Thursday, July 10, 2014

Conductor Andrew Litton on his new recording, "A Tribute to Oscar Peterson"

The charming and in-demand maestro Andrew Litton – music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, music director of the Colorado Symphony, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest, and conductor laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony – has a not-so-secret side: he’s a huge fan of jazz giant Oscar Peterson.

A highly accomplished, Juilliard-trained pianist in his own right, Litton often conducts from the keyboard and enjoys performing chamber music. At this year’s Sommerfest, now under way, Litton will be the featured pianist for Brahms’ Trio in E-flat major for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 on Sunday, July 13; for Prokofiev’s Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 119 on July 20; and for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on July 25. (Litton is known as an authority on Gershwin; he’s currently working with a panel of Gershwin experts at the University of Michigan to develop a critical edition of all Gershwin works.)

He’ll also play a late-night solo set on Saturday, July 12. After leading a concert of Viennese music in the main auditorium of Orchestra Hall, he’ll move out to the atrium, where a piano will be waiting, and perform selections from his first solo CD, “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson” (BIS, 2014). Released in March, recorded on a Bösendorfer Imperial (Peterson’s piano of choice), “Tribute” has already earned praise from critics including those who write about jazz and often don’t look kindly on crossovers. (Litton has made more than 120 recordings; all the others are classical, with orchestras or operas.)

Litton first became aware of Peterson when a friend gave him the album “Tracks” (Verve, 1970) for his 16th birthday in 1975. (Recorded in 1970, after Peterson had spent 20 years performing with trios, this is a solo outing.) Nine years later, in 1984, Litton met his hero in London. Their friendship developed while Litton was serving as assistant conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, DC (under Msistlav Rostropovich) in the mid-1980s and Peterson often came to perform at Wolf Trap, the NSO’s summer home. In 2003, Litton was named artistic director of Sommerfest, and the very next year, 2004, he brought Peterson and his trio to the Orchestra Hall stage. He claims it’s because he wanted to introduce a jazz component to Sommerfest. Or maybe he just couldn’t wait to hear Oscar Peterson play live once more.

I spoke with Litton about Sommerfest for MinnPost; excerpts are available there. Here’s everything he had to say about playing Oscar Peterson.

Andrew Litton by Jeff Wheeler
“You can imagine the thrill it was, having met Oscar for the first time in 1984, and in 2004 being able to present him here [in Minneapolis]. The tribute album came out this year, but it was actually recorded in 2012. On Saturday night, I’ll be playing the whole disc minus a track or two.

“It’s been really fun to relearn them. Bringing them back to my fingers has been a challenge. The most amazing part of the whole experience was once I got over the nervousness of trying to play like [Oscar], I started appreciating who he was and what he did. It’s one thing when you idolize someone and listen to what they do, but when you try to learn the notes as they played them, you get inside their brains. It gave me a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for the genius he was. It never ceases to amaze me.

“People have asked, ‘Are you doing a straight crib?’ That’s the starting point. Then you play things through enough, mess around with them, practice them, try things out and eventually they become your own spin on what the man originally did. My intent is to play the same notes, in the same order. Therein lies the challenge. He just spontaneously played these things, and I’m trying to re-create how he played them

“At times I thought, ‘Andrew, this is the most idiotic hobby you’ve ever had. I can’t play this! Impossible!’ Then you come back the next day with fresh eyes and suddenly it’s there.

“The thing that took longest was proofreading the various transcriptions I was using. I found some on the internet and they were dodgy and full of errors. It’s like you’re given the ingredients for a recipe [but not told how to use them]. Some assembly required.

“Some transcriptions are now being published by Hal Leonard. A whole book came out a few months ago. The entire ‘Tracks’ album has now been transcribed and published! Including ‘Give Me the Simple Life,’ the first cut, a life-changing moment for me. I spotted a mistake in bar 3. I closed the book and said no, I’m not starting another one now. Someday I’ll play it. Transcription is a special skill I don’t have.”

[Note: About that “life-changing moment,” Litton told the Minneapolis StarTribune: “I was blown away by this uptempo ‘Simple Life.’ I said, ‘He’s off the beat,’ but I started clicking along with it, and he’s not only fooling us that he’s lost it, but he’s absolutely on the beat. It was an epiphany, and I became a groupie.”]

“ ‘Tribute’ is my first and only solo album. It was great [to make it] but such a challenge. Part of the challenge was getting practice time.” [Litton spends much of his life on the road.] “Seventy-five percent of the time [when you’re conducting an orchestra], your soloist is a pianist. Each week, I would find myself in open negotiation with the soloist over who would get to play the piano backstage. Obviously, the soloist of the week has to have priority. 

“I thank a bunch of people at the end of my liner notes. I thank Stephen Hough. I worked with him for six out of the last eight weeks prior to recording the album. He was so sweet; he shared the piano. Not every hall is like Orchestra Hall, where there are seven pianos backstage. This is pure luxury here. Very often in Europe and elsewhere in America, there’s only the one instrument.” 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rufus Reid on François Rabbath: "He's magical"

Rufus Reid by Jimmy Katz
The virtuoso double-bassist François Rabbath started teaching around the time he turned 50. Rabbath never had a teacher – he is entirely self-taught – and he didn’t want others to suffer and struggle as he did to master the mighty beast of the strings. 

His students have included members of many great symphony orchestras around the world and several renowned jazz bassists. Ray Brown was one of his students; so were John Clayton and Rufus Reid.

While researching Rabbath for a piece I was writing for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I came across these words:

In December 2002, Rufus studied with bassist extraordinaire François Rabbath, whom Reid considers “the synthesis of all music … I waited 25 years for this remarkable and life-altering experience.”

I spoke with Reid on June 26, 2014.

PLE: Thank you for taking my call.

Rufus Reid: No problem – talk my man François, that’s easy. We could talk for hours about that.

A lot of people don’t know who he is.

I’m shocked at that. Long before the bass community here in the United States knew about François, he was doing things. I remember seeing a program at his house, for a concert at Carnegie Hall with Ornette Coleman. He was – in a way, he still is – considered to be a renegade.

He’s been marching to his own drum. That’s why he’s accomplished what he’s done. Everything that he’s accomplished is because no one told him he couldn’t do it … His whole concept of playing the bass is because he never got with somebody who said, “You can’t do that on the bass.” His whole life is like that. He was always doing bizarre things that nobody else was doing … He’s someone who can play all the Bach cello suites as well as any cellist, if not better.

I’ve heard that he plays the Bach in the original key.

In the exact same key, not transcribed. Years ago, people would change the key so it would lay a little easier for the bass. But he wouldn’t go for that … One reason why François has written his own music is because almost everything bass players play is a transcription of a cello piece or a violin piece. Music hasn’t been written specifically for the bass.

Why is that?

I don't know. [Double bassist and composer] Edgar [Meyer] started writing a lot of music for the bass because I guess he didn’t want to be playing all these other well-known pieces. But not too many other bassists can play his stuff.

François wants people to play his music. It introduces technical things to the student that they never would have thought about before, and once they get those under their fingers, they begin to have more of a voice on the instrument … Have you talked with [composer and bassist] Frank Proto?

I haven’t, but I’ve been reading about him.

He’s written five concertos for François, some of them with orchestra. They were tailored for the way François plays, and they’re extraordinary pieces of music. So there is a breadth of new compositions coming out. I’m beginning to write a couple things.

You’re writing for large ensembles.

Yes. There’s very little new stuff that’s made for large ensembles. But more and more people are beginning to get into that.

[Note: Reid’s latest recording is “Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project,” released on Motema in February, 2014. Inspired by the sculptures of the late African American artist and civil rights activist Elizabeth Catlett, “Quiet Pride” is a five-movement, large-ensemble suite featuring 20 players.]

Francois Rabbath by John Whiting
When did you first become aware of François Rabbath?

I guess the first time I met him was at the International Society of Bassists [convention]. It was held in Los Angeles, which was probably 25 or 30 years ago, and he was a guest. I have a picture of [the two of us] on my wall in my studio, but I didn’t really know him at that time. He could barely speak English at that time, but it was awesome just to hear him play.

Several years later, I got an opportunity to go to Hawaii for a bass workshop, and he was there. I was around him for an entire week doing the workshops and teaching, and it was mind-blowing, the sounds and the things that were happening …When I wasn’t doing my thing, I was watching him do his thing. We became friends and we would play. I liked him because he improvised. He’s not a jazz player in the sense that I am, but he’s an improviser, and he sees music as music.

He made a record of jazz standards [“In a Sentimental Mood,” 2004]. No typical classical bassist would even think of doing something like that, much less recording it and putting it out as a project. The Japanese wanted him to do that and he did. I think it’s great. I don’t call him a classical player because that’s really not enough. He plays music on the bass. He can play all the standard classical repertoire and more.

[In 2002], I went to France on a tour, and when I finished I spent four days with him taking some lessons myself. It was like going back to school. I thought I could play. Got my butt kicked, and it was great.

Was that the extent of your studying with him, those four days in Paris?

Yes. Me and him … I’ll never forget my time there, that’s for sure.

I started out playing the German bow, and I had students who played both [the German and the French bows], and I began to feel inadequate about working with them because I knew that they weren’t doing well with the bow. I said, “Man, I gotta learn how to play this bow a little better.”

The French bow is how François plays. You turn the hand completely over the bow. The part you hold with the hand is much larger … At one time, there was this stigma that if you play the French bow, you can’t really play with any balls, like the German bow player. Or if you’re a German bow player, you can’t play with any finesse, like a French bow player. That kind of stupid stuff was going on.

I wanted to learn how to play both, and because of François’s ability to do both, he’s even introduced a kind of a hybrid bow that you can play either way. It depends on how the music is designed. But he’s such an open book, and so I went and studied with him.

I found a hotel that was about two blocks away, and I left my bass at his house, and I was just trying to get into his concept more. Because years ago, when we were doing the workshops, he told my wife, “Tell Rufus I really like the way he plays, but I can help him play better.”

You weren’t offended by that?

Oh, man! That was mind-blowing. Bring it on! I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the sound that I made, but when I got together with François, it was so much more refined … Just playing the open note, or playing one note, it was all about the sound, the placement, your relaxed body, and that intrigued the hell out of me, and still does to this day. It’s been years since I’ve been to see him, but I think about him a lot. I adapted my end pin [to be like his].

You mean slanted, or angled, instead of straight.

A few more jazz players are beginning to utilize that concept. John Clayton, for one … The bassist from Texas at Rice University, Paul Ellison – I’m sure you’ve heard that name. He took a year off to study with François …

Did his teaching change your playing?

Absolutely. I’m doing things technically that I would’ve never even thought of trying to do, because in the traditional stance I wouldn’t be able to get the sound without some weird contortions of the body. That’s where his concept comes to the fore.

The stance of the bass with the slanted end pin changes the center of gravity of the bass. Your body is more relaxed, and pretty much in the same position whether you’re playing way up in the upper register or down low. The playground – the fingerboard – is much more accessible. In the traditional stance, once you get really high up on the bass, the lower strings aren’t very easy to negotiate.

François plays all over the goddamn bass effortlessly, whether he’s in the upper register or lower register. The bow has more equity on all the strings.

What do you mean by “more equity”?

If you have the bass against the body in the traditional way of playing, you don’t get the same sound over the whole length of those lower strings. François can actually play scales all over all the strings and get a really robust sound, not a string sound … No matter where he is, his posture’s the same, and that makes the music come out with much more consistency. So that’s the concept.

I once saw a young musician, a girl maybe 10 years old – she’s probably 17 or 18 now. She had learned François’s concept with the bent end pin, and she was amazing.

A removable angled end pin
invented by French luthier
Christian Laborie
So his concept is becoming more widespread?

Absolutely. At first, most people thought it was a fad. Anything new is a fad, and of course people are reticent to embrace it. Anything that goes against tradition, I don’t care what it is, people fight it. They’ve been fighting François for years. [They won’t] even give it up that he can play this way. But he got me. It’s not that I want to play like François, but his concept makes sense, and I’m happy. And people who hear me say, “You’re so relaxed when you play.” I can play for hours. And so I think about him. He’s with me all the time.

Actually, I thought about him a few weeks ago. I was just gonna call him up, but it was like 8:00 or 9:00 at night and I can’t call Paris then. I could probably wake him up, but I don’t want to do that. I like him as a gentleman, as an artist, and everything else. He’s really fun.

The first day I spent with him, my lesson was ten hours long, and I wasn’t ready to leave. After that, we would work all morning from 10:00 probably until about 1:00, then he’d say, “Let’s go have some lunch, but we’re not going to have any wine because we have more work to do.”

Even in Paris?

There’s a time to work and there’s a time to play. It was great.

You were almost 60 when you had those four days with him in 2002. How did it finally happen?

I was going on tour with pianist Kenny Barron in Switzerland, and we would be flying home from Geneva. François had gone to my wife [years before] and said, “Tell Rufus he’s got to come see me,” and my wife said “Now’s the time.” I set things up with François [in advance], left my trunk and big suitcase in Geneva, got a backpack and my bass, and got on a train to Paris.

[Earlier I had asked François], “How much do you charge for your lessons?” He said, “Give me what you can.” This is what he does for his students. I knew what I got for teaching and thought I had better at least double that. Thanks to my wife finagling files and moving money around, the money I earned on the tour with Kenny Barron was my lesson money.

You once called him “the synthesis of all music.” What did you mean by that?

He’s not a classical player, he’s not a jazz player, he’s not a pop player, but he’s played all those things. He was very close to Michel Legrand when they were younger in Paris. He played in the Paris Opera; he didn’t get that gig until he was 50. And then he was always trying to improvise. He’s not afraid of any kind of music, and he plays really modern music that is kind of hard to listen to sometimes. He can play beautiful melodies. He encompasses such a broad sense of just music, and that’s why I say that.

Is there anything else you would like to say about François Rabbath?

I love him. He really has helped me do what I do better, which I’m thankful for. I already thought I was doing a good job of it, but at the same time, when I got together with him, it was like – oh, that’s different. And I began to try to indoctrinate that into my own playing … I never tried to compete with him because I would be a fool to do that. A lot of people want to show how much technique they have, and there are some incredibly virtuosic people out there, but they don’t play music. They just play stuff … François is a true performer. He lights up.

You mentioned Paul Ellison a moment ago. He once called François “the personification of love.”

He’s a leprechaun. He’s magical. He’s a pied piper. I don’t want to be super-syrupy about it, but he exudes this aura that makes you feel good … I’m fortunate that I can call him a friend, and that he’s helped me do what I do, and he seems to respect me for what I do as well.