1982 Down Beat Interview
November 1982 Down Beat interview with Jeff Levenson
Nearly 20 years ago Hal Galper made his first recordings with trumpeter Chet Baker. In the two subsequent decades the pianist has produced and eclectic body of work, appearing on over 20 albums and playing alongside artists as diverse as Johnny Hodges, Lee Konitz, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, and Sam Rivers. Galper has demonstrated technical facility in a number of pianistic styles, and now his career has come full circle with the music he plays as a member of the Phil Woods Quartet. Prior to Galper’s arrival and Mike Melillo’s departure in February of ‘81, the group’s personnel had remained intact for seven years. By his own admission – and as evidenced by the group’s latest album, Birds Of A Feather – Galper’s keyboard work is stronger than ever. His talents mesh neatly with those of Woods, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin.
Galper has played professionally since the late 50’s. While enrolled as a scholarship student at Berklee, he worked steadily in and around Boston. After traveling to Paris and initially becoming discouraged with music as a career choice, he returned to the states and landed a job with Baker. He stayed with the trumpeter for just over a year before settling in New York. At the same time Galper became interested in the electric piano, and he recorded two albums under his own name. In 1973 Cannonball Adderley needed a replacement for George duke and Galper turned a one-set audition into a two-year stay.
Coinciding with his decision to leave Adderley, he grew restless and dissatisfied with the electric keyboards. He devoted himself to acoustics and put together a quintet with Randy and Michael Brecker, Wayne Dockery, and Billy Hart. Thiers was a contemporary sound, characterized by greater freedom than Galper had experienced in any of his previous associations.
His next move was the development of a more disciplined and melodic approach to music. Enter the Phil Woods Quartet and bebop.
JL: Birds Of A Feather strongly indicates that you’ve fit right in with the group.
HG: The album is the first recording of me playing bebop in almost 15 years. In Phil’s band I can accompany orchestrally. I can do what ever I want behind him because he hears orchestrally. He doesn’t hear in term of leader/backup or solo instrument/rhythm section. I love it because I have almost total freedom.
It’s a very democratic group where all the decisions are made by the group. Phil gets two votes and we each get one. If you notice the advertisements for our gigs, they all say “Phil Woods Quartet.” Anytime it just says “Phil Woods,” they take it down and change it, or we don’t play.
JL: That’s really a credit to Phil.
HG: He recognizes that the band is not just the leader, it’s everybody. One person can’t tale all the credit for what’s going on. Phil, Bill, and Steve all share the same attitude.
JL: Throughout your career you functioned both as a leader and a sideman. What are the differences in how you approach your role?
HG: When you function one way in a group as opposed to another, it’s a complete change of perception. Every sideman should have the chance to be a leader, they’d be better sidemen. A number of things can happen in the way people perceive you. For instance, no matter how good you sound, you become Miles’ piano player. You’re his man rather than your own. That’s one aspect.
JL: On the initial rungs of the career ladder, when you’re first getting started, doesn’t that association provide career impetus and opportunities?
HG: It’s artificial…an intellectual imposition of the definition of leader and sideman. It’s something that other people put on the musicians, and then musicians read their own liner notes and believe it.
JL: You’ve recorded since 1964. Early on, your sound was somewhat tentative, almost exploratory, as if you were trying to find a comfortable niche to fit in. In retrospect, do you think that this was the case?
HG: Yes and no. I knew from early on that I was an eclectic. And I knew that eclectics had a harder time – in terms of developing a style – than the musician that models himself after one person. I realize now that I didn’t know where I was going. I was only finding out where I didn’t want to be.
A lot of it was intellectual curiosity, and a lot of it was intuitive choice. Also, a lot of it was the pressure of coming to New York. When I got here, I was out of date, stylistically, because I was playing post-bebop stuff. That was just going out of fashion. I didn’t know many musicians my age. Consequently, I was hanging out with younger musicians who played more contemporary stuff.
I wasn’t playing that way and I couldn’t hear it that well, but I wanted to get into it. My quintet was the culmination of that period. It was a practical move too, because I wanted to work, and no one will hire you if you’re play anachronistically. People tend to hire musicians who sound the way they want to hear.
JL: When you were in Boston, had you conceived yourself as an acoustic pianist?
HG: I tried not to define myself at all.
JL: Had you dabbled with the electric piano?
HG: I did some things that no one else had done before. I was the first one to record the Leslie organ speaker with the Rhodes. That was before they invented the phase shifter. In fact, that’s why they invented phase shifter. They wanted that sound without the big instrument, so they made it into a little box.
I feel pretty good about that. But, when I got with Cannonball, and I heard what George Duke and Zawinul were doing and the sounds they were getting out of the electric piano, I realized I was approaching the electric piano in an acoustic way. And I refused to approach it in an electric way. I just fought it. I think I was running away from the acoustic piano – which is much more demanding – because it gives you nothing. It’s cold. The electric instruments give you everything. They give you touch, they give you sound; they give you volume; they give you bent notes, which you can’t do on a regular piano – so they say. I realized that anything I wanted to do on electric instruments, I could do on the acoustic piano. For a long time I was avoiding that.
My technique was down; my confidence was down. It’s only since Cannonball that I started getting my confidence and my chops back.
JL: Is the story true that you dumped your electric piano in the Hudson River?
HG: Yes. Pure joy. I wheeled it down in it’s case, tossed it in, and watched the bubbles come up. It was a symbol. A statement for me.
JL: Now that you’ve committed to acoustic, do you have a piano preference for your work in the studio versus live performances?
HG: It changes. I always preferred the German Steinway. I considered it more of a jazz instrument, a richer sound then either a Bosendorfer or the other Steinways. It has more overtones. Although recently I had the opportunity to play the Bosendorfer, and it had a brilliant, higher sound that has certain advantages in recording.
I just recorded in Melbourne [Australia]. It was a live performance and I was playing a Yamaha. I think it’s the first time my touch was recorded they way I hear it and the way I want to hear it. I’m going to use the tape as the sound model for all future recording I do.
It’s interesting that I’ve been paying more attention to sound since I went back to acoustic. I know the notes, numbers, and letters already, and now, I’m trying to pay special attention to total sound and sound quality. I never concerned myself with it, but now I see it as a detail one shouldn’t overlook.
JL: It sounds like you’re at a new level of professional maturity, knowing what’s important to you.
HG: I’d probably say that there are priorities. There are certain things you have to get together first before you get to others. You have to learn how to play the changes before you can afford the luxury of not thinking about them.
One of the problems with learning this music is that everything is learned out of order. There’s been an established way of teaching for 30 years, and there haven’t been enough people who can verbalize on the non-notational aspects of playing. There’s been emphasis on all the notational aspects – scales, chords, theory – but those things should be after-the-fact considerations. Notation teaches you to think block fashion, analytically. Music is not played by notation – it’s played by ear. I believe that theory is the least important part of the whole thing. The way music is taught is from the most difficult point of view first. I recommend just the opposite. Why not start from the easiest point, which is, “Play something first, and then figure out what you did”?
JL: One of Phil’s contentions, expressed in Down Beat [Jan. ’82)], is that jazz is basically a street music and that when it comes out of schools and academic programs, it becomes bastardized. Do you feel similarly?
HG: I agree with him 100%. This is folk music. It is music that is traditionally handed down one on one by imitation. The operative rule has always been, “Make it sound like this.” You cannot teach jazz to large groups of people. It’s not practical. It can only be handed down in a very close, intimate situation. There has to be an appropriate environment involved. The academic environment is the worst possible one. In the classroom it’s antiseptic, fragmented, intellectual.
JL: How does one successfully reverse the situation?
HG: By getting teachers to change their methods, their attitudes, their environment, and the entire approach to teaching. Why isn’t jazz being taught in the Village Vanguard? Why isn’t the bar open. Why aren’t there people around?
The cats who were playing the music in the earlier days had only a minimal knowledge of theory. They new certain chords and changes, but the theory that’s out there now – the Lydian concept, the diatonic, the pandiatonic – they didn’t deal with that at all. They played by imitation.
JL: Do you listen much to the piano masters?
HG: I don’t listen to much of anything anymore. When I do, I listen to Ahmad Jamal. Lately I’ve been very into him. I heard him four nights out of six at Fat Tuesdays. I was stunned. You can’t put your finger on what he’s doing; he’s very subtle. You get the feeling he’s playing everything and nothing. You’re not quite sure what you heard or what he did.
I remember when Miles was getting his quintet together with Coltrane and Red Garland. It was about the same time that Ahmad was putting his trio together with Vernel Fournier and Israel Crosby. If I remember correctly it was in Boston around ’55 or ‘56. Miles said publicly at the time that Jamal had the keys; he had the secrets to everything. You can hear it in Miles’ playing. You can hear Ahmad’s influence.
JL: You recently spent time in Australia. What was the jazz scene like?
HG: While I was there in January, I wrote an open letter to the Australian jazz magazine. I addressed it to the issue that the jazz musicians get on-stage with an everyday, almost uncaring attitude. The cats don’t work together on the bandstand. There’s a feeling of isolation. Of separation. They don’t eyeball one another and they don’t help out if someone gets lost. I felt like they played like separate people without establishing any real communication.
Jazz is the only successful form of group art. The group improvisatory experience involves a certain attitude, a way of feeling that I don’t find there. It bothered me because they’re denying themselves the very pleasure they are up there to enjoy.
JL: It seems that since joining the Woods Quartet, you’ve become more appreciative of those pleasures. The guys in the group all work together well, and you’re having a good time.
HG: Since joining Phil certain things are happening… new ways of thinking. I notice I’m getting more into the music than I have in years. I’m accepting it. The piano is pulling me toward it, and I feel like I have a direction. The more I go that way, the more confident I feel.
It’s interesting that people have taken note of the changes in me and they like it as much as I do. I’m glad you spotted it.