Maxwell's page eight, the interview.
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A Tale of Two Maxwells:

Maxwell Chandler interviews Max Perkoff

MC: What is your earliest musical memory?

MP:I can still remember sitting on our apartment floor in San Francisco, listening to my dad jamming with friends. Of course I don’t remember who, and the whole thing is a foggy memory as I was 3 or 4 years old, but it’s there. In the mid-1960’s, the musicians could have been the drummers Smiley Winters, Shep Shepherd, even Elvin Jones. Bassists Paul Smith, Puzzy Ferth. Thelonious Monk had breakfast at our house, so I undoubtedly heard him showing my father things at the piano. So many others.

MC: You come from an impressive musical lineage, your father Si Perkoff studied classical piano, jazz harmony with Hal Overton in the 50’s and was the house pianist at Bop-City. Was there pressure to embrace or shun the life of a musician?

MP:Oh goodness no! My parents were the anti-stage parents. My mother is a fabulous visual artist and a major jazz fan, and they’ve always been very supportive of my musical path, but never pressured me at all. In fact, I had to ask for piano lessons for a year or more before they let me start at age 7. They got me terrific private teachers, supported the music programs at my schools, and took great pride and joy from my experiences. But it was always an artistic sharing, not a push towards anything.

MC: A lot of people, both musicians and fans alike seem to be able to recall that song or record which first seduced, the way one would a first kiss or crush. Do you recall the instance when jazz first seemed to call to you?

MP:For me it was hearing it live at home. I was drawn to music in general right away. My father’s mother took a picture of the first time I climbed onto our piano bench and began playing – without any help, so quite a climb. The picture shows my elated face, little body still in diapers, and my entire right hand fitting into a whole step on the piano. I was 2 years old and already hooked on music. By the time I was old enough to buy my own records I was already a jazzer, in love with Billie Holiday, worshiping Bird, Bud, Diz, Basie, Louis, Duke, et al.

MC: When reading the biographies of a lot of the greats, one often encounters in their personal mythos, early days of horrible jobs both musical and otherwise. These times in the trenches seemed to strengthen their resolve, serving as a catalyst to move them onward and upward. At the start of your career had you found yourself part of this tradition?

MP:Oh boy! I don’t know if I should say fortunately or unfortunately! I suppose my earlier experiences did strengthen my resolve, but they also took me away from the path, so it’s a mixed bag. I had day-jobs in my 20’s in record stores & restaurants, even a night janitor job one summer, but always gigging as much as possible at the same time. The big detour was teaching classroom music for 8 years in a row, 12 years cumulatively in my 20’s and 30’s. That was a marvelous growing experience for me as a human being. Ultimately it became clear that performing and composing was where my focus belonged.

MC: Do you recall the first instance when you felt like a musician, what served to convey that initial feeling of legitimacy?

MP:Yes, at the age 10 in 5th grade I was sitting with my parents at what was probably my first school concert. I was playing trombone in band. I turned to my mom and said something like “I’m so happy to be a part of all this.” After my last 8th grade school concert my parents, band director and orchestra director were all there when I announced to them that I was going to be a professional musician. One of them answered “Is that a promise or a threat?”

MC: I have heard some musicians say that they no longer seek out new stuff to listen to, while others listen to only what they have always known and liked. What are your listening habits like and how important a component are they to both your playing and composing?

MP:This is enormously important. I listen to music nearly every day. I seek out new sounds and perspectives. This only enhances my experience and technical absorption of earlier styles like swing and bop. The Bad Plus is a group I enjoy a lot. I feel a real kinship with their approach to mixing any styles if it suits them. Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and David Liebman are increasing influences these days as I listen to them more and more. Yet I still hear new joys in Louis, Teagarden, JJ, Monk, and certainly Chick Corea & Keith Jarrett. I listen a lot to trombonist Conrad Hurwig too. So I see – I hear – listening as inseparable from the process of playing and composing. It’s all one.

MC: To create your art, are there any necessary rituals or conditions?

MP:It helps to eat and sleep with some regularity! Of course, some of my best stuff – playing and compositions come out of anger, frustration, elation, sleep-deprivation, sudden intense feelings of all kinds. There’s no formula or set of rituals that I’m aware of. Ah, well there is one, and that’s regular practice and performance. And now that you’ve got me thinking more deeply about this, I have a goal of training my self to take more time with everything, breathe more fully, develop my improvisation more completely – not just my solos, but all of the music making my band makes together, collectively. I saw Wayne Shorter’s quartet earlier this month, and it was amazing! He and Danillo Perez, John Pattatucci, and Brian Blade, played 40 minute symphonies that combined jazz, classical, and pop structures. There was never a moment when a soloist was playing over the band. The balance between written composition and very free improv was stunning. I want to go there, personally, and with my band.

MC: Has or does location play into how you approach your art, whether it is writing, performing or recording?

MP:Actually, it does play a role. It isn’t black and white though. If I’m playing at a festival to hundreds of people, there’s the tendency to stay away from quiet tunes, ballads. But if the audience is listening, they love it, so the energy of the audience is more important than the space. When I write, it’s usually in my home studio, a quiet private space.

MC: Where do you draw your inspiration from? I think the best artists regardless of medium know their antecedents and build off of that. What music/musicians do you go to for mental/spiritual nourishment and enjoyment?

MP:Wow, lots of places really. Originally of course, it was the bebop and boogie-woogie of my father, who is a life-long source of inspiration. Charlie Parker, JJ Johnson, Art Tatum, James P Johnson, Monk, Bud, Frank Rosolino & Frank Rehak – who I studied with for a few months – Coltrane, and many more well known greats of the first 60 years of jazz. The music of Stravinsky, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Steve Reich, and others are also important to me. As I mentioned earlier The Bad Plus, Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Joe Henderson, Conrad Hurwig, Keith Jarrett, these are some of my current influences. I also get a lot of spiritual nourishment as you put it, from the sound of children’s choirs, from heartfelt folk music, especially of Africa and the Middle East.

MC: Are there artists in other mediums which fuel your fire?

MP:Well, in addition to those already mentioned, there’s Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Leonard Bernstein, Joe Alessi (principal trombonist with the New York Philharmonic), and certainly the work of my classical trombone teachers, Mark Lawrence (SF Symphony) during high school and M. Dee Stewart (Philadelphia Orchestra) at I.U.

MC: Do you have a project you have always wanted to do which as of yet remains an unrealized ambition?

MP:Hmmm…yes. My new CD is coming out in April and I want to tour with my band. That sounds like a generic musician wish, but it’s an written plan of mine for 2008. I also have a book called “The Undying Flame, ballads and songs of the Holocaust” which I’d like to work into a recording and/or concert series. Ideally I’d like to arrange the songs for voice and small ensemble. Something similar to the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.”

MC: What is fascinating about jazz and obvious to anyone, like myself who has a mania for reading everything they can get their hands on is that with jazz you can almost draw a family tree through the different eras with direct artistic lines of descendancy. (i.e a young Miles played with Bird, then broke away to start his own group which featured the young sax player….) Do you think jazz is losing or has lost its informal mentor attitude? As even the young lions of the 60’s begin to disappear will torches no longer be passed?

MP:There has been a tradeoff between the Jazz Messengers model you’re describing and formal university training such as I got at Indiana University School of Music. I think the old school is far better, but is simply economically impractical, even more so than in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. But it continues in Wynton’s groups, and with Gary Burton who got his start with Stan Getz and is now mentoring guitarist Julian Lage who studied privately for years with Randy Vincent, the guitarist in The Max Perkoff Band. Both structures are needed for jazz musicians to make it in the 21st century.

I’ve been very fortunate to play with many top-notch musicians who are 10 – 30 years my senior since I started sitting in as a teenager. It’s essential to the development of the music and the musicians. You know, Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camps are a great combination of these two models. I attended one in 1981 at the age of 19. The formal study was a continuation of what I had already begun at I.U. (Jamey went to I.U. as well), plus I spent a week in a quintet being coached by David Liebman, with music theory classes by Hal Galper! Only one week, but the fire it lit is still burning hot.

MC: Jazz is one of the least static of all the arts, with plenty of room left for innovation, mixing in components of world music, classical even turnbulism. Yet Jazz consumers in America make up one of the smallest percentages of the CD buying public. Part of the problem is lack of promotion which keeps sales and even awareness low, the whole thing becoming a sort of cultural/retail catch-22. Can this be fixed? Are things improving? Regardless of what you thought of the actual documentary, there seemed to have been a brief break in the clouds when Ken Burns Jazz series came out. How do you read the current climate in the states, the state of jazz?

MP:The Ken Burns documentary definitely put a spotlight on the music for a while, all to the good. Unfortunately, his taste kept the spotlight from most of the living jazz musicians who deserve it – Wayne, Herbie, and so on. All in all, a positive thing though. The marketing of the music is a big ol’ elephant! My personal theory is that the word jazz turns at least as many people off as it turns on, mostly due to the lack of exposure most people have to creative music. But CD buying is going down because of the internet. Very soon downloading will be the only way to get anything. I would have released my new album online only but for the need and desire to sell them at live performances. But soon, if a fan at a live performance wants to, they’ll just open their i-phone or whatever, go on line, buy just the tunes they want, all from their seat at the gig! You could do that now for a lot of bands. It’s coming. Will that be good or bad? If the artist makes enough money to break even or make a profit, or garner new and better gigs, it’s positive. I remain cautiously optimistic!

You’re absolutely right about the space jazz has for innovation. It exists only because of genre-mixing. Blues, Gospel, field-holler, ragtime, etc all intertwined to make the music of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith. It’s just opened it’s arms wider with each passing decade.

MC: Is a live setting an important aspect of your artistic life? When you play live is there a different mind set to what you are doing compared to the studio and what you want to achieve? If you had to concentrate more on one or the other which would be your preference?

MP:Live, live, live! That’s where it’s at, where the connection between musicians is really made, and between musicians and audience. Recording has two primary purposes for me: Making the best addition to the historical record I can, and generating gigs. Like anyone else of course, I also want to hone my skills in both arenas, and do the best I can to leave good music behind me when I move on.

MC: Some of my musical heroes are alive, well and still recording and touring. What I have noticed though, is for a lot of them, their new records as opposed to some of their classic Blue Note 60’s sides, sound almost too clean. It’s not a matter of physically having lost speed or anything like that, it just all sounds too “perfect” as if each band member recorded their part separately. There is an almost digital flatness to it. I have noticed that on the CDs of yours which I have heard, there is an organic cadence to everything, it sounds like a band playing a song, together. When recording do you make a conscious effort to avoid or emulate any particular way of doing things to achieve that warm ambient effect?

MP:Hey, thank you very much for that. I have tried mightily to produce recordings that are live or as close to live sound as possible. “Off The Ground” (2000) and “Amazing Space” (2005) were recorded live in the studio. Very minimal overdubs were used, a note here or there, very few. My new recording, “Infinite Search, The Max Perkoff Band” used a few more studio tricks, but is mostly recorded live. You do the best you can with the time and money you’ve got! The warmth and intimacy of the sound is also very important to me. The credit goes in equal amounts to the musicians on each date and to recording engineer Gary Mankin. I’m happy to say that the album I did with Roswell Rudd and Monk’s Music Trio (2006) was also recorded live in the studio. Also just a small handful of overdubs, 99% of it was complete takes. Engineer Chris Siefert deserves to share credit for that.

MC: From its civil rights aspects to being banned right up until the late 80’s in some communist countries in Eastern Europe, Jazz has always had as a component of its make-up freedom, artistic and social. Obviously at times these things were emphasized more than others. With the net and the ability to reach more people quicker, does jazz, does art have a responsibility to be socially conscious? Or does choosing to spend ones life making art which is not disposable in such retail oriented times send its own important message.

MP:Yes and yes. I believe people have a responsibility to make the world a bit better. There are an infinite number of ways we can do this of course. An old Jewish proverb goes “It is not our job to complete the work, merely to carry it on.” I got that from my dear grandmother Molly, and it guides my life still. I’ve designed a civil rights music assembly and have performed it at a middle school and an elementary school with great success. It includes plenty of student participation while honoring and discussing MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, civil & human rights in general, and of course music from my band.

But remember, music that’s meant to be purely artistic, abstract, can nonetheless take on specific meaning, political or otherwise, in a new context. An example would be the way Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” was effectively used in the movie “Pleasantville” to convey revolutionary individualism.

MC: Everybody is online now. Has this helped the arts or hurt it? Do we have a nation of hobbyist seeking legitimacy with their blogs while shouting “Look at me!” I think there are people out there with potential, but the instant gratification of seeing their works displayed online proves too powerful. Those willing to woodshed it are now in the minority. The potential to truly develop chops and a voice, sacrificed for early exposure. How do you view this digital siren’s call?

MP:Yah, very interesting. What a revolution this continues to be. It’s as positive as one makes it to be. Just like the 4-trak tape recorder and then software for home recording, the internet has allowed more people to make recordings, write blogs, and look professional without having worked hard. Yet it’s like a public library. Some of the books suck, but it sure is fabulous to get the great ones you know you like as well as browse for new inspiration. Caveat Emptor.

MC: Do you find some states more receptive to jazz than others? I am biased of course, but I have found only New York seems to be on par with San Francisco for the amount and variety of jazz concerts and venues.

MP:Yup. I haven’t played Seattle, Chicago, or Memphis, or perhaps Ann Arbor or Austin, but it’s hard to believe there’s a city that can match New York for sheer volume of clubs and players. There are always jazz fans in every region however. The trick is finding and then luring them to your gig!

MC: We are around the same age, I know for my medium I was often told from the get-go that I could spend my life writing but never be published or discovered in my lifetime. In San Francisco there are a handful of local heroes who played with and hung out with the greats but never became “big” in their own right. We have a mini renaissance going on in that they all seem to have landed residencies in small clubs. Having gotten to know some of them, there is, an almost state of grace about them. Despite never having gotten the big pay day they remain enamored of the music and show how there is a bigger victory in being about what one does, our actions and passions. Is this a lesson lost on younger artists coming up?

MP:I don’t think so. There are so very many fine young players coming out of university jazz programs like those at The New School, North Texas State, I.U., and many others. In general, I think most young players know they’re not going to get rich playing music for a living, and the real world will show them the truth as soon as they start to do gigs. I define success as playing well, getting the respect of my peers & audience, enjoying myself and spreading that joy, and having a roof over my head.

MC: What are you currently working on?

MP:My band just finished recording “Infinite Search.” I’m finishing up the graphics and beginning the marketing stage. I’m also writing and arranging new stuff for the band. I’m really excited about arranging tunes I’ve always loved that are not part of the typical jazz song list, but are great music. This will include everything from Deodato & Beatles tunes to Jewish melodies and other indigenous music from the Middle East and elsewhere.

MC: Where can people find your new CD and keep track of your performances schedule? is the best place to start. I’m on iTunes, cdbaby, and dozens of other sites. The links are at my web site. So far we have CD Release Gigs April 12, 2007 at Jazz At Pearls in San Francisco and Oct 6, 2007 for Concerts by the Sea, Sanchez Concert Hall, 1220A Linda Mar Boulevard, Pacifica. (650) 355 1882. Come on down,

it’s gonna groove and soar!!

MC: Thank you for your time, it has been a pleasure, see you side stage.

MP:Thank you Maxwell, I enjoyed the interview very much.

Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound

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