Alain Le Roux Webzine
Interview via email by Alain Le Roux Webzine Le Jazz Fall 1999 Issue
Le Jazz : You were a student at Berklee, if my information is correct, from 1955 to 1958, studying with Herb Pomeroy and Jaki Byard. How was Berklee at this time? Did it give you a taste for teaching later?
Hal Galper : I was fortunate to have been at Berklee during that period. This was before the school moved to its present location. It was a small school then, not much more than 100 students, so we got a lot of individual attention and classes were informal and relaxed. Some of the subjects that were part of the curriculum then are not being taught now and many others are currently being taught in abbreviated form.
To me, one of the most valuable courses, that’s not being taught now was taught by Bob Share, who also ran the school at that time. His course taught re-harmonization. He’d use the old fake books with all those great standards and teach us how to reinterpret the dumb guitar chord notations into hip harmony. He’d sing inane melodies along with his reharms and we’d call his class “The Bob Share Cocktail Hour.” He was an excellent teacher and his course gave you complete mastery over reharmonization. I use his techniques very day.
Another course that was given at that time was the Schillinger System. Berklee School of Music was originally founded by Joseph Schillinger, a musical mathematician and theorist and was called “Schillinger House.” The course was very dry but was a great system for musical anlysis. I didn’t understand its impact on my education until decades after I left the school. It affected your musical outlook in such a way that you ended up with what I call “The Big Picture”, an unconscious understanding of how all things musical worked that you took to the bandstand when you played, which shaped the logic of your improvisations without being aware of it. It was also a great tool for figuring things out, which I’ll speak of again later.
Berklee had little to do with my desire to teach however. Teaching was something I hadn’t considered doing until about 1975. A number of factors entered into the decision to teach, the first being economic. The second was my concern about preserving the traditions of the music and what these traditions had to offer the student player. I felt that perhaps I could make some small contribution towards correcting the basic problem of jazz education: that it’s methodologies were not validated by the history and the tradition of the music. It wasn’t being passed down to succeding generations in a format that was effective in producing students that had a deep understanding of the process of learning how to play jazz. It was at that point that I began my research into the way the brain and the nervous system functioned musically and the history of the African oral tradition and what happened to this tradition when it became transplanted to the shores of the U.S. I began to realize the basic truth of jazz playing that we’ve all heard many times over the decades, the admonition that “Attitude Is Everything.” It was at that point that I changed my teaching from teaching pure information to that of using the information to change students attitudes, perception and understanding of how the proccess of jazz playing worked. This all connected back to answering an over-riding question that I had while being a student at Berklee: “what am I supposed to be feeling inside while I’m playing?” As time progressed the question became more defined: “What are the internal proccesses involved with jazz playing?” I eventually began to understand that it was all about internal proccesses, an aspect of music that the oral tradition admirably addresses, that the educational establishment, for the most part ignores, because you can’t write “attitudes” and “perceptions” down on paper and sell it for money like you can with information. My third reason for teaching is to give back to the music some of the rewards I had gained being a jazz player.
Le Jazz : Of all the collaborations you had (Baker, Byrd, Getz, Adderley, etc.) what were those who influenced you the most and left you the best memories?
Hal Galper : These giants were my true teachers and their lessons have lasted a lifetime. From Chet, I learned basics of drama, how to listen and swing hard and play soft; from Getz, it was how to use your instrument and the music to communicate your musical ideas to the rest of the band and create a unified “band” sound from many instruments playing together ; from Cannonball’s band, it was how to play with a “big beat”, an aspect of swinging that has all but disappeared from the current musical environment, and how to access and release intense outputs of energy and stay relaxed at the same time.
Le Jazz : Some famous influences of yours seem to have been Red Garland, then Bill Evans, then McCoy Tyner ? In what way did they influence you (if they did)?
Hal Galper : It’s true, Red Garland was the first and had the most influence on my playing. There was a teacher at Berklee, Harry Smith. He wasn’t a great piano player but he had perfect pitch, loved to help musicians and hated to be idle. You could go to him and ask for a transcription of anything and he’d have it for you in a couple of weeks. I’d ask for Red’s solos and voicings. That’s when I learned a basic truth, that as much as you’d like to sound like someone else, you still have to find your own “voice.” Everytime I played one of Red’s solos or played one of his chord voicings, it didn’t sound like Red. It became obvious that I could use Red’s playing as a point of entry into the music but would never sound like him because my touch (one of Red’s most predominant attributes) was different. I realised that “touch” was a major factor in deciding what you were going to play and how it sounded. Using my touch, Red’s music didn’t sound like Red. The truth was that I had to find my own melodies and voicings that sounded good with my particular touch.
Everyone thinks that I listened to and was heavily infuenced by Bill Evans. Actually the reverse is true. Once I had learned my lessons from Red, I began searching to find my own way of playing. When I heard Bill for the first time I got very upset. It seemed that, in all modesty, we were both heading in the same direction. That we both heard in a similar manner. Although I couldn’t help listen to Bill, after all, he was a great piano player and he drew you to his music, I tried my best to not copy him or be influenced by him in any way. If their is any similarity between our playing, it is not because I tried to copy him, as I had done with Red. There was just a natural inclination to play in a similar style. With McCoy, it was a completely different story. When I first came to NYC from Boston, nobody was playing in he way I had learned, which was a sort of post-bebop version of a long string of influences: Ahmad, Hank Jones, Wynton, Tommy Flanagan, et.al.. Everyone was playing modal and no one would hire me. Since McCoy wasn’t telling anyone how to play that way, I started applying the analytical techniques that I had been taught at Berklee – The Schillinger System – to try to figure it out. After many years I became pretty good at it and started to get hired. After 15 years of playing and recording in that style, I got bored with playing that way, broke up my quintet with the Breckers and tried to figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t until I joined the Phil Woods Band that another truth became evident: that, no matter what, you had to be honest and true to your roots, which of course were II-V-I and playing the great standards I had cut my teeth on as a youth. Since that time McCoys infuence has become a part of my playing, as have all the other influences.
Le Jazz : What are you doing now as a musician? How do you consider your partners in the trio? What level of liberty do you give them?
Hal Galper : One of the other things I learned while playing with Phil was that I seemed to play differently when Phil gave me trio feature, than I did in the context of the quartet or quintet. It seemed that I had more control over the music and could express my individuality more completely. I was reminded of Bill Evan’s response to a question once put to him:” Why do you like to play in the trio format?” His response was: ” Because I have more control over the music.” Since that time I’ve been recording and touring mostly in a trio and sometimes a quartet format, with Jerry Bergonzi. It’s axiomatic, that, as soon as you add a horn to a trio it ceases to be a trio and tends to become a rhythm section. This was not the case with Jerry, however. He understood the trio’s dynamic and never intruded on the concept. It became a trio with a horn, more than a quartet.
I have been feeling the need to do other special projects lately such as my recent duo release with my regular bassist Jeff Johnson, on the Philology label, “Maybeck Duets” , the only duo album I’ve ever made. I’ve also started a new quintet using the trio with Bergonzi and trumpeter Tim Hagans that will be touring the mid west in February and recording for Double-Time records at the end. Hopefully it will be a sort of a Year 2000 version of the old Blue Note sound that we all had for breakfast when we were students.
Of course, I’m the luckiest piano player in the world to be playing with Jeff and Steve Ellington. Steve and I have know and played with each other for over 35 years, from our early beginnings playing with Sam Rivers in Boston in the early 60’s. It was during this period that free music came on the scene. Our goals were the challenge of playing within the structures of bebop while being completely free. One of the results of was our development of a way of playing time together we called “Flexi-Time,” a concept easier understood by hearing than explaining. It’s a way of playing time where the beat is kept internally but is played with complete freedom of phrasing. It had to do with how accurately one could subdivide the beat. To most who would sit in with us, this can be very disconcerting. If you’re used to a rhythm section laying down the beat for you, you won’t find it with us. You have to have a strong internal “clock” that doesn’t depend on us spelling the time out.
One of the other concepts that came from that period was the idea of group improvisation, based on some of the concepts of free music and dixieland. When Ornette’s music came on the scene, I breathed a sigh of joy and said, “at last, I found the way I want to play!” and started playing that way but within the structures of the same standard and jazz classics that we were all playing at that time in Boston. I was somewhat alone in my enthusiasm for that kind of playing ( Sam Rivers had not yet returned to Boston ) and the somewhat conservative local musicians had a hard time playing with me, even though I was still playing free but within the forms of the tunes. In one instance, John Neves, an incredible natural bassist stopped playing in the middle of one of my solo’s, put his bass down and ran off the bandstand holding his ears and yelling: ” I can’t stand it! Ive got a terrible headache!” Strangely enough, a few years later, he became one of the best free solists in the area and showed me a thing or two about how to do it and make sense with it.
That was the problem I had with playing totaly free music, I got bored with it because it didn’t have enough discipline and structure like in bebop. Sam Rivers had been playing free long before Ornette and when he came back to Boston to start his new quartet he picked Steve Ellington (after Tony Williams left town) and I for his sidemen. He was a “like mind” and was playing standards freely and trained us to develop the concept of using the “rules” of bebop to play free and give the music a sense of structure. Our album “A New Conception” on the Blue Note label is a good example of the idea. Although out-of-print for many years, It’s recently been re-released by Mosaic in a Rivers compilation album.
Group improv is also an outgrowth of the free playing although its best examples were to be found in dixieland music. Those guys had a way of ensemble improvising that still left each instrument free to play what they wanted and yet, although all playing at the same time, each instrument could be clearly heard. This concept was magic to me. The problem was that those guys were dead and we couldn’t ask them how they managed to do it.
The guys in Sam’s quartet all were beginning to feel that the established roles of the instruments in a band had become a little conservative in that the rhythm sections were often relegated to a backround role while the solist had a good time being free. We were trying to adapt the dixieland technique of more than one instrument soloing at one time, to group playing so that everyone could take fuller part in the improvising. The challenge was to all solo together but still retain the clarity of the music and be able to hear each instrument clearly, as in dixieland. In the beginning this did lead to a somewhat dense band sound but as we kept working at it, over the years it became clearer to hear and it developed into a “layered” effect. The idea was to eventually get this concept so smooth that the listener wouldn’t notice it. Fugue State is a good example of how we refined this technique over the years. If you put the record on while having guests for dinner, it sounds just like regular post-bebop playing. However, if you sit down in room alone at 2am and give it a hard listen the concept becomes more evident. That was the challenge we faced, how to be completely free rhythmicaly , melodicaly and harmonically within the disciplines of bebop and yet have it not sound that way in an obvious manner.
One of the reasons I started my trio in 1990 was to get back to my roots of which the above concepts were part. The problem was to find guys who felt the same way about playing. When thinking about who to get on drums, the only person I could think of was Steve because we had developed these concepts together as youths. There isn’t a thing I play that he doesn’t understand. Then Jeff came along and he had been working on the same concepts as part of his self-education. No problem with the concepts either. I couldn’t do what I do in the trio if I didn’t have the good fortune of playing with these guys.
We were not comfortable with the older style of the instruments being religated to strict roles. In the trio, the roles change constantly and instantly: sometimes it’s all three together, or it could be: just the drum and bass together, and the piano separate, or the piano and bass together and the drums separate, or, the piano and drums together and the bass separate or all three doing different things. This creates a sort of “layered” effect that functions on many different levels all at once. This change in roles can’t be taught. I’ve never envied a bass player being in between Steve and I. If you don’t understand what we’re doing, it can’t be explained and many bassists have become confused as to how to contribute to the trio’s music.
After our first bassist, Todd Coolman, left the trio, it was difficult to find someone to replace him. When Jeff showed up six years ago, our search was over. From his own studies, he had developed an intuitive understanding of flexi-time, group improv and role changing. It was love at first beat. Never had to explain to him a thing about it.
Jeff’s entry into the trio also came about at a time when I was just finishing my experiments with formalism and heading towards a more open sound. His influence in that direction has been key to the trio’s musical development over the last six years.
Le Jazz : How do you consider you role as an educator versus as a musician?
Hal Galper : I think my role as an educator was sufficiently addressed in the first question. I don’t consider myself the most original of players, nor am I interested in “Moving the music forward”. I’ve already been as “forward” as any player can be. I don’t care about doing something “new” either. My goals as a musician are rather modest: I want to have fun playing, to be musically honest, to play the piano as pretty as I can and to swing like crazy. In truth, my quest is the same as every other musician, to solve the mystery of “how do I want to play?” I’m always working on that one.