MIKE LONGO TRIO – FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY
On the new Mike Longo Trio album, Float Like a Butterfly, the jazz pianist continues his deep exploration of the possibilities of rhythm based on lessons learned from his two greatest teachers –- Oscar Peterson (whom Mike studied under early on) and Dizzy Gillespie (Longo performed with him for 25 years). This new recording, utilizing jazz stalwarts Paul West on bass and Jimmy Wormworth on drums, showcases Longo’s always-evolutionary playing.
“The album title comes from the fact that certain uses of rhythm in music can produce a floating effect for both the player and listener,” Longo explains. “This feeling of being airborne, of defying gravity, is a product of the physics of rhythm. Musicians have known about it for many years and speak about floating or flying, but hardly anyone really understands it.”
Float Like a Butterfly is dedicated to Oscar Peterson because he taught Mike “true jazz piano playing.” In Chicago in the early Sixties, Longo met Peterson, who invited Mike to study with him at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music run by Peterson and Ray Brown for jazz musicians. Longo spent the next six months in what he calls “the most intense period of study in my life,” often with private lessons from Peterson. “I already had my college degree, but it was in classical music, and I had been making my living playing jazz in the South and in New York City for several years. But when I started studying with Oscar, I realized I had been playing the piano incorrectly for jazz. I first learned the five T’s from him – touch, time, tone, technique and taste. He had me practicing 13 hours a day and I also had to make a living playing gigs most nights. It was a complete turnaround for me musically. What I learned about jazz piano playing was profound, especially piano textures, another T. He also showed me different ways of harmonizing and how to put together piano arrangements.”
In New York City, Gillespie heard Mike in 1966 and hired him as the pianist for the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, a position Mike held for nine years (eventually becoming music director as well) before striking out on his own again. But even then, he worked frequently with Dizzy for another 16 years. “I was always learning from Dizzy, mostly during performances, but sometimes in odd ways. He had the greatest depth of understanding of rhythm of any musician I ever met. He might come up to me during my solo and whisper a different rhythm in my ear that affected how I was playing right then. One time at the Village Gate he wrote down a rhythm on a notepad and gave it to me. It took me 30 years to learn how to play it and understand it. Another time he put on a tape of African rhythm instruments and asked me where I would put ‘one.’ I put it where everyone would. He told me to put it in this other place. Suddenly a whole new world of rhythmic possibilities opened up for me and, when we started playing, this marvelous four-part contrapuntal texture just jumped out of the piano like magic,” remembers Longo.
“Even after Dizzy’s death, I have continued learning from him. A couple of years ago I was listening to a radio special about him and he started singing a cymbal beat for Billy Taylor, but Diz started on the fourth beat. I use African drums when I give music lessons, just like Dizzy sometimes did with me, and while playing the drum with a student, all of a sudden that cymbal beat I had heard Dizzy singing on the radio jumped off my drum and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what he meant!’ It was an entirely different way of accenting. I started incorporating it into my piano playing. I began experimenting more deeply than ever before with polymetric time progression where you start to get several meters at once until you might have four or five layers of different rhythms with various tempos and timing. With this new revelation from Dizzy, I had to explore it for a couple of years and let it settle in awhile before I felt I was ready to record another trio album.”
Float Like a Butterfly (on the CAP label) is Longo’s first trio album since 2003 (although he released a big band recording in 2004). To capture the right performance for this new CD, Longo went into the studio four times with his trio and this set of tunes. Without rehearsals or song arrangements, the band used the melodies of the tunes as a quick jumping off point for improvisation. Longo discarded the first three attempts in the studio, but on the fourth try the band came up with the soaring interplay Mike was seeking. What you hear are first or second takes played live in the studio. “We had a few false starts with ‘Everytime I See You’ because the 5/4 bars are a little tough when you’re improvising.”
Longo tips his hat to Oscar Peterson with a cover of “Tenderly,” one of Peterson’s earliest and biggest hits. When Mike was barely a teenager, he saw Oscar in concert and this was the tune that made Longo want to become a jazz pianist. “Although this acknowledges Oscar as my teacher, I play it with my own phrasing and groove.” In addition, Longo pulls out two more chestnuts from his childhood, “Girl of My Dreams” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and remakes them into modern swinging post-bop improv ventures.
Longo also ties into several tunes penned by some of his favorite jazz composers: Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” (“He taught me to go to the unexpected place where no one expects you to go. That’s what I learned from him.”), Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” (“his version with Herbie Hancock and a horn section was great, but I could hear a different approach using piano trio, playing lines within lines”) and Freddie Hubbard’s “Blue Spirits” (“another tune written for horns that I felt could be molded and shaped into a pianistic version”). Longo remembers playing “Here Tiz (Impromptu)” a lot with Gillespie (“his recorded version with Sonny Rollins was inspirational”). The CD also contains a Longo original, “Diminished Returns” (“a lot of diminished major 7th chords running parallel”).
Among their many credits, bassist Paul West has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Billy Eckstine; while drummer Jimmy Wormworth has performed with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lou Donaldson and Charles Davis.
Longo was born in Cincinnati and began playing piano at age three thanks to his church organist mother and part-time professional jazz bass-playing father. The family moved to Florida, where Mike, at age 15, began working with his father’s band on weekends. Cannonball Adderly heard Mike and soon they were playing the Southern “chittlin’ circuit” together. Longo earned his Bachelor of Music degree in classical piano at Western Kentucky State University. During those years, he went on the road with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra one summer and also played with legendary guitarist Hank Garland in Nashville. Longo toured for two years with the Salt City Six. After the group played at New York’s Metropole Cafe, the band left, but Mike stayed on as the house pianist playing with such jazz notables as Coleman Hawkins, Henry Red Allen, George Wettling, Gene Krupa and many others. After the Chicago stint studying with Peterson, Longo moved permanently to New York City which led to opportunities to work with many great singers -- Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynn, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Williams, Jimmy Rushing and others. Longo did an extended stay at Embers West with bassist Paul Chambers accompanying acts such as Frank Foster, Lee Konitz, Frank Wess, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims and Roy Eldridge. In addition, over the years Mike has performed on albums by Dizzy Gillespie, Astrud Gilberto, James Moody, Buddy Rich, Lee Konitiz and numerous others.
While Mike was with Dizzy, the band recorded many tunes penned by Longo such as “Frisco,” “Let Me Out,” “Soul Kiss” and “The Truth.” Longo started his own recording career in the early Sixties and now has 19 albums to his credit (three of them with his big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble). Mike Longo also is a renowned music teacher, has helped many jazz players with private instruction, and has written nine music textbooks, primarily on jazz improvisation.
But this jazz master has never stopped his own studies, constantly searching and learning, open to new ideas, and freely exploring deeper into the subtleties and nuances found in the world of jazz. When the floating butterfly spreads its wings, it’s a thing of beauty.
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