This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of features on UNT alumni. If you would like to collaborate on a feature as a subject or a writer, or suggest someone to feature, please let me know. --John Murphy
David Weiss graduated from UNT with a jazz studies degree in 1986 and quickly established himself on the New York scene as a player, composer, arranger, and bandleader. He has played with an impressive array of established and new figures on the scene, as you'll read below; for more information, check out his bio, an interview with Fred Jung, and his bulletin board on alllaboutjazz.com.
On the occasion of the release of his recent CD The Mirror I asked David if he'd comment on the CD and share some news of his current projects. The Mirror is available from Fresh Sounds New Talent (scroll down to FSNT 204).
JM: What are your current projects?
DW: There are a few. Next week I play the Rochester Jazz Festival with a project called The Cookers based on concept of the Night of the Cookers recordings. I've done it a couple of times before and it's been great fun. The group is built around James Spaulding, who is playing better than ever, and Pete "LaRoca" Sims. For this gig the second trumpet player is Jeremy Pelt and we also have Craig Handy, George Cables and Dwayne Burno. I'll also be doing a gig with my sextet at the festival.
After that I have a few sextet gigs in town and then I'm writing arrangements for a Clifford Brown 75th Birthday trumpet summit at the Dizzy's Club at Jazz@Lincoln Center. The trumpet players will be Nicholas Payton, Tom Harrell, Jeremy Pelt and me. Richard Wyands, Dwayne Burno and Jimmy Cobb are the rhythm section.
Then off to Salt Lake City for their Jazz Festival. The New Jazz Composers Octet have one gig and then we do one with Freddie Hubbard. Then back to New York for some small gigs with this new band I've put together. A quintet with guitar, tenor sax, bass and drums. I haven't written for it yet but have transcribed a lot of Andrew Hill tunes, tunes from those Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Five records and some late Wayne with Miles tunes. I've tried this a few times and it has some potential. I've also found some young guys I like and that's how all my bands start it seems.
After that it's a week at Dizzy's Club again but with the Charles Tolliver Big Band. This is an amazing band and one of the heaviest things I've ever been involved with. And quite a challenge.
JM: You're quoted in the liner notes of The Mirror as saying "If I can't put together the pieces of an album programmatically, I've failed on some level." I think the seven pieces do go together well. In terms of a programmatic progression, I feel like it starts out intense with "Stalker," relaxes with "The Mirror" and 'Nostalghia," gets more intense again with "Our Trip," then "The Sacrifice," which to me has a similar mood to tracks 2 and 3, then the ballad "Love Letter To One Not Yet Met," then ends more intensely with "Mr. Jin."
It feels like a well-planned set when I listen to it straight through with no distractions. Is this getting at what you mean by having the tunes work together?
DW: Well there are many potential levels to fail on. Hey, I'm not Sonny Rollins, so I feel I have to take care that every aspect of the recording is the best it can be. This record in my head was really an LP. Four tunes: "The Mirror," "Stalker," "Nostalghia" and "The Sacrifice." I wanted it to mostly be slow and moody (Speak No Evil might be an influence here, no up tempo numbers at all and most tunes had a very similar tempo except the ballad) but I chickened out. So I added "Our Trip" which was in the book. Still too short so I added the two octet tunes which were part of a suite I was commissioned to do and didn't feel they fit the character of an octet CD (too straight ahead) but I liked them so I put them here. It helps that the transition between the sextet tracks and octet tracks seem pretty smooth. To me they're bonus tracks; the sextet stuff is the record.
JM: There's a family resemblance among the solos and the compositions. The soloists develop shorter ideas into longer thoughts in a lyrical way; use language that's coming out of hard bop; and use altered scales and other structures in a way that is integrated with the other two things, not in a way that stands out as overly patterned. The compositions give the soloists a lot to work with: interesting changes, a variety of rhythmic feels including pedals, walking or broken up with a swing feel, and even-eighth feel. The compositions and solos are consistently coherent and interesting. What I didn't sense so much was interaction between the soloists and the rhythm section. There is interplay with E.J. Strickland on drums throughout, but not so much with Xavier Davis on piano. In a few spots (like on "The Sacrifice" for example) Davis and Dwayne Burno on bass are prevented from interacting more by having composed accompaniment parts to play. Is there more interaction that I'm not hearing? Is this different in live performances?
DW: It's different in live performance in that the soloists stretch more, so there is more of a departure from the way things are structured on the record. We talked about retaining a lot of the devices from the heads in the solos so they are in effect really playing over the tunes (and even live they stick to it on certain things throughout to contrast sections; they almost always play the figure when they play the top of the chorus on "The Sacrifice." When they don't it's just major chords and tune becomes very uninteresting to me very quickly). It could go either way of course but this does challenge the soloist in a different way and perhaps limits the rhythm section at times (at least the bass and piano) but I think it also makes it more interesting (dramatic even) when they finally break away from it. It's a bit of a pop approach perhaps, sticking to these devices for so long but I think it helps makes the solos more interesting (it certainly challenges them in certain ways but it also sets them up pretty well. If you follow all the twists and turns, everything is there to help construct your solo and help you peak) and perhaps gives the listener something more to grab onto. I like the idea of formal structure fighting the potential chaos of the soloist. There should be a tension there that should keep things interesting. In the octet, I go for the same thing but there the horns are tight and the rhythm section is as loose as possible.
JM: Maybe the way the piano was mixed affected the way I heard Xavier Davis interacting with the soloists (or not). I seems like the soloists are on a more prominent sonic plane than piano, bass, and drums.
DW: Yes, the soloists are up front (like many of my favorite recordings) and I like it like that. I think that's been missing in recent recordings, the horns up front and in your face (remember your favorite Blue Notes). The piano shouldn't disappear, though. Xavier's more of a colorist and the best comper of his generation I know (a lost art I think). Sometimes perhaps he just blends in so seamlessly you don't notice him as much. He is also a little handcuffed on this record by having all those figures written in the solo form but listen to how he works with that especially on "The Mirror" (the most successful tune for me on the CD). [mp3 excerpts: theme | trumpet solo]
JM: You talk in the liner notes about a distinct emotional peak on the first octet record. I sensed what might have been the peak of this one during the fast passages and vocalized high notes in Myron Walden's alto solo on track five, "The Sacrifice." Does that make sense to you?
DW: Yeah it does but I thought the peak was the written interlude before Myron's solo on that tune. [mp3 interlude] That's the way I felt it at least. On the first octet record, the first session we ever did was difficult. We weren't very experienced and certainly didn't know our way around the studio. Myron's wails in his tune "Untitled in Ab Minor" didn't just peak the tune at the perfect moment (it's through-composed for about 5 minutes before the first solo). Where it was placed on the record (second to last), peaked the whole record, like the whole thing led up to this moment in Myron's solo (it felt like that in the studio as well). After that, the goal was to look for that in every recording we did.
JM: I've read your comments on allaboutjazz about concept albums, and the way the concept is more of a convenience for a reviewer, who gets something to talk about besides the music itself. I listened to "The Mirror" without knowing anything about Andrei Tarkovsky [the Russian director whose films provided some of the song titles], and then again after having read a little and sampled some of his films. One quality that I think I can carry over into the music is his willingness to stay with a scene for a long time and let it develop. Some of his scenes have the time sense of real life or documentary rather than artificially condensed fictional time. I think a listener who has that sort of patient attention can get more out of a record like yours. What do you think?
DW: Hopefully they can and hopefully they can also enjoy it on a surface level without any background about it as well. I think successful music should have a basic rhythmic or melodic appeal and if you want to dig deeper hopefully there is something there for that as well. I hate that "Oh I want to like jazz but I have to learn more about or I'm just not educated enough about it" mentality. F@%! that--any music should have a basic appeal to anyone and the best jazz I know does.
As for Tarkovsky, I just love the feel of his movies. He takes you somewhere else, draws you into another world and the ability to do that to me is rare, in all the arts. One has to influenced by ones ability to do that I think. The Mirror and Stalker are the best films for me (Ironically the first Tarkovsky film I saw, Stalker, was at Caravan of Dreams and I was already quite the film buff). Of course the music should stand on its own without the Tarkovsky references and it really was more of an after the fact concept anyway. The tunes were already written and recorded before I gave the them the titles. I just wanted to acknowledge someone whose approach I admired. I can't really do it with musicians as I would become tied to that musician too much. I gushed admiration for Wayne Shorter on my first record but I did it because I thought I had my own voice in my compositions so I could talk freely about musicians I admired, but every review mentioned Wayne Shorter this and Wayne Shorter that. I really wonder if critics understand what influences really are (excluding people who flat out emulate other musicians). Maybe that's why I went the film route this time. Many concept records I've heard really don't stand on their own without the concept behind it, a discussion (well, argument probably) I've had with critics more than once. It does give them more to work with when they write a review, though.
JM: Any thoughts about UNT, like maybe what current students with aspirations to come to New York should be doing?
DW: Either be John Coltrane or be prepared to diversify. I never thought I would do so much arranging and transcribing or so many salsa gigs. It's all been good but I didn't come to New York and become a full-time jazz soloist right away. The good thing is North Texas prepares you well for those other type of gigs. Also save some money, it's expensive up here. I still firmly believe that if you are going to be the best jazz musician you can possibly be, all roads still lead through New York.