Before & After: Lewis Porter

Deep scholarship meets pianistic know-how in this listening session

Lewis Porter
Lewis Porter (photo: Bill May)

Hanging with Lewis Porter brings an exciting promise of discovery—some unknown fact about a jazz hero or some new insight into an historic recording. It should be that way, given his reputation as a researcher with few equals: author of the definitive John Coltrane biography (John Coltrane: His Life and Music, 1998) as well as well-read titles on Lester Young and jazz history in general, and initiator of the first master’s program in jazz history at Rutgers University. He has also been moderator of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Talk series, and now produces the well-named Deep Dive blog for WBGO’s website, each entry a veritable detective story full of intrigue and information.

That Porter’s accomplishments would overshadow his first love—performing music—is both a compliment and unsurprising. But that’s changing, according to Porter. “These days, more and more, cats identify me as a player,” he says, adding drily, “And when they play with me they go crazy. I don’t know why. I guess I’m doing something right.” His irreverent, self-deprecating sense of humor—in lectures and conversation he comes across as a hip, updated Groucho Marx—is another point of distinction colleagues and students can confirm.

Among players, Porter’s long been respected for his piano chops, intellect, and wide-ranging vocabulary. Starting as a self-taught pianist who added saxophone to his repertoire for a spell, he’s worked with Dave Liebman, Marc Ribot, Gary Bartz, and Allen Lowe, and he recently appeared in two-piano concerts with Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson. He’s co-led a number of bands with saxophonists Phil Scarff and Chris Kelsey, and been featured or titular performer on 26 albums. The last two under his name have been warmly received and added to popular awareness of his stature as a performer: 2018’s Beauty & Mystery, with John Patitucci and Terri Lyne Carrington, plus Tia Fuller guesting; and this year’s Solo Piano, the debut release on the new Next to Silence label.

This was Porter’s first Before & After, conducted in the apartment he shares with his wife on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks below:

1. George Shearing
“Tenderly” (The Shearing Piano, Capitol). Shearing, piano. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: It’s interesting, very classically influenced. The song is “Tenderly.” It’s not Tatum, but I compare it with him because of the chops. This is somebody who’s got excellent technique and a very nice touch and tone, and mixed in there are some nice reharmonizations, although not as out. Tatum is so out if you really listen. This reminds me of the kind of thing Don Shirley would do. I know there’s a movie out about him now [Green Book] that is getting mixed reviews.

It sounds like George Shearing—he sometimes will do a very consciously classical arrangement of a pop song. Some of his are kind of sappy but some of them are bitonal, like, wow, I didn’t expect that.

AFTER: Oh, it is Shearing, that’s interesting. [Laughs] I have to say from the chops point of view, very impressive. His first recordings in England in like 1940 are solo piano performances like this, clearly Tatum-esque but more self-consciously classical than Tatum. This is definitely Chopin-esque and quotes Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

This might be way off-topic but, to me, one of the interesting things when you look at the history of an art form is how reputations change. In the 1950s and ’60s three of the biggest names in jazz—right up there with Miles and Duke—were Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, and Shearing. Today when people teach jazz history courses or write jazz history textbooks, the only thing that gets mentioned of these three is “Take Five.” Although I did see a webcast from Dizzy’s recently that was a Garner tribute by Christian Sands and I was like, wow, somebody remembers Erroll Garner. I’m not moaning or asking how come we’re not celebrating Shearing or Brubeck. I understand tastes have changed and I understand that even in the day Brubeck’s following was certainly not the same as Miles and Trane, but it was an immense following at one point, and not to know that is to be less understanding about jazz history.

2. Emmet Cohen
“Joshua” (Masters Legacy Series Volume 2: Ron Carter, Cellar Live). Cohen, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Evan Sherman, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: Nice brush work. I like the drummer … interesting arrangement. I can’t place the tune. It might be something Blakey used to do in the ’60s, or Miles did it. The approach is very out, now it’s starting to get into time again. It’s leaving a lot of space and the bass is so prominent it’s making me think maybe it’s one of those Ron Carter leader things. They’re going everywhere with this, it’s like the famous [’60s] Miles rhythm section, like the way they play “My Funny Valentine” where they keep changing grooves and stuff.

The piano player’s very imaginative, very fresh. My personal taste in piano is not into all the stopping and starting, even though it’s very creative. What you gain is kind of color and variety but what you lose is a sense of drive. Because it is Ron on bass, it makes me think Herbie [Hancock], but it doesn’t actually sound like Herbie to me. Herbie’s got a very particular sound that he gets out of piano, it’s one of the many amazing things about Herbie. I’m going to say whoever it is, they’re around the same age as Jacky Terrasson. I don’t even know if that makes any sense.

AFTER: I should have caught that. I barely know Emmet but I think I actually have met him. Oh, that’s “Joshua,” from Miles’ West Coast date with Victor Feldman [released on 1963’s Seven Steps to Heaven]

3. Geri Allen
“Stoned Love” (Grand River Crossings, Motéma). Geri Allen, piano. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: You talk about personal tone—in the first few seconds the chord progression made me think Abdullah Ibrahim but now the piano makes me think Keith [Jarrett] because he’s got a very particular tone that he gets out of the instrument … now I’m thinking of Abdullah again. I probably should know this tune. I try not to be too insular, one of these jazz people that only knows jazz. Outside of jazz, it’s classical music that I know best. I guess it could be Geri Allen now, but I’m still not getting the song.

AFTER: She did a whole album as a tribute to Motown? Oh, to Detroit! That makes sense. “Stoned Love” by the Supremes. That’s not one I know well but I know I have it in my LP collection, among the few ones I’ve saved from more than 5,000 I used to have.

Geri was terrific. I only met her a couple of times and she was somebody whom I admired but I feel bad, I think back and think, couldn’t she have been saved? It’s sad that she had to go. I remember some of her earlier stuff, something with Ralph Peterson when he was the leader in ’88. The album was [called] and on it she took a linear solo and it was absolutely brilliant. Again, that’s my orientation, I like linear, I like drive. It went in interesting places and did so very well. This tune is a side of her I’m not as familiar with, but she did a lot of stuff on it.

4. McCoy Tyner
“After the Rain” (McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane: Live at the Village Vanguard, Verve). Tyner, piano. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: This is “After the Rain” by Coltrane … now the piano player is taking it out a little bit. I’m going to say McCoy-esque. I’ll keep it there for now. That little bit that went out and also some of the block voicings in the right hand are kind of McCoy. But it doesn’t have the kind of power I associate with McCoy.

It’s very pretty and nicely done. It’s a beautiful piece and it can be done with just serenity, but I like drama. You could build it up more than the original. Sometimes I hear a piece of music in my mind—I’ll give an example from my solo album, “I Loves You, Porgy.” I build that up really big towards the end. When you hear a song a certain way, to me there’s no other way to play it. That middle part when she sings, “Don’t let him take me, don’t let him handle me…”, it can be bigger than the way it’s usually done. In the same way I think you can re-envision this tune a little bit more.

AFTER: Don’t get me wrong, McCoy is one of my gods, one of my absolute biggest influences, but that doesn’t mean that I like all his recordings the same amount. This was very nice but I could see him doing more with it.

5. Joanne Brackeen
“Again and Always” (Keyed In, Tappan Zee). Brackeen, piano; Eddie Gomez, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1979.

BEFORE: It’s sounding a little bit like “Stella by Starlight” … now it’s going somewhere. I’m kind of waiting for it to take off but so far it’s got some very striking chord sequences, a lot of eerie chords. You don’t walk away humming this tune. It’s obviously somebody with a lot of fluency but so far he or she is just using it for decoration. Very responsive bass and drum—they either work together a lot or just clicked. An Eddie Gomez type of bass player, with a certain kind of fluency and vibrato.

The piano player is very energized. I like that. Even though you’re playing pretty or you’re playing gentle, clearly a lot of energy behind it, changing registers and very alert. I don’t think I’m going to be able to place this piano player, but in my mind it’s in the broad approach of—in Europe, I would say Joachim Kühn, in America, maybe Denny Zeitlin.  Imaginative, harmonically open, great technical ability on the instrument.

AFTER: Oh, Joanne! That’s funny because her name flashed through my mind and then it went right out again. Great stuff. Beautiful. I always liked her playing and I think the first time I saw her live was around ’85 at the Angry Squire [on 7th Avenue near 23rd Street in New York], which no longer exists. Not only did she sound great but she had a great alto player who she didn’t introduce, so I went up to him and he told me his name—Kenny Garrett [laughs]. The word I hear from other musicians, people who study with her at Berklee or privately, is that Joanne’s a fantastic teacher. They also say that she’s got really original concepts on writing, which is very clear from this piece.

You know, my formative influences in jazz were all from the ’60s. I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to be a professional musician and all I knew then was classical music, but I couldn’t really imagine myself performing Beethoven sonatas, especially because I was self-taught. Then there was a particular day when I was 14; I heard Stan Getz playing a bossa nova and I went nuts. I said if that’s what jazz is, that’s what I want to do.

I have to give credit to [New York Times critic] John S. Wilson, who I think in ’66 printed a list of jazz albums he thought everyone should get, and I cut it out. He was recommending everything from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five to Albert Ayler’s Bells, which was a new release then. John Coltrane’s Ascension was on there and Miles Smiles. I was influenced by everything because I wasn’t thinking about it historically at that point. I was just thinking if the list says Earl Hines is good, I’m going to get it. All my friends who were my age would go, “You like these scratchy old records? Are you crazy?” The sound quality didn’t have any impact on me at all, I just loved the music.

So my influences were all over the place. I still consider Hines to be a big influence, and Bud Powell and Monk, McCoy, and definitely Chick [Corea], “Matrix” Chick.

6. Junior Mance
“Smokey Blues” (Junior Mance Trio at the Village Vanguard, Jazzland). Mance, piano; Larry Gales, bass; Ben Riley, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [Immediately] You gotta play the blues. I do not in any way understand young players who go, “The blues is too old-fashioned.” I play a lot of blues. Wait, the piano player is doing something. Now he’s surprising me with these fast lines. I’m going to say it’s a Ray Brown type of bass—it’s that nice kind of line.

All I need is for the piano player to break away now. He’s doing mostly riffing, which is nice for a while, but surprise me with something else. In terms of the general approach, it’s a Ramsey Lewis, Les McCann thing. Now he’s building up. Call me a curmudgeon, I feel like when you get really big like this you have to earn it, it has to be going up there the whole time, and to me this drama almost comes out of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love to go here—the big sound, the big buildup. When I play live I take my time and work up to it.

AFTER: Okay, Chicago—Junior Mance. Wow, this is from ’61 and he’s still around. Nice rhythm section too. Again, I’m a linear thinker, I like to hear Wynton Kelly on the blues—he’s amazing.

7. Kris Davis
“Eronel” (Duopoly, Blue Note). Davis, piano; Billy Drummond, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: It’s interesting. It’s the kind of free playing that a person does who’s also capable of playing on chord progressions, because it has kind of a structure and it implies harmonies here and there, which I like. This kind of free playing I think of as being very influenced by Paul Bley. It’s a lyrical approach to free playing. There’s little glimmers of the actual tune now coming out, a tune with changes—I recognized it for a second and then lost it. It could be Monk … wait, is that “Lenore” or “Eronel” or something? Isn’t that the one they say Monk didn’t actually write, that the trumpet player [Idrees Sulieman] wrote? [According to Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, “Eronel” was co-written by Sulieman and pianist Sadik Hakim.]

That’s funny, he sure takes his time getting into this tune but in a way that’s good. There’s an arc to it. It builds up in a sensible way. That’s it—at the end we finally get to the tune and we’re done. It’s nice. I might steal that idea. Both the pianist and drummer are very involved.

AFTER: Duopoly, that’s a great name. I’ve heard Kris on projects with my friend [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington and she always sounds great. I saw them in webcasts from the Detroit Jazz Festival and of something they did at Harvard, a memorial for Geri Allen—enough to know that Kris is a very open player, she can play over changes or she can play free. I haven’t heard Kris do something quite this out. But it doesn’t surprise me because she can definitely go anywhere.

8. Lester Young and Teddy Wilson
“Pres Returns” (Pres and Teddy, Verve). Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Gene Ramey, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Oh, that’s Teddy Wilson and it’s “Pres Returns.” I can just talk and talk about this. This was a session where they did all standards and probably at the end they said, “Let’s do a blues,” and Norman Granz later said, “We’re going to call it ‘Pres Returns,’” because Lester had been in the hospital. First of all, Teddy not only plays the most beautiful blues on this tune, but he has the most gorgeous approach to the blues compared to anybody. By the way, this is a blues in concert G, and for a piano player G is an easy key but not a great blues key. But Teddy’s got an approach that’s just so rich and gorgeous and he brings something into the tune that’s not written into the tune. He sets up the beginning of each chorus in his solo in a very effective way. The other thing I love is the way he accompanies here.

To me, this is also one of the examples of a great rhythm section. Jo Jones was unbelievable not just in terms of musicality but as an accompanist. He lifted people up. You could see that when he was playing, and he does that here with Gene Ramey on bass. And talk about building! Now, here’s that beautiful blues solo by Teddy [at 2:30] and then when Pres comes back they build and build and Pres just starts riffing and behind him Jo and Teddy—and Gene is great too but he’s not changing the beat or anything, he’s keeping things happening—but they build and build and it’s incredibly effective.

That Basie big-band magic in a little quartet.

Very much so. In fact, I think throughout his career Pres always played his best when he was accompanied by Jo. There’s a tremendous charisma between them that’s gorgeous.

I have listed this as one of my favorite Pres recordings but people sometimes say to me quizzically, “He doesn’t play so well on this, his sound is a little pinched, playing a lot of riffs.” But Pres is playing in the context of this fantastic rhythm section! Now they’re really starting to build up here—Teddy is playing a lot more and he’s almost with Pres. Pres is going up high, he’s doing like the shout chorus up high and it just sounds great.

Many people think of you as the Coltrane expert and don’t know you’ve done some very deep research on Pres.

Honestly that’s not a terrible thing, to be typecast as the Coltrane guy. But if you look at my WBGO blog, I’ve got posts on Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong—I’m into everything. I love it when people realize that I’m not only into Trane. I have two books on Pres and two on Trane and then two general jazz histories and the Dave Liebman memoir. At Rutgers, I did a Sonny Rollins seminar and one on Monk. I just love it all.

9. The Mattson 2
“Acknowledgement” (Play “A Love Supreme,” Spiritual Pajamas). Jared Mattson, electric guitar, loops, electric bass, keyboards, synthesizer; Jonathan Mattson, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: At first this made me think of the Campbell Brothers, who played A Love Supreme live at Lincoln Center a couple years ago with pedal steel guitar—Sacred Steel—but I don’t think this is their arrangement … now this is moving a lot more … then there’s a famous version of it by [Carlos] Santana with John McLaughlin that I haven’t heard in years, but this style of playing is more like Sonny Sharrock. It’s very cool, I’m kind of diggin’ it. They’re doing like a three-against-four. The guitar solo style is not really coming out of jazz that much, but it’s very strong.

There’s a surprising number of versions of A Love Supreme now. For many years people were like, “I’m not touching that, that’s sacred and it’s too deep and I don’t want to be compared to the original,” but once enough time passed they’re not right next to it anymore. Now everything is fair game.

I like that they’re being loose with it. One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that bass riff that sounds out “a love su-preme” is an ostinato, that it’s supposed to repeat through the whole first movement. People who do that haven’t even listened to the original because a minute into the piece, [bassist] Jimmy Garrison is already doing all kinds of cross-rhythms. These guys get that. They’re being very loose with it. I’m giving it a thumbs-up. I like this.

AFTER: Wow. Do they have other albums out, do they have a following? [Listens as “Resolution” begins] They really get the spirit of it. It’s not just a tune, you know. Very cool. I’m going to enjoy hearing the whole suite.

10. Matthew Shipp
“Free Hop” (Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, Thirsty Ear). Daniel Carter, trumpet; Matthew Shipp, piano and production; Khan Jamal, vibraphone; William Parker, double bass; Guillermo E. Brown, drums; Antipop Consortium, programming and production. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: I don’t know this track but it makes me think of someone like Robert Glasper. Wait, something is happening—now they’re breaking it up a little bit. It sounds like they’ve added vibes to the mix, but it could be a keyboard on a vibes sound. I’m not an expert on this but I know these are hip-hop elements and certainly there’s some avant-garde elements in there too. A lot on this one. Wait, now there’s a little bit of a trumpet coming in here.

These are two languages and I think they are working well together. Here’s where I’m going to hedge a little bit. There’s a frantic quality to this but sometimes frantic is what you want, to work this way is fun. I like to do it sometimes.

AFTER: I know Matt—I enjoy his music a lot. During the piano part that was one of the names that went through my head, but then when the other instruments came in I didn’t think of him, he’s done more solo and trio things. I think he should do more with a band, it adds a lot. Antipop Consortium? What a great name. I like the beginning and ending with the wavering, cutting DJ stuff. That’s interesting.

11. Keith Jarrett
“It’s All in the Game” (The Out-of-Towners, ECM). Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2001.

BEFORE: Very pretty—it’s almost like a hymn of a sort. This is another song I should be remembering but I’m not. It could be a pop song. It’s funny because when I went to college it was 1968 and all the students were listening to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and I hadn’t heard any of that. I’d been listening to classical music, jazz, and the Beatles and a few other things. I’ve greatly expanded since then, but more in world music—I’ve worked with tabla and sitar players—but back then, my friends were amazed. They were like, where have you been? But when I hear these pop songs out of their original context, most times I just don’t recognize them.

Just in terms of the piano, it’s a Keith Jarrett kind of approach—I think I’m starting to hear his voice too now, his humming. He’s got such beautiful countermelodies in the left hand so there’s always a feeling of counterpoint, he’s not just laying down a chord. That’s one of his strengths on the slow numbers.

AFTER: It’s beautiful. If you think about it, that lyric is a poignant lyric, and you could do something like this and it could be just pretty and that’s usually not enough. But Keith brings out a poignancy in there that gives it more richness. A lot of music that really moves me and feels rich has a level of detail, and he’s got all kinds of dynamics in there. He’s got different touches, and a way of making the melody notes pop out from the background. It’s not that all the notes are on the same dynamic level. Somehow those technical things combine to produce an emotional reaction in most listeners. People say, “The music made me feel this way,” but really nobody is making you feel. It’s more like the musician invites you to have a reaction. Keith’s a master of that.

12. Sullivan Fortner
“Fantasy” (Moments Preserved, Impulse!). Fortner, piano. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: It’s someone who’s not afraid of the low notes, which I enjoy. He or she is doing a lot of stuff with the left hand, then placing some high notes against it so it creates an interesting texture, very spread out. A part of me says it’s two pianos, but so far I’m hearing one player … when you get into trills it’s great, because it makes you think classical. Trills aren’t done so much in jazz but I love them. This player has a lot of range. It started off free and now it’s quiet and spare and very high-register. It has a lot of color and originality, but I can’t think of who plays free like that.

AFTER: Is that Sullivan? Because I think of him as someone who plays really great straight-ahead. It’s nice to hear him play like that. “Fantasy”? In other words, an improvisation they probably named later [laughs]. That’s great. He’s a terrific player.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.