musical instances and would pay a high price to go back in time and experience that.

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

JC: – I am a fan of your work, and it was certainly an honor to have you reaching out to me!  I would like to ask what led up to you attending Berklee to study criticism, what some of your early work may differ from how you write today and approach current subjects?

JBN: – I’m a musicologist, and I studied Jazz և Blues at the Berkley College of Music. Of course, there are differences, as before they said it was more sincere, now it is more professional.

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

JC: – Your questions have been the most thoughtful that anyone has ever asked me, and I am afraid my answers may be too lengthy, but I tried my best to answer them honestly.  My hope is that you will know what to do with all of this! ???? Thanks again for this opportunity to discuss myself and this new album!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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