A Version of this interview originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of The NYC Jazz Record.

Hal Galper Interview by Ken Dryden

Hal Galper has long been a part of the jazz scene, having recorded extensively as a leader over the past several decades and appearing on records by Sam Rivers, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz and Chet Baker, among others. Galper began with classical piano studies at an early age, spent time at Berklee and absorbed everything from several Boston-based artists before leaving for New York City. Galper began leading his own groups in the 1970s. After establishing himself as a top post-bop pianist, Galper quit touring to develop his distinctive rubato method that he plays with his working trio.

NYCJR: Tell me about your early exposure to jazz.

HG: I was failing miserably in high school, so they put me into vocational school to be an electrician and it was the only time I got A’s. My parents got really excited and thought that I might become a scientist. The next year they sent me to this preparatory school in Copley Square in Boston. It was far above me and I had no idea what they were talking about most of the time. The Stables, a local club, was across the street. I’d go over during lunch and listen to Herb Pomeroy’s group play and rehearse; I started taking bongo lessons from the janitor there and got really interested in the music. The last year I went back to regular high school and failed miserably but managed to graduate. In those days they had a state vocational rehabilitation board and they would check out disabled high school seniors. Having one eye qualified me for a scholarship, anyplace I wanted to go. My parents weren’t going to pay for music school so I took the scholarship and went to Berklee over their strenuous objections.

NYCJR: Berklee was in its infancy then.

HG: It was very small and you got great attention. It had a sense of camaraderie among students. Everybody was working together trying to help everyone else to learn. Information wasn’t considered proprietary. I left after two-and-a-half years because the schedule was getting in the way of my practicing.

NYCJR: Who were some of your earliest mentors?

HG: Herb Pomeroy for sure and Jaki Byard for damn sure! I took eighteen lessons with Jaki. I probably learned the most with him, except for Sam Rivers. A couple of years later I looked in my notebooks and there was nothing in them. He gave me my style of teaching, he swung you, he got you thinking about all kinds of stuff and you thought he was teaching you, actually, you were teaching yourself. It was a very slick way of teaching.

I studied twice with Ray Santisi, the piano player in Boston. He’d play and you’d watch and hopefully stop him and ask “What was that”? I didn’t know enough as a freshman to do that, but when I came back later I got a lot out of him. Sam Rivers was a major, major influence. We played together for six years and that was my postgraduate work. He really pushed the envelope and we were very much like minds and clicked immediately.

NYCJR: I didn’t realize that you and Phil Woods went back so many decades.

HG: Yeah, his was my first gig in New York City. I played in Phil’s band from 1980 to 1990, it was a lot of fun. Phil recorded a number of my pieces and he was a great writer, too. Many bandleaders, like Chet Baker, couldn’t write so they’d hire sidemen who could. When Chet found out that I wrote, that helped me get the gig. He recorded hundreds of versions of my songs, more than anybody.

NYCJR: What was it like working with Chet?

HG: I was with him three years and it was my first big time gig. Except for the drummer, bassist and me, it was a junkie band, my first experience working with junkies was an eyeopener. But I learned so much playing with Chet, even though he wouldn’t be considered a teacher. He didn’t have to say anything to teach you, all he had to do was play. His phrasing was…just amazing. He would be making up his own changes over the original set, which most great improvisers do. I didn’t figure out how he did it for many years. I played duo with Lee Konitz for nine months and that was an incredible experience, but I’ll have to say playing duo with Chet was AWFUL. Lee didn’t repeat himself once in nine months, all those guys of the Lennie Tristano school were really masterful improvisers.

NYCJR: Cannonball Adderley was a really different school.

HG: Another great learning experience and my introduction to the Big Beat, which is a dying art these days. Cannon’s beat was so big you could put a beer, ashtray and TV on the beat.

NYCJR: Didn’t you tell Marian McPartland that you dumped your electric piano in the Hudson?

HG: I wasn’t feeling very confident about my acoustic piano playing. I played electric piano for a year with Stan Getz, then with Cannon. Finally I got so disgusted and realized that I had to commit to playing the acoustic piano because that was where my heart was. I lived on 34th between 9th and 10th, which is down the street from the Hudson. I rolled the piano and the case down there and tossed them off the wharf into the river and I haven’t played an electric keyboard since.

NYCJR: Why did you take time off from the road?

HG: I was working on my book “The Touring Musician.“ There was a lot of pressure on me booking the band and doing the book, it just burned me out. I started the trio to create a laboratory for myself to find out how I wanted to play. I had many influences over the years, could play like anybody and have fun doing it. The audience would like it and it was a real problem for me. I needed to get to another technical level so I “got in the shed” from 2000 to 2005, doing very heavy practicing.

NYCJR: How did you come to work with Jeff Johnson and John Bishop?

HG: I was playing the Port Townsend Jazz Festival and they put me together with Jeff and John Dean on drums. Jeff and I clicked immediately. Steve Ellington and I were looking for a bass player; we had gone through several after Todd Coolman, eating them up like candy. Being between Steve and myself was not an enviable position for a bassist because we go way back to Sam Rivers. We played a feature concert, then Jeff wrote me a letter, telling me how much he enjoyed playing with me. I had a tape of the concert and I listened to it again and called Steve and said, “I think we’ve found our bass player”. When I started the trio again a few years ago, Jeff and John had been playing together for twenty years, so they were well mated. But John had never played rubato before, it opened up something new for him that he’s really excited about, because he’s a total professional musician who’s played it all. I’ve been listening to John and I have no idea what he’s doing or how he does it. They read each other so well, you want a rhythm section that’s got magic. The mind reading that goes on when we’re playing is just phenomenal. Jeff is always a sixteenth note behind me, it’s almost like he knows what I’m going to play next. John has got a style that no else can play in, the only one close was Rashid Ali. Miles’ secret wasn’t picking instruments, it was picking personalities, characters that produced the magic. So I’ve taken my cue from him. Plus it’s not fun doing unless it’s magic. We’re always surprised playing rubato about what comes next, we’re not playing with intention, we’ve taken the ego out of the equation and letting it take us where it wants to go. Unfortunately the best playing we’ve ever done we can’t release, it was the second set from our most recent concert at Smalls, which they podcast. We recorded in the studio three days after that and we were pretty happy with it until we heard that second set.

NYCJR: What influenced your rubato style?

HG: Ornette Coleman’s Double Quartet album “Free Jazz“ was a great influence, everybody was playing rubato except the rhythm section. What’s different now with this style is that Jeff and John are also playing rubato. It’s been the trio’s feeling that there have been a lot of advances in the music except rhythmically. Both Dizzy Gillespie and Lennie Tristano played odd time signatures within 4/4, not as a separate thing. In regular playing you had a background and a foreground, a simple, bouncy quarter note background that clarified anything that was going on in the front line. In the case with the trio, there is no background, we’re all foreground, it’s group improv, like Dixieland. You can’t isolate the instruments in rubato playing.

NYCJR: Tell me how it came about.

HG: My usual way of practicing was to avoid it until 11:30 pm and then go to the piano. This sort of crept out, I didn’t plan it and I thought this feels really right, really good. I had no idea what it was, but felt that I’d never find anybody to play it with. As an experiment I got a night at the Deerhead with Tony Marino on bass as a duo, who I didn’t know was at heart a free player. It clicked immediately, we had a rather geriatric audience and I thought it would turn them off, but they loved it because we were still using the vocabulary of the music, the same licks we’ve been playing for years, but our way. The older audiences are much better educated than the younger ones because they were part of the scene that made jazz happen. Then I thought I’d never find a drummer. Billy Mintz had done a couple of records with Jeff Johnson and his name popped up playing at a church in New York. I ran him down, got him for a gig and it worked perfectly. That was two people I could play with, now I have six. I was kind of surprised at my direction, so I went over my recordings to do a retrospective and I noticed how often I would go into that mode for short periods, so it has been there all the time, but I used it judiciously. I’d suddenly break into rubato playing in the middle of a solo. It’s been there all the time and kept developing, but I never focused on it. The first album I did it on was “Agents of Change“ with Tony and Billy. Then I called Jeff, he got John on and the rest is history. When I realized I had been doing that all those years, it gave me a sense of confidence that I didn’t have before.

NYCJR: How does a new composition evolve for you?

HG: Sometimes I’ll copy something I played, or I’ll have one phrase, a germ of an idea. I’ll write them down in a notebook and revisit them to see if I can do anything with them. I had one for fifty years that I couldn’t find a use for that I finally used last year. I’ve been doing a lot of studying of Brazilian harmony and it fell right in with my studies. Sometimes it takes years to write a tune and others just drip off your fingers.

NYCJR: What can you tell me about the new CD?

HG: Hopefully it will be out in September. The last album, “E Pluribus Unum,“ was a live recording and there are still a lot of outtakes. Jeff is going into the studio to work on the new one, which was a studio date. I hate studio dates, because there’s no audience to tell me what to play. This one is kind of nice, it’s got a slightly different flavor than the other albums we’ve done, even though it’s still in the rubato style.