A Conversation with Larry Gillespie and Benny Powell
Benny Powell: I'd like to congratulate you on putting together a fine band and recording an album I really enjoy. It's very relaxed. I think that's one of the things that took me to it. This is 1998 and most of the music I hear seems pretty hectic and frenetic, and the relaxing factor is not there, so I especially applaud you for putting together a big band album that is so relaxing. What was your purpose for recording this album?
Larry Gillespie: You pretty much hit the nail on the head with what you just said about the lack of relaxation and melodicism. This kind of music personifies what I like about big band jazz: swinging, with beautiful melodies.
bp: Is simplicity a big word to you? Because it seems like everything was presented simply...
lg: And honestly. For me, personally, I run a lot on emotions, and if I don't feel good about what's happening, the best of my playing can't come out, because I'm too sensitive to everything else that goes on around me. Therefore, when I put together a band, I want people who are nice people and fine players, and who want to do this kind of music. They have to be all three. It's very important to me to have a good feeling, so that when the musicians sit down together they like each other, and they like the music they're playing, 'cause then the result will be good swinging music.
bp: Okay, you found the musicians, your next step was to get something together for them to play. How did you go about choosing the songs for the album?
lg: Let's take the title track, Contour, that's a classic case. I chose it 'cause the melody's great and I remember it from when I was ten years old.
My mom would buy me records and she knew what I liked. I'd say I want Art Farmer this period, I want Donald Byrd with the Messengers, I want Chet Baker, I want Miles Davis before this period, and Contour was on one of those albums. Britta Langsjoen contributes a strong solo on this cut. She swings like nobody's business and is one of the coming voices in jazz. And Todd Bashore does a really fine job swinging in and out of the tonality and back again in a flash. He's a great section leader!
bp: I Remember You follows Contour; what significance does this tune have for you?
lg: I've always loved this particular Bill Holman arrangement done for Kenton but never recorded.
bp: You picked a number of standard tunes, or show tunes. Why is that?
lg: Because I feel the melodies that came out of that whole period are wonderful, and the chord changes are interesting. For me they are the best combination of harmony and melody.
bp: You had a couple that were in a Latin vein that followed each other. There was one that begins with the drums.
lg: And speaking of drums, Mike Campenni is my ideal of a big band drummer: he's got a true be-bop feel and catches all the brass pops! That would be Let's Try, in Tom's words, a trip around the world, that's the best way to describe it. Asa Handy and Jim Seely both play solos with the depth and style characteristic of them.
bp: It's a Tom McIntosh arrangement?
lg: Yes, Tom's original tune, actually, one he wrote for Maynard's band. As you go through the piece it starts with this New Orleans street kind of rhythm, then it visits a jazz club, and then the Caribbean, South America...
bp: Wow, it's a jazz odyssey. And your first vocal sounds like a guy walking down the street whistling...
lg: Yeah, whistling, humming a happy tune.
bp: All in all, the whole thing is about happiness...
lg: Happiness and joy, yeah!
bp: Talk about Angel Eyes for a little while, please, and why you did it. Is there a specific reason, other than it being a good standard?
lg: I was intrigued, in this case, by the treatment of the tune, by the arrangement. The Latin jazz gives it a whole different twist.
bp: You mentioned also it was a feature...
lg: Tim Armacost, my first tenor. It's a feature for him.
bp: That was important too, that you feature some of the players on the album?
lg: Oh yes. There are so many fine soloists, I try, besides myself, to feature many of the fine players in the band, to showcase them.
bp: Give me your take on A Sleepin' Bee? It's a quiet song for a quiet moment in the Broadway show, so when I heard your version I wanted to ask you why you chose to do it in the style you did?
lg: I came upon it somewhat like you did, through the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly version, but I had heard Phil Woods do a more up-tempo version of it, and I wanted something more up-tempo for Francina, something with a little more of an edge to it.
bp: How did you choose Francina Connors?
lg: I chose her because of her voice quality. She's one of the few unaffected singers. Her voice is beautiful, swinging, and honest.
bp: Talk about this next tune.
lg: How Would You Feel? is an original composition by Laurent Katz. This one is a minor blues that features a few more people in the band: Randy Eckert on trumpet, Michael Karn, who plays second tenor in the band, and Bim Strassberg on bass. Besides being a fine soloist, Bim's sound and time lock in perfectly with the drums, giving the band a solid foundation. Mike and I worked together in Ray Charles' band. Randy Eckert was very responsible for helping me to get players for the band when I first moved to New York. He shares the lead with me, and plays great jazz, too.
bp: Why did you choose You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To ?
lg: That's another arrangement by Udo Van Boven. I met Udo in The Hague when I did some tours out there. He's a great arranger, a great piano player. I always liked his style.
bp: Did you choose it for the arrangement, or for the tune?
lg: I chose it for the tune, and I asked Udo to make it even more of an up-tempo, high-energy kind of treatment, an exciting kind of feature.
bp: I see Joe Knight is playing on this.
lg: I've really appreciated all of Joe's contributions to the band.
bp: Well it's funny, because I've only heard Joe in a small band context, so the first time I heard him in your band and saw that he was a consummate musician who fits in anywhere, I was very pleased to hear of his versatility. Of course I'm not surprised, because a great musician is a great musician. But he's one of the people that I'm a great fan of, one of the reasons I asked you to let me do the liner notes. So we can go on to the next tune, which is...
lg: Só Louco, which means "only crazy." Gal Costa recorded it, Eddie Bert had remembered her version of that tune, and he had an arrangement done of it .
bp: I notice this is the same person who did the other feature for Eddie Bert, Just for You.
lg: Yes, Angelo Testanero. Also, my wife loves the tune, being that she's Brazilian, from Rio, the Mônica Elias-Gillespie connection, the 'Rio Express'
lg: My wife is my agent and manager-she makes it easy for me.
bp: Well I can understand why you would want to do a song that she likes. The next one is a "Sonny" Stitt original, The Eternal Triangle. I seem to recall you saying that the last two songs close as a sort of tribute to Dizzy so, how does this tie in ?
lg: Well Dizzy recorded that tune on the album "Sonny Side Up" with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins on tenors. What moved me to ask for Tom's arrangement was sitting there listening to it and thinking we really don't have a good rhythm changes chart in the book. One could hardly ask for a better one-two punch of tenor soloists than Tim Armacost and Mike Karn, both so melodic with big round sounds!
bp: So this one was commissioned for you as well. How many arrangements were commissioned by you?
lg: Nine were commissioned by me: Three from Laurent Katz, How Would You Feel?, Contour, and Angel Eyes; three from Udo Van Boven, A Sleepin' Bee, Too Close for Comfort, and You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To; and three from Tom McIntosh, Let's Try, The Eternal Triangle, and If You Could See Me Now.
bp: Okay, tell me about the last tune; you mentioned before that it's a tribute to Dizzy.
lg: Yes. In many ways, the little quotes there, the Dizzy, the Miles, the Monk- and you could really say Charlie Parker in there too.
bp: I found it was really magical how Tom got all those things in there and made them all work. In fact the creativity of all the arrangers is really very special to me, and I'm sure it will be to the listener, as well, because nobody took cheap shots, they just did it all on a highly intelligent level.
lg: Thank you, I was very proud of the efforts of all the arrangers.
bp: So who are some of your influences?
lg: I'd really like to thank the great teachers I had from the very start. First, Graham Young , the lead trumpet player with Henry Mancini and Gene Krupa's band. He also played first trumpet at Universal Studios, including many classical dates. And Uan Rasey really taught me some lessons for about five or six years. He was my mentor; a really patient man. Uan was the first trumpet at MGM. It's from him I got the basis for my sound. I love those dates with Frank Sinatra, for example, but he'd also play for Jerry Fielding and do the classical dates. Then I took some lessons from Bobby Shew, who helped me with the breathing and different things; Al Porcino, my favorite lead player, with advice on phrasing. And finally, Johnny Madrid, who is a wonderful lead player. He showed me a way of playing, of setting my embouchure, that I've been teaching to people, which makes the trumpet unbelievably easy for me, using the basis of all the others before, of course.
bp: What do you think about the veterans you have in your band, such as Britt Woodman and Eddie Bert?
lg: Britt Woodman has always been a role model for me musically and spiritually. And Eddie Bert's professionalism and demeanor are indispensable to any band. I believe very strongly in having veterans in the band, and those two gentlemen you mentioned are exemplary people and players who represent all the good qualities of the musician.
bp: Are these guys helpful, like elder statesmen? In other words, could you depend on them for advice, through their experience?
lg: Yes, they're invaluable-their insight, their assistance, their abilities...
bp: It's funny because they both have the same kind of temperament: that calmness and honesty about them. Anyway, you have a mixture in your band of different ages, styles, and generations. Is that by choice?
lg: Yes. I want a band that's like a community, just like the way I like to see life, everyone getting along, whether you're, black, white, Spanish, man, woman, old, young, I want to see everyone playing together in music, happy.
bp: I think we need to get together as musicians and do things in groups. It's very difficult by yourself, I know, I can really empathize with that, because I've done the same thing, I've produced my own albums, and I market them myself. I'm trying to get other musicians to co-operate within organizations rather than only as individuals. Do you see that likely?
lg: I think it's high time.
bp: Well, I know, but do you see any other guys out there who might be ready to go for the same thing?
lg: Oh, I'm sure there are.
bp: Well, as an older musician I would ask you to think in these terms and to kind of advocate it to others.
Do you think music is a vehicle to express the spirit?
lg: Oh yes!