Tuesday, October 13, 2015

PIANIST GLENN TUCKER GIVES THE LOWDOWN ON FLAWLESS DEBUT 'DETERMINATION'

In a short time, the jazz pianist/organist Glenn Tucker has transcended the rising star status on Detroit’s jazz scene and has developed into a bonafide jazz sensation. At 26, three full years removed from music school at the University of Michigan, the native of Ann Arbor, MI, has made a name for himself as a sideman, composer, and bandleader. Last month, the Detroit Music Factory released “Determination,” Tucker’s flawless debut. 

The album has nine originals, and Tucker's band has three elite Detroit jazz musicians bassist Robert Hurst, trumpeter Dwight Adams, and trombonist Vincent Chandler. Rising Detroit talent drummer Alex White and saxophonist Rafael Statin round out the band.

After experiencing a couple of selections on "Determination," you'll understand Tucker is an old soul, deep into the lineage of Detroit jazz pianist. As a pianist, Tucker has the late jazz pianist Claude Black’s spirit dancing in his right hand, and Kenn Cox’s spirit blessing his left hand.

As a composer, Tucker’s original compositions are akin to some of the intelligent and exciting compositions alto saxophonist Cassius Richmond wrote back in the day. I Dig Jazz, hit Tucker with questions about "Determination, recruiting elite Detroit jazz musicians for his debut, and being mentored by the great pianist Claud Black. 

When did you begin plotting “Determination”?

Some of the music was written as early as 2009, but I started plotting the album in early 2013, finally settling on the title and playlist in late 2013. In a sense, it is a compilation of music I’d already written that fit the theme, and music that I wrote after I had the concept in mind.

Why did you go with all originals instead of standards?

I play a lot of standards live, but the industry is so oversaturated with them. I try to stick to my music when I record, to feature myself as a composer and performer. It takes a lot to record a standard in a way that stands up next to the classics. At one point, I considered including one standard and one cover, but I thought this album was a stronger statement with only my music.

The title cut, “Keep on Turnin’,” “Takin’ It Back,” and “Walk Like Warriors” are exceptional. What inspired the compositions?

“Determination” was inspired by the Blue Note recordings of Kenn Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. When I wrote it, the title was abstract, but over time, it has come to resonate with my personal journey and also to act as a frame for the body of music on the record. There is also a resonance with the Detroit bebop legacy and themes of determination throughout Detroit’s history.

The groove of “Keep On Turnin’” was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” so I titled it with a quotation from that song’s lyrics. This is the most uplifting side of the "Determination" theme.

I wrote “Takin’ It Back” for a gig I did with drummer Jesse Kramer’s group more or less as an exercise to get myself more comfortable playing in 11/8 and long 7/4 meters. The verse-chorus format is loosely inspired by Gamble & Huff’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. The title refers not only to the throwback funkiness of the tune but also the courage needed to claim and reclaim positive elements of life, which fits the theme of the album.

“Walk Like Warriors” also draws its title from a lyric, in this case from Common’s "Be". I wrote this tune to balance out the title cut since I wanted to begin and end the album with the sextet. This piece was largely inspired by the personalities in the group, custom-built for the recording session. I wrote the melody with Vincent in mind and each of the grooves with Alex and Bob in mind and gave each guy room to shine as a soloist and group players. Some of my favorite playing on the record is listening to how Bob interprets each of the grooves.

Robert Hurst, Vincent Chandler, and Dwight Adams are apostles of Detroit jazz. Did you have to sell your soul to get them in the studio?
                                                                                           
It took me a minute to save up what I thought these musicians were worth, but each of them put in extra effort learning the music. They have all been very encouraging of me from a young age, so they were excited to help.

Talk about your affinity for playing with rising stars saxophonist Rafael Statin and drummer Alex White, and how different this album would be without them.

At the time this was recorded, Rafael, Alex and I were a working band. Initially, Rafael and Alex hired me to be in their organ trio before I knew what I was doing on organ, and totally kicked my butt in the process. One thing I loved about that trio is that we never talked about the music before or after, we just played. Always challenging, always fun, always grooving, what more could you ask for?

This album would be very different without them because we learned all of this music over time. This allowed me to record some of my harder tunes because we had the trio foundation to support the other musicians, who learned the music specifically for the recording sessions. Although Dwight did come in on a trio gig and sight-read a few of these tunes at a depressingly high level.

Were there any challenges mixing the two generations of jazz musicians together?

No challenges. Vincent had already been using Rafael in his septet, and Bob has used Rafael in his group for a long time. Dwight had come to sit in with us for years. I was able to reconnect Vincent and Alex, who knew each other but hadn’t worked together until I put them both on an organ trio date of mine. All of us came up through the same mentoring system, and Bob has recorded with a number of us younger players since he’s been back in Michigan. So, it was natural and fun.

As a young jazz pianist, what are some of the challenges you have faced making a name for yourself?

I have faced a lot of the challenges that my mentors and their mentors have faced, many of them being market forces. It can be easier to make a living as a sideman, or playing standards, or playing in a historic style; it can be easier to make a living outside of jazz too. It can be easier to get booked in venues as an out-of-town name than as a so-called local name. Daniel Aldridge calls us "residential musicians," which removes the ‘local-musician’ stigma. Clubs haven’t adjusted for inflation in decades, although people seem to differ on how many decades.

Most of my heroes aren’t household names, as they ought to be; most of them are musician’s musicians. There’s also the challenge of reconciling the wisdom of the elders with the realities of today. I’ve always tended on the side of being known by musicians, sometimes at the cost of not being better known by the public or having the name recognition or even having gigs as a leader.

I happen to like learning different styles and working as a sideman, but it’s ultimately a balancing act, finding the balance where you are the most productive and happy. There’s also the balancing act of working on your music versus working on other people’s music. Ultimately, it’s all music, and everything feeds into everything else, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

Pianist Claude Black was one of your mentors. How did you meet him, and what impact did his genius have on you as a pianist and as a composer?

Paul Keller recommended me for a gig with Clifford Murphy when I was 15, and Clifford’s partner Joan Russell somehow picked my name out of the list he sent. So, I did a private gig with Clifford when Claude was out of town. A few weeks later, my mom and I went to Murphy’s Place on a night Claude was playing. After that, we started making almost weekly pilgrimages to hear him, and he would always have me up to play, which was a great reality check to hear myself on the same piano with the same rhythm section. And I was playing saxophone too in those years, so I think I might be one of the few pianists to have been accompanied by their mentor as such.

The timing was such that Claude was at a very generous, reflective stage of life, and I was a total sponge trying to learn the music. There are pianists in Toledo who probably spent more time around Claude but sound less like him just because they were already mature players when they heard him. I got to hear Claude dozens and dozens of times, on good nights, on off nights; with great singers, with amateur singers; with a responsive crowd, to an empty house at 1:00 am; with his full physical capabilities, struggling with low energy or arthritis; I heard it all. I can still remember specific solos he took, although I won’t go into detail.

Above all, I learned musicianship from Claude. What it means to know a tune. What it means to accompany attentively. What every note you play means. What it means to overcome your frustrations and make music. What it means to work a crowd by the sheer power and truth of your playing. What it means to have personality. What it means to leave everything on the bandstand. Musicianship.

In terms of musical specifics, I am still studying Claude’s harmonic concept, since there is way too much there for me to understand even as an adult, much less as a teenager.  A lot of what I learned initially was textbook Detroit piano straight from Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan through Claude. For me, he was also a link to all of the people he’d accompanied: Billie Holiday, Dakota Staton, Johnny Hartman, Eddie Jefferson, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, a totally ridiculous pedigree. But his playing reflected all of that experience. That in turn affected me deeply and gave me tremendous inspiration to this day. The fact that I am one degree away from all of those legends having heard the same pianist they heard on their gigs.

If Claude were alive and got his hands on “Determination,” would he be proud of it?

I would certainly hope so. Quite a few Toledoans tell me that they hear him throughout all of my playings and not just when I am playing something, I directly learned from him. Historically speaking he was almost a swing-to-bop pianist despite his age; he drew a lot from people like Erroll Garner and Hank Jones, who were a little older than the beboppers. I say this because he was pretty hard to pin down on more modern music. Some things he liked, others he kept his mouth shut when the topic came up. But he was always happy to see people in his circle doing well.

"Determination" CD Release Party on 10/30/2015 at the Carr Center 311 Grand River Ave. Detroit, MI. 48226 (313-965-8430) Robert Hurst on bass and Alex White on drums. 7:30, $10 suggested donation
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