Aaron Goldberg Coming to Cambridge
Aaron Goldberg has a new album and it’s called The Now. He is someone I have seen playing with other bands but not his own. Christian McBride nick-named him “My man” and “Goldberg Variations” on his NPR for Jazz in America, and said proudly that Aaron is one of his favorite musicians in the world. Some of you might not know that Aaron is someone who went to Harvard but hung around Berklee School of Music. I have followed his music for a long time and can’t wait to see him perform at the Regattabar.
What do you learn about yourself from jazz and what does being a jazz pianist mean to you?
Jazz improvisation teaches you how to live. Life is not a film…no one hands you a script. And if they (e.g. society or parents) attempt to do so, quickly you learn to escape expectations. The existentialists were right that freedom is essential to humanity. Being conscious means being an improviser. At the same time being a member of a community means you are also a communicator, a listener, a lover. Ultimately being a jazz pianist means learning to speak a soulful, aesthetically rich and ever-expanding language, together with peers. Our ‘work’ consists of a conversational journey that takes audience and musicians alike to places we have all never been. We are freestyle storytellers….not literally free-of-style but free-in-style, traveling down a road we pave together as we go. Sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow, in the service of both individual and group expression. Intuition, adventure, the rigors of craft and ultimately the search for beauty are our guides. If you join us we promise to try to end up somewhere you will enjoy, and at minimum it will feel good along the way.
You have played as a band member among other well-known musicians, what characterized your music philosophy? What is their influence on you?
Regardless of who is the bandleader and who are the ‘sidemen’ on a given day, the music is the product of a close collaboration. When everyone is serving their role, the whole is emergent, more than the sum of its parts. And when the music machine is whirring in high gear everyone’s mind is in the communal ‘zone’…no one needs to think consciously. The set of subconscious minds takes over, communicating faster than normal decisions can rationally be made. We all know we are onstage (or in the recording studio) to serve the music, which is larger than any of our individual selves and quickly presents its own demands, which we try to follow. The trickiest balance to find is between self-expression and aesthetic vision, emotional engagement and the service of beauty. How can you channel your emotions into the music while still making the ideal contribution to the overall world of sound? Just as the masters before us found this balance in themselves, some of the greatest musicians among my peers (for example Mark Turner, Peter Bernstein, Omer Avital, Brad Mehldau, Miguel Zenon, Christian McBride, Guillermo Klein) constantly inspire me to achieve it as well. Great bandleaders I have worked with (like Joshua Redman or Betty Carter) are also expert personnel managers; they know how to bring together the right combination of people to transcend what any single member might have thought possible. Such bandleaders also often have a strong aesthetic vision (a big-picture view) that channels all the creative energies of their collaborators in a compelling musical direction. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Wynton Marsalis come to mind as prime examples, with their own distinct visions of course.
The New album “The Now”, what was your inspiration for the title? Can you share something about members of your trio?
The idea of The Now is simple: jazz is made in the moment, the constantly shifting present, The Now. Thus not only every live but also every recorded performance is one of a possibly infinite number of widely distinct variations. The eminently ‘singable’ definitive recordings we know so well (like Kind of Blue, or Maiden Voyage) would all sound very different if they were recorded only a few seconds later. The nature of group improvisation is that every note played by every musician affects every note played by every other musician. One major reason I so enjoy playing with both Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland is that all of the minute conversational interactions, on the order of the millisecond, that allow us to travel together down our improvised path are always subtle, supple, and intuitive. We are in The Now together. This makes our unscripted life in music not only more stimulating but more fun. I met Reuben over 20 years ago while I was at Harvard and he was at Berklee School of Music, and he’s been generously putting up with me ever since…he’s a master of always making sure the music feels good. Eric is an original thinker and I’ve both seen him grow and grown alongside him over the years. He and I first felt an instant musical rapport in a group led by Gregory Tardy in the late 1990s, and my intuition was correct that Eric and Reuben would themselves have a very rewarding ‘hookup’. We three rarely need to rehearse very much or talk much about musical matters…generally the two of them understand quickly what I’m thinking, and often I look to them for artistic input. It’s even normal for arrangements to just ‘happen’. Obviously as individuals they are both phenomenal musicians on their own, but after many years together the Trio has its own identity, its own voice.
What do you miss most nowadays from the jazz of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of jazz?
Great music, like all great art and literature, is timeless. I don’t normally think about Bach or Coltrane ‘of the past’. The best music of today will similarly retain its beauty forever. This is the sole comfort when a young icon like Mulgrew Miller passes from the earth…he remains eternal through his music. I can offer a few thoughts about how I have seen the scene change since I first arrived in New York in 1991—before attending Harvard i spent a year at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Greenwich Village. In the early 90s there were many masters of the music still with us, invaluable African-American geniuses like Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Cedar Walton, Horace Silver, Shirley Horn and many many more. We had only just lost Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Stan Getz in that same year. Of course loss is a crucial part of life, and jazz teaches us how to handle it as well. All of these elder statesmen of the music had a mentoring influence on the younger generations, and thus helped to pass along the highest possible aesthetic standards. The more centralized nature of the jazz industry itself at the time (when both record companies and critics often looked to prominent musicians for a clue to who was the next ‘rising star’) meant that there was more quality control on the scene in general. In addition it was more difficult for a musician to try to promote him or herself…the backing of an established musician or record label was usually required. Now that the major record labels have lost relative power and the scene is so internet-focused, musicians and critics and labels are all ‘fending for themselves’, for better and worse. My fear is that this trend can lead to a glut of mediocre jazz, in part because it drains critical energy and focus from musicians who now feel they need to spend as much time on their own promotion as on their own music, while quieter peers can be left behind. On the plus side, the decentralization of the jazz scene in every way means that many talented people from around the world full of fresh ideas now have access to a potential audience and an opportunity to make a musical impact. This expansion of borders has led to unprecedented cross-pollination between jazz and other musics both from afar (especially latin america) and from home (especially hip hop). In short the breadth of jazz music has undoubtedly increased in the past 25 years, which helps attract new audiences to new forms of beauty, a glorious thing. The question is about the depth of the music, including the role of craft alongside that of innovation. As far as i can see our greatest artists have always prized both equally. In summary more than ever it’s now in our own (the musicians’) hands to preserve the high quality of the music and also the sense of community that always pervaded the jazz scene.