Alliance for Improvised Music


I've "known" Canadian pianist DD Jackson for a number of years now. Known is in quotes because we met online, through the jazz newsgroup (rmb). We've yet to meet face-to-face, something we finally get to do when DD comes to town to play at the ArtsCenter on May 31 with legendary baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett (of the World Saxophone Quartet) and percussionist Mor Thiam.

You meet musicians online, especially jazz musicians, and you figure "yeah, like you're ever gonna make it big." Well, at least that's what I used to figure. But DD's career has really taken off. Not only was he a student of Don Pullen, but the list of other musicians he's played with is equally impressive: Billy Bang, the Afro-Brazilian Connection, James Carter, Andrew Cyrille, Ray Anderson, Craig Harris, Kip Hanrahan's Conjure, Dewey Redman, Jane Bunnett, John Purcell, William Parker, .... and, oh yeah, David Murray, DD's primary employer these days when he's not leading his own group. He's also helping out on the collaboration among Murray, Taj Mahal, and Bob Weir on a musical of the life of Satchel Paige. Murray appeared on DD's debut album, Peace-Song, on Justin Time records. Last year, DD released his second album, Rhythm-Dance, a trio recording; and, he's getting ready to release a pair of albums of duets with various artists, titled Paired Down, vols. 1 and 2. He's been nominated for two JUNO awards (the "Canadian grammies") and was named the 1996 Jazz Report Composer of the Year.

DD was nice enough to participate in an e-mail interview before heading off on a tour of Japan.  One thing you may need to know for the following interview is that DD has recently lost his mother and one of his mentors (Don Pullen), as well as his older brother Chris who passed away in 1986. --walt

Walt Davis: One thing that you and I share is a great love for the music of Don Pullen and I remember sharing your grief online when he passed on. I'd love to get your views on Don's music -- what made it unique? what do you find so powerful in it? which albums turned you on to him?

DD Jackson: "The Sixth Sense" was the first Don Pullen album that I really noticed, because of the tune "Gratitude" (I believe it was on this album - too lazy to check :-))... I remember going to the library and checking out his work upon friends' recommendations while at the Manhattan School of Music. I think at the time I didn't have the knowledge to fully appreciate the more "avante-garde" elements in his playing, but when I heard this tune, it particularly struck me that someone so adventurous could also be so soulful and reflective in his playing, and it was a lesson that I really took to heart. "Evidence of Things Unseen" was also important - it's really my favorite solo piano album of anyone. And I think that "New Beginnings" is a classic trio album.

WD: As a friend and student of his, obviously you knew Don at a much deeper level than I did. Beyond the music, what have you learned from him?

DDJ: Just the general spirit of taking chances, as well as comments on the music business, dealing with people, etc. Don was a true mentor and role-model for me for a time.

WD: Finally, Pullen has obviously been a major musical influence. Some critics claim that your playing is overly derivative of his. I don't agree with that, but I would think that it must be even more difficult to find your unique voice when you're fortunate enough to have such a close and influential relationship. Could you describe that process of finding your voice and perhaps comment on whether you think that process was made easier or harder by the closeness of your relationship?

DDJ: People often overstate the influence, but this doesn't bother me as long as people realize that I'm setting out to find my own, original voice, and my goal isn't to sound like Don. I'm also always one or two projects ahead in terms of my development compared to what people are actually hearing of me on recordings; for example, my new CD's, "Paired Down, Vol. I and II" (the 2nd vol. will be realized later in the fall, the first volume on June 17th), I think show a much more reflective side than some of the more "frenzied stuff" I've done earlier. Then again, even among the earlier stuff, I've always written all-original tunes, and have always tried to be diverse as my influences compositionally as possible - Don Pullen, certainly, but also Keith Jarrett, Abdullah Ibrahim, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Monk, Jaki Byard (who was another important teacher of mine), and classical music, etc., etc. So there's always been more there than one influence there, a fact which I'm sure will become increasingly apparent to people as I continue...

Finding your voice involves simply being as open-minded and sincere in your expression as possible; that's all you can really do, because by definition, you'll be being as original as is possible in this way - it's not exactly something you can "force" beyond this. I remember being at a jam session, and listening to the house pianist, who was in a sort of "Bill Evans" vibe. I went up and sat in, and afterwards he started playing all sorts of crazy clusters, etc., as if "fueled" by what I was doing. Nothing wrong with clusters, but just didn't come across as the most "sincere" move for him, and I think the affectation involved was picked up by the listeners there...

WD: Once again, I hate to go in the obvious direction, but it is difficult to avoid the topic of "loss" when speaking of your music and career. In the last few years, you've lost your mentor, your older brother, and your mother. We've talked about Don, but perhaps you'd like to comment on the ways that your brother and mother influenced you, personally and musically (like those are different :-). And in what ways has their passing affected your music? Have you found that your music helped in the healing process?

DDJ: My brother turned me on to several people when I was growing up, people I didn't realize would be important to me at the time, but who eventually influenced me musically a great deal. I remember being very young when he gave me a Chick Corea/Herbie Hancock duo piano album, and I remember listening to Chick's group Return to Forever, Funkadelic, a Dutch group called "Focus III", as well as Oscar Peterson, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, etc., and gathering bits and pieces from each of these early influences (some records of which also belonged to my father). My mother encouraged me primarily in classical music, which dominated my background up until about 9 years ago, when I completed my Bachelor's in Classical Piano Performance and made the switch to jazz in New York, pursuing my Masters at the Manhattan School of Music.

Of course, music has been highly therapeutic in the healing process, hopefully not only for me but for others as well; I've dealt openly with what I've been thru on each of my first 3 CD's: my first CD, "Peace-Song feat. David Murray", had a piece dedicated to my late brother Chris called "Funerale"; my 2nd CD, "Rhythm-Dance" had a piece for my mother called "For Mama"; and my new CD, "Paired Down, Vol. I", has on it a piece I wrote for Don Pullen after he died which Hamiet Bluiett performs on called "For Don" (we'll probably perform it in Carrboro). The tune for my mother was actually written within the week following her death, and was recorded for radio broadcast across Canada a week later at the Montreal Jazzfest; I then performed it in front of a hometown audience in Ottawa 2 weeks after that. So highly emotional, but, again, helpful for me at the same time, and hopefully for others.

WD: One thing I find so attractive and interesting about your music is that it exhibits a "lush romanticism" which has been largely absent from jazz, and perhaps most especially from the "avant-garde," for the last few decades. First off, am I full of it -- whether in my description of your music, or my comments about its absence from jazz? Second, where does this romantic side come from? Third, although they seem contradictory on the surface, I get the feeling that your romanticism is closely linked with your sense of loss. Any comments?

DDJ: I think this probably largely comes from classical - I've always been a big fan of Rachmaninoff, for example. Of course, it's I'm sure also an extension of my nature, which tends to be quite direct and perhaps even "passionate" in terms of how I express myself. And yes, it's also I think a reflection of the experiences that I've been through. Of course, these are very hard things to break down "scientifically"; can't exactly attribute it to this or that specific percentage. The simplest answer, I guess, is that I've always been more of an "intense" kind of guy, and my playing is a reflection of that...

WD: Now I'd like to talk a bit about the state of jazz and other forms of creative, adventurous music in the US and elsewhere (and I'm going to avoid mentioning you-know-who). I know you've played fairly often in Europe and Canada, so would you describe the differences between playing there and playing in the US? What do you think explains those differences? How can we go about building a scene in the US?

DDJ: I think the scenes in Canada and the U.S. are fairly comparable, though Canadians on a governmental level exhibit stronger support for the arts through grants for study, touring grants, etc. (several of which I've received and which aided in getting me to New York), and therfore "root for their own" a bit more. But they get caught up in the "hype" mentality like everyone else. Europe is different in that there seems to be more true reverence for jazz, and not just those artists who are marketed and "hyped" the most, but, in fact, often some of the artists who over here never have really gotten their just due. This is why Europe has in many ways become the "gutbucket circuit" of today, and why more performers, at least among those I perform with, such as David Murray, Craig Harris, Andrew Cyrille, Carlos Ward, Billy Bang, etc. work more in Europe than possibly anywhere else.

Re: building a better scene here - there IS a scene here, but, again, it's built largely on hype - some of it deserved, and - perhaps - some less so. For example, I did a gig this past weekend subbing for Craig Taborn in James Carter's band. James is a truly inspiring artist to work with, and I think really represents the next major voice in jazz. He's also been given a sizable "push" by his record label, Atlantic Records, and so the gigs we did - in Erie, PA and Buffalo, NY - were both completely sold out, with very enthusiastic, young audiences, something which was a delight to see. Unfortunately, it often seems that other, some might argue "less deserving" young lion-types tend to be predominantly the ones chosen to play the major venues particularly in the U.S., leaving the generation that many of these younger artists derived their musical approach from largely unemployed.

WD: Continuing with this, you know I've often argued on rmb that "avant-garde" jazz has an audience among the "indie-rock" crowd, whose tastes are incredibly diverse. I've recommended (based on no empirical evidence! :-) that jazz musicians, especially the adventurous ones, should let go of the "traditional" model of the jazz career and instead pile into crappy vans, tour the region playing in dive-y "alternative" clubs, and build their audience that way. I notice you've had enough sense not to take my advice and things seem to be working quite well. Would you like to comment on my idea and/or do you have any other thoughts about how jazz and creative improvised music can reach a new audience?

DDJ: I think there are a number of approaches that can and should be taken, and that there's not one solution, if, as a leader, one wants to express oneself as completely as possible. Your "indie-rock" theory I think is actually quite legitimate; it brings to mind the Deadhead audiences which have been following David Murray around ever since he recorded the Tribute to Grateful Dead album with his octet - definitely a whole new crowd for him. And I'm still young enough that the whole "piling in a van" thing has something of an almost "romantic" appeal; the idea of spreading your music, venue by venue, city by city, and trying to reach the young. But I think it also has to do with marketing and publicity, and it's hard to "compete" at the bigger venues in this country without some kind of promotional "machine" behind you, even if it originates from your own efforts.

WD: Last question: What musicians currently turn you on? Whose music (or what style of music) have you recently discovered? Among living musicians whom you haven't worked with, which do you most want to work with? That is, what have you been up to lately and where do you want to go next? Feel free to discuss non-musical goings-on as well.

DDJ: I'll answer that by putting in a "shameless plug" for my new CD, "Paired Down, Vol. I", because it features precisely many of the musicians that I think particularly deserve to be heard, and who are really out there trying to create their own system of expression, and to present an original voice. Vol. I, for example, features James Carter on tenor and C melody sax, Billy Bang on violin, Hugh Ragin (of David Murray's Octet) on trumpet, Santi Debriano on acoustic bass, Hamiet Bluiett on baritone sax, and David Murray on tenor sax. It also features original compositions by myself plus two of Hugh Ragin's, and will be out in the U.S. on June 17th. Vol. II, available in the fall, features more from David Murray, Santi Debriano, and Billy Bang, plus Canadian Jane Bunnett on flute, Don Byron on clarinet, and Ray Anderson on trombone....

I'm also captivated by the work Steve Coleman has been doing - I admire the fact that in this spread-out musical world he's really managed to create a new conceptual approach which is readily identifiable. I'm into Prince, Sting, Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, and am actually currently conceiving of a project which has more of a "groove" orientation. I've also been exploring Latin music more recently, to try and get to the roots of it, instead of doing the whole "jazz musician vaguely playing Latin" that is often the case. Similarly, I'm trying to get a handle on synthesizer technology to avoid the similar "jazz pianist vaguely trying to play keyboards" syndrome. And I'm trying to deal with solo piano - I'm playing solo piano, for example, at the Toronto jazzfest this June, in anticipation of a future recording.

Re: musicians I would love to work with, I feel fortunate to be working with many of the musicians I most admire, though I would anticipate further collaborations with James Carter. I've always wanted to hook up with Bobby McFerrin, for some reason as well, and I'd love to do an all piano-duo album with a variety of pianists, including Paul Bley, John Hicks, Oscar Peterson, etc., etc. And I'm also re-exploring as of very recently my classical roots - trumpeter Hugh Ragin (who also has an extensive classical background) and I have been talking about recording an album which would involve classical music as well as jazz. In general, though, I would say that one has to have as open a mind as possible, and be ready for anything, musically. Also, whatever path I suggest now is almost irrelevant, because you really have to go with the flow and be prepared to make "growth adjustments" along the way.

Choose your destination...