Hal Galper

A finales de julio de 2008 y durante un concierto del cuarteto de los grandísimos músicos Antonio Serrano y Javier Colina en El Café Central, caigo en la cuenta de que no está en el escenario el piano de siempre.

These questions are an excuse to talk about jazz, pianos, their study and the piano from the Café Central. You don’t have to answer all of them, nor do you have to stick too closely to the question, so feel free to improvise as much as you want.

What was your first piano, and your second one, and the ones after that? What memories do you have of them and what did you get from them? What piano do you generally use now?

Don’t remember the name of my first piano (nor many of the others names) except that it was a baby grand and always out of tune. Over the years I’ve owned a series of uprights having been pretty lucky to find underpriced deals on pianos. I eventually parleyed them up in grade to my current piano. It’s called a La Piana.

There was a piano store in NYC run by a guy named Frank LaPiana. He was one of the first ones to import three grand pianos from Korea made by Hyundai, if you can believe that. Boesendorfer opened a factory in Korea. Hyundai made inexpensive copies of Boesendorfer. Frank replaced the actions with German Renner actions and put his own nameplate on them. They play like and sound like Boesendorfer. I like the sound well enough but hope that someday I’ll be able to make a final upgrade to reconditioned older Steinway.

What do you think of digital pianos? Do you use digital technology for working, composing, practicing or whatever?

I played and recorded (my first two albums) with the fender Rhodes for a period, both with Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz. Mine came from Harry Rhodes himself but after a while I began to loose interest. When I left Cannon’s band I wheeled the damned thing down to the Hudson River and threw it in and watched it sink under the water. I was making a commitment to never play another electric keyboard and haven’t played one since.

In terms of priorities or personal interests, in what order would you put the following three aspects of your work: music, jazz, the piano?

Those three terms are all different parts of the same thing and impossible for me to prioritize.

When you begin your profession, you imagine a career and career goals. When you first started studying jazz, how did you think you would wind up playing? How have our musical interests, influences and approach to music and the piano evolved? What are your present goals?

I had no idea how I was going to end up but the last thing I expected was to be playing on the level I’m playing now. Looking back my goals seem to have been consistent; I just wanted to play pretty, swing like crazy, play the piano well and have a lot of fun.

In studying and practicing music, we take in new information and discover aspects and perspectives that turn into fundamental highlights marking our personal careers. What do you wish you had known from the very start in order to focus on certain aspects sooner?

Counterpoint. Berklee School, in 50’s, didn’t teach it at that time. It would have clarified many harmonic problems for me that took years to figure out myself.

How do you organize your studies and practice of the piano and of music? How did you approach this when you first started, and how do you approach it now? In your practice or studies, what importance do you give to harmony, scales, transcribing solos, ear training, sound, and so on? What does the study of classical piano offer you?

I take an intuitive approach to practicing, when I do it. Being of a rebellious nature I spend most of my day trying to avoid playing the piano: I do my shopping, and other domestic errands, hang with my old lady, make some phone calls, read a book and watch a lot of stupid TV until it gets to be around 11  – 12 at night. Once I’ve finished every excuse I can find for avoiding the thing I look around for something else to do next and I realize “oh, I can play the piano!” Then the next thing I know 2 or 3 hours have gone by and it’s 1 or 2 in the morning. I don’t play classical music though I studied it as a youth and when I was studying technique with Madam Chaloff (Serge Chaloff’s mother).

I’m also not a big fan of transcription. The reason why would take me too long to tell here.

Do you prefer to play alone, in duo, trio, quartet or…?

Trio & quartet.

Name two discoveries about music that you remember as moments of enlightenment. This could be at any time from when you first began and discovered that you can drop your sevenths a half-step and pass through II-V-I progressions through the time when you discovered upper-structure triads, block chords, certain scales over certain chords, etc.

The discovery I’ll never forget was shown to me by a pianist in Boston named Ali Yousef.  He showed my the chromatic appoggiatura that goes from the flat 7th of the 2 chord, down to the 5th of the 2 chord, then chromatically up to the 3rd of the 7th chord. Wow!!

Also figuring out how to play in half-time.

In that sense, could you mention one of our favorite voicings for right and left ahnds, a single chord or progress? For example, left hand: tonic and fourth, and right hand: seventh, minor third and fifth.

My favorite voicings are dropped 4-note voicings, mostly dropped 2. I use a mix of left hand voicings dependent on what color I want to support a right hand line.

You must have played hundred of pianos over the course of your career. Could you mention the best and worst you remember? What where you greatest surprises in that sense?

The best piano I’ve played was a Hamburg Steinway at The Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The worst was when I was playing two nights in Chicago with The Bobby Hutcherson/ Harold Land Quintet. The first club we played had a spinit piano that was a half a tone flat and most of the keys were broken. I had to sit at the piano all night and didn’t play a note. I was so relieved when the gig ended and got as far away from it as I could. The next night at another Chicago club the band showed up but there was no piano on the bandstand. We were told one would soon be delivered.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was the same piano from the previous night! It was a nightmare!

Does the quality of the instrument affect you when playing? Or is your music not overly affected by the quality of the piano? When I say “quality,” I’m taking a certain minimum for granted, here. What I’m talking about is a given piano’s character, its sound and its capacity to respond to the person playing it. Do some pianos speak to a pianist more than others?

Yes, yes and yes.

As a pianist, how do you deal with your back? How do you avoid pain in your neck or lumbar region? Do you do exercises or sports? Do you have any secret for when you sit and practice for hours?

I was trained to use correct posture by Madam Chaloff. I do not do any sports or exercises. At one point in my career my hands suffered over-use syndrome. At that time Roosevelt Hospital in NYC had a section called The Miller Institute that was devoted to musicians injuries. They prescribed physical therapy to build up my shoulder muscles. Other than that I’ve been pain free.

Do you record your concerts and listen back? How do you sound to yourself? If you do this, how do you analyze or examine what you hear?

I record concerts only when preparing for a recording. I don’t like to listen to a recording immediately afterwards, usually waiting at least a month. I listen to it first late at night then again the next day early in the morning. My first concern is always the spirit of the music. For that reason I only do first takes and live with my mistakes.

What memories do you have of your performances at the Café Central? Do you associate them with personal or professional moments? Or with both? Do you have any special memories in that sense? What groups did you play in at the Café Central, and what would you say about the experience?

I’ve played so many gigs over the last 50 years they’ve all blurred together. I don’t remember anything about playing the Café Central. Perhaps you could refresh my memory as to whom I was playing with.

In one of his books, Mark Levine says that 95% of any jazz solo is practice and 5% is inspiration. Paul Bley always says in his classes that music is like a wild plant that grows by itself and in its own time, with no care. He says you can practice 10 hours a day and your music will still not evolve any differently. On his web he says: “Practice makes perfect, but imperfect is better.” What do you think of those two approaches?

I think these approaches are two sides of the same process. It’s a rule of thumb that to become a true artist takes 10,000 hours of practice. I also think one has to take an intuitive approach in selecting what to practice at any one particular moment.

There have been true geniuses in the history of jazz, but there are many other musicians whose way of playing constitutes a personal revelation about how to improvise, how to understand things and how to advance in a particular direction. What musicians have you listened most closely too? Which ones for pleasure and which ones for study? What current musicians strike you as most interesting? And what pianists?

In my early days I listened to Sonny Rollins a lot as the best example of line playing. I tried to copy any piano player that could play something I couldn’t but spent most of my time trying to figure out what Ahmad Jamal was doing. Still do. Also, when I was playing with Phil Woods, Dizzy spent a week with us for a European tour. Dizzy was constantly teaching and I learned more about the rhythm of the music from him than from anyone else. I was never the same after that week. For pleasure, I listen to James Brown, as it is very difficult for me to listen to jazz without analyzing it.

There are standards that continue to bear fruit. Which ones do you find interesting?

The list would be too long to list but am a great fan of the classic American song form.

What importance do you assign to compositions as versus improvisation?

Every song one plays must be stamped with an original way to interpret it and must lend itself to your conception. They way you phrased the question shouldn’t be “versus.”

Entrevista realizada a Hal Galper, abril 2011.