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.
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?
My first piano was an old upright that belonged to my grandmother. I don’t know the name of it but I loved it and would take the front off of it to see the hammers move when I played it. I learned to play on the piano and it was my only instrument until I left home when was 18years old and went to University. There I didn’t have a piano of my own and it was not until fifteen years later that I bought my first real piano. It was a Kawai 6’, and it is still the piano I have at home.
What do you think of digital pianos? Do you use digital technology for working, composing, practicing or whatever?
There is no digital piano that feels like a real piano, no matter how good the technology. Of course we record with digital technology which is fine with me.
In terms of priorities or personal interests, in what order would you put the following three aspects of your work: music, jazz, the piano?
For me they are all connected. I fell in love with jazz music and playing the piano at the same time.
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 your musical interests, influences and approach to music and the piano evolved? What are your present goals?
I have played piano my whole life. I do not remember a time when I didn’t play piano. Having said that, I always thought I would be a history professor, not a professional musician. Events worked out otherwise. To this day, I continue to be surprised at how it happened.
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?
I wish I had understood the importance of accepting my own sound, both as a piano player and a singer, because in the end this is the foundation of anybody’s music. Everything else follows from this.
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?
Now I play songs for an hour or so and if I come across a particular phrase that I want to master I stop and work on it for a while, perhaps shifting keys, and then move on playing songs. I consider listening to records as a form of practicing.
Do you prefer to play alone, in duo, trio, quartet or…?
I like them all equally.
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.
I mostly remember the times when playing felt great, when it was so relaxed I had the sensation that I was floating, watching my hands move on the keys, listening to the music as if I wasn’t actually playing but that the music was being played through me. It is like the state you sometimes experience while long distance running, when you have a sense of movement but not of actually doing work, as if you are simply movement.
In that sense, could you mention one of our favorite voicings for right and left hands, a single chord or progress? For example, left hand: tonic and fourth, and right hand: seventh, minor third and fifth.
The simple two-note voicing, seventh on the bottom and third on the top, is the heart of the blues because it contains the tri-tone.
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?
We forget the bad ones and remember the good. I do remember a jam session in San Francisco once. The piano was very bad and a series of piano players sat in, everybody struggling with it. And then one young guy sat down and made it sound great. I never could figure out how he did it.
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?
Some pianos are definitely more suited to one’s style than others. I find a good Yamaha C3 is often best for me, and Bosendorfers are often over-rated.
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 do yoga or pilates exercises every day
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 a lot of concerts but almost never listen to them. Sometimes I hear myself on the radio and am surprised that it is me. I don’t think it’s possible to hear yourself objectively so you have to kind of sneak up on yourself.
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?
Every one of the more or less 120 nights I have played at the Cafe Central has been interesting, emotional, a learning experience. My main memory, overall, is the joy in the room. Some nights it is loud and wild, some nights it is quiet as a church, but every night the room seems to be a place of peace, happiness and groove.
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 agree with Miles Davis that you should make your mistakes in public because the art of this music is how you recover from what you perceive to be your mistakes. Quincy Jones once said you can’t play bigger than you are as a person and I also agree with that. This music is often not about the notes but about the spaces in between the notes.
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?
For me, pleasure is study and vice versa. I never listen to musicians I don’t like. I still love to listen to Bud Powell and Sonny Clark and Erroll Garner and Horace Silver and Wynton Kelly and Gene Harris and Red Garland and the list is very long.
There are standards that continue to bear fruit. Which ones do you find interesting?
Lately “Over the Rainbow”
What importance do you assign to compositions as versus improvisation?
Well improvisation is supposed to be spontaneous composition, yes?