Monday, April 21, 2014

Chehalis, Persia, Philadelphia, Ballard

Persian Jazz Collective
I just arrived back in Portland after an extended weekend run up to Seattle. I combined an invitation to perform at the Ballard Jazz Festival with a Portland State University Jazz Program recruiting trip. I've been looking for opportunities to bring our Persian Jazz Collective(members are Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone, Jon Lakey on bass, Monica Rabii on santur and violin, and percussionists Mario Sandoval and Trina Shagafi) out to perform my "Persian Jazz Suite" and give folks a chance to see this group before Monica Rabii moves to Denmark! Plus, we are trying to raise awareness of our program beyond Oregon and hopefully in the years to come we will become more of a destination for out of state students. We began our journey in Chehalis, Washington at WF West High School. Band director Adam Campagna put us in a nice little theater to perform for his music students. It was a good warm up gig for our group; although we had not had a chance to rehearse before the tour, I asked the musicians to have their music memorized. (Of course, then I realize that I would have to find time to practice the music in order to memorize it myself and set a good example...)

Our next two performances were the next day in Edmonds, a suburb a bit north of Seattle. We hit at Mountlake Terrace High School at 7:20 am( there was actually a class before us at 6:20! Wow!). Although we were all a bit drowsy, we had a good show and an attentive audience. Band Director Darin Faul mentioned that violinist Mark O'Conner attended Mountlake Terrace, so there is clearly some good history there. After a stop at the local IHOP( no carbs for me, I had an omelette), we then went over to Edmonds-Woodway; Director Jake Bergevin heartily welcomed us into a lovely theater for our third run of our show.

Later that evening, we headed into the Ballard section of Seattle to Egan's Ballard Jam House for our
final performance with the Persian Group. It's a small venue, but festival directors Matt Jorgensen and John Bishop really got the word out about the festival. It was nice to play for a packed house, and I'm assuming that no one there had ever heard any "Persian Jazz" before! I'm confident that it was also a great performing experience for my students. After another short break, we did two sets of "regular jazz" with Nicole Glover, Jon Lakey, and drummer Matt Jorgensen. After such a long day, it was time to sleep, but instead, I went down to hear Chad McCullough's band with an all Chicago line up of Geoff Bradfield on tenor, Clark Sommers on bass, and Dana Hall on drums. I ended up buying Hall's latest release( on the Origin label) "Into The Light;" It was nice to have something awesome to listen to on my drive back to the hotel in Edmonds.

Chano Dominguez
Sonny Fortune
The last night of the festival was a momentous occasion; alto great Sonny Fortune and Flamenco jazz piano legend Chano Dominguez on a double bill. I had met Dominguez in Spain many years ago and he's a really great guy and a wonderful musician; his unique piano style is as if Bill Evans was from Andalucia( the southern region of Spain where flamenco has it's origins). Joining Dominguez on the concert was Marino Albero, who began her segment of the set with a haunting solo on hammer dulcimer; after that, she played vibraphone with Dominguez with incredible sympatico. I was truly inspired after hearing them play, and it gave me energy to play with Sonny Fortune. I certainly needed it, because even at age 74, Fortune was not messing around! I noticed that most of the real Philly musicians that I've been fortunate to play with have a certain intensity about how they approach the bandstand. It's a very no-nonsense way to play, and you have to be ready to lay it down. I was happy to have bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop in the rhythm section; they both have a lot of musical wisdom as well as supportive drive. It turned out to be a great combination. I felt like I got a little taste of East Coast jazz for a change. Overall, it was a great mini tour and I look forward to next year's Ballard festival.

Monday, April 14, 2014

I Shot A Man In Reno Just To Watch Him Play A Bb Blues

This year was my second time as an adjudicator at the Reno Jazz Festival. Running for over 50 years, this festival is one of the biggest student jazz competitions in the U.S. Over 300 groups from middle school, high school, and college compete and are coached by jazz educators and professionals. This year, like last year, was a great experience for me; I got to hear many high school and college musicians and give them my perspective on how to improve. I also got to see some old friends as well and meet some new ones; I also got to play a bit with some musicians I had never played with before. One of my alternate goals of being a part of a festival like this is recruiting; I tried to make sure that the prospective jazz students I met were aware that Portland State University is an option for them for Bachelor's or Master's. There are so many options for studying jazz, however, I think a lot of folks are curious about Portland as a city and whether it has a jazz scene and opportunity to study. ( I keep hearing that half a million people will move to Portland in the next 5 years. I guess we shall see.)

I got to hear some good music also; I heard a concert which began with The Collective, which is
Peter Epstein, who Directs the Jazz Program at UNR
actually the faculty ensemble of the University of Nevada in Reno( which is where the festival is held). Trumpet phenomenon Avishai Cohen joined them and blew the roof off the concert hall; it's amazing to hear Cohen's fluid lines, beautiful sound, and endless ideas. I also got to hear jazz super group Kneebody in a huge auditorium( it felt more like a rock concert than a jazz performance). Kneebody is a very special group; they've been together for over a decade, and it shows in how in sync they are as a band.

After listening to student bands for two days straight, it was fun to actually participate. I played as a sideman for two concerts; one was with UNR graduate Brian Landrus, who is a talented baritone saxophonist and composer. The second concert was with Clay Jenkins, a really great trumpeter who has played with many of the greats and now teaches at Eastman School of Music. Both concerts featured drummer Mark Ferber, who is one of my all time favorite musicians with whom to collaborate. Ferber and I just seem to really communicate well musically. I hope I can play with him more in the future. Another highlight of the festival is the Friday Late Night Adjudicator Jam Session. It's held in a bar in the middle of the Circus Circus Casino, which is not optimal; however, despite the less than desirable acoustics, it's still a lot of fun, and all of the educators and musicians come out to play a bit.

Larry Engstrom, Director of the Reno Jazz Festival
I really do enjoy working with the small groups. I think I am better at working with them then last year. It's always a bit rushed, but I have improved my bedside manner and getting to the heart of the matter. As Larry Engstrom, the Director of the UNR School Of The Arts and the Director of the Festival likes to say, rather insist, at the welcome meeting, "Be Postive!" Truthfully, none of these kids, some of whom drive for half a day to get to Reno, want to perform their hearts out only to be ripped apart. Constructive criticism is the name of the game. I got the impression that it was a positive experience for most of the kids I worked with. That is not to say that I sugar coat anything. (Like I say to my students at PSU, "If I'm not telling you something, you aren't getting your money's worth!")

Congratulations to Dr. Engstrom and Peter Epstein for another great festival. Maybe I'll see you next year!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Viewer Mail: Minimum Wage, etc...

Time for Viewer Mail! This recently came in and was regarding an earlier post about musicians working for less than minimum wage.....

Hi George, I'm surprised this post has no comments. I just had a couple thoughts to add. First, I find it odd that some people are willing to pay up to $85 to see a jazz concert, yet other times people will leave barely a few dollars in a tip jar. I think this disparity confuses people on what live music is worth. The big names that come to places like the SF Jazz Center (in San Francisco) are able to rake in the money, but local musicians can barely make minimum wage. 

Being a jazz fan and non-professional jazz musician in my mid-twenties, I can say that I am one of the youngest attendees at the majority of jazz shows I attend. Usually the crowd is a bunch of much older grey-haired couples. My guess it that they have good taste and lots of money to spend.

I don't know the answer, but I think the price for jazz needs to meet in the middle from $0 and $85. The majority of people don't understand or appreciate jazz. For me, it is so much about the live performance and seeing what happens in that specific concert. I've taken new friends to jazz shows who afterwards come to this realization. I think younger crowds might be latch on more if it were more affordable, and if jazz musicians and jazz fans did their part in introducing people to the music as a meaningful performance art, and not as just background music at a restaurant or bar.

Re: digital innovation -- I wish jazz artists would embrace bootleg recordings. Wouldn't it be amazing if after going to a jazz concert, you could purchase a digital download of that specific performance? I still wish I had brought my recorder to the Bill Frisell and Greg Osby duet I heard last year. Any thoughts on why this isn't common practice?


Thanks, R.C. I totally agree with your sentiment. Just like the rest of our society, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There used to be a solid middle class of musicians, in the not so distant past; musicians could do club dates, weddings, restaurant gigs, hotel gigs, studio work, jingles, and so forth. Jazz musicians could tour Europe and Japan and make a killing. Much of that has faded away, unfortunately. There was a time when jazz musicians had a minimum in terms of how much they would take to play a local gig; now, playing for the door or for tips is practically the norm. The very idea of a "professional musician" is becoming a lofty goal rather than a real career option. This is not to say it's impossible to make a living in music. People are still earning a living, it's just that you have to be open minded and much more versatile than ever before. Most musicians do some teaching, and have to do many different types of gigs to make it all work. At least, the mere mortal musicians have to have many irons in the fire; the superstars are mostly doing fine( although I hear rumblings about loss of record sales for some of the bigger jazz artists. Still, they aren't worried about being kicked out of their apartment).

I think much of the problem comes from the devaluation of music and culture in our society combined with the willingness of musicians and artists to work regardless of pay. Musicians like to play, so they will find a way, even if it means renting a hall themselves and losing money. In terms of jazz gigs, musician's unions have traditionally done very little to create a minimum standard of pay. (The musician's union in New York City, Local 802, of which I was never a member, is geared mostly towards orchestras and Broadway musicians. A friend of mine went to a 802 meeting and asked what he should do when a jazz club asked him to play for the door. "Don't play there!" was the response.)

You are right about the disparity in terms of pay, or the perceived value of the concert folks are attending. Recently, Wynton Marsalis, who is one of the most famous jazz musicians of our time, performed in Portland. Tickets were at least 100 dollars if not more! However, you might have trouble getting folks to pay 6 dollars at Camellia Lounge to hear Randy Porter or Steve Christofferson, two world class pianists -who truthfully aren't as famous as Wynton Marsalis, but who offer jazz piano as good as you would need to hear in any given evening. I mean, 6 dollars! It's kind of a travesty. I think a lot of people get caught up in the hype, and hype beats actually understanding the musical merit of local jazz masters.

It's interesting what people WILL spend money on; people will drop 100 bucks easily on a fancy meal, and then complain about a 6 dollar cover charge. People will buy expensive computers, ipods, and ipads, and then download music for free. People will buy weed, beer, and whatever else, and then say, " I can't afford to go hear music tonight." Everyone loves to make an excuse. Some of those people( music students) are planning on being working musicians in the future; some of them will be in for a rude awaking when they find that there are even fewer opportunities. "I wish there were more places to play...." Well, no one supported the venues which put on jazz, so they stopped having jazz(or any live music.)

This might be unrelated, but it's interesting to me that students will pay many thousands of dollars to attend a jazz program to have us teach them information that is available for free on the internet. You can find chord scale theory by looking for it on Google, not to mention the first page of almost every Aebersold book. You can find transcriptions online for free. Heck, you can hear all of the classic albums for free on youtube! The missing link is the scene. What students are missing is the connection with the masters. Pay your cover charge, go hear master musicians play, write down the tunes they play, go home and learn them, and do that for a few years. Then, when you feel like you know enough of the tunes that the masters know, you go down again and ask if you can sit in. This is basically what I did in Baltimore and D.C.; I went to The New Haven Lounge, The One Step Down, Blues Alley, Bertha's, Twins Lounge, and so forth, and listened to the local heavies like Bob Butta, Tim Murphy, Charles Covington, Reuben Brown, and countless others, and tried to figure out what they were playing and doing. Although I was extremely shy, I would eventually ask to sit in, and then I started to become part of the scene. This is where it is at for me in terms of jazz as a living art form. It's not just a class in school, or an abstract idea; jazz is meant to be PLAYED and LISTENED TO! Go down and hear some tonight! Maybe don't buy weed this week so you can hear some music that will keep you high for the whole week!

As far as recording gigs goes, I think the older guys are a bit protective about live taping because there is the fear of having bootlegs that are released without paying the musicians. In a way, this idea is outdated only because no recorded music is selling well, so releasing a bootleg for sale is sort of wasted effort! Some artists do have that technology together in terms of recording the gig and then having it be available right afterwards, but I guess it takes work to make that happen. It's not impossible, though. Maybe I'll try that at some point: record the gig, and then either burn CDs or make download codes available.

This brings up another point about live performance; when you hear greats on recordings, oftentimes, it's only about one tenth of what they can really do overall.  I remember hearing people like Gary Bartz and Charlie Young in Baltimore and Washington  D.C. ; they would really stretch out on their solos, in a way that you wouldn't hear on a 6 minute studio track. The real fans want to remember those gigs. I know there is an underground bootleg trading network, and if it helps to keep the music alive, I'm not against it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Two New Ones: Amber Epp and Peter Zak

Pianist Peter Zak
I haven't had a chance to do CD reviews lately. Now that I'm on Spring Break, all 7 days of it( oy gevalt), I have some time to check out some new albums. One that I'm highly overdue to check out is pianist Peter Zak's latest for Steeplechase. "The Eternal Triangle" is a wonderful trio date which balances meaty originals with choice, not often played standards. The piano sound is nice and dark, and Billy Drummond's clear crisp cymbals are unmistakable. (I've recorded a number of Steeplechase dates with Drummond and his fiery swing always makes the music fun.) The always solid Peter Washington holds down the foundation and takes some excellent solos as well.

I was particularly intrigued with the slow blues called "Hittin' The Jug." I love all kinds of jazz, but it
is extremely grounding to hear an experienced group lay into a nice slow Bb blues. It's what we call "grown folks music." But there's also some satisfying, modern-leaning music; "George Washington" is a composition which begins with a fluid rubato intro followed by a hectic straight eight vamp tune that later gives way to swing, reminiscent of some of Mulgrew Miller's work( "Sublimity" from Miller's album "Work" came to mind). "The Hymnotist," another straight eight tune, has a lot of nice harmonies and bass lines which remind me of some of Geoffrey Keezer's writing. "I Believe In You," the standard from "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," is a pleasant medium bounce. Zak's has a lot of maturity and class in his playing; he's a true New York musician, as are Washington and Drummond. This is a well rounded album and hopefully this will put Peter Zak out in the public eye a little more.

Amber Epp
My thrill as a jazz educator is seeing my students grow into great musicians. During my two year run as a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, there were a number of students who stood out as destined for success. In particular, vocalist Amber Epp( who now that I think of it, studied piano with me for a year) showed the drive of ten musicians all at once. Epp, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Steinbach, Manitoba, discovered jazz and Latin music and never looked back. Epp is well on her way to a professional career with her first all jazz album, entitled "Inside Outside." Epp has a voice which is clear, controlled, and in tune with phrasing that sparkles with rhythmic flavor and enough playful soul to make you say, "No, she couldn't be from that little town in Manitoba!"

Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" is a good way to kick off the festivities; although it's a subtle
reinterpretation, Epp gives it a nice samba flavor( I could see this one getting airplay). The selection of tunes is wide in variety; Epp loves the Latin tinge, so it's no surprise to hear a sultry rendition of
"Dos Gardenias"( Epp lived in Cuba for a short while; her Spanish is muy, muy bien, yo creo) or an impressive Portuguese version of "Chega De Saudade" with rocking samba guitar work from Larry Roy and energetic percussive bass playing from Steve Kirby( makes me miss playing with those dudes! We used to play every Wednesday Night in Winnipeg....). But there's so much more. "The Boy Next Door" features the not often heard "verse" of the tune, as well as great interpretation from Epp and swinging drumming from the great Quincy Davis. Epp can change moods on a dime: from the bluesy shuffle "Hey Now, " where she confidently struts her warm tone and popping rhythm, to the sensitive closer, Bernstein's "Some Other Time," where Epp rediscovers the bittersweet moments with a softer, muted sound. As one of her former teachers, I am bursting with pride about this recording; Amber Epp is going to thrill jazz lovers beyond Manitoba with this new CD.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The NEW Portland State Jazz Series

LH 47, before the makeover
Most of what we do in the Portland State University Jazz Program is in Lincoln Hall 47. It's been mostly thought of as a classroom. However, this year, we have turned the space into more of a performance venue. We have a stage, a brand spanking new Yamaha Avant Grande N3, and a new sound system. We've done a bit of remodeling, and we've been having all of our area recitals in this space. Well, starting next term, we are pumping it up a notch; we are turning our area recitals into a performance series. The Portland State Jazz Series is an exciting new venture; mostly free concerts with some ticketed events sprinkled in for good measure. This is a good way for the Portland Community to get to know more about our program, and it's also good for our students and faculty to perform for a more "real" audience. We've already gotten some press in Oregon Music News as well as Oregon Arts Watch. For more information, go to the website. We'll keep you updated on the events as they are added.
LH 47 looking much better!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Jim Rotondi Interview

 I recently had the good fortune to do a mini-tour with Jim Rotondi, one of the great jazz trumpeters. I have admired his playing since first hearing him in the 90's at Augie's and with the group One For All. Rotondi is trained in the old school; he knows a lot of tunes, is serious about playing changes and swinging. We played some standards that I have not played in a while; we also played some of his originals which were fun as well. After hanging with Rotondi for the week, I decided that it would be great to interview him for jazztruth.

GC: We're here with Jim Rotondi, one of the great trumpet players in jazz. He's spent many years in NY and is now in Europe, living part time in Graz, Austria, and where in France?

JR:  The city is called Clermont-Ferrand, it's in the dead center of France, about 3hrs south of Paris.

GC: Can you tell me, because I know you're from Butte, MT., how did you get into music and when did you decide that you wanted to be a jazz musician?

JR: I grew up as the youngest of five kids and we always grew up with music in the house. My
mom was a piano teacher and she wanted all of us to have music lessons, but insisted on not teaching us because she wanted to separate family and music endeavor. The way it went down in our family was that my mother was the musical inspiration and my father enforced all the rules. All of us were strongly encouraged to take piano lessons, and if we didn't want to take piano lessons, it was kind of a problem. My siblings and I took piano lessons until about high school. Along the way, we had the option to take up another instrument if we wanted to. I wanted to be in some kind of musical group where I was with other people, rather than practicing solo piano. And that's how I got into the trumpet. I started playing piano at the age of 8 and started the trumpet at12.

Now sort of briefly speaking about the musical community in Butte, Montana, there really wasn't one. My initial exposure was from public radio and a buddy of mine in junior high had the Clifford Brown and Max Roach vinyl set. He was also a trumpet player and he let me take it home for a few weeks and it completely blew my mind. Any trumpet player that hears Clifford Brown for the first time, more or less, has to be overwhelmed.

GC: I had the same feeling.

JR: I finished high school and always had the vision to get the hell out of Montana as soon as possible. You also asked, how did I arrive at the decision that I wanted to be a jazz musician and make that my life calling? That didn't happen actually until a few years after graduating high school. Ironically, my father enforced the rules that we had to take piano lessons, but when I decided to become a musician, it backfired on him. He didn't want me to be a professional musician and was upset when I told him I was going to the University of North Texas to study music. Like most fathers, he wanted to know that I'll have security. 

Anyway, I was hesitant the first two years after high school when I was in college at U of O in Eugene, OR. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was enrolled in a bunch of courses that I was not going to in favor of practicing the trumpet. I was practicing more than some of the music majors there and always listening to music with my older brother in our apartment. I'll never forget, I was listening to an Inner City record of Dexter Gordon called “Bouncin' with Dex, ” with Billy Higgins and Tete Montoliu. They were swinging like a mofo and I just looked at my brother and said, “You know what man, I'm outta here. Next fall I'll be going to a music school.” It happened like that.

GC: Wow, Interesting. So you went to UNT?

JR: Yep and I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 1985.

GC: Did you go to NY right after that?

JR: No I didn't. I didn't have any bread. Since my dad was ambivalent towards me becoming a musician, I made it a point of pride to not ask him for money. I figured I'm gonna have to do a gig or some kind of job. North Texas is the kind of institution that is contacted by a lot of professionals for young student recruits. I got a call from a cruise ship and I did that for a year to save bread. After that I moved to NY in 1987.

GC: When you got to NY, how did you get started?

JR: I met some contacts on that ship that were really valuable. One of those contacts was Richie Vitale,  a great bebop trumpet player and another guy was a keyboard player named George Whitty. When I got to NY, I called them as well as a bunch of other people saying that I'm in town and went to a ton of jam sessions. I forget who recommended me to go on a tour of an off Broadway show, but it was an R&B review show happening at the Village Gate.  I went and auditioned, got the gig, and within months of moving to New York, I was on the road. It lasted about 5 months off and on though. But that was the start of road gigs that got me out of the city til about 1992. I went on the road with the Artie Shaw Big Band and was called to do the Ray Charles thing in 1991. Basically, my musical subsistence at that point was either going on the road or doing wedding/ bar mitzvah type gigs.

GC: So cut to 1991-92, Augie's was happening.  Were you on that scene?

JR: Augie's was happening before that, Joe Farnsworth was giving weekends in 1989. In and around all the things I've been talking about, I was doing that too. It's an outstanding experience as you know from doing similar gigs. Joe was visionary with that gig because he could have had just one steady group every weekend, but he used this opportunity to play with cats he didn't normally get the chance to play with. It was through this that I met Junior Cook and Cecil Payne, Charles Davis,  and a host of other saxophone players. John Patton and Eddie Gladden used to come play when Joe couldn't do it.

GC: So, you were going on the road and you would do this?

JR: Yeah, a big point of contention was that Joe wanted me to reserve my weekends for his gig, but I had wedding gigs and I had to pay my rent.

GC: Did you feel a difference between playing with Ray Charles versus a jazz gig at Augie's?

JR: Playing with Ray Charles, for me, was a jazz gig. I was a featured soloist, and he wanted all of us to play. he had arrangements in his book that had Trane changes. He actually tested us to see if we had it together. It was a blowing gig whether you liked it or not. He had a great book; Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, and all these great cats wrote for him.

GC: How long were you with Ray Charles?

JR: About a year and a half. I did one tour which was 7 months and at the end of it, I did a bunch of stuff with him but was not officially in the group.

GC: How did One for All get started?

JR: One for All got started through Joe Farnsworth Augie's thing. It came together piece by piece. Joe and Eric Alexander went to school at William Patterson. Joe got the gig at Augie's and when he wasn't hiring other cats, we were doing it as a quintet. John Webber was always on that scene too and was playing most of those gigs. One for All officially came together because I got a weekend at Smalls. I had been talking to David Hazeltine. At the time he was living with Brian Lynch in Chinatown. We all thought that David and Brian were a package deal because they played a lot with each other, but Dave started asking us to come over for sessions when Brian was out of town. We found out Dave had arrangements ready to go for a sextet. Joe knows Steve Davis because Joe's from Massachusetts and Steve is from Hartford. The whole band played together for the first time at Small's in 1992 or 93 I think. Then we tried to doing that sextet all the time. The first time that personnel recorded was on Steve's album Dig Deep. Six months later we did our first for Sharp Nine.

GC: What's the status of One for All?

JR: It's harder since I don't live in the US anymore and it's never been an easy band to book. Eric Alexander skyrocketed in popularity in 10 yrs. There was some contention that people would perceive it as Eric Alexander and One for All. We as the group wanted to keep it as a co-operative, but Eric's other band was working more than we were. I think it's unfortunate because we could've done a lot more.

GC: At some point you started pursuing teaching gigs and you won the position at the Graz Conservatory?

JR: I'm going into my fourth year.

GC: Did you think of yourself as an educator?

JR: No, definitely not. The first two jobs I had, I didn't seek out, they came to me. John Thaddeus and Todd Coolman both sounded me for an adjunct gig at SUNY Purchase and I was there for 10 years. The year before I left town, I was on the faculty for Rutgers University. I didn't think of myself as a teacher but when they asked me to do it, I thought I would try it. Being a teacher crystallizes what you do because if you can't clearly explain what to do, then you really don't understand it. I felt like I had to get it together so I could show students what I was doing and to help them with what they wanted to do. It took me a minute, but after a while I fell into a groove for teaching.

GC: how would you describe your way to teaching jazz?

JR: My philosophy about improvising on the trumpet is that it's a unique study because improvising eliminates the concept of pacing. You don't know exactly how long you're going to play. When I deal on the technical side with students, I always talk to them about that. I also tell them think about things that are substitutes to pacing so they don't blow out their chops right away. I have exercises that I do that are technical but also can be musical phrases that deal with harmonic sequence. We work a lot at the keyboard, a lot of ear training, study language a number of ways such as transcription and listening.

GC: What strikes me about your playing is that the music comes through. I think the best jazz musicians transcend the instrument. Have you always had that?

JR:I wasn't one of those natural guys. There was a period in my development early on when I was in NY where I sought out specific technical advice for the problems I was having. For me, it has taken me a while and I was really fortunate to have some technique oriented teachers that have helped me a lot. Going back to how I teach, I talk a lot about transcending the physical difficulty of the instrument and being musical.

GC: I personally am into a lot of different types of music and now that I teach history, I'm more fascinated with the old and with what things people consider new but are now technically old. How do address the notion of musicians or students rejecting the past completely as if it never happened? What's your opinion?

JR: I think jazz music has always favored innovation but key principles from the previous generation's music were retained.  What you mention, sometimes appears to be change at the expense of all else. Young people are always going to be young,  they're going to want to change the world, conquer it, and do their own thing. I dig that and I think that's very important in young people and that keeps us young. As a teacher, I don't want to fight that, but rather balance that. My responsibility as an older musician who knows a bit of that stuff is to get them into what has already happened.

GC: Do you think Europe will be the center of jazz? Do you think that NY will lose its claim to being the place that everyone feels like they need to go?

JR: I do not, and I say that as a European musician now. I think Europeans have their take on the music which is unique. I'm not sure there's anything strong enough to lay claim as the capital of music.

GC: I think so too. Some people might say you have to go to NY or Berlin but another person might not have the same experience.

JR: I still feel like there's an energy in NY that doesn't exist in any other city.

GC: I totally agree. Especially with the music. Whether anybody's working or not, when you play with cats from NY, you just feel it immediately, it's different. It's hard to get that from other places.

JR: When you go back, there's a little bit of a letdown. I don't want to be hypercritical because I'm in that community. I have a group I work with now that contains a lot of former students. One of the things I work with them, especially rhythm section members is maintaining energy. They always want to have some energy and drop it down, and I don't think that's necessary. It's more important to maintain an energy level.

GC: What was it like working with Harold Mabern?

JR: Great, [laughs] speaking of energy. He's in his late 70s now, I guess. I worked with him about a month ago. He has more energy than any one musician I've ever played with. The qualities I love in him aside from his energy is his knowledge of material. He taught me a lot of things that I teach now about harmony and substitutions. He's a selfless mentor.

GC: Do you think knowing tunes is a lost art?

JR: Yes, absolutely.

GC: How do you feel about that?

JR: I don't like it. I think studying tunes like that informs your ideas on composing. Students want to write tunes without having studied those song forms and harmonic sequences, and it doesn't work. They don't know it and they're not qualified yet to write. I can think of a million reasons to study all that music and not one reason to not study it.

GC: Do you have anything new coming up?

JR: My most recent recording (Hard Hittin' at the Bird's Eye) came out a few months ago on the Sharp Nine label. I'm hoping to record my electric group from Austria next fall or spring. I'm excited about these guys because it's an opportunity for me to write in a new way. It's different than anything I've done before.

GC: I've already heard this story, and I couldn't stop laughing. If you can tell the story....

JR: What happened was when I recorded my first album as a bandleader on the Criss Cross label and it's called Introducing Jim Rotondi. I guess for some people, my name is not the easiest to pronounce.

GC: Where does your name come from?

JR: It's Italian, my grandfather was from Naples. So, there was a certain radio DJ in the NY area back in the 90s that had an evening program. The DJ featured some clips of my album, but he had difficulty pronouncing my name and would always say, “That's music from brand new artist Jeb Rodonti.” I hadn't heard it myself, but people kept on telling me that the DJ was calling me Jeb Rodonti. I listened it one night and called the studio at a time when the music was playing so I could talk to the DJ. I told him thanks for playing my new record and how important that is for me. I tried telling him my name isn't Jeb Rodonti, it's Jim Rotondi. The DJ responded, “Man, I don't know who you really are, but I'm looking at the CD right now and it says Jeb Rodonti.”

GC: [laughs] Ok Jim, or should I say Jeb Rodonti, Ill be sure to spell your name right….