Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When clarinetist Julian Bliss hung out with Wayne Shorter in L.A.

Wayne Shorter and Julian Bliss
Courtesy of Julian Bliss
Internationally known on the classical scene as a gifted soloist and chamber musician, 27-year-old British clarinetist Julian Bliss discovered Benny Goodman at age seven. At 21, he decided he wanted to play Goodman’s music. He reached out to pianist Neal Thornton, who knows about jazz and putting bands together.

Within a year, the Julian Bliss Septet had gone into the studio and made a recording, “A Tribute to Benny Goodman,” a swinging set that re-creates the sound of swing from the 1930s and ’40s with a modern sensibility and virtuosic playing. The Septet is currently touring the States, and their second stop is at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on January 30.

I spoke with Bliss for MinnPost, and the interview fell neatly into two halves: one for MinnPost readers, and this one for jazz fans. (MinnPost readers who are also jazz fans will find their way here, I hope.)

On Monday, Jan. 25, Bliss was at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Los Angeles. (Along with playing clarinet with major orchestras, chamber ensembles and his own sextet, Bliss designs clarinets for Conn-Selmer.) From reading his Facebook band page, I learned that he also spent time in L.A. with Wayne Shorter. And there was a brief mention of a concerto Shorter is writing, so I was dying to ask Bliss about that, too.

PLE: Tell us about your meeting with Wayne Shorter.

Julian Bliss: Where do I start? A truly inspirational man. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting up with Wayne three or four times now over the last couple of years, and he’s one of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met. He is so down to earth, so friendly, so chilled out that it’s amazing, and some of the stories that he has – it just blows my mind.

He took the time, the first time I met him, to sit down and talk to me for a while, and I really appreciated that in these days where everything moves so fast, and sometimes you meet a musician and it’s a quick handshake and that’s it. It was the complete opposite with Wayne, and his whole outlook on life and music was really refreshing.

He’s an amazing man – absolutely phenomenal. The stories that he has … then he comes around [and talks about] Miles Davis and an endless list of musicians, and tells little stories that he remembers from being on tour – it’s just fascinating.

I just wanted to take all that information in. I asked him about jazz improvisation and how he started. He used to play the clarinet himself. It’s interesting to learn his journey through music and onto the saxophone and through there. A truly inspirational man and a real pleasure; a real gentleman.

Can you share some of what he told you about improvisation, or a bit from one of his stories?

We were talking about the struggle of – can you play what’s in your head? You can hear things in your head. You can hear lines, you can hear little phrases, and can you play that on your instrument?

In his own journey, from what I hear, he was incredibly competent and amazing at theory. He was telling me about a music theory exam that he had to do. If you stood up [during the exam] you were done. You couldn’t sit down and [go back to it again].

Everybody started writing and he went through it and stood up. Not much time had passed. He [wondered], “Have I done something wrong? Have I missed some questions or what?” He went up to the front and handed in his paper, and the teacher looked at him and thought, “There’s no way you could’ve finished this so quickly,” and the teacher said, “OK, you can go.”

And as Wayne was walking out of the room, she started looking over his paper and called him back and held the paper up in front of the class. He’s thinking, “I’m in trouble here, I’ve messed up completely.” And she said, “This is a 100% paper; every single question answered perfectly.”

I think he just has one of those minds. He has one of those understanding minds. When it came to harmony, he said he used to hear things; he used to hear lines and little phrases and start to play.

I think he has one of those minds that is not bound by just being a classical musician, for example, or just being a jazz musician. He wanted to play good music.

Have you ever played with him? Have you played together?

No, we haven’t. We sat down and listened to a lot of music, and yesterday he was showing me some of the stuff he’s been writing. No, we haven’t played together, but we did joke about it yesterday. He says he hasn’t played the clarinet for a number of years, but really wants to get back into it. I promised I could hold the clarinet for him and we would play it together the next time I saw him, which would be fantastic. I’m sure he will be phenomenal on the clarinet as well.

Julian Bliss by Ben Wright
You have designed a clarinet, so you can give him one of yours.

Of course. I’d be honored to do something like that for him. It’s a nice thing to be able to do – I mean, designing an instrument – and a nice thing to be able to offer him. It’s the least I can do. He’s a legend, an absolute legend. I saw his lifetime Grammy when I was there as well. It’s the first time I’ve seen a Grammy in the flesh. It was alongside his countless other Grammys and awards. Hopefully I’ll have one myself one day.

Have you seen him play with his quartet – with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade?

I saw him play with his quartet in London a couple years ago and I got to go backstage and see him, and he also did a piece with his quartet and orchestra there, and I got to meet his band and sit down and chat with those guys. They’re all phenomenal musicians. It’s mind-blowing what they can do.

He was telling me about rehearsing what they do on stage. He said, “You can’t rehearse the unknown.” They just get together and they just play. And that’s really refreshing and an interesting take on the whole thing.

I’ll have a smile on my face for days after seeing him.

You wrote on your Facebook page, “Had a sneak peek at some of the Concerto and I can’t wait to play it!” Is Wayne Shorter writing something for you, or is he writing something that you will play at some point?

He’s writing a concerto for me, which is … amazing doesn’t come close. It’s going to be a phenomenal experience and I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work with him. It’s was a bit of a long shot dream when I asked him, but I was incredibly happy when he said yes. It’s going be great to see it and play it.

I think it’s going to be quite fun for him to write it, as [the clarinet] is an instrument he knows very well. The clarinet and saxophone share a lot of similarities, and from what I’ve seen, he’s having a lot of fun with it. He says he wakes up sometimes at 4:00 in the morning and the music is like a journey through his mind, and he’ll have this sudden wave of inspiration and go and write. It’s fascinating to see. He writes everything by hand still. Everything is done by hand.

Will this be something you perform with a classical orchestra?

Yeah. My idea was to bridge the worlds between jazz and classical. There’s this big separation between the two genres, and I don’t really like it. Surely, we should play good music, no matter what it is, and there’s lots of music that’s both jazz and classical.

For example, take [the music of] Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland. At times it’s jazz, but is it classical? That was the fascination for me, to try and do something where an undisputed legend, an absolute hero in the jazz world, writes something for a classical orchestra and a predominantly classical player. I think at times it will be jazzy; at times it will be classical. Like his own playing onstage, it’s going to be a bit of a journey – the unknown. And I’m really excited.

I shall really want to see that. I want to see all the music and I want to play it now, but I’ll have to wait.

[Note: The new concerto was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.]

What’s the timeline on this? How is it going to unfold?

I believe it’s going to be this year. There are still a few things to finalize. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring it to the U.S. I believe there’s a concert scheduled in England, but hopefully it’s something we can bring to the U.S. afterwards.

It’ll be a pleasure to tour. I love coming to America, and it’s always one of my favorite places to travel, and I seem to spend a decent amount of time here these days. It’ll be good to bring [the new concerto] back here, and hopefully [Wayne Shorter] can come along for a couple of the concerts.

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