The Rainlore Interview: Mark Weinstein

Interview concluded: 2010/12/16

Legendary Afro-Latin jazzman and jazz flautist Mark Weinstein’s latest album, Jazz Brasil, goes on release in January. In this exclusive in-depth two-part interview with Rainlore’s World of Music – more of a most congenial chat really - he talks frankly about the new album, about jazz flute, about Brazilian music, and a lot besides.

Part One

Photo of Mark Weinstein

Rainlore’s World of Music: Hello, Mark Weinstein. Mark, we are about to see the release of your latest album, Jazz Brasil. This is your fourth album of Brazilian jazz. As the greatest pioneer in Afro-Cuban jazz and the father, so to speak, of the use of Cuban folkloric and religious Santeria rhythms in jazz, when and how did this love affair with the music of Brazil come about?

Mark Weinstein: Like so much in life the story is a complicated one. My original connection with Brazilian music was minimal (playing the occasional bossa novas on trombone with club date bands in the 60s). I did however love the movie Black Orpheus and Felicidades was my favorite song. When I first started recording again in the late 80’s I recorded the tune on a demo that went nowhere. My first real new recording, Seasoning in 1996, had Vic Juris on it and we re-recorded Felicidades. Vic was playing at the Blue Note where I got into a conversation with a guy in the bar. And when I mentioned I had recorded with Vic he told me to check out Romero Lubambo, who at that time played matinées in a coffee shop on Union Square called ‘Coffee’ (what else). It was a big hang for fans of Brazilian music and I started going there regularly. I fell in love with the music. And when I decided to do another album, Jazz World Trios in 1998, I called Romero and he agreed to record with me. My concept for that album was to do three different trios, Afro-Cuban, Straight Ahead and Brazilian. I did the Afro-Cuban date first with Jean-Paul Bourelly and Milton Cardona and we played two extended improvisations on traditional toques de santo. I wanted something comparable for the Brazilian date and Romero suggested a baiaõ that was so old that he didn’t know its name, but he thought the composer was the great composer of baiaõ, Luis Gonzago.

The tune, which is called Baiaõ Granfino on the CD, was basically a 16 bar blues. Romero challenged me to ‘write some changes.’ I wrote about 4 or 5 different substitutions (which Romero played and more) but the key to the tune was determined by the fact that it was a C7 blues and Romero wanted to play with open strings. I suggested that he played inversions with E in the bass for C7, A in the bass for F7 and D in the bass for G7 and a passing chord Ab7. Cyro Baptista played percussion and as soon as he had set up his dozens of instruments we ploughed right into the tune. Playing the inversions opened the tune up harmonically and we played for over 16 minutes of some of the most amazing improvisations I have ever recorded. I was hooked!

Romero was basically unavailable for gigs and he suggested Paul Meyers, with whom I played some concerts. This led to some early videos and a recording of duos with Paul, Ed Cherry and Vic Juris called Three Deuces in 2001 which included some Brazilian tunes.

I was feeling comfortable enough with Brazilian music that I hooked up with Richard Boukas, who is the head of the Brazilian music program at New School University. We recorded an album of 13 songs from Hermeto Pascoal’s Calendario do Som. That album, Tudo de Bom (2003), had fantastic Brazilian rhythm players, Nilson Matta on bass, Paulo Braga on drums and Vanderlei Pereira on percussion. Within the next few years I started recording for Jazzheads, and I started alternating between Afro-Cuban and Brazilian (with some straight-ahead thrown in). The first all-Brazilian album O Nosso Amor (2006) included Romero, Nilson and Paulo Braga along with two percussionists, Guilherme Franco and Jorge Silva. Then another Brazilian album with Romero, Cyro and Nilson called Lua e Sol in 2008.

RWOM: Baiaõ Granfino certainly is a highly memorable recording, with its extended duration and fabulous extended improvisations. It's also one of your most live sounding tracks I think. It's certainly easy to understand how this got you hooked on Brazilian music. You seemed to take to it like the proverbial duck to water, Mark. What struck me about the previous Brazilian albums was how you got right into the heart and soul of the music while at the same time putting it firmly into a jazz context - something that hadn't been done as successfully very often before, if at all. They seemed to have that authenticity and authority about them that one would associate with someone who had been born into the culture, rather than someone who had come to it only relatively recently. Previously Charlie Byrd perhaps got closest, followed by Herbie Mann, but you seem to have penetrated much deeper.

Coming to your latest Brazilian jazz album, Jazz Brasil, it immediately strikes as being much more ‘mainstream’ than the previous ones, yet as thoroughly Brazilian as could be. One would hardly think of Monk for instance in a Brazilian context, yet the feel and treatment of the ‘foreign’ material of about half this album could hardly be more Brazilian if it had been conceived in that context.

MW: First to give credit where credit is due: Nilson Matta co-produced the Brazilian recordings for Jazzheads and has been a great help in picking musicians and material. This is true for Jazz Brasil as well. I never would have thought of recording I Mean You, one of Monk’s earlier tunes and with an odd 2/4 break in the melody. But it was Nilson's first choice and it gave the basic concept of the album, bouncing between Jazz with a Brazilian flavor and Brazilian tunes played with a jazz attitude. Jobim's Triste follows, a tune I have played quite a lot and one that is a bossa nova standard. We did extend the contrasting minor section at the end which gives us a bit more room to improvise on modal changes.

RWOM: And this works like a charm. And from there you move to Nefertiti.

MW: I have recorded Wayne Shorter tunes on most of my recent records and I have always wanted to record Nefertiti. The register of the tune makes it perfect for alto flute and it is one of my favorites on the album.

RWOM: One of my favourite Shorter compositions and I think also with most musicians, considering how often it has been recorded. And it does seem like it was made for the alto. Moving on, we have one of if not the most iconic of Brazilian classics.

MW: I love the Ary Barroso classics and recorded Bahia on O Nosso Amor, so when Nilson suggested recording the most classic of all Brazilian tunes, Brazil, I jumped at the chance. I was a lot less happy to consider his suggestion that I record a cover of Herbie Mann's big hit Memphis Underground. I worked with Herbie for years as a trombone player and have basically followed his formula, playing with the best musicians and playing world music. But I don't think I play anything like Herbie (I certainly don't swing as hard as he did) and to play a groove tune with little harmonic interest was not appealing. But Nilson turned out to be right. I played it on bass flute to keep the comparison with Herbie's version to a minimum and it was a blast to play.

RWOM: And it's also a blast to listen to. It works superbly well, even though it was essentially a one-chord groove.

MW: But for your other question. This is definitely a mainstream album compared to my last two. My last two albums, Timbasa and Lua e Sol, are both stretching the forms. Timbasa is with the most cutting edge young Cuban musicians I know; and [on Lua e Sol - Ed.] using Cyro Baptista on percussion and with no drummer freed the rhythm concept up, and Romero and Nilson, who play together very often, jumped at the opportunity to stretch. Playing with Kenny Barron [on Jazz Brasil – Ed.] changed everything. Kenny and I are the same age and we come from the same place in music. Playing with him allowed me to relax (playing with the young Cuban monsters on Timbasa was pure pressure). And relax I did. Instead of trying to push the envelope I just sat back into the music and let Kenny's beautiful harmonies and perfect time feel take me back home.

RWOM: Kenny seems just perfect for Jazz Brasil. He’s always seemed so into the music, and I always felt that he gave the Stan Getz dates on which he played the real Brazilian cred. But let’s return to Jazz Brasil.

MW: I actually recorded Jazz Brasil within a month of Timbasa and I am really pleased at the contrast between how I approach the very different musical contexts. It is that distance between my various albums that my music is all about. Since all I play is flute and I insist on carrying my albums with no other horn soloist I need to bring novelty to my records. This works out fine, since I think the range of musical possibilities available on the flute has rarely been explored as widely as I am trying to.

RWOM: Indeed, I would go so far as to say it's never been done before to this extent in jazz.

MW: Since so many of the very best jazz flutists were saxophone players, they used the flute in fairly narrow ways (although among them the differences are as vast as Eric Dolphy and James Moody). Most of the sax players who played great flute found a niche for the flute within their total musical vocabulary. I don't have that option. I have to play everything I want to play on flute.


RWOM: Absolutely, they all treated the flute very much as a kind of ‘second cousin’, with the possible exception of Youssef Lateef, who although also playing sax and oboe seemed to treat all of his instruments fairly equally, perhaps even giving the flute greater prominence than any of the others. His style on the flute (along with that of Hubert Laws perhaps) also was in some ways closest to what we hear from you - much more fluid, less characterised by tonguing and other typical flute technique. More than any other player before, including Herbie Mann, you also utilise the alto and bass flutes, and you are now exploring the possibilities of the bass flute to the fullest, as we also hear most effectively on the new album on Monk's Ruby My Dear and Mann's Memphis Underground. You seem to be feeling more and more comfortable with the bass, using it more like a tenor sax (whose range it is closest to also)?

MW: Now that is quite a compliment, to be compared to two of the all time great jazz flutists. But even though Hubert recorded mainly on flute I remember him playing saxophone when he first played with Mongo in the 60s. Not playing sax at all (even Herbie played tenor in his early career) I have no choice but to play all the flutes. I first started playing the bass flute [in its own right rather than as part of a flute choir as on Algo Más – Ed.] on O Nosso Amor on a slow choro, Naguele Tempo, and loved the way the instrument sounded on slow melodic compositions. When I recorded Straight, No Chaser I decided to play the title track on bass flute. The tune is such a cliché that I needed to do something different with it and I was surprised at how well the bass flute sounded as a rough bluesy voice, so that gave me the idea as to how to treat Memphis Underground. I play the melody doubled in octaves which gives it both depth and edge, but we decided to blow on complete blues changes to give the tune a bit more harmonic interest.


(To be concluded in Part 2)

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