Jazz interview with jazz pianist Peter Madsen․ 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.
Peter Madsen: – I grew up in Racine Wisconsin which is a town of about 75,000 people between Chicago and Milwaukee. Right on Lake Michigan. I officially started taking classical piano lessons at age 8 and double bass at age 11. But I was always interested in music. My mother found a photo of me a few years ago when I was one year old playing the piano of my grandmother. I was totally fascinated by this giant beast that made such beautiful sounds. I guess you could say that the piano has always been a big part of my daily life! I got interested in Jazz in particular starting at age 13 (1968) when my classical piano teacher showed me how to improvise a little. That was also the year, I joined the Washington Junior High School big-band.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
PM: – I think my sound has deepened over the years through my development as a person as well as through the thousands of diverse musical experiences I’ve been lucky to have had.
I used to record myself trying different kinds of touches on my piano and worked hard to be able to make the piano sing and to be powerful whenever I needed these and other sounds. Over the years I have also developed extended piano sounds by playing on the strings inside the piano with my hands or mallets or putting objects on the strings and so on.
I also used to practice the techniques of Madam Chaloff (teacher of Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and many others) using the energy around me from the earth and from the air, bringing it into my body and using this flowing energy to carry the musical sounds I want to make.
For years in the jazz-world I’ve heard that you must find your own sound and for years I’ve tried to figure out how to do that. For me, after over 60 years of playing music, I’ve discovered that it’s all about love! You must play the sounds, ideas, styles that you love. That you love deeply!
And I’ve also found it important to leave out the sounds, ideas, styles that you don’t love! Practice and use what touches you deeply at the moment but keep an open mind because you are a changing being and what you love today could be different tomorrow! Always be searching for yourself and what you love until you die. and then keep searching!
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
PM: – First, I must say that I don’t have any routines or exercises to maintain and improve my musical proficiency. For me it’s all about playing as much as possible and always searching for new ideas from the past or the present. I learned a lot about rhythm and harmony while playing with many incredible musicians in NYC when I lived there full-time from 1980 until 2000 and then part-time in NYC and Austria for the last 21 years. I try to keep up to date with what’s going on in the jazz world and other musical worlds.
For example, odd meters have become important in the jazz world these past years so I’ve been playing and composing lots of odd meters pieces. My last dozen albums are full of odd meter compositions.
Another way that I’ve learned to maintain and improve my rhythmic and harmonic proficiency is by studying and playing music other than jazz. For example, I’ve studied a lot about many kinds of African music. I used to play in an African jazz group called the KDR Society with musicians from Senegal, Ghana, the UK and Austria. I also used to play in Pee Wee Ellis’s (James Brown sax/composer) African group which included super stars Tony Allen (Nigerian inventor of the Afro-beat) and Vusi Mahlesela (famous South African protest composer and singer) and many others. I also played with the great Brazilian hero of Pat Metheney, Toninho Horta.
Toninho is on my first recording from 30 years ago along with Chris Potter, Anthony Cox and Lewis Nash. I even have a Brazilian ensemble which rehearses once a week! I think I’ve actually grown a lot through my world music studies which also includes Gamelan music from Bali, music from Cuba as well as many forms of Japanese music (I have toured there over 60 times) and brought many of these ideas into my jazz playing and composing.
JBN: – How do you keep stray, or random, musical influences from diverting you from what you’re doing?
PM: – I simply follow what I love but always with an open mind!
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
PM: – I have stamina forever. I can go for hours without stopping! Maybe that’s because of my many 5-hour gigs in NYC! But I do practice every day and rehearse all the music for a recording until I know the pieces. I play a lot every day as I’m a teacher and play along with every student and also in every workshop and group that I run (10 workshop bands and 10 other ensembles that I compose and organize).
Spiritual playing for me comes from a spiritual mind and spiritual focus. It comes from a spiritual daily life not from spiritual practicing just before a recording! It’s an everyday kind of work! I used to meditate in zazen a lot but now I find that meditating at the piano works even better for me. I even used to have meditation concerts at my house or in churches and universities!
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JBN: – In your opinion, what is the balance in music between intellect and soul?
PM: – I’m not sure if there is some exact balance between intellect and soul. But I seem to admire the musicians who come from a more soulful place! Maybe that’s because of my 30 years working with all the James Brown horn players like Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and Maceo Parker! I love to feel the music, the soul, the depth, the emotion. But I guess it really depends on the style of music you want to play. Some music of course requires more intellect to play it. But in the end, I tend to listen to the soul of the music even if the music is very difficult and intellectual.
When I play music myself, I tend to feel the music with lots of positive energy and flow. But of course, I must learn the music well enough first that I don’t need to concentrate on the harmony or rhythms. I want everything to feel organic.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
PM: – I’m not sure everyone at a concert has some longed-for emotion they want me to deliver them. I believe audiences want to be touched in some way but maybe not in some specific way. All I know is I always play from my heart and soul and hope my music touches them in some way.
The great composer, pianist and band leader Sun Ra wanted to destroy the distance between the musicians and the audience. For him we are all in it together, emotionally and every other way. We’re all an important part of the performance and I believe the same!
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
PM: – Well actually that could take hours and hours. I could tell you about my first concert with Stan Getz in France where the audience gave us a 10-minute standing ovation before we played a note. Or I could tell you of the first time I met Joe Lovano at a jam session and then the first recording I made with him. I could tell you about being on tour with Kenny Garrett in Japan and both of us stumbling through speaking our terrible Japanese (he was better than me) and the 3 recordings I made with him. Or I could tell you about the first time I met Chris Potter who was substituting for Kenny on a gig and said to myself after hearing him for a few seconds, he’s going to be a star and the 2 recordings I made with him. I could tell you about the dozens of times playing with the Mingus Big Band at the Time Cafe. Or the first time recording with Stanley Turrentine who gave me such a hard time when meeting me (old school tough), but after he heard me play, he asked me for my phone number because he had a gig for me. I could tell you of recording with Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos. Or I could tell you about the incredible concerts and tours with Thomas Chapin and Mario Pavone and Tony Malaby and Steven Bernstein. I could tell you about recording with Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker 30 years ago and I could tell you about the hundreds of tours in Africa, Australia, the Philippines, Israel, Russia, Chile and more with Fred. Or I could tell you about the 60 tours throughout all of Japan. I could tell you about meeting and playing with the great Warne Marsh for the first time and my overwhelming reaction when he asked me to join his band. Or I could tell you about my apartment in Brooklyn where I had jam sessions every day in the 1980s and met hundreds of great and sometimes famous musicians who simply wanted to play with me. I could even tell you about the hundreds of silent movies that I have improvised music to. I could tell you about so much more – but that’s enough – well except for the time I .. !!
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
PM: – By playing compositions written today and not play so many old standards. 99% of my concerts are my own music or special arrangements of older songs! Also, I think using some of the grooves and ideas from the popular music of today from hip-hop or pop or soul is a way to get younger people interested in jazz and improvisational music. Another way is to take some old compositions and rewrite them in an up-to-date style. For example, I took a dozen Elvis Presley songs and completely rewrote the harmonies and rhythms to make his music sound totally hip and up to date! I recorded it on a cool CD called Elvis Never Left the Building (also on Playscape Recordings) which was chosen by some critics as the best tribute album of the year.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
PM: – John was a special spiritual being. His spirit has touched us all. His friend Albert Ayler said, ‘Music is the healing force of the universe.’ For me, our spirit through music is the healing force of the universe and we sure need a lot of healing right now!!
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
PM: – Musicians should be respected and supported in every aspect – from ourselves, from other musicians, from the public and from the governments and institutions! We need lots of help right now as the spirit and soul of music is being lost to the business of music!!
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
PM: – Lately I’ve been listening to pygmy music of the rainforest, gamelan music from Bali, lots of Brazilian music, and in the jazz world: Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock as I am teaching workshops about these guys at the moment.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
PM: – My message has always been one of love and togetherness. We are all one family. The entire world is connected. Enjoy each other and share!! Stop hating and start loving!
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
PM: – So many choices! Maybe the early 50s because I would love to hear Charlie Parker and Coltrane and a few other of my jazz heroes that I didn’t get to hear live!!
JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
PM: – I’m curious how you got into running an online music magazine and how you can keep it going? Congratulations!!
JBN: – I am a musicologist, jazz expert, jazz critic. I started in the Facebook group many years ago, then when it wasn’t enough anymore, I created the website in 2009. and I imagine the future of jazz and my activity brilliantly, I organize jazz festivals in several countries, very crowded.
JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
PM: – No Just happy to spread the great message of music and love!!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan