Larry Nai, Cadence
CAD: When and where were you born?
MS: I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, December 7,1960.
CAD: Did you have a musical household when you were growing up?
MS: No. My father played tuba in high school, but no, none at all. There was music around the house, but they weren't musicians. They had a decent record collection, but by the time I was born, I don't think they were playing it a lot. It would have been light classical music, or some big band stuff.
CAD: Have an effect on you?
MS: Not necessarily, no. What had an effect on me was music in the church
CAD: What religion?
MS: Episcopalian. Sometimes, in some parts of the mass, the priest would get into something like a Gregorian chant. There was this one very Gregorian type of theme that our organist used to play a lot that really hit me. I wanted to learn how to do that. The organist really affected me,I just thought it was cool. If I remember correctly, she used to play a lot of anthems; I'm not really sure what they were.
CAD: Your first musical inklings were classical rather than Jazz?
MS: Yeah, definitely.
CAD: Were your parents encouraging with your musical interests?
MS: Yeah, I said I wanted to play organ, so they talked to the organist, and she said…start with the piano. So I started talking piano lessons from her. They got me a piano, but at first I didn't realize I had to practice. When I realized I had to practice every week, that was a problem. They used to say, if we're going to pay for you to have lessons, you've got to practice. So it got to a point where I had to practice like a half-hour a day.
CAD: What kind of things did the organist teach you?
MS: Just basics, stupid little songs.
CAD: Can you think of the earliest musical experiences that had a big impact on you as a kid?
MS: Probably when I saw Ahmad Jamal on TV. And Nina Simone, also.
CAD: How old were you?
MS: Around twelve. With Nina Simone, she scared me. There was something dark, scary about her music that freaked me out for days. With Ahmad Jamal, he played a blues, and it was like, wow, I gotta learn to do that! There was something so spiritual about this blues he played, just really affected me deeply.
CAD: Any interest in other arts at that age?
MS: Not really, I just really cared about sports. I wanted to be an athlete.
CAD: Ddi your parents take you to see live music?
MS: Yeah, from the time I was about six, I remember going to see Count Basie, I remember going to see George Shearing… the thing when I heard George Shearing, my mother used to play the easy listening station a lot, and I remember he played a bunch of songs I had actually heard on the easy listening station, so it was kinda exciting, 'cause I recognized some of the songs. And my mother used to take me to se the Nutcracker suite every year.
CAD: What do you remember about Basie?
MS: With Count Basie, I just remember wanting to go home! (laughs) I didn't recognize any of the songs.
CAD: Growing up, did you play anything other than the piano?
MS: I had a clarinet, and I remember playing it a little, I don't know how. Years later in high school, I actually did play bass clarinet. I had a drum set thing that was my cousin's, and I remember fooling around on it. But I never learned how to play it.
CAD: When did you start getting into improvised music?
MS: Pretty early on. After I heard Ahmad Jamal, I decided I wanted to be a Jazz pianist. So the process started of acquiring knowledge, even though I didn't try to play Jazz for maybe a couple years. I just kept with classical music. But I wanted to become a Jazz musician, so I was trying to figure out a methodology to learn. So then, really started checking out my parents' Jazz records, 'cause they had a Jazz collection of sorts ...
Mainly people who were popular in the fifties. They had Ahmad Jamal albums, Erroll Garner albums, some Ellington, they had Basie, they had Clifford Brown albums 'cause my mother was friends with him. And Miles Davis, they had his albums. But I started listening very carefully, and started to buy some books.
If I remember my first experience, somebody showed me the changes to a blues one day. And I was listening to a Count Basie album, and I played a solo on this blues, I started humming it, figured I could run down the changes, so I ran downstairs and picked it out on the piano. And there I was, off to the races. So from there, I was basically just filling in my knowledge, going to the library, buying records. I pretty quickly got into Coltrane, then started buying McCoy Tyner albums, Cecil Taylor albums.
CAD: In retrospect, do you think you worked your way through the tradition first, or did you leap into the more advanced stuff?
MS: I kind of leaped in. I was actually listening to Coltrane before I checked out Bird. When I first heard Coltrane, it made sense to me; when I first heard Charlie Parker, I thought it was weird.
CAD: How do you feel about Parker now?
MS: He's one of my idols. Once Bird did hit, I went through a heavy, heavy, heavy Bird phase, you know, taking apart some of his solos, trying to check out what he did. Yeah, he's a huge influence. He really carried a whole language around with him.
CAD: Some people feel bop was a dead end after a while.
MS: I can only talk for myself. I don't know if it's a dead end, I mean, I like to go hear Tommy Flanagan. For me, it's definitely not the mode of my expression. At one time, I was really playing somewhat like a Mccoy Tyner, or a Bill Evans, and I remember a gig where I realized it was a dead end for myself. I remember the specific night, playing "Donna Lee," and it went nowhere. It was like, I can't be doing this. I was about 19 or 2O; it was at the Deer Park in Newark, Delaware. Even though I did cocktail gigs, and I had a Jazz quartet, which are obviously two separate things, I felt like a cocktail musician. And I knew where my heart was leading, I was just scared to jump in. This one particular night it just hit me, that I had to jump in, do what I wanted to do.
CAD: Did you feel like a cocktail musician because of the music, or because of the audience expectations?
MS: All, all of the above. Because of the of the way I was playing in that style, because of the setting. It's really funny, I used to have a gig at a restaurant in Hockessin, I don't remember the name of it, but at the time I had a thoroughly composed piano suite I was working on. And one night, somebody said, "Why don't you play one of your own pieces?" So I played that, and the manager came running up the stairs screaming.
CAD: After Coltrane, who did you gravitate toward?
MS: Well, there were lot of simultaneous things going on. As far as pianists, at the time I think I was checking out Oscar Peterson, and Phineas Newborn Jr. pretty heavily, and then I got into Bill Evans. At the same time, I was getting into Coltrane, so of course McCoy Tyner. And then I went right to Cecil, and then to Charlie Parker and Bud Powel.
CAD: What do you think of Peterson's detractors, who say he's all flash?
MS: I heard a reissue from, I think, 1951 -- if they want to check that out, they'd have to change their opinion. He's a very bizarre character in Jazz history; he's a great pianist, not exactly what I'm into now, but he obviously made certain decisions to further his career. I have a friend whose theory is that Oscar came to New York around when Parker and those people were here, and he saw how they were living, and he just went back up to Canada and said, you know, 'Fuck that shit,' (Laughs) He chose to play a certain way. 'Cause it can get rough down here on the Lower East Side. I can't talk for the decisions he's made, but he's definitely... There's a period where he's somewhere between Nat Cole and Bud Powell, where, if you hear him in that period, he's pretty amazing.
CAD: Tell me about the shrine to Cecil you had as a teenager.
MS: (Laughs) When I say "shrine," it was just a table where I had a picture of him that I used to stare at. It was very inspirational to see the intense look on his face as he was playing. It was a picture torn out of a Jazz book. I got hip to Cecil pretty heavy; "Silent Tongues" might have been the first album I bought, at Wilmington Dry Goods. By the time I was eighteen, I had, like, twenty Cecil Taylor albums.
CAD: When did you first see him live?
MS: When he played with Max Roach, the first duo concert. I don't really remember the music, 'cause he was like my idol, and just seeing him onstage, I just got like, paralyzed. If it was the worst concert in the world, I still would have been in shock, because I was seeing him. I remember Max's drum solo, really digging that, and I remember Cecil's piano solo -- actually I even remember this figure he was doing in his left hand -- but after that I just got caught up. I kind of just lost my mind.
CAD: Was Delaware a nurturing place for you musically?
MS: Yes, very. There was a great vibes player ... I think he played with Ramsey Lewis ... Lem Winchester. I think he died playing Russian Roulette. But my father was actually friends with him, because my father was a retired police captain, and Lem Winchester was on the Wilmington police force. And my mother knew Clifford Brown. So just that whole mythology existing in our household was kind of inspiring.
And of course, there's the great "Boysie" - Robert "Boysie" Lowry, who I studied with for awhile. He was just one of the great Jazz teachers, and he was right there in Wilmington, Delaware. He used to write these very simple exercises out; he would take a progression, and it would be like a melodic line. From change to change, and you would just play it over and over. And he would slowly add grace notes and stuff, so you would approach the chord maybe a half-step down, and then he'd add another grace note... They were very simple exercises, but he was teaching Jazz musicians how to think their way through solos, he was not interested in hip Jazz licks or anything like that. He wanted you to really internalize the chord changes, plus really be very aware of the rhythmic integrity of what you were doing.
You would play these simple things for a long time, and then he would make it a little more complex; he really was trying to give you a whole gestalt, a whole approach, rather than just learning licks, he didn't want that. I studied with him about a year.
But, in Delaware, there were people around, like Daahoud, the pianist that Clifford Brown wrote the song about. Then Scoff Davidson, who was a great help, 'cause as a percussionist, he had this really intense collection of world music, and he first got me into African and Indian music. Then I met a guy named Sunyata. At the time I met him, he was working as a janitor in Newark, Delaware, and the best way to describe him at the time was a philosopher-mathematician-composer.
He kind of took me under his wing when I was like seventeen, and I did this really bizarre apprenticeship with him, which if you've ever read Carlos Castaneda, was not unlike what he would go through with Don Juan. He really drilled me every day, taking concepts as being very relative, how language defines your world. He was a big, big mentor to me.
Plus, Delaware is right outside Philly, so there's the whole legacy of the Philadelphia scene. Dennis Sandole is there, Coltrane's teacher and also the fact that Sun Ra lived up in Germantown. I'd met people that played with Sun Ra from when l was a teenager on. I actually thought it was a good place, I found the people I needed.
CAD: Getting back to Cecil Taylor, you've been quoted as saying that he. "... used to be someone to admire, now he's someone I react against."
MS: Yeah -- I don't want to live in his shadow, basically. I'm in a situation where a lot of the people I play with have been in his bands, David Ware, William Parker, Marc Edwards. At one time in the Ware Quartet, everybody in the group was an alumnus of a Cecil Taylor group, and I play piano. And I don't get tagged as sounding like him, but all I meant by that is I don't want to live in his shadow.
CAD: You're pretty voracious as a fan and observer of the scene. Just about every time I'm in New York I've seen you at Tower Records or See/Hear. How do you make the time for that?
MS: Well, I'm an extremely organized person, I allow certain times in the day to do what has to be done. Plus, I've had to because I've basically managed and developed my own career. If you're in this business, you gotta be ten steps ahead of everybody to get anywhere 'cause it's almost impossible to get anywhere in this business! (laughs). So I have to know every fact, every piece of information. I keep in contact with every record company I'm with constantly. Any little decision about anything, how an album is promoted, or if you're going to send it to this writer and not that one, I'm in on every decision.
And I keep in touch with David Ware's record companies, I'm in on every decision made there. It's so easy for an album to come out and just die really quickly in this business. You have to keep your album alive and in the media and on the radio. It's a lot of work, and in this form of music, nobody else is going to do it for you, the artist has to be on the distributors... Once I get ahold of a piece of information, I might have to call this record company, this distributor, whatever, to coordinate a lot of stuff. So I do it out of a need for survival.
CAD: How well are you surviving?
MS: Oh, I'm actually making a salary just under what a yuppie would make (laughs). I'm making a living. Next year should be very decent. I just got a European agent, I have an American agent. I'm not on the road constantly, but with David, we go out quite a bit, I'm starting my own group, so it's getting a lot better. And I do a lot of records. I have very decent deals with my record companies, they look out for my interests.
CAD: Would you say there's a Free Jazz renaissance going on?
MS: I think the language has always been alive, I just think that now it's going to become, I won't say commercially viable, but I think the underground might pop its head into the mainstream for a while. Renaissance, I don't know. I mean, William Parker's been doing what he's been doing since the seventies…I just think we're getting more opportunities to perform. .
CAD: Steve Lacy was talking recently about the Dixieland revival that he was a part of in the late fifties, and he said that, even though he enjoyed playing that music, he knew that it was only a re-creation of the original wave. To what extent do you hear that in the free Jazz that's being played today?
MS: What we're doing has no relation to the sixties, as far as I'm concerned. It's like, just because Sonny Rollins plays tunes and plays chord changes, he's not doing what Charlie Parker did. I look at it the same way. Obviously we're not creating a completely new idiom, but we are playing music of the late nineties, in that idiom. The assumptions we make about the world, our whole approach, is completely different. What Cecil or Ornette or Albert Ayler were doing, you know, I think we're doing a completely different music. Free Jazz is actually a tradition now, but the music is different.
CAD: Do you hear other musicians in this idiom who are just replicating stuff from the sixties?
MS: Yeah .... Yeah, you hear that. But that is not our intention, or reason for playing music. Myself, and the people I play with, are definitely looking ahead.
CAD: You've said that By The Law Of Music (HatArt) was partly conceived as an argument against writers who favor European improvisers over American ones.
MS: What I was actually trying to do with that, was to do chamber Jazz. There's no drum, and there's two strings; I was just playing off the idea of chamber classical music but with a Jazz feel. There is a certain school of criticism in this music that bothers me, and this album was kind of made as an argument to throw that back in their faces. How can I put this... What you said before, that there is a school of people that would look at myself and the people I play with, and say, "You're just doing the avant-garde music of the sixties" -- they tend to like White players, and they would say that this group of whites are doing something new, and you guys aren't.
That type of ideology does exist. I think it's complete bullshit, myself. That kind of thing reaches its apotheosis in how some people would relate to David Ware or or Charles Gayle. Less so with David, because he has a band, whereas Charles doesn't have a band per se. And the David Ware Quartet has an obvious modus operandi.
CAD: Is it hard to get work in New York City?
MS: No, it's easy to get work, but working here doesn't pay much. I'm trying to chill on playing in New York, I'm trying to do it as little as possible. I'm trying to do certain things in my career that need to get done.
CAD: Like what?
MS: Well, I think the fact that you live here, New York audiences tend to take you for granted sometimes, because it's easy to see you. I want to make access to seeing me play here a lot less, so it counts more in the media when I do do it.
CAD: Have you had any exposure on the Los Angeles/San Francisco music scene?
MS: No, the only time I played in Los Angeles was with Roscoe Mitchell. We did a residency at Cal Arts when he was teaching there. We did a concert in Watts, and we did one in an army barracks of some sort, and then we did a concert at the college there, but I don't know the people on the scene there at all. The first tour I actually did with Roscoe was a quartet tour in the South, and Malachi Favors was on the tour, Roscoe, myself, and Vincent Davis. I remember telling Roscoe that when I was a teenager, I used to read about the Art Ensemble, 'cause they were pretty big then, and I remember telling him I used to think they were millionaires. He had to stop the van and pull over, he was laughing so hard!
CAD: What's your ideal playing situation?
MS: I view life like the Ellington organization, or the Coltrane Quartet, that's the way I structure how I see the Jazz business. Like anybody my age, you grow up hearing rock, and the way I structurally look at the Jazz business is the way the rock business runs -- what I mean is that there's groups, you know, like Led Zeppellin -- they were four guys who played together. The way I see the proliferation of albums in my career, even though all my albums are different, I mean, I have trios, I have duos with different people -- it is a core nucleus of people I play with. That's just the way I approach music, it's just what I want to do, it works for me.
CAD: How did you hook up with Mat Maneri?
MS: Well, I attended New England Conservatory of Music for a year before I moved to New York, and I knew his father (Joe) when I was at school. I didn't know Mat. When I moved to New York, the first year I was here, a friend of mine started telling me about Mat, I think Mat was like 17 or 16 at the time. I had a concert in Boston with my friend, a tenor player named Gary Jones and l met Mat through Gary. Mat had a fully-formed voice even then; I actually think he's one of the greatest improvisers on this planet today. I don't know where he comes from! (laughs.)
CAD: How did you know Joe?
MS: Joe was teaching at New England Conservatory. I used to talk to him a lot. Gary, who's a great tenor player, was studying with him at the time. He was really blown away by Joe's clarinet playing. It was funny, 'cause while I was there Jimmy Giuffre was also teaching at the Conservatory, and Gary and I used to make these tapes together, tenor and piano duos. All I knew about Jimmy Guiffre was that he used to play with Woody Herman. I didn't know his own work at the time, I had no idea he was a visionary. And he used to come up to my room and always ask to hear tapes of me and Gary, and he'd sit there and listen and go, "Ah.... This is really interesting; you didn't create this idiom, but you have your own way of doing it."
CAD: You're a big fan of his trio from the early sixties, with Steve Swallow and Paul Bley.
MS: Yeah, I really like the conception of it. I can't really reconcile that music. I can't reconcile it to bebop, to Jazz avant-garde. I can't reconcile it to the whole Third Stream concept It just kind of breathes its own life outside of anything, and it's so seldom that anything like that happens. That's the feeling that I get from it. I really love Bley's piano conception of the period, Steve was ungodly, and Guiffre's writing and playing was absolutely beautiful. I get very basic musical pleasure from it, it's a very cohesive and organic group. There's certain groups in the history of Jazz that I really like that have that organic bead: Ornette's groups from the sixties, the Bill Evans- Scott LeFaro-Paul Motian trio, the Anthony Braxton group with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland, and Kenny Wheeler.... That's a beautiful thing when something's like that.
CAD: Tell me about your year at the Conservatory.
MS: Well, I hate school. I've hated school since I was about eight or nine. I never quite got school. When I graduated high school, I didn't want to go to college anyway, I wanted to just study and take lessons and perform. My father had retired from. the police force at the time, and ended up going back to school and becoming a college administrator, at the University of Delaware. So tuition was free there. So I went there, and subsequently stopped going to classes after a few weeks.
I stayed in the dorm and just practiced all day. I kept my classical lessons up, and I joined the Jazz ensemble, but I didn't go to anything except my theory and freshman English classes. After I dropped out of college, I started studying with Dennis Sandole, and lived at home for a couple of years. I wanted to move to New York, but I didn't feel like I had a style.
In the meantime, I had met Ran Blake, and I played him some of my compositions. This had happened a few years before. He called me out of the blue one day, and basically offered to get me some type of scholarship there (New England) so I was like, cool. I just knew I needed a place to go before I moved to New York, cause my style hadn't exactly fallen together yet.
The year I was there, I basically stopped going to all my classes instantly, 'cause I hate sitting in classrooms, hate school, hate taking tests. I just practiced all day, spent time in the library, going through scores, and playing with people at night. And my style fell together that year. But I hate school with a passion.
CAD: So there were no teachers there who really made a mark on you?
MS: Uh, an English professor there I really liked. I wrote some very provocative term papers for his class. In fact, one paper was called "The Total Destruction And Annihilation Of All Forms Of Jazz Must Occur" -- (laughs). I was in a pretty wigged-out state. My goal was, like, to destroy Jazz.
CAD: In what way?
MS: In the same way that.... If you ever read anything about Pierre Boulez, when he was younger, he was on this whole kick that the past had to be destroyed. The same way that certain types of writers have felt that we need to start fresh, and the destruction of the past needs to happen. I don't really believe that, this was like a small phase you go through.
But I wrote this term paper, and I remember the first line was the title, "The total destruction and annihilation of all forms of Jazz must occur," and the teacher added a line under the margin saying "Come on now.L(Laughs). The second sentence was "Who wants to hold on to idols," and he added a sentence, "A lot of people do!"
When I was at the Conservatory, Wynton Marsalis had just started coming into prominence, and all this talk about tradition was starting to freak me out. Mainly because I feel that, if you have talent, you're just naturally aware of tradition. I mean, it's part of language; so, to make anything of it after that seems to me kind of pedantic. It seems to me that people who do that, do that because they have nothing to say.
Cecil Taylor used to talk about tradition, and that's because everyone was telling him that he was a complete aberration. And he was trying to say, "No, what I'm doing is a logical out- growth of the Jazz tradition." And they were doing a lot of talk at the Conservatory about tradition, and it kind of freaked me out a little bit. I don't feel the need to justify what I do to anybody, I just do it, and it's what it is. But when Wynton started talking about tradition, the way he was, it just got really creepy, it was just too much. So I took this whole head space of walking around wanting to be the enfant terrible, saying we must destroy Jazz and create this new art form. I'm not in that head space anymore, that was a phase.
CAD: What did you get from Dennis Sandole?
MS: Well, Dennis writes out these lines for all his students that he claims are unique, and if you look at the different students' notebooks, they are. I would say that, with him, I got the idea - and this might be kind of abstract - of a super-language that is really embedded in the deeps of your psyche. 'Cause he has this language that just goes on into infinity. I mean, there are people who study with him for twenty, thirty years, and he's still writing new lines for them, it's pretty amazing.
It's a pretty specific language that he's involved in, and I don't want to go into it and say what it is. I think just looking at him having this language embodied that whole idea for me and made me look at music in the same way.
CAD: After you got to know Cecil, did you find Sandole's concepts coming up in your conversations with him?
MS: No, I don't think I've ever talked about him. The only thing I remember, I think we talked about Tristano, 'cause Cecil had a couple, I don't know if I'd call them lessons, but he had a couple of confrontations with him. He said something about something that Lennie had said about his (Cecil's) playing and he goes, "And he was wrong." (laughs)
But Cecil's not one to talk about the practical aspects of making music. He tends to not want to talk about stuff like that. I remember an interview with Cecil by Len Lyons I read when I was a teenager, and Lyons asked him how he practiced. And Cecil's remarks were basically, "Why are you asking me about this, we might as well talk about baseball or, tennis." He approaches music as a personal, spiritual thing and he does not like to talk about the practicalities of it.
CAD: How did you hook up with Joe Morris?
MS: When I first moved to New York, I had several bands. One was with Abdul Wadud, one was with Steve McCall and William Parker - none of these bands made albums, although there's tapes that are going to be released at some point - but Joe came up to me at a concert I did and just started talking to me. My roommate at the time, he and I were talking, and I said, "Yeah, I met this guy Joe Morris who said he's a guitarist. Do you know him?" 'Cause my roommate was a guitarist. And he said, "Yeah, I have his first album." It was really funny, 'cause I said, "Yeah, he seems cool, but I didn't think he had anything going for him." And my roommate's like, "Yeah, I hate his album."
So we put it on and we were just talking, making fun of it, and all of a sudden we looked at each other and said, "This guy's amazing!" (laughs.) So then I called him up and we .became friends.
CAD: Tell me about your solo record for FMP (Before The World).
MS: l just got a call out of the blue from Jost Gebers at FMP one day. Some friends of mine had been trying to get me to do solo stuff; that's not my first solo album, that's the first one that was recorded, but my studio one, Symbol Systems, was released before the FMP came out. But friends had been trying to get me to do solos, and I just didn't feel ready to be doing solo gigs, so when I got the call from Gebers, I took that as a sign that I was ready. So I just went over there and did it.
CAD: Do you think that the line that European audiences are hipper to Jazz than American ones is true?
MS: No, I don't. There might be more of a history of concert performing there, but I've played this music for all kinds of people in all kinds of places. I've played in Europe where, at the end of a concert, the people are almost looking at you like you're crazy. And I've played here for kids, grade school kids, that have gone crazy. I've had every experience, everywhere, that you could have, and I give Americans more credit than some people do. If you can just get out there and play the music, there's plenty of people here that would dig it.
I think we're in a really good period of music right now. There's some players in the mainstream I'm excited about. There's players in this area of the music I'm really excited about. I think opening up avenues !or playing and touring in America is really important for the music's survival.
CAD: Who are some of the mainstream players you're excited about?
MS: I like Rodney Kendricks a lot - it's very unusual to find someone who comes out of Randy Weston and Monk like that. His orchestral concept is kind of a post-Sun Ra type of thing. I don't mean that literally but I think the synthesis that he's pursuing is very exciting. And I'm really excited about my association with hat ART. I have a long-term contract with them. They've really checked out the American scene, and seem to be on the tip of where the music's going. I have a six-record deal with them. It's worked out very well so far, and Werner (Uehlinger) has kept my best interest in mind.
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