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Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, and Bill Stewart Celebrate 30 Years Playing Together

The three musicians discuss their origins and the distances they’ve traveled since

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Larry Goldings/Peter Bernstein/Bill Stewart Celebrate 30 Years Playing Together
From left: Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings, and Bill Stewart (photo: John Rogers)

As I delved ever deeper into the 14 albums that document the Larry Goldings/Peter Bernstein/Bill Stewart trio to prepare for our January Zoom conversation, what struck me most was their consistent excellence as they evolved from promising 20-something aspirants to 50-something established masters. From Intimacy of the Blues, their 1991 debut, through their latest, this year’s Perpetual Pendulum (Smoke Sessions), they’ve always displayed an interactive approach, virtuoso execution, and emphasis on melody and groove. Each protagonist has synthesized polyglot influences into a personal solo sound; each enthusiastically abides by ensemble imperatives. 

Perpetual Pendulum captures the trio combining the hardcore jazz- and funk-tinged mindset that marked its early recordings with the more expansive aesthetic of the album’s immediate predecessors, Ramshackle Serenade and Toy Tunes (Pirouet), recorded after steady touring in the early 2010s. The date gestated pre-COVID during a conversation between Bernstein and Paul Stache, the proprietor of Smoke Jazz Club, the Upper West Side venue where Bernstein has often performed, and its namesake imprint, which has released three Bernstein leader albums. Their acquaintance dates to the late ’80s, when the trio first coalesced at Augie’s, Smoke’s previous incarnation, where Stache worked before buying the room in 1998. Stache noted the trio’s impending 30th anniversary and suggested an album. The pandemic upended plans for an April 2020 date. A year later, the trio—gigless in the interim—convened at Sear Sound for a day of rehearsal and a day of recording.

“With us, the more it feels like just a gig, the better,” Goldings said. “We generally prefer not to labor over the recording process, mostly because there’s no time in a day or two. We have a long history of loving standards and trying to be respectful with them while doing our own thing—or just leaving them alone—and as long a tradition of all wanting to contribute our tunes. If the 30-year celebrates anything, it’s that we’re making another record the way we’ve always made records, but hopefully doing it better, with the experience you get from years on the road, including all our separate experiences with other bands. There’s no substitute for knowing each other the way we do and having all the years behind us.”

Larry Goldings (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Larry Goldings (photo: John Rogers)

JT: The trio’s back story, as I understand it: Larry and Peter met in 1984  at the Eastman School of Music’s summer jazz camp and stayed in touch. After high school, Larry matriculated at the New School. In 1986 Peter transferred from Rutgers to William Paterson, where he met Bill, who’d just transferred there from the University of Northern Iowa. Then he took a sabbatical year in Paris, but returned to New York after receiving a letter from Larry with news that Jim Hall was teaching ensemble at the New School.

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BERNSTEIN: During my year at Paterson I met Bill, along with Joe Farnsworth, Doug Weiss—a lot of people. That coincided with the first year of the jazz program at the New School. I didn’t have Friday classes, so every Thursday I took the bus to New York and would hang at the New School the next day. Paris was beautiful, but when Larry wrote that he was telling Jim Hall about me, I knew I was missing out. I returned in the summer of ’88. Larry was already playing at Augie’s, and I joined him there with Jesse Davis and Leon Parker, who was holding down several nights. Then Larry and I somehow got Thursday nights. We played with a bunch of different drummers. I’d played with Bill a few times since school, and I brought him in to do a gig. He did it three or four weeks in a row, and we got some momentum. We also got a gig at the Terrace of the Village Gate, where Larry was doing things as a pianist.

GOLDINGS: Yeah, I was only a pianist until Augie’s happened. 

STEWART: You were playing piano when I met you at a session at the New School. When we started this group, I’d already been playing around town for a few years, with people like Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, and James Moody.

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GOLDINGS: And once he had that experience, he worked up… 

STEWART: I spent three years at William Paterson. For the first year, I didn’t do any gigs. About halfway through I got a car, which was important because most clubs didn’t have drum sets. Once I got wheels, I could do sessions and little gigs, and it took off from there. But at the same time, all through those years, I was going out to hear a lot of the greats, sitting as close as I could so I could see how they looked when they played. Each drummer has a different body language, and it connects to their playing.

“We never figured out who the actual de facto leader is. We’re still a little village.”—Peter Bernstein

Peter grew up in Manhattan, but Larry is from a Boston suburb and Bill is from Iowa. Was New York a culture shock? 

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GOLDINGS: When I met Pete at Eastman, I discovered I had serious holes in my listening. I met young people who knew much more than I did about Duke Ellington or Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, and I realized I had to put in time to check out all this stuff. New York was a serious bebop scene. When I got there, it felt important to absorb the language from that area of jazz, including disciplines you need, like knowing tunes and practicing tempos. In those days you didn’t want to miss a night of anything. You could go to Bradley’s any weeknight for no cover, get a drink, and see the who’s-who of piano duos—or later trios. There was so much to hear. 

Peter Bernstein (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Peter Bernstein (photo: John Rogers)

BERNSTEIN: Even being from New York, it was a shock to witness a culture that hadn’t been part of my life. There were my heroes from records; I could hear them play and see how they carried themselves. At Bradley’s I saw Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan … everyone. We all did. We could see Max Roach and Art Blakey and Elvin Jones at the different clubs. It was incredible to have those people still around playing. 

GOLDINGS: Pete knew all the places. We’d see Bob Dorough play duo with Bill Takas. All sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t have known why it was important to see these people.

Describe the milieu at Augie’s. 

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STEWART: It didn’t feel like a jazz club. A lot of people were there to drink and smoke. They really did smoke in those days. We’d be there four hours, and I’d smell so bad of cigarettes when I got home. It was brutal.

BERNSTEIN: It was. Augie’s was totally off the radar. There was no listing [for it in any local newspapers]. But we had every Thursday night, so we could try stuff. It wasn’t like now, where you get a date and the next one is six months later. Because Augie’s wasn’t a jazz club with a cover charge, all the musicians would come through, not just our generation but also the elders. That’s how I met Lou Donaldson. It was loud, but the organ helped because we could play loud too, and fight the crowd. I remember feeling we had to get more refined, and that we had a ways to get there. I got into the world of tube amps. Larry was just learning the sounds, but he and Bill were so strong that I developed a lot.

GOLDINGS: After I joined Leon, his bass player didn’t show up one night. Leon knew I liked walking basslines and asked if I could come up with a keyboard. That turned into: “I have a few organ records; what if this was an organ thing?” I had some keyboards, but organ was whatever I could put together that was organ-like. As the gig became more organ-centric, I got more into the idea of portability, and started looking for better things I could use.

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STEWART: There was a period where you were playing the Korg [CX-3] organ. It had a thing.

GOLDINGS: Maceo [Parker] loved Korg organ, because the bass was big on the Korg. Maceo plays a role in why we first recorded. He was in town making Roots Revisited [1990], with Don Pullen on organ—but he didn’t have a drummer. So the late David Baker, the great engineer who played a big role in our beginnings, told Maceo he had to hear this drummer playing at Augie’s. Maceo didn’t hear us play any funk, by the way; we were just playing our stuff. He hired Bill, and four months later he called me to tour. He wanted to keep it small and bass-less, and I was playing organ bass. His label owner, Stephan Meyner in Germany, approached me and said, “Well, you’ve got a trio; why don’t you record for the label too?” I actually said no initially. I’d hardly played B-3 at all, just portable organs. I said, “I’m really a piano player.” He said, “No, you’re not. You play organ.” That’s how Intimacy of the Blues happened. I have trouble hearing myself on that first record, because I had a limited approach. I was using a vibrato, for instance, that’s only used in circus music or Fellini films. I didn’t know any better. But by the time I did Light Blue two years later, somebody had shown me the right bass stops and the right vibrato to use, and I had more experience playing the real organ.

“I have trouble hearing myself on our first record. I was using a vibrato that’s only used in circus music or Fellini films.”—Larry Goldings

What were the challenges of shifting from piano to organ? 

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GOLDINGS: The main challenge is making this electric instrument that’s coming out of a speaker breathe—and making it sound organic, no pun intended. Also, you’re carrying a responsibility that includes rhythm, harmony, feel, melody. I was ready for the challenge, because I thought the only way to play solo piano was to get solid with walking basslines. Dave McKenna is one of a few who I feel pulled that off.

Physically, the organ is easy to play. You don’t need any special technique to elicit a sound from it. The challenge is to say what I want melodically in my right hand without sounding as though a bass player is suffering in some way. My way out of that is often to play less and leave more space so I can give the left hand an opportunity to play something that isn’t a stock bassline. For me, it comes mostly from the left hand. For years I didn’t play feet, mainly because I wasn’t playing a real B-3 with pedals. I’m still working on that. So the other challenge is to incorporate the foot in a subtle way that’s not overbearing on the beat. As a melodic instrument, it’s more like what Jimmy Smith did to the organ: removing it from the big-band chordal approach of Wild Bill Davis and people like him, and bringing it down to the single note, where he was like a saxophone breathing.

In the ’90s and the early 2000s, you were still billed as the Larry Goldings Trio. You adopted a collective title on your 2011 album Live at Smalls.

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BERNSTEIN: Larry got the deal with Verve [in 1991]. It was his record date. But the process of making music always has felt democratic, to the point where, when we did my record Earth Tones for Criss Cross in 1997, I just called them for the date, without feeling, “Larry, is it okay if I call you?” Then Bill got to do a Modern Drummer video, which a lot of people have seen over the years—that was the Bill Stewart Trio, but it was us playing our stuff. Palmetto was Larry’s deal [in 1999], and he brought us on all those dates. It’s evolved to where we don’t have a name. We never figured out who the actual de facto leader is. We’re still a little village.

STEWART: When we were recording for Palmetto, we had more time in the studio, and we were broadening our scope. Some of Larry’s and Peter’s records sound quite different from the organ trio. We’ve all developed as composers, and we’ve each brought in our compositions—playing them in the group, in a different context, has helped us develop. When we play together now, it feels related to what we did early on, but it can go a lot of different places. We’re still happy to swing right down the middle!

Bill Stewart (photo: Jimmy Katz)
Bill Stewart (photo: John Rogers)

During those formative years, what was your attitude toward moving away from the influence of your heroes—say, organ-trio albums by Jimmy Smith or Larry Young?

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GOLDINGS: I was already developing as an organ player when someone played me [Young’s] Unity. At the time, I was absorbing this style: “How did Larry Young make the organ feel so light and fluffy?” In general, I was more aware of: “This is part of a tradition, and how do we fit in? Should we play another shuffle tonight, or does that seem corny?” When you’re younger, it’s common to make more obvious repertoire choices, because you love the tradition so much. But the longer you play, you focus more on your own music; you’re more secure in what you have to say. 

Some of Bill’s writing challenged me to approach the organ differently. Like Carla [Bley, with whom Goldings has toured and recorded], he wrote things that needed to be played to establish that color—probably for another context. Other people’s writing forces you to find other approaches. The challenge was how to pull that into this group. So some of the pressure of having to fit into the tradition of organ trios started to fall away. Sitting at the organ doesn’t mean I take some specific approach. The role should be what you hear at the time—what’s needed.

BERNSTEIN: I loved the way Wes Montgomery and Mel Rhyne played “Besame Mucho” in 3/4, and one night at Augie’s we decided to play it as they’d done it. It didn’t mean we’re playing this tune and now we stand for the tradition. It also wasn’t, “Well, we’ll do it now, and then we’ll have to leave that behind by next Tuesday.” We were learning how to play, and these were our heroes. A friend heard us and said, “I know the record, but you have your own little sound.” It hit me that Bill Stewart, even when he might have Grady Tate in mind, still sounds like Bill Stewart—his touch on the drums is always him. Larry might be copping Jimmy Smith or Larry Young, but it still comes out himself; it’s always the same mind when he plays piano or Farfisa or synthesizer. It doesn’t make us more original to avoid understanding how that music was created.

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“We’re still happy to swing right down the middle.”—Bill Stewart

What’s your attitude to functioning as a rhythm section with other instrumentalists?

BERNSTEIN: It’s great to play with great players. But the more we play, the more we feel it’s much different if someone else is part of it. Before the pandemic, Larry was talking about getting some studio time together in California where we play pieces of things, improvise freely, and see what comes out. We haven’t done that since the Palmetto days. Even though this was a leisurely record date, the vibe was, “Let’s get some tunes.” We didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and experiment. That constraint makes you focus, and it seems we got a lot of variety. But we’ve got to keep mixing it up.

GOLDINGS: To us, the trio seems very complete. Texturally it always fits like a glove. Many people have said they’d book us if we get a special guest. Normally, we’re not too interested. I had a great lesson when Lee Konitz did a couple of hits with us at the Jazz Gallery. Lee didn’t change and become bluesy Lee because it was an organ trio. He listened and reacted the same way. It could be interesting to do something a little off-center, like the Larry Young/Bobby Hutcherson record Street of Dreams with organ and vibes. Let’s take advantage of the textures an extra person gives us. Maybe they play lines in unison. Maybe we write some harmony. I’ve been asked to do organ trio with a big band, like Jimmy Smith did—but it’s addressed to me as an artist and not “Get your trio to do it.” It would be fun to have the right arranger score out some of our stuff and then we do what we do. 

Larry Goldings: The Jazz Pianist Who Plays Organ

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A Conversation With Peter Bernstein

Bill Stewart: The Tie That Binds

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.