Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Christian McBride On His New Jawn's 'Prime' And How Parameters Gave Him Creative Freedom
On the new album by his New Jawn project, 'Prime,' eight-time GRAMMY-winning bassist and composer Christian McBride keeps new and old associates on their toes.
Are you familiar with the concept of a chordless ensemble? In jazz, it refers to a group format without a chordal instrument, like a piano or guitar. Without such instruments to underpin the chord changes, the music can become spacious — exuding what one writer characterized as "a devil-may-care freedom."
But for Christian McBride, who just released an album with his chordless quartet, freedom is relative.
"I feel like I almost have more responsibility because it's not my goal to play free without some sort of gravitational pull to it," the eight-time GRAMMY-winning bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader tells GRAMMY.com. "Freedom is much more exciting when there are some sort of parameters, or you have something to break through."
So, in adding another entry to the catalog of revered chordless jazz albums — Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, Sonny Rollins' Way Out West, Lee Konitz' Motion, numberless Ornette Coleman masterworks, et al — McBride assembled the best men for the job. Those are trumpeter Josh Evans, saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Nasheet Waits.
Together, they comprise Christian McBride's New Jawn — another vehicle for the mastermind in parallel to his other ensembles, such as Inside Straight and the Christian McBride Big Band.
Their album, Prime, released Feb. 24, marks an intrepid new chapter for McBride and his colleagues. Therein, the quartet utilizes the frameworks of originals (like McBride's "Head Bedlam" and "Lurkers," Strickland's title track, Waits' "Moonchild," and Evans' "Dolphy Dust") alongside compositions by Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Larry Young to challenge and galvanize each other.
"At this point, I just concentrate on making sure that these cats are in the most comfortable situation — or maybe not so comfortable, so they might have to dig a little deeper," McBride said in a statement. "It's a balance."
To hear how that balancing act is executed, just listen to the fantastic Prime — and read on for an in-depth interview with McBride about the past, present and future of the New Jawn, and how freedom often needs guidelines to be truly free.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me how Christian McBride's New Jawn came to be. How did you constellate with these fellow masters?
I started doing a residency at the Village Vanguard back in 2009, I believe it was. Starting around 2012, my residency went from one week to two weeks, and so I always had an opportunity to bring a second band or have some sort of a week where I could experiment with some group that I didn't usually play with.
In December of 2015, I thought I wanted to try a new group — something that was a 180 degree turn from what I had been doing. My trio with [pianist] Christian Sands and [drummer] Ulysses Owens Jr. recorded a live album at the Vanguard the year before, and we had also released an album called Out Here in 2013. I just wanted to do something completely different.
Marcus Strickland is someone that I have worked with many times in the past. Nasheet Waits is someone that I knew for a very long time, but hadn't had a chance to work with very much. I had talked to a few musicians who I respected, and I told them what I had in mind: I wanted to do a pianoless quartet, a group that was kind of on the outskirts — not all the way out, but just kind of walking that fine line.
A lot of people said "For what you are describing, you might want to check out Josh Evans." I knew who Josh was — I hadn't played with him yet — so I kind of YouTube-stalked him. I went and heard him a couple of times at Smalls, and he was the guy. So, that's how the New Jawn first got together in December of 2015.
And that's been my main unit pretty much ever since. I still have Inside Straight; that's been my longest running group. I still have my big band, but the New Jawn has been the group that I've probably played with the most since 2015.
Tell me more about your long relationships with Marcus and Nasheet.
I don't really have a lot of history with Nasheet before this group, because I first met him in the mid '90s when he was playing with my friend Antonio Hart. I just always loved the way he played, and then, of course, he became a member of Jason Moran's Bandwagon trio. That trio has been pushing the limits — the outer limits, so to speak — for quite some time.
I became a bigger fan of Nasheet's after I heard him with Jason, so I just took a shot in the dark. I said, "Hey, man, come play this Vanguard gig with me."
We did one gig together in 2011 or early 2012, with Jason [and saxophonists] James Carter and Hamiet Bluiett. It was a tribute to [pianist] Don Pullen, and that gig was so wonderful, I knew that if we had a chance to play together on the regular, that it would be special. So, that's pretty much my history with Nasheet.
Marcus Strickland, I had done some playing with his twin brother E.J. in the late '90s when he was a student at the New School, and I think I first met Marcus when he was playing with [legendary drummer] Roy Haynes. It was in the early 2000s.
We finally started playing together when we made a few gigs with [drummer] Jeff "Tain" Watts' group, and that must have been around 2004, 2005, somewhere in there. Marcus also started subbing for [saxophonist] Ron Blake in my band, the Christian McBride Band, when Ron got the gig with “SNL.” So, yeah, Marcus and I go back 20-plus years.
Christian McBride's New Jawn. Photo: Ebru Yildiz
Can you talk about the freedom that a chordless ensemble confers?
Well, I always feel like freedom is relative, because it's not so much the band or having chords or no chords. It's the concept of the band, the band leader, just sort of your collective MO.
As a bassist, I feel like I almost have more responsibility because it's not my goal to play free without some sort of gravitational pull to it. Freedom is much more exciting when there are some sort of parameters, or you have something to break through.
If you go on stage and you just simply play free without a landing point or some sort of navigation, then I feel like you're kind of running in a circle, or you're just running with no destination — and when you finally land somewhere, you're kind of like, Now what? Now, that could be fun for the musicians, but I have a feeling it may or may not be that fun for the person that's listening to you.Playing in this particular group, I like the fact that we play songs that have a form, but we don't always follow that form. We break through that form, but we eventually come back to it, which is what... That's why Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet was so special, because they used the form to show what could be done if you break it down and then reconstruct it. So, that's what we try to do in this group.
There are some inspired writing contributions from all members of the group, as far as I understand, and renditions of Larry Young, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman tunes. How did this particular sequence of songs come to be? I'm sure you four all work on so many things and are inspired by so many things that there were a lot of contenders for the record.
So, we recorded this at the end of 2021, I believe. We were fresh off of the gig at the Vanguard, so a lot of the stuff that we recorded were things that we had worked on that week.
It wasn't really that difficult to figure out what the material was going to be. I think putting a recording together is not that dissimilar to putting a set together. You want to make sure you start off with something exciting — something that's going to lock the people in as best as you think you can, and then you just try to shape it so it's a good listening experience.
I'd love to home in on three of the originals. The title track, written by Marcus, was inspired by a battle in the Transformers movies; you're quoted as calling it "one of the baddest tunes you've ever heard."
Marcus had recorded that on one of his solo albums a few years before [2011's Triumph of the Heavy, Vol. 2, and his version also had no chords. So, he obviously knew that this song would be a perfect fit for this band.
It's got a really great melody; it's got a very interesting bassline. It's a bassline that pretty much stays kind of locked in throughout the solo section, and it just makes for a lot of exciting movement throughout the piece. Marcus composed something really hip there.
"Moonchild", written by Nasheet, has this incredibly potent vibe. Can you talk about how you jointly landed on that kind of crawling, crepuscular feeling?
What I love about Nasheet is that he's known for being this volcanic drummer, but the two prettiest songs that this band plays were both written by Nasheet: "Moonchild" on this new album, and "Kush" on our first album.
So, his creative spectrum is quite broad. And I think the way we recorded it, is we were rehearsing it. That song originally had tempo, but when we were kind of reading it down and kind of learning it, we were reading down the music separately, so we weren't playing it together. And Nasheet said, "Hey, I kind of like it like that; let's play it rubato."
We played it a couple of times, and then Josh and Marcus kind of worked it out where they could still play it in unison, but not quite in time. And again, that's kind of what I mean by having some parameters — having a little bit of a form so you can kind of tug, you could push, you could pull. And that's the way that came about.
Finally, the one I wanted to home in on is "Dolphy Dust" — my personal favorite on the record. What does Dolphy mean to you and collectively, what can you speak to for his presence in all your creative lives?
Well, that's Josh Evans' tune, as you know. Josh is a big time historian.
And it is sort of weird how being a historian in jazz gets interpreted, because some feel that knowing the history of jazz is a necessity, and some people think being a historian puts creative shackles on you. As in, you're not able to create music without always having some sort of conscious historical reference. I feel when Josh wrote this song, he told me that this was something that he just heard in his head.
He kept hearing the melodies slowly over the course of a couple of weeks — like, four bars here, four bars there. And when he finally flushed it out and it became a song, he said, "Yeah, I feel like this has some Dolphy-isms in it."
It's hard because, again, I think with jazz connoisseurs, even if you don't write a song that references somebody like Eric Dolphy, somebody's going to do it anyway. I feel like Eric Dolphy plays as much of a part in our creative and jazz history lives as Max Roach or Booker Little or Jackie McLean or anybody who was a part of their era at that time.
Dolphy, of course, was one of the important figures in jazz in the early '60s. He tragically died young, which always, sadly, adds to a myth of people. It's weird. I hear people now talk about how important Roy Hargrove was. It's like, well, he actually was that important when he was alive. But now that he's not here, we recognize how important he is.
So I think with Eric Dolphy, he is equally as much a part of our intake of jazz history as anyone. But Josh captured that spirit in this piece accidentally. He was not thinking of Eric Dolphy when he wrote that song. He thought of that after he wrote it.
In the press release, you said: "At this point, I just concentrate on making sure that these cats are in the most comfortable situation — or maybe not so comfortable, you know, so they might have to dig a little deeper." How do you bring the musicians out to where their feet might not exactly touch the bottom?
Well, again, when you play a music as creative as jazz or some sort of improvisational music, the fun part — the challenge — is you do know where you're going, but you kind of don't know how you're going to get there.
Or you have a route planned out because you know that's how you need to get to where you have to go, but sometimes a road might be closed, you'll get detoured, there'll be a traffic jam. And sometimes, when you're playing this kind of music, somebody in the band could always divert you to another route.
And that's what the fun part is about playing this music. You want the band to feel like you all can trust each other, because when those detours happen, you know you're not going to get led off the cliff. Or, if you do get pushed off the cliff, there's going to be someone at the bottom to catch you so you don't crash.
So that's what I mean about putting musicians in a situation where they feel comfortable, but not too comfortable.
I look forward to your run at Dizzy's soon. How's the chemistry between you four — or, by extension, you and any accompanists you work with — different on stage versus in the studio?
Well, the audience acts as sort of a fifth band member, which is why it can be difficult sometimes for jazz artists to create when the audience is kind of not interacting. I don't always blame the audience for that, because I know some artists don't want the audience to interact. I need the audience to interact. We're all human beings. We're playing for you. We're not playing at you.
It's never been my MO to play for the audience and say, "Hey, I need you to shut up and pay attention so you can understand how deep and how great we are." I play music, so I can say "Look, I need you to tell me if I'm correct, that these musicians up on stage are as great as I think they are. But in order for you to do that, you have to listen. Right?"
But I don't want you to sit on your hands and be nervous [about] interacting. So I've always been a person of the people. Yes, they do need to concentrate — I need audiences not to be rude — but I do want you to let me know how you're feeling about the music.
That's where things get different live versus in the studio when we just have each other. And frankly, that's enough too; that's fine.
You're each other's audiences.
Exactly. That's right.
Photo: Petra Richterova
Positive Vibes Only: Marcus Strickland Twi-Life Show "Joy For Jupiter" In This Tranquil Performance
Jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland praises Jupiter's protection with the peaceful instrumental track "Joy For Jupiter," from 'The Universe's Wildest Dream,' his latest album with his band, Twi-Life.
At the height of the pandemic, jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland found peace in the bigger picture: though life rapidly became difficult and unpredictable, we had Jupiter and its 79 moons protecting us. His new track "Joy for Jupiter" is an ode to this realization.
In this episode of Positive Vibes Only, Strickland performs "Joy For Jupiter" with his band, Twi-Life. Strickland trades off with his pianist while receiving support from the bassist and drummer, creating a performance as calming as the song itself.
"Joy for Jupiter" is the closing track from Strickland's latest album with Twi-Life. Titled The Universe's Wildest Dream, the project celebrates Earth's beauty and raises awareness about climate change. Written in the 2020 New York City lockdown, Strickland contemplates the power of technology, the existence of aliens and the feasibility of a sustainable lifestyle through the sound of music.
"I figure if there's any message that can recruit more Earthlings to acknowledge, comprehend and take action towards global warming and sustainability, it is the realization that we may be the only planet that harbors life, that we are probably the universe's wildest dream," Strickland revealed about the album.
Press play on the video above to watch Marcus Strickland's serene performance of "Joy for Jupiter," and check back to GRAMMY.com every Sunday for more new episodes of Positive Vibes Only.
Photo: RUBA Creative
Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"
In an exclusive premiere with GRAMMY.com, Joey Alexander shares his new single, "Under The Sun," and discusses its inspiration from the Bible and social justice
Unlike most condiments, salt figures heavily in the Bible. It symbolizes friendship. It means preservation. Lot's wife became a pillar of it. Jesus' salt illustration on the Mount is now an idiom. "Let your words be seasoned with salt," Paul said in Colossians, essentially meaning "Speak gracefully and perceptively." While only 17, Joey Alexander is aware of salt's religious and historical connotations—and his expressions would make the Apostle proud.
"I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression," the thrice-GRAMMY-nominated pianist tells GRAMMY.com about his single "SALT," which dropped in mid-March. "The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe."
And what of his latest tune, "Under The Sun"? Isn't that title from Ecclesiastes? "Yeah!" Alexander replies, flashing a grin. "Oh, man! You know your stuff!"
"Under The Sun" marks the second single Alexander is releasing this spring via Verve Records and premieres above exclusively via GRAMMY.com. ("Summer Rising" will conclude the trilogy on May 28.) The tune, which Alexander wrote after the murder of George Floyd ignited protests in New York City, sounds appropriately golden-hued and ascendant. Therein, he wrote about the universal human family—one bound by forces racial disharmony can't destroy.
Alexander opened up to GRAMMY.com over Zoom about the significance of salt, the spiritual intent of his music and this radiant new tune with bassist Daniel Winshall and drummer Tyson D. Jackson.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I dig your tune "SALT." You've mentioned the title is symbolic of the blues.
It can mean different things to different people. Even what we eat. The word "salad," during Roman times, was derived from the word "salt" for salted vegetables. I guess you might have heard that before.
Oh, really! Yeah, man. It's kind of interesting to really look at what we eat. And it's in music as well. Blues is such an essential part of jazz and in other genres of music. You find it in so many genres of music. To me, most of them lead back to the blues. And of course, there are different interpretations of playing the blues. So, I have my interpretation in my composition "SALT."
Gilad Hekselman really added some fantastic color on the guitar to the track. To have a sense of completeness, I just had to have Gilad perform on the song. He's truly one of the best. His projection of the guitar is remarkable. Also, how he kind of resounds the rock element is very cool. I never had that element before, until this song came out.
Salt was also inspired by words from the Book of Matthew that we are the salt of the earth. It's a [invitation] to do good to others. I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression. The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe.
Right. I feel like songs based on blues forms are preserved. They tend to weather fads and trends.
But in this song, I wanted to create a sense of space in the way it is collective. I was trying to create room for other musicians to jump in and do their thing [chuckles], whatever that is. To share their talent and be themselves.
Also, I wanted to have really carefully written songs. "SALT" has that strong melody, which I was striving for. I was glad that Jaleel and Gilad played in unison and sounded so strong. When I heard it back, I was like "Wow." I never would have imagined that the song would sound that way; it was indescribable.
When you first listened to it, what came to your mind? I'm curious.
Something craggy and historical. Something that's been around for a long time. Like I'm looking at an old village church or a cave or something.
That's great, man. You use that as your tool—your imagination. I like that. I like to hear from other people who have their own perspectives. As much as I could share with you about what I felt writing the song, it's always great to hear other peoples' thoughts. It's really important to me.
As a composer, it's all about strengthening the melody and rhythm. When the band comes in, it's very ... not elusive, but it's very simple. The rhythm kind of sticks to you, right, when you hear it? I think Gilad also added some of the notes to the vamp, which was wonderful. He put that in place. Some songs I like to start with a vamp. Whenever I feel like it comes to my head, I play it. It happens in the moment sometimes.
Regarding the spiritual content of the song, it seems like you're pretty open about your beliefs.
Of course, I have things that I believe in. We all have things that we hold on to. Do you know what I'm saying? Whether it's music or faith. Of course, my music is all there in faith and holding on to the things that we believe.
I'm always about being thankful and always thanking God for all the things that happen in my life. That's the main point to me. To show love and empathy to people around me. My friends and I always pray before we start a performance, just to remember why we're there. To be a vessel to others.
Even though things aren't going the way you expect them to be, there are moments where you need to hold your head up, and along the way, you find hope. That's what the song is about: finding life and togetherness. I hope people feel that. This is my message about "SALT."
It's interesting the way you came up in your early teens. Usually, jazz musicians go through the whole curriculum and when success strikes, it's a lot later in life.
Yeah. It just so happened that I started earlier than some other musicians. You might have known some musicians who start early, in their teens, too. I'm not unique, I'm sure. Some musicians started just as early as me.
True, but you had a public profile, too.
I guess many musicians haven't experienced that at a young age. Well, I can say I'm thankful for all the things that have happened to me. Even when I got my first nomination, which was totally out of the blue, I wouldn't have thought that I would have my first album be in that category. I was nominated for Best Instrumental Album, and nonetheless, Best Improvised Jazz Solo.
Do you remember who else was in the running when you were nominated?
Were you able to meet some of those older masters?
No, I only met Herbie Hancock at the GRAMMYs.
Nice. What was your impression of the man?
It was great meeting Herbie. He didn't say too much, I was eight at that time. He was like, "You really want to be here?" He said something like that and I said "I'm playing 'Watermelon Man.'" He thought I could play and he said, "Keep doing it" and "Don't stop."
Yeah, it was pretty inspiring just to have those words come from someone who's been in the music world for a long time.
What can you share about "Under the Sun"?
It has ties to the times that we live in. The pandemic really hit us badly as musicians, and then I saw people marching on the streets where I live in Union Square in New York City. A lot of things have happened during the time I wrote this piece. But I think the positive side is that people of all colors stood up.
The title is from Ecclesiastes, yeah?
Yeah. Oh, man! You know your stuff. That is one of the inspirations. Actually, I wrote this during summer 2020 after witnessing the protests across the country. I also was inspired by Bruce Lee's interview when he was asked, "What do you think of yourself?" His only answer was, "I like to think of myself as a human being." Under the sky, we are all one family. It just happens that we are all different and we have to accept our differences. And this is how this song comes in.
What do you have up your sleeve for when things return to semi-normal?
As of now, I have one show coming up in Cape May, which is a festival called Exit Zero Jazz Festival and one in June at Saratoga Jazz Festival. I'm always praying and looking forward to being back traveling with my friends.
For now, I'm composing music, because it's what I love. I'm filling in the days with writing new works, trying to keep active. I'm thankful that I'm here with my family in New York City enjoying the weather. "Summer Rising" is my next single and that is about continuing to grow and awakening.
Photo: Vivian Wang
Norah Jones On Her Two-Decade Evolution, Channeling Chris Cornell & Her First-Ever Live Album, ''Til We Meet Again'
On ''Til We Meet Again,' Norah Jones and her band confidently twist selections from her 20-year songbook—and an unexpected Soundgarden cover—into fascinating new shapes
Just over a week after Chris Cornell wailed Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying" at Detroit's Fox Theater mere hours before taking his life, Norah Jones stepped onto that same stage. Near the end of the set, her band took five, and she sang Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" onstage for the first time—and maybe the last.
Jones had spent the day woodshedding the song in her dressing room. "I was kind of nervous," the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 17-time nominee admits to GRAMMY.com. "But I thought, 'We're going to send some love to him and do this song of his.'" Despite "Black Hole Sun" not immediately being in Jones' wheelhouse, the performance was a spectral success. "It was probably one of the most beautiful live moments I've ever had," she says. "I don't know if his ghost was in the room or what, but it carried me through that song like I could have never imagined."
"It's just one of those moments I'm really glad we could capture," Jones adds, "because I don't even know if I'll play that song again."
"Black Hole Sun'' concludes her first-ever live album, 'Til We Meet Again, which drops April 16 on Blue Note. If Jones hadn't recorded all of her gigs for the past eight years, each of its 14 tracks could have evaporated with the final piano chord. Sumptuous versions of her staples like "I've Got to See You Again" (in France, in 2018) and "Sunrise" (in Argentina, in 2019) demonstrate how Jones has developed her improvisatory muscles over her two-decade career.
Jones curated 'Til We Meet Again as a response to COVID and a nearly concert-free year. Now that vaccines are rolling out (her second shot is around the corner), she's ready to jump back on stage when the time is right. Until then, for those unaware of Jones' live prowess, this impeccably recorded live album is more than enough to chew on.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Norah Jones over Zoom to discuss the origin of 'Til We Meet Again, the thrill of collaborating with the greatest jazz musicians alive and her hot-and-cold relationship with the word "jazz."
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I'm curious about the timing of 'Til We Meet Again. Had the idea for a live record been percolating for a while, or was it a response to a year without gigs?
More the latter. I'd done a couple of live DVD types of things where you plan to do it and you record it with a camera crew, but this came about [because] I was listening to one of the last shows we did. We've recorded every show for the last eight years because… technology, you know [chuckles]. It's easy to do!
And so I was listening to one of the last shows we did and it just felt so good, especially in the absence of having access to live music and playing shows. So I wanted to put it out. I just decided then, last summer. And then we decided to sort of comb through some of the more similar band-lineup shows to that show to make sure we get the best version of everything, basically.
Where was that show you mentioned?
That show was in Rio. It was in December 2019. We did a South American tour with a trio, which has been a fun setup for me recently. More piano-based.
Who was the rhythm section? Was Brian [Blade] on drums?
Yeah, Brian on drums. In December, it was Jesse Murphy on bass, but the first tour I did with that setup was with Chris Thomas on bass and Brian on drums. And actually, Pete Remm was on organ. This was, like, 2018, maybe. So we went back to those first shows I did with that setup and took some of that stuff because it was a really special opening-up of the songs with that setup.
I mean, I've always loved the Bill Evans Trio [Sunday at the Village Vanguard]. That's pretty great. Classic. And I love some of the classic piano-player/singing trios. Like, Shirley Horn had a great thing. I love hearing Nina Simone when it's just bass, drums and her. Even if there's a bigger band, I love when it's stripped back.
All you need is Nina.
Really, all you need is Nina! But when the drum kicks in with that light, little groove, it's pretty great.
While listening to 'Til We Meet Again, I was more absorbed in the songs than noticing how many instruments there were. Is it mostly trios or are there quartets and such?
Well, it's mostly a trio, but I did have an organ on quite a bit of it. For me, that's a lot different than having a guitar. I don't know why. The thing missing from this album that has been present, I feel like, for my whole career, is the guitar. Guitar has been a big part of most of the songs I do. Not all of them. But at least touring, this is the first time I've toured without a guitar. Over the last few years, I've dabbled without a guitar. I mean, I play a little guitar.
This album had a few different instruments on it, though, because the songs were in Rio where we had a percussionist sit in and also a flute player. Jorge [Continentino] sat in. Then, on one song, Jesse Harris sat in on guitar in Rio, as well.
Not that he's on this record, but on the topic of the organ, I was just thinking about how you've played with Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Oh, yeah. He played on Day Breaks. That was amazing.
When you survey the last two decades, how would you say you've developed as a live performer?
I mean, it's all just an evolution. And I'll continue to change, right? I think what's cool about this album is that I'm close to it. I've been changing and adapting for the last 20 years, but to someone who might not have seen me live recently or at all, maybe it represents a whole different side of these songs.
The way you guys are taking control of the rhythms, shifting and shaping them, is really nice.
Yeah. Brian's so fun to play with. It's a joy, you know? And also, the nice thing about playing with a trio is that you can go to different places without planning it out. It's a little easier without multiple chordal instruments.
Brian is amazing. He will go wherever the moment takes him in the music. He's not tied to anything. But he'll also lay down the sickest groove [laughs], you know what I mean? So, he's the best of everything.
I get the sense that you're just as much a fan of your accompanists as the people in the audience.
Oh, definitely. I saw Brian play when I was in high school. I went to see him play with Joshua Redman. It might have been Chris Thomas on bass? I remember because I was telling them about it and they were mad at me for saying [naive voice] "Oh, I was in high school!" They're only a few years older than me. But I've been a fan of Brian's for a long time, now, absolutely.
I was just thinking about how you're from the singer/songwriter realm and Joni Mitchell is, too, obviously. But she played with the greatest jazz musicians in her day and now you're doing the same. That must feel pretty cool.
Yeah, some of my favorite recordings of Wayne Shorter are on Joni's albums! But, I mean, I come from a jazz background. I came from that into the singer-songwriter world, kind of. So I feel like going back to playing with people who come from that world also feels very natural.
Norah Jones performing on "Saturday Night Live" in 2002. Photo: Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
You totally don't have to address this if you don't want to, but back in 2002, it must have been annoying to have to prove your jazz roots to people.
Not really. I mean, I felt very conflicted about the jazz roots 20 years ago because I felt like my album was a departure. I feel like people called me a jazz singer when that wasn't representative of the actual album. I didn't want people to not realize what "jazz" was. It was kind of loaded.
I used to be part of the jazz police [laughs]. Like, I used to be that kid. Then, my album was so successful and it really wasn't jazz. It was a foray into different things for me. I didn't want other people to think it was for jazz, for jazz's sake. I was like, "No! Billie Holiday! Not me!" Does that make sense?
Of course. There's folk, soul, country…
The genre titles are tricky for me. But I don't really care anymore. And I didn't then, that much. I just felt like it was confusing.
I haven't met a single musician in the jazz world that's fully comfortable with the word. They're always trying to push back on it, and rightfully so. They've been doing that since the '40s or earlier.
I guess! Have they? Was it weird for people back then? It seems like back then, it was just what it was.
Really! I feel like these days, I'm more connected to those roots of mine than I was. I feel like for a while, I kind of strayed from that world and was excited to be all things. And now, I'm really excited to have that basis in what I do. I just don't like genres. I find them kind of silly. Sorry, GRAMMYs! [laughs]
No apologies! To me, genres are only useful if you're in a record store and you don't know what to buy.
Before I jump back into the record, are you a Yusef Lateef fan?
[excitedly] You know what? I just started listening to him this week! It's amazing! It kind of sounds like that Éthiopiques stuff a little bit. Where's he from?
He was from Detroit.
What did he say about [the word "jazz"]?
I've been told he gave a dissertation where he brought up representatives from the dictionary and challenged them on the word "jazz," because it had connotations of being dirty or low-grade, with meanings ranging from "nonsense" to "fornication."
I get that. The connotations are that it's not as serious an art form, basically. It's such a silly thing, right? It's not silly at all—I get it—but even my own feelings about it are so silly sometimes.
Well, what are your feelings about it?
It's just music, you know? To get hung up on a word, I think, is not about the music. I respect what he's saying. I'm not talking bad about him. I'm just saying that in general, the whole conversation about it is so funny.
I like that Bird called it "modern music" instead.
I love that. I'm in for that.
So, I was going to ask about which of these gigs were particularly memorable for you, but you sort of answered that question when you said it grew out of the Rio show. What about the others, though? Any interesting stories attached to them?
Actually, the France gig was one of the first gigs we did with this band that felt so good. The audience was great. I remember after that show, thinking, "Ah, man! That was awesome!" So when we were going back to think about shows, I said, "Remember that gig in Perpignan that was so good? Do you have that recorded?" And he did. So that was part of it.
And then the Ohana Festival was so special because it was just a big, huge, outdoor festival, which we hadn't really done out with this band. I didn't know how it would go over, but it was awesome. We actually did the song "It Was You," which is from an EP I put out a couple of years ago [2019's Begin Again], and I don't even think it had come out yet. Even if it had, it wasn't something a lot of people had. I don't think it was a hit! [laughs].
So, we played this song from it and the audience didn't know it at all, but the reaction was everything I've ever wanted for that song. It was so great. I'm just so glad we captured that too, you know?
It's the energy feedback! That's what we're missing when we're singing for each other through tinny phone speakers.
Yeah, exactly. During this pandemic, I've made playlists to just feel good, and one of them had a Bob Marley Live track on it. Every time the song comes on and I feel the energy of that, it just makes me kind of electric, you know? It makes me so happy. That's what I was trying to capture. That's what the Rio show had, 100%.
The Brazilian audience is so vocal as well, which helps, but it just had that energy. We were trying to keep that throughout the album. So, there were some songs that there were two great versions of, but one where you could just feel the live energy more. We would choose the energy one. We tried to keep that going.
Norah Jones performing in Florence, Massachusetts, in 2019. Photo: David Barnum
I love the cover of "Black Hole Sun" here. It's unexpected coming from you, but it fits like a glove. Can you talk about your relationship with Chris Cornell's music?
Yeah, I grew up listening to Soundgarden and loved it. I was a kid of the '90s, you know? It was on the air at all times. I got to meet him once. He was super sweet. We shared a dressing room bathroom at a festival [chuckles]. At the Bridge School [Benefit], actually. He was such a great singer, so I was a fan.
And when he died, we happened to be playing the same theater the night he died, in Detroit. I think we were the first people to play it since he played there that week. My guitar player told me that morning that this is where he had played. So, I thought it would be nice to play "Black Hole Sun" as a tribute.
I practiced it all day in my dressing room. I was kind of nervous, but I thought, "We're going to send some love to him and do this song of his." It was probably one of the most beautiful live moments I've ever had. The song is beautiful and, somehow, the music, his spirit—I don't know if his ghost was in the room or what, but it carried me through that song like I could have never imagined.
It's just one of those moments I'm really glad we could capture because I don't even know if I'll play that song again. It was such a special time to play it and I don't know if I could ever recapture that. Just the vibe in the room, you know.
I feel like a different musician might do a more melodramatic version of "Black Hole Sun." I appreciate that you just inhabited the melody and let it speak for itself because I think he was a Beatles- or Kurt Cobain-level melody writer.
Oh, totally. I'd known that song forever, but I'd never tried to play it. And when I was learning it that day, I was like, "Holy crap! This song is crazy! It's so good; it's so unique; it's so interesting." And the lyrics are so beautiful as well.
What's your plan for 2021 and beyond now that we're all hopefully getting our vaccines? I'm sure you're raring to return to the stage.
Yeah, I'm so excited! I get my second shot in a few weeks. I'm really excited to return to the stage, but I don't know when. I'm just going to wait until things completely return. I'm going to let everyone who is really raring to go, go. I can't imagine doing it before 2022, but I'm down if it happens! [laughs] I'm ready!
The problem might be that everyone will want to go back out at once.
Yeah. And also, I'm cool for a minute. I don't know. I don't want to cobble it together. The half-capacity thing… I'll go to those shows, but I don't know. I don't want to jump the gun myself, but I'm excited.
Photo: Leon Morris/Redferns via Getty Images
In Remembrance: Chick Corea Played In More Ways Than One
The through-line of Chick Corea, a 23-time GRAMMY-winning pianist, and his body of work was a sense of childlike joy and discovery
Chick Corea was one of the most advanced thinkers ever to grace the piano, but he rarely spoke in terms of minor-third intervals or the Mixolydian scale. Drop into virtually anything the man said about his art, and it’ll probably hinge on two words: fun and games.
"Trust yourself to say, 'I don't know what I'm going to do next, but I'm just going to do it because it's fun,'" Corea advised in a YouTube clip in 2020 while talking about his old colleague, Miles Davis. That year, when speaking to JazzTimes, he continually circled back to the phrase, "That's not the game I'm playing." "Oh, would you call that music?" he asked in the 2019 documentary Chick Corea: In the Mind of a Master, between virtuosic runs on the keyboard. "I don't know; I don't care what it is. It's just a lot of fun, you know?"
Corea's fealty to fun made him into a boundless, filterless fount of ideas—great ones. They're all over his boundary-busting 1970s band Return to Forever, his luminous albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton, his Akoustic and Elektric Bands, and beyond. Talk about a batting average: across almost 90 albums, he won 23 GRAMMYs and was nominated fo/r 67. Currently, he's in the running for the 63rd GRAMMY Awards for his trio album Trilogy 2, featuring bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade.
Sadly, Corea won't find out if he'll add a 24th GRAMMY to his shelf. After a brief battle with recently-diagnosed cancer, the piano titan died Tuesday, Feb. 9, at his home in Tampa Bay, Florida. He was 79. "It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so," he said in a statement. "If not for yourself, then for the rest of us. It's not only that the world needs more artists; it's also just a lot of fun."
And fun was arguably Corea's entire MO, from his stylistic interplay to his pianistic touch to the way he dealt with his audiences.
Armando Anthony Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1941. "Chick" came from "cheeky," his aunt's baby-name for him due to his chubby cheeks. His trumpeter father sat him in front of a piano at four; at eight, he began taking lessons from the Boston concert pianist Salvatore Sullo. After high school, he moved to New York City to study at Columbia and Julliard but soon drifted from academia into the nightclub circuit. Initially steeped in bebop artists like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, Corea soon became enamored with music from south of the border.
The music of [the bebop] era was quite demanding. You had to be into it to really grasp it," Chick told All About Jazz in 2020. "Whereas when I heard Latin music, that beat I heard coming out of New York and out of Puerto Rico and out of Cuba—Eddie Palmieri and Machito and these bands—that gave me a whole other emotional outlook to music. I thought, 'Wow, this is uplifting, happy music, and it struck something.'" Corea touched on this sense of exuberance in his work with Latin-adjacent artists, like saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and flutist Herbie Mann.
Corea's interest in this sphere also led him to the guitar master Paco de Lucía, a close friend and collaborator for decades; Corea wrote "The Yellow Nimbus" as a duet with him. "When we played together, I thought I would see a yellow cloud around his head, like a circle," he explained in his 2020 live, solo album Plays. ("Paco inspired me in the construction of my own musical world as much as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or Bartok and Mozart," Corea said six years prior upon de Lucía's death.)
Latin influences also permeated Return to Forever, Corea's enchanting fusion band that always seemed to hover a few inches above the ground. But even though albums like 1972's Return to Forever and 1973's Light as a Feather were commercial successes, this wedding of musical hemispheres wasn't to court crossover success, but chase that ineffable feeling of freedom.
"It's the media that are so interested in categorizing music," he told The New York Times in 1983, a year after "The Yellow Nimbus" came out. "If critics would ask musicians their views about what is happening, you would find that there is always a fusion of sorts taking place. All this means is a continual development—a continual merging of different streams."
Genre aside, Corea spent his life combing through every mood and format he could think of, from starlit, quasi-ambient duets (1973's Crystal Silence, with Gary Burton, to classically-minded post-bop (1981's Three Quartets, with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker). The last few years of Corea's life marked an explosion of diversity and prolificity. In 2016, he underwent a six-week stand at New York's Blue Note club with more than 20 different groups.
Three years later, his Latin interest crescendoed with Antidote, a jubilant collaboration with the eight-piece Spanish Heart Band. "The game I like is where we become a unit," Corea said in In the Mind of a Master, released concurrently with Antidote. "Everyone's giving and taking, and all [are] creating the music."
No matter which context he was in, Corea's effervescence is evident in his playing itself. His fluid phrasing and jewellike tone, which appeared almost fully-formed with his first two albums, 1968's Tones for Joan's Bones and Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, made even his knottiest material pleasing to the ear. About his way with a Fender Rhodes, "It's almost like his fingers bounce off the keys," WBGO's Nate Chinen told NPR in 2016. "His touch on that instrument is really distinctive. You know it's him within a note or two."
This accessibility and distinctiveness are testaments to Corea's emphasis on communicating to the listener, and he couldn't have done so if the music flew over peoples' heads. This became a primary value to Corea in the mid-'70s, when he converted to Scientology and underwent an auditing system that set him on a lifelong psychospiritual journey.
"A very simple thing happened to me right in the very beginning," Corea told The Village Voice in 1977. "I experience this in live hundreds or thousands of people in front of me—I now have the ability to give across a musical communication with clear intent. I know what I'm doing and who I'm communicating to, and I give the communication across, and I see what happens in front of me." (Corea dedicated myriad albums to Hubbard and remained a highly visible member of the controversial religion until the end of his life.)
In what would be Corea's final album, Plays, he eschews a superstar's trappings: no backing band, no staid reverence, no canned commentary. "Here I am with my piano," he declares at the top, alone onstage. "The piano's tuned up all nice, but now we have to tune up. Yeah, we." At first, it's an awkward moment. He plays a middle A; the giggling crowd tentatively sings it back to him. One note becomes two; two becomes three, and so on.
But by the time Corea lays into a medley of Mozart's Piano Sonata in F, and George Gershwin's "Something to Watch Over Me," the gag reveals itself to be something much more profound. Suddenly, the barriers vanish. His game opens up to everyone. His fun becomes ours.