Interview and transcription by Chris Becker
This is a full transcript of an interview I did with pianist Bobby Lyle for a profile in Culturemap Houston. The conversation was so interesting and filled with so many details, that I thought posting it in its entirety might interest fellow musicians and anyone interested in jazz. The introduction below is excerpted from the Culturemap profile.
This being Houston, where there is a avid audience for jazz, but not a whole lot of places to go and hear it played, it’s quite possible you have yet to hear pianist and Hammond B-3 master Bobby Lyle. Although based in Houston since 2000, Lyle’s gigs usually take him to L.A. or New York City, so local performances are few and far between. The buzz among those lucky enough to have witnessed his scorching set on B-3 last April at Discovery Green with saxophonist Everette Harp, or his 2010 “unplugged” duet with Harp at Zilka Hall to benefit Musiqa’s educational programming, or recent appearances with trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis as part of the Divas World Jazz Series, is if you see the name Bobby Lyle on an upcoming program, do not miss that show. Otherwise, shame on your music loving self.
I was blown away by Lyle’s ability to play an incredible variety of piano styles, often within the context of a single tune, when I first heard him last November at the aforementioned Musiqa benefit concert. Shifting gears after first playing a couple of originals by Harp, the duo headed into standards territory taking well loved tunes into the stratosphere. Their freewheeling set included John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a Lyle only rendition of “Body and Soul,” and a startling yet perfectly timed drop of the Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Goin’ On?” Lyle also played one percussive piece of new jack swing entirely inside the piano. The whole time, you felt Lyle was as attuned to the audience as he was to his onstage “co-conspirator” Harp.
Lyle’s recorded output includes plenty of albums for the “smooth jazz” market, including the beautifully recorded and arranged Ivory Dreams and The Journey. 1991’s Piano Magic is a rare solo piano recording that includes Lyle’s sophisticated and funky take on jazz standards such as Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debbie” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” Lyle has also recorded wild, genre busting fusion albums like 1977’s The Genie, which stands alongside similarly expansive and experimental records from that time period by artists such as Ramsey Lewis, George Duke, or Quincy Jones. The list of people Lyle has performed, recorded and/or toured with includes musicians from just about every genre of music one can name, including Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Pharoah Sanders, Al Jarreau, Bette Midler, Anita Baker and George Benson.
Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble
Bobby Lyle: You know the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas? At one time he was the director of the St. Paul Chamber orchestra – this is going back years probably into the 70’s…so I got real ambitious one time and I wrote a piece for chamber orchestra and jazz ensemble…and my sister who used to be heavily involved with the dance world she did some choreography that we were able to work into the presentation…and it was quite an experience…and to this day I have no idea what happened to the scores…the scores have vanished! I mean, some of that music was in 7/4 time -
Chris Becker: Oh, no! You mean you just misplaced it over the years?
BL: Yeah, I guess somewhere in my moves…in my journey…and I remember Mr. Thomas kind of teasing me about…I did something wrong in writing for the viola which is that different clef?
BL: So he kind of teased me about that a little but they all made the corrections and we got it together. But just from having that experience – you know of course you’re terrified when you first pass out the music because you don’t know…is it going to be okay???
CB: Oh, yeah! But that’s normal! Every composer – there’s always mistakes!
BL: I think everybody goes through that.
CB: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. I wish when I was studying composition…I remember being a young man thinking that any piece of paper in front of a musician it had to be…perfect! Eventually I got over this! But I can remember being so nervous…
BL: So anyway that whole story was triggered when you started talking about composing. And then it made me think – again: “Where is that score?”
CB: Do you use any notation software?
BL: I’ve had some people recommend that I do that because that way you can get it down as you’re creating it!
CB: That’s one way to do it. For someone like yourself that would be great you know…and I’m thinking as far as saving the score, it’s on the computer; you’re not going to lose it unless you lose your computer!
BL: Yeah! I wish they’d had that back in the day…Just the experience of it was valuable. So…I want to at some point before I retire or leave this earth, I’d love to do something with strings or an orchestra. I’d love to do something with a big band, piano and/or Hammond organ. I got at least a couple of solo piano projects I’m in my head that I’m working on to get recorded. So I’m reminded a lot of people I’ve played with, things I’ve done in the past and that’s like so finished for me because I’m thinking about okay what can I do now, down the road here…I’m keeping my focus present and future. And when you do that you realize all the stuff that you haven’t done – not the resting on what you have done.
CB: Yeah. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves…I know musicians are prone to this – not giving ourselves credit we deserve for what we have accomplished. You know you get through a project it’s almost like you forget about all the work that went into it…
BL: Oh, yeah!
CB: But maybe it comes from what you’re talking about where you’re driven towards the future. Like: “What’s the next thing?” There’s something out there I wanna explore…
BL: And that’s not to low rate anything that you have done cos’ I know just the process of making instrumental albums over the years…it’s a lot of work. I was self produced a lot of the time, except for the early part of my career…Wayne Henderson was my producer and then maybe two or three albums in I took over and did the self-produced thing….so you forget the blood, sweat and tears, and the pain. Maybe it’s like a woman with childbirth, you know? (Laughter)
It’s like - what it took to get that finished product into your hand. But the GOOD part about it is that there does come a time when you can actually sit and listen to it like a listener instead of like a producer and nitpicking: “Oh, I should have done that…” That period does come when you can just enjoy the music. And “Hey, that was my mentality at that point in my musical history, and that’s what came out, and I’m ok with that!”
CB: I am going to ask you some questions about your earlier years so we will talk a little about that, if that’s okay with you..
CB: But since you mentioned writing for larger ensembles, last night I was able to find one or two tracks from a record you did called The Genie-
CB: - in 1977, which I loved! I love that period of music.
BL: It was wide open.
CB: It’s kind of like anything goes in terms of the harmonies, the rhythms, the instrumentation, even how you use the studio…and it doesn’t surprise me at all when you talk about continuing to write for larger ensembles, strings, brass, big band and all of that…
BL: I try to get that feeling in my smaller groups.
CB: Exactly. That’s something I wanted to talk about too. Even some tracks I heard on stuff like “Hands On” there’s a real arrangers sense to the music. I can hear these parts like “Okay, that’s a strings part there…” That’s definitely apparent in (that) recorded work. Well, (with) any musician they’re hearing way beyond…they hit a note and there’s a whole spectrum of things that they’re hearing…
BL: There’s a LOT of stuff. And the beauty of the piano is that it’s singular and it’s orchestral at the same time. The range of the piano mirrors the range of the orchestra, from the low bass up to the flute and the piccolos.
CB: So your family (note: shortly after Bobby was born) ended up in Minneapolis (circa 1960). I read in your bio your mother was one of your first teachers?
BL: Yeah, she got me started out when I was maybe six, seven years old and then she took me for a little ways and then hooked me up with a formal teacher. And so I had that training as well.
CB: Were the (piano) lessons classical? Or were they jazz? Were they a combination of things?
BL: It was classical back during that time. The jazz thing sort of came by me listening to jazz records and hearing things by ear and trying to pick them out on the piano. My mom’s brother was a high school band teacher down in Memphis, Tennessee and also a big jazz aficionado. So he ‘d come in the summertime and bring all the latest Miles and Trane and Errol Garner. So I got to hear everybody. But even then, there was no one around who could teach this kind of playing; I was really self-taught in those early years. And then when I got out and started playing around Minneapolis, and meeting some of the other musicians, then I was able to get some mentoring by some of the guys who were older than me and saw some potential in me and wanted to help me and make sure I stayed on the proper path to do what I was going to do.
I really am grateful for the time I spent in Minneapolis because there was always a lot of good musicians – horn players, bass players, drummers, piano players – and I was able to steep myself in this environment and become a serious musician. Probably too much of a purist back in that time! As I got older and started to hear the other types of music or really appreciating people like Hendrix, Sly Stone and Bob Marley it was like – okay, I don’t think it’s really cool to be a purist! It’s better to be wide open!
CB: Yeah! Going back to when you were in that mentoring stage…it sounds like there were opportunities to play. Did you have opportunities to gig, to perform in front of people in clubs?
BL: Yeah, my first professional gig was actually in a private club. I don’t know if I could have done it in a public one – I was sixteen years old!
CB: (laughing) I see!
BL: You know, being around adults and alcohol and all of that…the bandleader at the time was a drummer - I was sixteen I think he was about 24 - a guy named Harry Dillon, I’ll never forget him. He sang and played the drums and he was sort of my unofficial chaperone to make sure I didn’t do anything I wasn’t supposed to. So I had a taste very early of learning how to entertain people as an instrumentalist. And that’s more of a chore than someone who sings and can make that instant emotional contact with the voice and the lyrics...
CB: I was wondering what kind of music you’d play in a situation like that. Are you popular songs or are you playing standards?
BL: We were doing more of the jazz literature with the standards, blues and things that were kind of popular at the time. Some of the Miles stuff. So I had to be listening to a lot of music in order to be able to bring something to the table. With the drummer being the singer he could do the standards and deal with the lyrics and I HAD to know these songs. I had to learn them and woodshed, you know? It’s something for a kid who’s also going to high school and having to deal with that curriculum.
I had the burning desire to really want to do that and not just to do it, but to really do it well! And that’s sort of been the fuel all through the years. Now that I have piano students of my own and I’m giving them this knowledge, trying to give them the tools they need to become good players. The one thing you cannot teach though is the desire to really want to do this. Some parent can bring their kid over and pay me for the lessons but that has to be there in order for the kid to move from one level to the next.
CB: At that age, in high school, was there any kind of music education in place for you?
BL: Just band and choir playing the regular stuff bands and choirs play. There wasn’t any special “jazz studies,” again, I was getting all of that on my own. But I did do my first arrangement for my high school choir. Around the holidays I did an arrangement of "The Christmas Song." I took the four parts – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – and voiced them in really hip jazz kind of voicings. And that was my very first arrangement – I was so proud of that.
CB: When did the B-3 come into your arsenal of instruments? Did you discover that around the same time?
BL: I think that was a few years later… between 18 and 20 years old. There was a club in Minneapolis, kind of between the downtown area and the University of Minnesota area, called Big Al’s, down by the railroad tracks – I’ll never forget it. And they used to bring all the “name” artists in there. I was hired to be the local entertainment downstairs – a trio. And all the “name” people would play upstairs. I remember I’d hurry up and finish my set – cut it short! So I could go upstairs and listen, of course! And I met everybody there including (Hammond B-3 player) Jimmy Smith.
BL: So being able to stand there and watch him manipulate that organ like that. I was like “Yeah…yeeeeeah! I like that!”
CB: Did you introduce yourself to him?
BL: Yes, we met. And at the time he was like a black belt in karate! So when he shook my hand he almost broke my little fingers! (laughing) He was so strong – macho man! But wow, could he play that organ. So the seed was planted then and it was some time not too long after that that I started seeing the actual instrument in a couple of the local clubs. So I pretty much learned on the job.
At one of the early gigs I had – I still wasn’t even 21 yet I was too young to be there but everyone kind of looked the other way.
CB: Including your family? Your mom was cool with this?
BL: They weren’t all the way on board with it. But they could see that it was something I was serious about and somehow I convinced them I wasn’t gonna fall into all the traps, you know. The drugs, the liquor…so they kind of rode with it. Plus I’d gotten out on my own at age 18 or 19 – I had my own apartment and everything so I was away from the family house by that time.
But one of my early gigs was at a strip joint on Hennepin Avenue, which was full of strip joints. And I remember…
CB (laughing) Playing organ?
BL: Playing organ!
CB: Of course! What else?
BL: Yeah, what else? It was a trio with saxophone, organ and drums and we were backing up the girls. And I remember there was another club catty corner off of Hennepin Avenue there, and Prince’s dad was playing at that particular club.
BL: Prince Nelson Rogers Senior was also a pianist. So Prince came by his stuff very naturally there. So those were really wild and crazy days because in addition to learning – still learning, because you never stop learning to play this music. But I was (also) learning about life and seeing a whole other level of night people, prostitutes, gambling, and after hours joints…Just being able to observe all of that without being sucked into it was probably my biggest blessing…my ability to not fall into that.
CB: There’s something about being a musician in that kind of environment where…people kind of leave you alone. That’s the musician, they’re a player, don’t mess with them.
CB: You can kind of disengage yourself because you’re there functioning –
BL: There’s a certain element of that but there’s also the other element of people saying: “Hey, you wanna get high?” Always trying to turn you on…I guess trying to feed that myth that getting high will make you play better! You can do wilder things!
CB: It’s a myth that still hasn’t gone away, I’m still baffled by it. But it’s very prevalent, even today.
BL: Well, the one way I think guys can cure themselves of that misconception is…just tape yourself! And then when you’re straight, when you’re not high, listen to it back! And tell me if you sound better.
CB: (laughing) “I sound really bad! I’m not in time, I’m out of tune…”
BL: You see what I’m saying? Your time goes because when you’re really playing…there’s an album I carry in my car, I’ve been listening to it for the last several days. It’s Miles Davis Live in Concert at Carnegie Hall with the old rhythm section of Tony, Herbie, Ron, and George Coleman. The thing that strikes me the most is the crispness and the togetherness of that band and the oneness of the way everyone just…is polarized by the meter and the time that Tony Williams at age 17 was keeping. And of course Ron Carter is totally on top of the beat with his bass. And it further reinforces for me that there’s no way you can be that on top of stuff when you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I don’t know if those guys were high or not. But they sounded like they were just playing with this natural energy. And for me, I can’t even have a swallow of a glass of wine before I play, because somehow the liquor gets into your muscles. The whole idea is that when you’re playing jazz you are in the moment, and your ideas are coming so fast that you have to have a brain to muscle to fingertip instant reaction. And if that’s slowed down a few milliseconds by some substance, you’re not gonna be on top of the time. You’re just not.
Well, for me! But there are guys who could do it. There are guys who could do it, but…
CB: Well, we know that but I believe you’re talking about a minority of musicians. That stuff will catch up to you that’s what I would say –
CB: At my age, that’s what I’ve seen. What a guy or girl could handle in their 20’s…
BL: In their 20’s!
CB: 40, 50? It will catch up to you physically - it will take you down. If you want to have some longevity…
BL: Oh, yeah! Jazz musicians don’t have that option of like pop and R&B people of becoming a star overnight and making an enormous amount of money in four or five years with two or three albums. We HAVE to play for the long haul! We gotta pace ourselves. I feel that probably the greatest blessing in my life is to be here in my sixth decade with all the history and all the people I’ve rubbed shoulders with and still be a happening, viable player! And in good health – I’m kind of a work out nut. I like to go to the gym; I like to ride my bicycle. And that has served me well over the years and allowed me to still wake up everyday feeling vibrant and healthy. It’s such a blessing.
And it’s important to keep your body together in order to play your music properly. Because when people come out to see you live, they wanna feel your energy. They want to see and feel your energy. Otherwise they’d just sit at home with your CD and just kind of chill with that. But when they come out to see you, you gotta be delivering.
The other thing that’s kept me young or youthfully spirited is operating with younger guys like (saxophonist) Everette Harp. So I feel like I’m a role model and a co-conspirator at the same time with these younger guys and it’s been a wonderful ride. I really enjoy it.
CB: After this period in Minneapolis, you started touring nationally. And it sounds like – I remember I wrote down “How did you get from Oscar Peterson to Jimi Hendrix?” I’m curious about that. When you hit the road and were playing something that isn’t jazz, music that drew on R&B, rock and roll and was groove centric – how did you make that leap? Did an opportunity open up or was it more of an organic thing?
BL: Well it’s a combination of things. For every musician, there’s a need to be employed. Take care of your family and so forth. So when I moved to L.A. from Minneapolis back in the middle 70’s, it was a leap of faith for me. I didn’t have a gig or a tour or anything lined up. I just knew I had pretty much done all that I could do in Minneapolis…for me there was nothing else I could do in Minneapolis. So I decided I could go to New York, or I could go to L.A. Well, L.A. won out because I was tired of cold weather. But knew there was a happening music scene on both of the coasts and I would eventually see both of them. Then the question became do I bring my family? Or do I go out there and get started and stable and then send of them? I talked it over with my wife at the time and we decided it would be best if we all go together. And if we struggle, we’ll struggle together.
It just so happened that a friend of mine from Minneapolis, a guy named Bill Lordan, was playing drums with Sly and the Family Stone at the time. And he had been telling Sly about me, raving about this keyboard player in Minneapolis –
CB: That’s a good friend!
BL: A real good friend! So by the time I got out there and called him he said: “Man, your timing is great. We’re actually getting ready to go on a tour with Sly. You need to get down here and play for him so he can hear you.” So, they set it up. I had gotten some little apartment in Hollywood with my little Wurlitzer piano to write and practice on…so I went down to the studio and met Sly. I think I played the organ for him? Maybe about three or four minutes, maybe some licks or some blues or something. And he said to me: “Can you be ready to go on the road next week?” I said: “What?”
It’s funny cos’ we’d just gotten to L.A. and it was like the Beverly Hillbillies. I had driven across the country through the Bonneville salt-flats you know, in a straight line - white on either side. 120 miles an hour. I get into Hollywood and I’m going 15 miles per hour and BOOM I have a blowout.
CB: Oh, my God.
BL: So now I’m thinking maybe God intended for me to make this trip successfully because that blow out at 120 would have probably killed me and my whole family.
CB: Isn’t that strange? I’m sorry! I thought it was a little less serious than -
BL: No, it was a tire that – removed! We dodged a bullet on that one. I guess the point of the whole story is that by that time I had long ceased being this jazz purist. Then, to put an exclamation on it, your first gig when you get to L.A. will be with the funkmeister!
BL: That was interesting. I have this really diverse array of people I’ve been privileged to play and interact with and they range from Pharoah Sanders to Bette Midler to Sly Stone, Jazz Crusaders…I even played a gig once at Catalina’s with Red Rodney who was like a direct link to Charlie Parker!
CB: Sure, sure…
BL: Of course when we weren’t playing I had a thousand questions about the bebop era and I think I probably wore him out! “What was is like playing with Bird? Do you think would have been better if he hadn’t gotten into drugs?” He might have thought I was a reporter!
CB: So you hit the road with Sly Stone. Was there something in that music that you hadn’t experienced before that you had to learn while you were on the road? Or did you find you just slipped into it? Was there something in his music that hit you like: “Wow, I’ve never done that before!”
BL: I would say no. Because when he broke on the scene so tough back in the 60’s, the 70’s whenever he came out…I was an avid fan so I was listening! All the way up until the time I got with him I was a fan. And so it was the most natural thing in the world to just plug my organ thing into what he was doing. And that’s the other really nice thing that I can be grateful for. Most of the people I ended up playing for or spending musical time with were people whose music I enjoyed previously before I even met them. Like Al Jarreau, Anita Baker… and of course Pharoah Sanders.
CB: I didn’t know you played with Pharoah Sanders. How’d that come about?
BL: I met him through (producer) Norman Connors. Norman Connors had produced, I think, one of his recent albums. And so…they were gonna collaborate on this thing in Montreaux, Switzerland for the Montreaux Festival. So Norman called me and asked if I wanted to come along. And I said: “Of course!” Wait let me think for a second...yes! (laughing) That was a very exciting adventure too…at the time Norman produced him, Pharoah was trying to come inside and do something a little more commercially acceptable. But his live performances still took him outside and had the avant-garde thing. So I got to do that and play “free” – another milestone.
BL: People always ask me: “What was your biggest thrill in music?” I don’t know if that’s one of your questions?
CB: No. (laughing) Cos’ it all sounds pretty exciting to me! But what IS your biggest thrill?
BL: You know what really sticks out for me? I wrote a song on my album called The Journey. The Journey was something that I worked on – my first wife Delores passed away in ’89. She died of Lupus. Which they still don’t have a handle on. But I had an album due for Atlantic around that time. They gave me permission to just take off and get my head together. (pause) So I did a lot of thinking, I went over to Hawaii and I hung out there for awhile…came back and I had all this stuff, all these emotions and somehow I knew that my job was to channel them into a project.
So…Mandela had just been freed from prison around that time (1990). So I wrote a tribute to him called “Viva Mandela.” And I got a couple of African musicians and songwriters to work with me on it, actually do the lyrics in Swahili as well as English. I was living in L.A. at the time, and Mandela was coming to L.A. to speak at the coliseum. And the day before that there was a banquet in his honor – I think it was out at UCLA somewhere. And I was invited to play my song for him through Quincy Jones’ office.
BL: So to perform that song, and to look out into the audience and see him sitting there beaming! I always mention that as one of the highlights of my musical life.
CB: That’s wonderful. That song is on The Journey? (Editor’s note: The Journey reached #1 on the Billboard jazz chart in 1990.)
CB: That’s wonderful. What a serendipitous thing. What’s so beautiful about it is when we create something without the foresight of the profundity of what it’s going to be. It’s almost like you’re channeling something, something happens naturally and then you have this song ready to go when this incredible event happens. And then you end up playing for the man!
BL:Yeah, it’s like unconscious pre-cognisense. Or something like that!
CB: Musicians can tap into that. I think artists go through periods where they are tapped into something much larger than themselves.
BL: Yeah, I feel that a lot. And I feel that we operate with this sixth sense that, you know, normal people don’t really have. Whatever gifts we are given…along with that goes a stewardship. Which means that you’re obligated to nurture it, to share it, to teach it to others, to give back…otherwise I would just sit here in my living room and groove myself!
CB: I know what you mean…that’s such a beautiful way to look at it. You’re taking care of your creative self but you’re passing it along…
CB: …you realize that it’s going outside of yourself. When you sit with a young person, you’re role modeling. That young person will take some memories away from your interaction that – you don’t KNOW what they’re gonna take away from that! (laughing)
BL:You don’t know what heights your input can trigger this young person to until it happens. But that’s – it become it’s own reward. It’s not even about getting paid for it; it’s about “Wow. I made a contribution to this life.”
Jazz Piano’s History
CB: With your piano students, when you’re teaching jazz, is the history of jazz something that has to go into the lesson? There’s technique, but then do you say, okay, let’s talk about Jelly Roll Morton, let’s talk about Miles Davis?
BL: Definitely…A knowledge of a history of the music means a whole lot of people laid the groundwork for this music. And that in turn became a springboard for current people to hopefully take it to some other level.
So, I can tie this in with my personal odyssey, but herein lies the problem with people – and I’m talking about some writers – who position themselves as jazz purists. Which is to me a straightjacket. Because in their minds, any time you incorporate something that’s not traditional then your stepping outside of what jazz is. Well…I have a lot of problems with that. I have BIG problems with that.
The fact that I made that evolution myself, let’s me know that it can be done. Because when you study the history of jazz, the main element that has moved jazz stylistically from era to era, is the evolution of the interior rhythm section. So that means, from the time that say King Oliver was playing New Orleans style, and the bass drum was like (sings steady swinging quarter notes emphasizing the two and four) up to big band swing era where it was still pretty much like that…then all of the suddenly it took off from that. So now the bass drum is not necessarily four on the floor, it was doing different things, rhythmic things. Whereas the cymbal (sings steady swinging eighth notes) it went from that ride to more adventurous rides. You’d hear Elvin (Jones) and Tony (Williams) turning it around. So you hear all of these changes going on through the eras…in bebop everyone was seeing how fast they could play and of course the bass player and the drummer had to keep up with all of that speed. And then, you get up to the fusion era where other elements were coming in, R&B, funky stuff…
CB: Latin American rhythms…
BL: Latin American rhythms, Brazilian! The Brazilian artists were starting to make an impact too. So…that’s the problem I have with these so-called “purists” because they don’t allow for the fact that this music is big enough and can absorb these things. The main element is what? Being in the moment, being able to improvise in the moment over WHATEVER kind of bed, you know? You still have people who play over the top of that and bring some kind of harmonic sense to it regardless of what the rhythm is. And not to mention the fact that young people got more attracted to it when it got funkier.
BL: So when Ramsey Lewis came out with “The In-Crowd” and Les McCann and those guys came out with the funky, church-y jazz that they did….a lot of people tuned in that weren’t tuned in before. Even though they were excoriated by the critics for daring to stray from this traditional path. What’s traditional?
CB: Well that’s exactly it. I don’t know of any jazz musician who didn’t come up playing a lot of different kinds of music. I’m talking about people I know personally but also historical figures…
BL: Mm hmm.
CB: …in this music. They played classical, they played strip joints, they played the whorehouse –
CB: You know? In popular music Motown had plenty of jazz musicians in their roster. There were plenty of pioneers of early rock and roll who could swing, plenty of country players who could play these rhythms…so this purism…it just, it never existed in the first place! (laughing) It’s something that’s been invented NOW to reign things in? Maybe to give young people some kind of context or the discipline of making music. I don’t know. But I think when you start talking in those terms you just end up ignoring a lot of great music….
BL: Right. And I know from playing this music all my life that the beauty of it is that it’s not a museum piece. It’s always open to reinterpretation and reinvention. I think it insures the longevity of the music when each generation can put their stamp on it or their own twist on it. It’s not a museum piece. Otherwise we’d all still be playing like King Oliver.
Dizzy Gillespie, one of the greatest bebop players every, he suddenly took a left turn and said: “I wanna play Latin music!”
CB: “Let’s play Cuban music!”
BL: Cuban music!
CB: And what a strange combination that was!
BL: Yeah, and what did Dizzy prove? That he can play bebop over anything. Over any rhythm, and that’s what I’m talking about man. Being able to blend any kind of world music, whatever and still – the focus is not on what the interior format is. It’s the fact that (in this music) there are sounds being created in the moment over whatever the format is. And that’s what I try to teach these kids.
Now you have to respect what came before. You can’t just throw it out with the bathwater. You have to listen to it and you have to respect what went into that creation and how important that was to get it to the next level. So if you’re a piano player and you don’t listen to Jelly Roll Morton, or Art Tatum, or Earl Fatha Hines, or Fats Waller…how can you call yourself a jazz piano player?
The piano players that played in the whorehouses and even the ones that played in the silent movie theaters to become the “live soundtrack” – you have to become the whole band if you’re just a piano player by yourself. That’s why stride piano became such a phenomenon. Because these guys were working alone and had to become the rhythm section and the filigree on top. Their gig depended on that!
CB: When I heard you with Everette Harp one of the many things that knocked me out about that gig was hearing as you guys were playing a tune…you almost went through this catalogue of piano styles and techniques within the context of a single song…it was like you were seeing these pages turning in musical history. And you were just having a ball up there…
BL: Oh, yeah. It’s all fair game.
CB: And again, you’re talking about this in the moment thing and what comes out via that history and your voice – it’s very exciting, you know?
BL: Thank you…A lot of that again is just taking the time to get caught up on the history of all of that…
CB: A lot of time!
BL: Yeah! At some point you realize that no matter how many musical influences you have or have had you still have to work them through your own personal hard drive and arrive at your voice – with these influences attached. And then make musical statements. I try to tell young people: “You have to learn to play conversationally.” You’re having a dialogue with whoever you’re onstage with, as well as your audience. You’re a storyteller. Tell those stories in your music…
CB: You guys did that REALLY well…there was one point where out of something Everette suddenly started playing the opening melody of (Marvin Gaye’s) “What’s Going On?” And the timing of it – it was just perfect. It was just the right time to drop that tune. And everyone around me was like: “Ahh…” (laughter) Do we start with that tune, or do we start with that, and just vibing out the audience…there’s a real art to that.
BL:Yeah, just how you program your set has a lot to do with how people lock into it.
Keep in mind that the big knock on jazz for a long time was that once it got past the era when people danced to it…jazz was suddenly regulated to the clubs as “listening music.” And the big knock on jazz people is that they became so intellectual and so deep - that they lost the people. People want to be a part of what you’re doing. They don’t understand everything you’re doing, but you gotta make them feel something and feel like they can relate to it on some kind of level, you know? If not musically, intellectually at least from a soul level.
So that’s why…you can play as complex as you want but at some point in your presentation you better play with some heart too. The combination of that whole thing I think will affect the person in the audience in a very positive way.
CB: You’ve been in the recording industry and you’ve released a lot of music. But a lot of changes have happened in the music industry since the late 90’s with the advent of the Internet …
BL: And not all good ones! (laughing)
CB: …file sharing – well, exactly! Things have very much changed. I remember when I was in (music) school, a goal was to record an album! “If I could just record an album!” The flip side is that there are a lot of tools out there that allow us to record relatively inexpensively.
BL: The Protools are in the next room!
CB: Right. But then again, you have an album like The Genie where you have this huge ensemble…you mentioned Quincy Jones and albums like The Dude and Body Heat where you have these wonderful tapestries of musicians. But I don’t hear a lot of albums being made like that anymore. I think it might be budget, it might be a lot of things…but what is your take on the recording industry – the music industry - right now? Are there things that bother you? Do you see some stuff that’s positive?
BL: Well, I think we’re at a crossroads right now. There’s a lot of indecision as to where to take the music or what to do because this relationship with radio is pretty much dried up. Thank God we have the satellite radio and we have the Internet outlets. But it’s definitely not the same. It’s definitely affected us BMI and ASCAP writers. When we look at our statement it’s not the same statement without all that radio there. As a result the record companies of course have slid back a lot and now they’re making deals where they want to attach themselves to the artist’s ability to sell albums at their gigs. They want a percentage of what you sell at your gigs. And it’s just like they’re grabbing for a life raft or something.
They (record companies) are being edged out. Because I can go in the next room and record a whole album and put it on CD Baby and sell it! I mean that’s just how self-sufficient everything has gotten.
But at some point I would like to see the situation become solvent enough where we can start having big sessions again, where we bring in a horn section or a string section and that type of production – that Quincy Jones type of production…because that’s where classic music that will last forever is made. That’s not to say that we can’t do it with our home recording but you know it’s not the same thing!
CB: No, it’s not. Recording studios too have suffered as a result of this. They’ve gotten smaller…
BL: Oh, yeah. And I was very spoiled. The bulk of my recording career happened during the heyday of those kinds of studios like Ocean Way, Castle Oaks, Capitol Records Studio where Nat Cole and Sinatra and the Beatles and everybody recorded.
CB: And you can hear that on the recordings. You can tell I grew up on vinyl.
BL: There’s a sound and an ambience. And you don’t get that in this digital age. If you grew up in the digital age, you can’t miss what you never heard. But see, having experienced that I know what the difference is. So I was very spoiled studio-wise. And now the best thing we can do is lay the foundation of our music at home and then hopefully get favors from friends, send it to this horn player or this guitar player…and we kind of work digitally like that. But there is no substitute for going in the studio with a section – or even the whole Burt Bacharach Dionne Warwick thing where you got the singer and the orchestra and it all goes to tape at the same time!
CB: (laughing) Yeah!
BL: Wow! That’s fantastic to me!
CB: No autotune!
BL: Exactly! The singer has to be on his or her game just as much as the musicians and you may do two or three takes and boom – either you got it or you don’t. Or the old Phil Spector stuff, same thing. So I hate to look at that as something that has gone and will never come back. The optimist in me thinks we’re gonna get to a point where we can get that back, you know? There’s still analog equipment out there! Waiting to be used!
CB: Yeah! And there are plenty of musicians who came up in the digital age who hear those (analog) records and say: “I wanna do this to tape.” Or “No, we need a tube pre, something with some warmth.” That body of music that was recorded during
this period that you’re talking about…young musicians eat that stuff up, you know?
CB: And they’re going to ask: “How do you make a record like this?” If they’re inspired, it’s like how do we make this happen. So I think you may be right that some of this stuff is still shaking itself out.
BL: They’re curious. Some of them are sampling!
CB: Well, that’s one way of passing along this music. YouTube has the first track of The Genie on it. So last night I posted it on Facebook.
BL: The Genie?
CB: It’s on YouTube. I posted it on Facebook and asked, “Has anyone heard this record?” One guy, a great jazz saxophone player, commented, “I never heard this record, thank you for posting it, it reminds me of Ramsey Lewis, Tom Scott…” There’s good and bad about that I mean, every play on Facebook you don’t get…
BL: Yeah, I don’t get any benefit.
CB: No, they haven’t figured that out yet. But people get to hear your music.
BL: I’m gonna play you something recorded at Ocean Way…(Bobby cues up a track from his CD Ivory Dreams that begins with him at the piano). Analog music! Listen to that ambience!
CB: Sounds great…
(Interview ends listening to two tracks from Bobby Lyle’s CD Ivory Dreams)