Discovering Hal Galper
August 1993 interview by Steve O’Keefe in his interesting but short-lived magazine “Piano.”
For 35 years, Hal Galper has been “trying to find himself” by getting on stage and pounding the black and whites. Best known for his work with the Phil Woods Quintet, a hard-driving be-bop band, Galper spent the decade of the ‘80’s anchored in the rhythm section. In 1990 he cut loose, cut a solo album for Concord, and formed a trio that has found a place on the national jazz scene.
Galper has been coming to Port Townsend for four years to teach at the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop and to perform at the local Jazz Festival. I interviewed him right after his afternoon concert. Galper left the audience literally begging for more: He walked off the stage one note short of finishing his last number. After he accepted a few compliments and greeted a few friends, Galper and I looked for a quite place to conduct an interview.
We headed behind McCurdy Pavilion where the sun was struggling to break through a week’s worth of clouds. Looking for a place to sit, Galper turned a cinderblock on end and said, “This’ll do.” I grabbed the block next to him and we talked.
“That was great, the way you held back that final note, the way you kept us hanging.”
“That’s part of the drama. When you perform, you enter into a contract with the audience. They paid their fifteen bucks to come to an unthreatening place, mingle with other people, and have me play with their heads,” he laughs. “You have to keep their interest. You have to give them some drama.”
“Why do you do it? What makes you go up there night after night, knowing you can fall flat on your face any time?”
“It’s a compulsion. That’s what we do. I don’t feel like I have any choice. It’s compulsive behavior.”
“Is there something you’re working toward? Are you out to entertain, to make a living, or what?”
“I’m trying to find out who I am,” he says matter-of-factly, easing off the jovial persona. I’m trying to figure out my own identity. When I’m playing, and I get to the point where I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s me.” He laughs: “When it’s not anybody else, it’s me.”
“I try to cultivate uncomfortableness,” he says slowly, rolling the words in his mouth like he’s testing a phrase for a solo. “I want to cultivate a state of unease.”
Galper plays for those moments when the underpinning is gone, when he has the audience right where he wants them, when he’s in the middle of a tune but at the edge of an abyss – a place empty of memory or technique or support – a terrible, wonderful place he must bridge. In that space you’ll find Hal Galper’s sound.
“Has it been difficult, going from a quintet to a trio? You’re sound sounds very full to me, almost orchestral.”
“Really?” That’s good. I’ve been trying to develop that big sound, to use more of the piano.”
“It’s all there. The instrument has everything you want; every sound you can think of is there. I’m trying to get better at using the whole piano. The trio has only been together for three years now. There’s a lot to learn.”
It’s refreshing to hear someone this far along in his career who still sees his sound as a work-in-progress.
“Do you find written music to be a straight jacket?”
“I don’t have a problem with that. Notation is only an approximation. The sound comes from a vivid imagination.” He pauses. “I have my way with written music,” he says slyly, and smiles.
“Have you any mentors?”
“Anyone who can play something I can’t,” he says, only half joking.
I mean anyone who has helped your career, not just a musician?”
“No. No one like that,” he says. I let it go.
Galper himself is a teacher, he has been teaching at the Port Townsend Jazz Workshop for four years. He is on the faculty at the New School in New York City and he teaches privately. He also writes articles about music. He sketches a current writing project for me.
“Jazz instruction has followed an oral tradition, a form of storytelling. Few people have explored the intellectual side of jazz instruction. What mostly survives is a few phrases handed down from musician to musician – just a line or two. Each phrase is a condensed version of a much larger story; each one tells so much.”
“Can you give me an example,” I ask.
“You’ll hear a musician say ‘you got to tell a story when you play.’ Now what does that meant? Where does that come from? I’m interested in collecting this knowledge, in exploring its history and meaning. It’s a part of preserving the tradition.”
Galper promises to send me some of his writing. I look forward to sharing it with all of you in a future issue.