You Gotta Learn

You Gotta Learn

I’ve known trumpeter Jeremy Pelt for a little over a decade at this point. I started listening to his music in 2009 or 2010 and interviewed him for the first time in 2011. We’ve spoken on several occasions since — he’s one of the more than three dozen artists profiled in my book Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century, which came out in February (available everywhere now! makes a great gift!). He puts out an album every year; this year’s offering was Soundtrack, his third release with pianist Victor Gould, vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Allan Mednard. Back in April, I called it “high-level (mostly) acoustic jazz in the tradition of Seventies power trumpeters like Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, non-disco Donald Byrd, and Marcus Belgrave,” and I’ve come back to it over and over in the months since its release.

In addition to his own music, Pelt has been producing albums for other artists, mostly through the Cellar Live label. Since last year, he’s worked on some really impressive releases by pianist Anthony Wonsey, trumpeter Bruce Harris, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, and drummer Billy Drummond, and he’s got a few more titles coming in early 2023. He’s also been on the road a lot, spending about two months supporting Soundtrack in the US and Europe. So between his activities in the studio, and all the discussion in the pop and rock worlds of how tough it is to tour successfully, I thought it would be a really good time to catch up with him. I called him the other week, when his band was in Cincinnati and was about to head to the West Coast to play Portland and San Francisco.

So, I’ve noticed that you’ve produced your own albums for a long time, all the way back to the beginning of your career. Was that because you had something specific in mind that you wanted to achieve, or something you wanted to avoid, to keep from happening to your music in the hands of an outside producer?

JEREMY PELT: Well, you know, I think that the state of what a “producer” does these days varies. And, I shouldn’t even say varies, I think it’s completely different than what historically a producer’s role has been. So when you see my records, or when you see other people’s records that are more or less independently done, and you see sometimes that the artist themselves produced, that just means they ran the session and they’re intimately familiar with it. And then the executive producer’s the one that’s footing the bill. So I say all that to say that, except for the first date, David Weiss was my producer for my first date, and he was essentially the one that had the inroads with Fresh Sound — he had a deal with them to bring new artists to them and he’d produce their dates. So he was helpful in terms of supervision, which is really what that is, just supervising a session. But after that, it was just me, and it wasn’t because I was trying to escape anything or avoid anything, it was just because, I mean, at that point, I was the one that was there to oversee the whole production.

Right, OK. Because with a lot of small jazz labels like Steeplechase or Criss Cross, there’s generally speaking one guy who’s running the label, so to a certain degree you’re there to play your music, obviously, but you’re also serving [Criss Cross founder] Gerry Teekens’ vision of what the music should be, in a certain way.

PELT: Well, I wouldn’t even say that. Because I wasn’t serving his vision. I mean, especially with Teekens, let’s say — I mean, he was a financier. He was there, and sometimes he would suggest another take, but most times, it was just obvious. If there was a mess-up that was sounding terrible, then I don’t think you needed any outside source to say, “Yeah, you need to do another take,” you know what I mean? It wasn’t his vision. A lot of times, what he would do, he had an idea, but I never fell under that. If you didn’t have a concept, then you kind of fell under what he expected. So expectations were a different thing. He would be like, “How about a blues?” And then, “How about a ballad?” You’d have kind of a rubric set up for what would constitute a record on his terms, and that was something that he was used to dealing with, with the artists that he started to deal with when he started recording. That changed a great deal when he started to have artists that had concepts of how they wanted to do things. So he never really intervened or had any kind of vision, because I already had the vision. And so did Ralph [Peterson] and so did Orrin [Evans].

Have you ever worked with a really heavy-handed, Manfred Eicher-type producer?

PELT: No. Not on my projects. I’ve worked on some productions that weren’t mine that had, you know, several cooks in the kitchen, but I had nothing to do with that. I was a hired hand and just did what I was told. But as for my projects, never.

Around ten years ago, you started producing for other people, like Marianne Solivan and Gillian Margot, both of whom are singers. What was your experience like? What did they need from you?

PELT: I think that what I brought to the table was just a better way of organizing the session. And also being ears for them. But especially efficiency is what I brought, earlier on. And I still bring that to the table. ‘Cause sometimes, you know, you get in the studio and there’s a lot of B.S.-ing around, and I like to keep things on schedule and be very fast with suggestions and also to a certain extent really suggest that they don’t do, you know, superfluous amounts of takes. So with Marianne’s date in particular, she had some things in mind of what she wanted to record, and I helped her with some arrangements. With Gillian, it was much the same thing. I actually brought some material to her, and some arrangements, so I was more hands-on that way.

And now in the last year or two, you’ve produced a string of records for Cellar Live, with Anthony Wonsey, Bruce Harris, Billy Drummond, and now Jason Marshall. How did that arrangement come about, and how many albums are you planning on doing with them?

PELT: During the midst of the pandemic, close to the beginning of the pandemic and particularly after the lockdown and everything that happened post-George Floyd, [Cellar Live owner] Cory Weeds had gotten some money from a private donor in Canada and they said that they were interested in finding a way to have him address the things that are happening, racially speaking, and make donations to Black Lives Matter and different organizations. And the donor wanted him to come up with a way to spotlight Black artists. And so I think that’s where it started from. And Cory and I are pretty tight, so he reached out to me, because normally he would be producing the dates himself, but as you’ll recall, nobody was able to travel. So he couldn’t come to the States, but we could still record in the States. So he hit upon me to be the producer and produce these dates. And I also brought some artists to his attention, and once we listened to the artists who he wanted to record, then I was just the one that was in charge of getting it together.

From those sessions, were there times when you had more of a role in terms of choosing material and stuff like that? Or did these guys know what they wanted? Bruce Harris, I know, had made a couple of records before that, but Billy Drummond hadn’t made a record as a leader in twenty-some years.

PELT: So, no. I didn’t have a role in picking the material, and that’s completely okay. Everybody came with the material that they wanted to do, and if anything, I helped shape how the recording should go, and tried to shave some time off some things and do things to make it a more cogent record, but certainly did not have any input into what they recorded.

Steve Albini, who hates the title producer — he prefers to call himself an engineer, and he does a lot of underground rock records — he told me once that he thinks of himself like a barber. He’ll do the best he can to give you the haircut you want, but you have to walk in knowing what you want your hair to look like. How do you feel about that? Do the artists you work with have a solid vision of their music, and if they don’t, how do you nudge them?

PELT: Yeah. So I will go back to using the word varied, like I was trying to refrain from in the beginning, when I was talking about the role of the producer. Because it can mean something different for a lot of different people, especially depending on the generation that you grew up under. I like that explanation of the barber. But that doesn’t necessarily fit with everybody. As we’ve seen with somebody like Marianne or with Gillian, where I was allowed to be more hands-on about what they did and pick material that I thought would suit them and then shape it from that part. I think with all the instrumentalists I worked with in particular, they pretty much knew what they wanted to record, and with regard to Billy Drummond’s album, the only thing I think I did suggest material-wise, because they didn’t have one, I suggested they do a ballad, so they did “Laura.” But everything else, they’d been working on. So there’s that kind of role. Then there’s a much more heavy-handed role, where you essentially are steering the ship but you’re using the artist as the conduit, in a sense. You could look at Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall as a successful Michael Jackson record, but you could also just as easily say this is a Quincy Jones record. Same thing with Thriller. And the later records, you could say, well, this has Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis written all over it. So you have that aspect as well. Where the artist is interpreting the producer’s sound, you know? It doesn’t happen as often in jazz, but it certainly has and it will again.

The Jason Marshall record is really interesting. It’s a bold choice to make a baritone sax quartet record, and not have a second horn. What were your thoughts when he proposed that?

PELT: I didn’t have any – I didn’t think any different than if it was a tenor, alto, or soprano. Jason has had a very — how should I say it? His music is very personal, and I kinda look at him as a modern Cecil Payne or even Charles Davis, that has very different and kinda softer sounds than a Ronnie Cuber or a Nick Brignola or the traditional baritones that really sound like a baritone. It’s almost like an R&B singer when you listen to Jason, and so I felt like if anybody could pull that off, it would be him. But at the same time, it didn’t occur to me that it should be anything other than what he suggested, which was a quartet record.

You’ve been on the road a lot, in the US and also in Europe. A lot of pop and rock and R&B acts have been cancelling tours lately, saying that they can’t make the money add up. So what’s your experience of the road at themoment? Is it worth getting out there, from a financial perspective? Without opening up a spreadsheet, what’s your sense of the jazz touring life? Is it tougher than rock, as I would expect it to be?

PELT: It’s rough, man. You know, I think one of the things that’s tough about it, and I can speak from direct experience [laughs] — the pandemic being one thing, I mean, I had already started touring as early as last July, so we kinda got used to that. And yeah, I mean, conditions are a little bit different, but manageable. And it’s softened up, especially traveling throughout Europe, in terms of just going from place to place, restrictions have been eased. The biggest thing, and I just suffered this from the three-week tour that I just did in Europe, is the Euro collapsing. That is a big issue, and it’s a big problem, particularly if you made deals before the collapse of the Euro. You can’t really go back and renege on it.

Not if you booked the dates a year in advance, no.

PELT: Yeah, you know what I mean? And at the end of the day, it’s still their Euro. No matter how weak it gets, they can’t necessarily say, “OK, we’ll pay you a thousand more,” or however much it would be if it was the normal conversion rate. So that’s what makes it hard. It’s a blow for everybody. But, you know, you still have to be getting out here making music. And those of us that are lucky enough to still be able to drum up some interest capitalize on it.

And what are the realities of touring right now? Are clubs clean and safe? Are audiences masking at all? What kind of precautions are you taking, and is it better in Europe than it is here? What’s your observation?

PELT: I think it’s a country-to-country basis. Some places you go, like Copenhagen, or Denmark as a whole, they tend to think that the pandemic is over. COVID is done. They actually told me that. Which made me tie my mask tighter [laughs]. And then some places — France always had an aversion to the masks, whereas we were just in Germany and Austria and they’re still saying you gotta wear the masks on the train. But I mean a lot of it is silly. Because you can get on an airplane and take the mask off, but on the trains they’re gonna fine you if you don’t have a mask. So people are just trying — at a certain point you feel like it’s all political, and they’re trying to have some kind of thing that they can say to make it seem official, or what have you. But it’s a country-to-country thing. We got to Italy the last day that you had to wear a mask on the train, and the next day, you could go without the mask. I think as far as we are, I mean, we’re cautious, but there is a bit of us that are kind of lacking. Like, we’ll not have our masks on. That does happen from time to time. I could tell you this, the whole time that I’ve been traveling, I haven’t caught anything.

Finally, there was a documentary on [legendary bassist] Ron Carter on PBS recently, and I gotta say, he came off kind of intimidating! He’s a guy who understands his own worth, which is great, but he also seems like a “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” kind of guy. As someone who’s recorded with him, what was your experience? And if a young artist told you they were going to work with him, what advice would you offer?

PELT: I’d offer nothing, because you gotta learn [laughs]. I mean, Ron is Ron, and there are certain people that — he’s not the only person of his stature and age that I’ve played with — he does make it a point to make certain things a teachable moment. And that’s something to appreciate. And there were things that I learned about how music should be set up which I found quite helpful. And I think that if I’m gonna say anything to a young person about it, you know, I don’t know that I would even set anybody up with any advice. Just go in, obviously be respectful, which I don’t think needs to be said, but you know, you go in with your music and you listen and you learn straight from a master. And you’re that much better for it. I don’t want to be the go-between and be like, well, make sure you do this and make sure you do that, and you get there and you’re all perfect. No. Learn from a master why whatever it is that you’re doing is not efficient. And then that makes you that much better, ’cause you’re hearing it firsthand.

TAKE TEN

10

Elvin Jones - "13 Avenue B"

Elvin Jones is permanently tethered to his time with John Coltrane. He played behind the legendary saxophonist from 1960 to 1966, when he left, dissatisfied with Coltrane’s ever more free direction (and irritated by having to split drum duties with Rashied Ali and sometimes make room for additional percussionists as well). This previously unreleased live album comes from late July 1967, not even a month after Coltrane’s death; the band includes tenor saxophonist Joe Farrell, pianist Billy Greene, and bassist Wilbur Little. Pookie’s Pub was not a well-known jazz venue, and Jones was struggling to make a name as a leader. In the decades that followed, he’d make a lot of albums and tour the planet leading a group he eventually dubbed the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, but truth be told, he never had the recognition outside the jazz scene that he deserved, despite being revered by rock players from Ginger Baker to Charlie Watts. The music on Revival is hardcore acoustic jazz, and Jones drives everyone with overwhelming power, taking extended solos that push six of the nine pieces past the 10-minute mark. “13 Avenue B,” a Farrell composition, is no exception. After the saxophonist takes an extended soliloquy, Jones begins absolutely punishing the kit in an almost John Bonham-esque fashion, and the distortion on the somewhat rough (but professional) recording gives it even more impact. (From Revival: Live At Pookie’s Pub, out now via Blue Note.)

09

Tom Skinner - "The Journey"

Drummer Tom Skinner was a member of Sons Of Kemet and is currently part of the Smile with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. On this album, he’s joined by tenor saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings (Garcia doubles on flute, Hutchings on bass clarinet), cellist Kareem Dayes, and bassist Tom Herbert. The music, which was originally recorded live with all the players in the same room, has been sliced up and re-edited in the manner of Makaya McCraven’s jazz-meets-beat-tape collages. It’s a really short record, running less than 28 minutes, but it’s potent, loose and funky in the manner of ’70s West African funk crossed with spiritual jazz. On “The Journey,” thick low end from Dayes and Herbert, with Skinner himself providing a loose, rattling backbeat, sets up some patient dual sax riffing and eventually leads into a brilliant plucked-then-bowed cello solo that has an almost Asian quality. This is an unexpected record that may seem slight on the surface, but don’t pass it by. (From Voices Of Bishara, out now via International Anthem.)

08

Ezra Collective - "No Confusion" (Feat. Kojey Radical)"

Ezra Collective project optimism and togetherness at all times. Their second album is called Where I’m Meant To Be, and track titles include “Victory Dance,” “Welcome to My World,” “Smile,” “Togetherness,” “Belonging,” “Live Strong”… it’s an appealing mindset, and it’s manifested in the music. Their compositions are based on strong, pulsing rhythms from the Afro-Latin diaspora; there’s Afrobeat here, and salsa, and dub, and hip-hop, and swing. “No Confusion” is a hard-driving Afrobeat track featuring MC Kojey Radical, who’s also worked with Sons Of Kemet. As the track begins, we hear a sample of legendary drummer Tony Allen saying, “Everybody will think I’m going to be playing jazz like the Americans… No. I’m playing jazz my way.” Radical rhymes fast and furiously, as the band — trumpeter Dylan Jones, tenor saxophonist James Mollison, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist TJ Koleoso, and drummer Femi Koleoso, with guest guitar from Benjamin Totten — chops up a dense but high-energy groove behind him. (From Where I’m Meant To Be, out now via Partisan.)

07

Village Of The Sun - "Village Of The Sun"

Village Of The Sun is a collaboration between Binker & Moses (the long-standing duo of saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd, who already released one really good album, Feeding The Machine, in February of this year) and electronic musician Simon Ratcliffe of Basement Jaxx. The pieces are concise exercises in groove, not unlike the duo’s work on their own, with Ratcliffe adding atmospheres and subtle melodies. It would seem obvious to compare this to the work of The Comet Is Coming, who also combine sax, drums, and electronics, but this is more overtly jazzy and less dance-music-with-horn than that. Boyd swings hard all the time. On “Village Of The Sun,” Golding’s solo has a feverish spiritual jazz quality, ascending to Pharoah Sanders-esque heights as his partner hammers the kit and Ratcliffe adds rippling layers of keyboards like rays of sun breaking through clouds. (From First Light, out now via Gearbox.)

06

Xhosa Cole - "Andy's Shuffle" (Feat. Jason Brown)

British saxophonist Xhosa Cole debuted last year with K(no)w Them, K(no)w Us, an album of other people’s tunes intended to display his roots. I liked it a lot; I said, “Cole plays like he’s got dirt under his fingernails; his tone has real bite and his lines come at you in a way that’s challenging without being hostile.” His new album is arguably even more of a challenge. Ibeji is a Yoruba word meaning “twins,” and it features duos with seven different percussionists. “Andy’s Shuffle” is dedicated to Jamaican-British saxophonist Andy Hamilton, and it’s a duo with American drummer Jason Brown, who works often with Wayne Escoffery and pianist Orrin Evans. This isn’t a free blowout; Brown sets up a hard-swinging groove with a little bit of an island breeze blowing through it, and Cole plays with great force, bringing to mind Shabaka Hutchings’ melding of Caribbean parade music and jazz. (From Ibeji, out now via Stoney Lane.)

05

Muriel Grossmann - "Transience"

Saxophonist Muriel Grossmann does one thing, and you’re either in or you’re out. I am very much in. She plays a wide range of saxophones and makes spiritual jazz music in the Alice Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders mode, accompanied by guitarist Radomir Mioljkovic (who frequently reminds me of Grant Green and gives the music a soulful, bluesy anchor point), organist Llorenc Barceló, bassist Gina Schwarz, and drummer Uros Stamenkovic. What makes Grossmann’s music so interesting is that she loves the studio — the pieces are built on simple vamping riffs and allow for extended modal soloing, but she’ll add all sorts of additional instruments to the core band performances, everything from African and Asian percussion to harps, strings, additional reeds, or whatever she thinks the music needs. This album is pretty stripped-down in that regard. There aren’t as many extra ingredients as there have been in the past; the focus is on the tight grooves of the core band. On “Transience,” she gives the spotlight over to Schwarz, and it’s magical. The bassist opens with a huge, booming intro, and then at the piece’s midpoint she takes a plucked solo which is accompanied by overdubbed bowing groans — two basses at once, before the band comes back in, guitar and organ and drums laying down a kind of psychedelic soul-jazz groove over which Grossmann, on alto, takes an extended Ornette-meets-Lou Donaldson solo, periodically punctuated by more thunderous interjections from the bass. (From Universal Code, out now via Dreamland.)

04

Hedvig Mollestad & Trondheim Jazz Orchestra - "Little Lucid Demons/Alfons"

Guitarist Hedvig Mollestad is best known for her work with her eponymous trio; they’ve made six studio albums and a double live LP, all of which blend John McLaughlin-esque fusion with Black Sabbath-y crunch. On their debut, they covered the Melvins’ “Blood Witch.” But the music she’s been releasing under her own name has been more expansive and often much more intriguing, and this suite of pieces, performed with a 12-member ensemble, might be her greatest work to date. It’s a little bit jazz fusion, a little bit high-level prog, a little bit Laurie Anderson (there are multiple female voices reciting enigmatic phrases in hypnotized cadences), and when Mollestad herself starts tearing it up on guitar, the air seems to crackle. “Little Lucid Demons/Alfons” has all the elements I just mentioned and more; it’s one of the wildest things I’ve ever heard, shifting moods subtly but unmistakably and blending a half dozen genres at once, but it’s totally kick-ass, too. The sax-and-guitar passage in the middle will make you bang your head. (From Maternity Beat, out now via Rune Grammofon.)

03

Bill Frisell - "Waltz For Hal Willner"

Guitarist Bill Frisell and producer Hal Willner had a creative relationship that spanned decades and a staggering array of contexts; Willner produced one of the guitarist’s albums, 2004’s Unspeakable, but he used him all the time on the all-star tribute albums he put together, most notably 1992’s Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, and on sessions for other artists as well. Frisell’s latest album, Four, features a new band — Gregory Tardy on reeds, Gerald Clayton on piano, and Johnathan Blake on drums — and while the music has the gentle, relaxed feel of much of his work, there’s a passion pumping at its center that keeps things from becoming mere afternoon-nap music. “Waltz For Hal Willner” lives up to its title; it’s a simple piece, and short, almost an interlude, but the way Clayton picks out the melody, with Blake dancing patiently on the cymbals, before Frisell and Tardy (on clarinet) enter in unison, is quite beautiful, and you can feel the guitarist’s love for his departed friend in every note. (From Four, out now via Blue Note.)

02

Dezron Douglas - "More Coffee Please"

Bassist Dezron Douglas gets around: he’s worked with (among others) the late Pharoah Sanders, Ravi Coltrane, JD Allen, drummer Louis Hayes, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, pianist Victor Gould, and harpist Brandee Younger, with whom he released a duo album, Force Majeure, culled from livestream performances they did together during the heart of the pandemic. He was also part of one of the ensembles Makaya McCraven put together for Universal Beings. Fans of non-jazz music are starting to become aware of him, too, as he’s recently become a member of Phish leader Trey Anastasio’s solo band. (Hey, a gig’s a gig.) Anyway, this disc features Emilio Modeste on tenor and soprano saxes, George Burton on piano and Fender Rhodes, and Joe Dyson Jr. on drums, and it’s a hard-swinging, straightahead jazz date, mostly recorded live at Firehouse 12 in Connecticut with a few additional recordings from the Samurai Hotel studio in Queens. The title “More Coffee Please” is misleading; the only correct response is “I don’t know, I think you’ve had enough.” Douglas launches the piece with an ominously restrained solo bass interlude, before the entire band comes charging into the room, with Dyson laying down a jumpy, bug-eyed rhythm that sends Modeste off on a Branford Marsalis-esque tear. Honestly, this piece reminds me a lot of Marsalis’ quartet — they’re swinging really hard, but they’re also cutting the music into fascinating new shapes as they go. (From Atalaya, out now via International Anthem.)

01

Tyshawn Sorey - "Mob Job"

Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey has developed an interest in exploring jazz standards lately. First he put out the trio album Mesmerism with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, on which they tackled tunes like “Autumn Leaves,” Horace Silver’s “Enchantment,” Bill Evans’ “Detour Ahead,” and Duke Ellington’s “REM Blues.” Now he’s continuing his journey with a triple live CD, The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism, on which he’s joined again by Diehl, plus bassist Russell Hall, who’s played with Wynton Marsalis, and alto saxophonist Greg Osby. They recorded three full sets live at the Jazz Gallery in New York, all of which are preserved here. Several pieces are repeated, but they’re radically different each time — for example, one version of the standard “Three Little Words” runs 20 minutes, while the second lasts just nine. Another piece that gets played twice is Ornette Coleman’s “Mob Job,” which he recorded more than once himself; it first appeared on 1982’s Of Human Feelings, and he brought it back on Song X, his 1986 collaboration with Pat Metheny. They launch into the first version straight out of that 20-minute “Three Little Words,” and they’re already red-hot and flying on momentum, Osby chewing up the melody as Sorey hurls grenades from behind the kit. Eventually things settle into a beboppish groove, but Osby is a very different kind of alto player from Ornette, so things are simultaneously restrained and jubilant. (From The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism, out now via Pi Recordings.)

OUTWARD BOUND

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