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John Clayton: A Before & After Session with Ken Peplowski

The bassist, composer, arranger, and bandleader takes a listen with his clarinetist/saxophonist pal—who cautions that "a groove is not a metronome"

Ken Peplowski on the Jazz Cruise
Ken Peplowski on the Jazz Cruise (photo: John Abbott/Courtesy of Entertainment Cruise Productions)

7. Katie Thiroux
“Brotherhood of Man” (Off Beat, Capri). Thiroux, bass; Justin Kauflin, piano; Matt Witik, drums. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: I think it’s Katie Thiroux on bass and Matt Witik on drums.

I was at this recording. Jeff Hamilton produced this session. 

I thought it might be him, until I heard the drummer pulling out. I was with Jeff when we explored that beat that this drummer plays. I’m trying to remember who the pianist is. Konrad Paszkudzki? Or Larry Fuller?

No, it’s Justin Kauflin.

I hadn’t heard that aspect of his vocabulary. And it makes sense too, because of Justin’s relationship with Clark Terry. That was a tune that Clark did with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

I have a story for you. I did a gig in Bern, Switzerland last year with Justin. There’s a jazz club there and it’s one of the last in the world where you do an entire week. That meant two sets a night and an extra set on Saturday afternoon. A month before the gig, I thought, just for fun, I’m not going to bring any music, no lead sheets. I picked 200 songs out of the fake book I have. Remember, Justin’s a young guy who is blind. A month before the gig, I send him a list of the tunes and tell him, “Here’s the challenge: I want to do different sets every night and never repeat ourselves.” He accepted the challenge and he learned 200 songs in a month by listening to eight or 10 versions a day. All we did there was every morning review the changes and the chorus, and he had it. It’s a lesson to every piano player who pulls out his iPad for “Take the A Train” or “How High the Moon.” It can be done.

You’re basically preaching my sermon. I’ve made a lot of enemies because I insist that they throw away their fake books. A lot of students know that when they walk into my studio. I tell them that I have annual fake book burnings. The fake book is the one thing that has done more damage to jazz musicians than anything else. Because they have all the answers, supposedly, but they contain wrong melodies, wrong chord changes. If you had a historical resource book that said “Beethoven, born 1983,” it wouldn’t get through the front door. Most people using a fake book don’t have a resource like you or me to tell them where that book is incorrect. You mentioned Justin, who is blind. Music is sound. He has to learn the songs by sound. What we’re forcing our kids to do is look at black dots on a piece of paper and translate that into sound. How many times have you or I been on the bandstand and somebody will say, “Let’s play such-and-such,” and you and I go, “What key?” If they want to play it in some wonky key we don’t usually play it in, we just have to dive in and do it. There’s no time for us to transpose it.

Or get our iPad out.

Exactly. That kind of ear development suffers because of fake books. I actually apologized to Nat Adderley for recording his “Work Song” incorrectly. [Sings wrong bridge, then right bridge] Nat said, “Hey, I get the royalties anyway, it doesn’t matter—do what you want with it.” But there are countless examples of that [people recording wrong versions of tunes] out there.

8. Count Basie Orchestra
“Bugle Call Rag” (The National Jazz Museum of Harlem Presents the Savory Collection, Volume 2, Mosaic). Basie, piano; Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Harry Edison, trumpet; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums; others. Recorded in 1940.

BEFORE: [Again, listens quietly to entire track] Is that Basie? And is that Lester?

Yes, it’s from the Savory Collection, the acetates that they recently released.

Wow, that band. When I was playing with the band, we had a gig at the Montreux Jazz Festival and there was some time after the soundcheck and before the performance. In the lobby of the hall in the casino back then, they used to have a lot of vendors, selling records and so on. Freddie Green was hanging around, so I asked him if I were to buy an old Count Basie record, what would it be. There was a collection that Freddie pointed out that had the different arrangers on there. I was writing a bit for the band at that time. I wanted to learn more about the history with Eddie Durham, Buck Clayton … Freddie was particularly hot on Eddie Durham. This was the sound that he wanted to direct me to—this era of the band. That was just spectacular. That was unmistakably Basie.

9. Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach
“Switch Blade” (Money Jungle, United Artists). Ellington, piano; Mingus, bass; Roach, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: [Again, listens quietly to entire track] That’s Mingus. Is this the record he did with Duke and Max?

Yes, that’s right.

It’s amazing. The person who blows my mind the most on this is Duke. He sounds like, well, Duke, but he shows other influences that you don’t normally hear. I haven’t heard this in a long time.

This is an alternate take of “Switch Blade,” which must have referred to the famed incident where he [Mingus] held a knife on Juan Tizol backstage and that was the reason for him getting fired [from Ellington’s band in 1953; in other versions of the story, Tizol had the knife and Mingus had either a curtain rod or a fire axe]. For so many years, people would say that this record really doesn’t work, that they didn’t get along, it’s a non-cohesive record, but it’s a great record, if much maligned.

This is an example of that thing we were talking about earlier, where maybe the beat doesn’t line up to everybody’s satisfaction, but collectively as a presentation, it’s killing.

If I were the emperor of the universe, I’d wonder if Duke could have made more records with different people, because it does bring out a different side to him. The same thing could have been said of Louis Armstrong. Did you ever get to hear Mingus?

I did. A couple times. It was in his later years. You experience hearing loss as an older human being. It’s something that happens to all of us. When bass players get older, they don’t hear the instrument as well within the context of the band, so they turn the volume up. Which is why Milt Hinton played at a higher volume later. Ray Brown too. That was the case with Mingus when I heard him. The kind of sound you hear on this record, where it’s wholesome and organic, it’s so recognizable as Mingus, that part was unfortunately gone. But his energy was the same.

I always wonder about how you bassists are the only ones at ear level to the cymbals and that you’re getting all that damage. And you’re right that almost every elderly bass player I’ve ever worked with has had problems with their hearing and they’ve had to crank the amp up. Milt was gracious and always asked, “Am I playing too loud? I need you to be honest, because if I am, I’ll turn it down.”

“I don’t want anyone to change my sound. Make me louder, that’s okay, but don’t change the quality of my sound.”

10. Oscar Pettiford
“The Gentle Art of Love” (Oscar Pettiford: Nonet, Big Band, Sextet, New York City 1955-1958, Uptown). Pettiford, bass; Betty Glamann, harp; Dick Katz, piano; others. Recorded between 1955 and 1958.

BEFORE: Is that Harpo? All I could do is think of old-fashioned detergent commercials.

It was recorded in the ’50s. It was one of the few jazz musicians who employed a harpist, not that there were a plethora of jazz harpists floating around. The harpist was a big part of this group. The leader was an arranger and was known as sort of a tough guy. People were a little afraid of him. He was a precursor to Mingus.

AFTER: Oh, Oscar Pettiford. I forgot about this record. Thanks for reminding me.

I have a story about Oscar Pettiford, and I bet this has happened to you in one form or another. Keter Betts told me this one. One of Keter’s first big gigs was working with Dinah Washington. He’s on the bandstand with her and he looks out and there’s Oscar Pettiford in the audience. She’s playing a nice ballad and he’s playing just one, three, one, three. They take a break and Pettiford comes up to him and says, “Young man, can I offer you some advice? You know, every time a bass player just gives me beats one and three in a ballad, it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve got to add something to the music, you’ve got to fill in behind her. If there’s space when she’s singing a ballad, play a line behind her, play something interesting.” Keter goes, “Yes sir, thank you.” They go back to the bandstand and Dinah’s singing another ballad and she turns around to Keter, who’s playing tiny figures, and says, “When I want you to solo, I’ll let you know.” Three weeks later, Keter goes to see Oscar Pettiford performing with Sarah Vaughan, and she’s singing a ballad and he’s playing one, three, one, three.

11. Phronesis
“Abraham’s New Gift” (Alive, Edition). Jasper Høiby, bass; Ivo Neame, piano; Mark Guiliana, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: I’m listening to so many things. Excellent bass playing. Beautiful sound. I can tell that that’s a sound that he hits when he wakes up in the morning. The command of the instrument makes me think of someone like John Patitucci, but I’m guessing that it’s somebody younger. Is it Avishai?

It’s sort of a hot item in Europe, maybe not here yet. It’s a group called Phronesis. The bass player is a Danish guy named Jasper Høiby with a British pianist, Ivo Neame. The drummer on this is Mark Guiliana, but I believe the regular member of the trio is a Swedish guy named Anton Eger. There are so many European trios over there that we don’t know about.

AFTER: Wow, he’s killing. I’ll have to sit down and figure out what time signature or signatures they’re using. I have to remember him. I’m really impressed by the playing.

12. Christian McBride
“Family Affair” (A Family Affair, Verve). McBride, bass; Tim Warfield, tenor saxophone; Charles Craig, piano; Gregory Hutchinson, drums. Recorded in 1998.

BEFORE: That’s Christian McBride. He’s such a breath of fresh air. There are so many bass players I love, but he’s one of those guys who exemplifies a lot of the things I love about the music. He swings hard. His lines are interesting. He can go from simple—but never boring—to as complex as you want. He can be Delta blues or the complete opposite end, really pushing the groove and the changes. Great with the bow. He doesn’t know how to say “no.” Everything is interesting to him. Writing, big-band music. I could talk about Christian McBride and how much I love him all day.