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 Two - Return to Part 1
Rainlore's World of Music: Straight, No Chaser was something of a revelation. Not only in that you actually made it sound remarkably fresh, but also it showed the bass flute in a whole new light that we hadn't really seen before.
Mark Weinstein: The bass flute is a very difficult instrument to play. It has serious intonation problems and doesn't speak well, but it has a character all its own. The alto flute, on the other hand, is a dream to play. Although it doesn't play the highest register with ease, the low notes play the easiest of all of the flutes. Mark Adler, a great jazz flutist from Philadelphia, calls it the tenor sax of the flute. But no flute has the range of the saxophone (even the soprano has an extra low note that the flute doesn't). But the most serious musical limitation of the flute is that you can't pop out the low notes the way you can on any saxophone. The low notes have to be played with a very strong embouchure. I practice low notes more than I practice anything else on the flute (as do most flutists) but there is no way that I can 'honk' on the bottom the way all sax players can. In that regard the flute is like a trumpet, the bottom is always a problem. But the payback is the ease with which the upper register speaks. You can hit the highest notes with power (in fact playing soft in the high register is the real challenge). All of which is to say that the flute, like every instrument, has its unique challenges, especially if you want to use it to play across the range of jazz genres.
RWOM: That is a fascinating insight into the particular challenges, characteristics and also joys of the flute for our readers. Your love of particularly the alto seems to be reflected in that you tend to use it much more frequently on your recordings - especially since, I think, Tudo de Bom - than anybody before. When I look back over Herbie's long and extremely prolific recording career, he seemed to use the alto pretty sparingly until quite late - it was only about the 80s it started to show up more prominently, if memory serves. Given that he actually started out on the clarinet and even recorded a whole album on bass clarinet, except for the closing track on tenor, if I remember correctly (around 1956/7, as Herbie Mann's Californians, titled Great Ideas Of Western Mann), I always wondered why he didn't explore the other flutes more fully much sooner.
But let us get back to your new album, Jazz Brasil. First, I think that Herbie would have been delighted with your interpretation of Memphis Underground, and also would have felt quite complimented. For much of his career, he seemed to suffer being somewhat dismissed on account of playing flute and worse, being often considered a ‘lightweight’ because of his many excursions into different forms of music, from Middle Eastern to blues and funk to rock/pop - his popularly successful albums Memphis Underground and especially perhaps London Underground spring particularly to mind; more a case of professional jealousy of his commercial success than anything perhaps?
MW: Herbie's style was very rhythmic and he used tonguing for momentum. This is very typical of concert flute and much less common in the low flutes that tend to have a softer and more delayed attack. Plus the low flutes have intonation issues and until recently it was very hard to find an alto flute that played in tune (bass flutes still tend to be out of tune). Herbie was very supportive of me when I played trombone in his band, although I left the band after we had a falling out over a solo of mine that he cut from a live recording.
When I first started to play flute and recorded the Orisha Suite I sent it to him for consideration. He was producing for his own company, Kokopelli Records. The company folded shortly thereafter and my submission went nowhere. Years later I went to a gig on his birthday at the Blue Note in NY and we sat together during the break. He was openly talking about his prostate cancer on gigs and he had developed a warmth and spiritual depth that was apparent to me as we sat together.
That said. I'm not sure that it was his so-called commercialism that was the basis for criticism of his playing. After all everyone from Mongo to Horace Silver was adding funk elements to jazz. With all due respect, Herbie had serious limitations as a jazz player. He played very primitively harmonically, relying on pentatonic scales with little or no chromaticism.
RWOM: That much is certainly undeniable.
MW: Given his stature as a commercial success this rubbed a lot of musicians the wrong way, since harmonic complexity had been the defining characteristic of jazz since bebop. In addition, Herbie, like myself and unlike especially Hubert Laws, didn't have a classical sound. I take a lot of heat for my sound from classical flute players and since most sax doublers learn flute from classical flute teachers, a classical sound is the standard among jazz flutists as well. The trouble with a classical sound is that it is based on the need for consistency across players for orchestral playing, which requires uniformity of sound. Even classical flute soloists play with a narrower range of sounds than is typical of jazz musicians. Think of the difference between the trumpet sounds of Miles, Dizzy and Wynton Marsalis. Or the difference in saxophone sound between Sonny, Trane and Archie Shepp.
RWOM: Indeed, with every other instrument (than the flute) it's taken for granted that every player should have his own particular sound or voice, and on any given instrument the range of individual voices is phenomenal.
MW: As a jazz musician I want a unique sound. I'm not looking for subs at the Metropolitan Opera (Hubert did that for years when he lived in New York). Herbie was also a jazz soloist and he played with the sound that he felt communicated what he had to say to an audience. And whatever one thinks of Herbie's technical proficiency, he could communicate to an audience as well as anyone and better than most.
RWOM: Absolutely. Also, I think it is well past time that it became accepted that jazz flautists should have just as individual voices as say saxophonists. After all, how many jazz saxophonists base their sound on that of the classical sax player? But let's return to Jazz Brasil and, specifically once more for a moment, and by way of complete contrast, what surely is the most iconic of Brazilian classics, Barroso's immortal Brazil. You make this sound as fresh as if it had been written the day before the session, Mark.
MW: As far as playing Brazil is concerned. I have played an Ary Barroso tune on all of my recent Brazilian albums. I played an exquisite ballad of his, Pra Machuchar Meu Coracáo, on Lua e Sol and as mentioned recorded Bahia on O Nosso Amor. Ary Barroso wrote extraordinary melodies. Bahia and Brazil are among the most performed songs ever. But from a jazz musician's point of view, the harmonic structure is as important an issue as the beauty of the melodies. All of his tunes, like the best of Jobim, have real structural integrity. It is not just blowing on changes, the harmonic structure forces you to tell a story in your solo since the harmonies build in intensity as the tunes progress.
RWOM: This is indeed one of the most attractive aspects of particularly Barroso and also Jobim from a jazz perspective.
You also seem to have a particular affinity with the music of the Brazilian North East, but this is not represented on Jazz Brasil.
MW: Jazz Brasil is not a 'Brazilian' album, it is a jazz album that addresses jazz through a Brazilian lens and vice versa, so I picked Brazilian tunes that fit the jazz concept. The one exception is Nilson's tune Sambosco, which is quite typical in its form and melody. I thought of doing an album of north-eastern music when I recorded the half tango album with Pablo Aslan, using the fact that both genres use accordions. But since I decided to complete the album with additional tangos that project is on hold for a while.
Bossa nova and samba have a natural affinity with jazz and so my focus has been on that aspect of Brazilian music. My deepest excursion into Brazilian music is still my 2003 album, Tudo de Bom. And that album, of all Hermeto Pascoal compositions, gave me a progressive lens on the North East. Jovino Santos-Neto has also done some wonderful records based on music from the North East. That is something really worth thinking about for future projects.
RWOM: What you say about Jazz Brasil not being a 'Brazilian' album but rather a jazz album addressing jazz through a Brazilian lens certainly strikes a chord here. This is very much the way I perceived it when I first heard it. It's almost as if the title were hyphenated as Jazz - Brasil. Brazilian music through a jazz filter and jazz through a Brazilian one, as it were.
Jovino Santos-Neto pretty much got his big break with Hermeto Pascoal's group in the late 70s, as pianist, flutist, arranger, composer, and producer, as I remember it. His own leader albums from the late 90s onward have certainly been fascinating. Today, the music of the North East seems the most vibrant and inspirational, so a future project from you in this direction would be something to specially look forward to I'm sure.
In the meantime, I believe you are about to put the finishing mixing touches to another Cuban album that promises to be sheer magic, and of course we are still also very much looking forward to the tango jazz album, Todo Corazón, as and when you complete this. A completely different direction for you Mark, although still within the realm of Afro-Latin music. And again with some of the very finest musicians in that particular sphere, particularly bassist Pablo Aslan and bandoneonist Raul Jaurena on the existing half of the album. Pablo has certainly come up with a superb selection of material there.
MW: Right on all counts. Aruan Ortiz, a Cuban jazz pianist (he plays with Wallace Roney among others) was originally a viola player and studied and taught composition in Cuba, Spain and at Berklee. He wrote an up-dated charanga album for me with danzones and other Cuban dance forms associated with traditional flute and string orchestras. But he wrote for a string quartet plus rhythm section, and his writing is very much in the modern string quartet tradition, while still being rooted in the Cuban music that he grew up with. It is all recorded and I will be mixing it early in 2011. The tunes include a vintage Cuban composition that will be the title cut: El Cumbanchero.
I'm scheduled to complete the tango project with Pablo Aslan early in 2011 as well. We have more than half of the album recorded and will do another four songs with a trio of flute, guitar and bass. Playing tangos is an enormous challenge since the rhythmic feel is unique and the melodies are so gloriously romantic. And so the title - also one of the tunes - Todo Corazón.
But the real surprising news is that I am planning on going to Israel in June to record with Israeli jazz musicians. I was there last spring and did quite a bit of playing with an expatriate New York guitarist who has lived in Jerusalem for 25 years and is head of the jazz department at a conservatory there. His name is Steve Peskoff. He is coming to NY next month and we will, hopefully, get to work out a musical concept that will address the jazz scene in Israel. I'll also be doing some academic work while I'm there with Arab Israeli teachers and professors.
RWOM: El Cumbanchero with strings - the idea seems scintillating! I'm sure we all can hardly wait to meet up with Aruan Ortiz's string arrangements and are already impatient for this album. I know it has been ‘in the making’ for a good couple of years, give or take. But suddenly, ‘with strings’ albums seem to have become quite the thing to do. (I have heard from quite a few artists who would love to record with a string quartet or are actually planning to.) Did the 50th anniversary a couple of years back of Bird's Charlie Parker With Strings album have any influence on your project? Of course, over here in the UK reed man Gilad Atzmon celebrated the occasion with his own very personal tribute, the superlative - and incidentally very successful and critically highly acclaimed - In Loving Memory of America, with his quartet and the Sigamos String Quartet led by Ros Stephen who also did most of the string arrangements, released early in 2009. But I don’t think that’s the direction you came from with El Cumbanchero?
MW: El Cumbanchero grew out of my love for the music of Arcaño, a Cuban string and flute band that had Cachao as its primary arranger. I have loved those tunes forever and a number of the pieces on the CD are re-arrangements of these classic examples of Cuban danzones in the 50s. In fact, when I first approached Aruan I sent him about a dozen mp3's of the original recording and asked him to reconfigure some of them for the CD. As luck (or shared taste) would have it, he picked my two favorite ones. He also has some original compositions and some other classic Cuban tunes, including the amazingly beautiful Contigo en la Distancia which we recorded dead slow without any drums. I get to play bass and alto, but the album showcases aspects of my playing that reflect the Cuban flute tradition, although I don't limit myself to the extreme high-octave, which the Cubans did, in part so the flute could be heard without amplification.
RWOM: As tango is another of my many musical obsessions you could say, Todo Corazón has been something that has had me totally excited ever since you first mentioned it. It is therefore of course splendid news that you will be completing recording it with Pablo early in the New Year. Doing the remaining tracks to be recorded with only a trio of flute, guitar and bass sounds exciting and even adventurous. It's certainly playing right on the edge and very exposed.
MW: The tango album is all very exposed. Some of the tunes are just flute, bandoneon and bass, and there are no drums. Pablo got some amazing musicians including importing a pianist from Buenos Aires, but the details of the record await its completion.
RWOM: Israel has had a very vibrant jazz scene (as well as general music scene) for a long time, and even people like Albert Beger (one of whose earlier albums, This Life, was reviewed here) and Harold Rubin have sadly not received the attention they deserve outside of Israel. Also, many of Israel's most gifted musicians have ended up abroad, especially also of course here in the UK, including Gilad Atzmon, Asaf Sirkis, Yaron Stavi, Koby
Israelite, and Daphna Sadeh, among others. In this context, your Israeli project sounds doubly exciting and I'm sure we can look forward to hearing more about it soon. You also make special mention of at the same time doing some academic work with Israeli Palestinian academics while there. Would this be by way of trying to balance your visit with your disapproval of the humanitarian situation, as also expressed in your blog when on a previous recent occasion you contributed a track to the album Klezmer Musicians Against The Wall?
MW: I'm really looking forward to recording in Israel. I have recorded an album of Jewish music, Shifra Tanzt and a record of music by a Ukrainian composer, Milling Time. I think everybody knows what great jazz musicians are coming out of Israel and I'm sure that I will be pleasantly surprised, since like all of my projects, I'm trying to expand my musical horizons by playing with very different sorts of musicians and letting them bring their musical sentiments and experiences for me to relate to.
The trip to Israel is, however, part of my other life. I'm going to work with a Professor at a Sharia based college to help him conceptualize an Institute for Critical Thinking, something that I did in New Jersey for ten years as the basis of my academic career.
My willingness to be included in the Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall project was predicated on my demand that a scan from the prayer book that I use after meals be prominently displayed:
RWOM: A beautiful sentiment that I'm sure nobody could argue with.
MW: That's about all I'm willing to say about Israel and the Palestinians.
RWOM: Sure, that's fair enough Mark. You also touch on two of your other previous albums, Shifra Tanzt and Milling Time, each fascinating in its own right. But maybe we could save those for another occasion, except perhaps to briefly mention that a couple of tracks from these have just found their way onto the soundtrack of a documentary film?
However, I couldn't possibly omit going back to a much earlier time and album. Would it surprise you to hear that amongst all the reviews of your albums on Rainlore’s World of Music, the original, seminal and even legendary Cuban Roots attracts consistently among the highest number of page views, often equalling those of whatever your latest album is, and that it is also the most common search string - as 'Mark Weinstein Cuban Roots' or some permutation thereof - used in relation to you that brings visitors to the site?
MW: That's right, tracks from both Shifra Tanzt and Milling Time will be included in the sound track for a PBS special on some horrific event in Poland during WW2. I don't have any details but I'll be sure to share them with you when they are available.
As far as Cuban Roots is concerned, it is ironic that the album is seen as a significant contribution and one that is the basis for much of the current interest in my career. When I recorded it in 1966 it went nowhere. It was only when it was re-released ten years later that musicians started to pay attention to it. From my perspective when it was recorded it was the wrong album at the wrong time. From the perspective of hind-sight it was perfectly timed to make the most impact, since it is a unique contribution to the history and development of Latin jazz. I go through the same psychological process with my recordings on flute. I don't get the sense that people are open to a major contribution to jazz from a flutist. But I can only hope in retrospect that people will see my work within the growing body of work by jazz flutists and appreciate the way I have tried to expand the range of the flute as a vehicle for jazz improvisation. Stalwart supporters like yourself are the key to my musical presence and the hope for the survival of my music. An interview such as this, that gives me the opportunity to address those interested in my music on a personal level, is most welcome. And there is no way that I can adequately express my gratitude for the time and effort you have put into the process.
RWOM: Goodness, you're making me blush now! Well thank you very much for your very kind remarks there, Mark. I hope we have been successful in covering not only your forthcoming excellent Jazz Brasil album and jazz flute but a fair amount of territory besides in some depth and in bringing what we have covered closer to our readers.
But before we close, there is one more ‘burning issue’ that I'm sure must be on everybody's mind who follows you and your music. I'm sure everybody is aware by now that lately, these are turning into pretty hard times for gigging all round and everywhere, but are we going to see you with a, more or less, regular band of your own going on tour again anytime soon-ish? And what are the prospects for your many UK and European fans - Jazzheads seem to have excellent distribution beyond the US, and I've seen your CDs even in my local supermarket.
MW: My recent career has been focused on recording. My first concern was to get a body of work out there. But I'm looking to get myself more international performance opportunities and England is particularly inviting. I know there are a lot of great musicians playing there and I'm always looking for opportunities to play with different musicians and enrich my musical conception by connecting with musicians who reflect other contexts in the global development of jazz. I am sure that the great exposure that I get through your web site will lead to some opportunities. And so it is time for me to express my gratitude for the wonderful opportunity that this interview has given me to connect with people who have come to know my music with your help.
RWOM: Mark Weinstein, thank you very much for so generously taking out so much time to talk to Rainlore’s World of Music. It's been a great pleasure chatting with you Mark, and I hope we can do this again some other time to cover the many fascinating aspects of your career that we haven't been able to go into here. In closing, let me wish you every success with the new album, Jazz Brasil, and also for the future, as well as a Happy New Year.
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