To give some context for this interview, we recorded this conversation before playing this concert at Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge in Denver, CO.
Colin Stanahan - Drums
Mark Clifford - Vibraphone
Kent McLagan - Bass
Danny Meyer - Saxophone
Danny Meyer: Can you talk a little bit about your new record?
Colin Stranahan: The trio record? Yes. It’s interesting to talk about because it’s very similar to the process that you and I are experiencing tonight where. Mark and I, and you and I grew up in an environment where we were learning and playing together. Therefore, when we play now, it’s a completely natural experience. Glenn’s Zaleski, the pianist, I have that with because we went to college together and we played every day for a really long time.
It didn’t start out that way. Maybe it didn’t start out that way with the three of us either, but in that trio, we’re at the point now where … It reminds me of what you said yesterday about finishing each other’s sentences. I have that with Glenn. We played in a bunch of different contexts for a long time but that group split up. We knew we still wanted to play together a lot but said, “let’s try trio,” which was a really difficult experience.
And Rick is so great. The thing that struck me was that the feeling, emotion and movement within the music was all there from the start. We’ve taken it very seriously. We played two nights in Canada and they were magical nights. The music was effortless.
It was one of those nights where you’re playing and you’re like, “Wait a minute. I’m playing music and all of this is exciting and amazing but I’m not trying. It’s just happening.” We took it seriously and we recorded a few months later. The records already out and it’s doing well. I love that trio because the material remains the same. We still put the same tunes, yet we’re still writing but the tunes are different every time we play them. The melodies are there but the approach and the little things we find within the improvisation bring us to a whole different place. So, I’m really happy to be playing in that trio.
DM: That’s great. Was has it been like to travel with them?
CS: That’s the whole thing. The reason I keep bringing up tonight is because of what we’re doing also but to me, music doesn’t … It’s not that it doesn’t work but the music that I want to play, the music I enjoy playing, the music that I strive for is when there’s the human connection. When you’re close with somebody and you love someone and you feel for that person and you can connect on a personal level, you’re still conversing and talking about those things through your instrument.
Traveling and playing with them is an extension of our friendship and love for one another. It’s just communicating without words with music. It’s the greatest experiences I could have as a musician. Any time I play in that situation, or travel, or when I’m on a train or on an airplane and I look over, it’s almost like you’re always performing and you’re always working on something together.
It’s always the same. There’s no insecurity or anything. It’s all there. That’s what it’s like. It’s always the same. People get tired and irritated when you’re moving around but there’s that same general energy all the time which makes it so much easier. That’s why I want to do this.
DM: That’s great. That’s really great. So, you grew up in Colorado?
DM: But you’ve lived in New York for how long?
CS: Six years basically. I left for two years to go to New Orleans for school but I was in New York at the same time, commuting back and forth. It’s been six years.
DM: For you, when you reflect on it now, what do you see as having been important for you, having grown up learning music in Colorado?
CS: The more and more I travel, the more and more I meet people and see what their experience of with music and how they ended up being a musician, it’s a lot different. It’s a different story than for, maybe, you and me.
DM: How is that?
CS: Because people … Not only that I come from a musical family but the opportunities at CCJA, Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts, the environment that we got to grow up in, performing and playing, shaped me to be a musician. By the time I got to college, I already knew how to be in that setting.
Whereas, I meet people that come from the Republic of Georgia or come from Eastern Europe. There’s no one in their life or in their family that does anything musically related yet they found music. To me, I found music in a natural way and a lot of that has to do with growing up in Colorado, because of my father being a musician. Being immersed in it and going to El Chapultepec and sitting there, watching people play, it was very natural and very important to be in that setting.
If I grew up in New York, I might still be a musician but I wouldn’t … I don’t think I would have the same feelings about it. There’s so much beauty and love within Colorado and the people, that it all became one and it was a part of the music. Having Paul Romaine around you, he’s like a father and can be very strict about new learning, how to play music but loving you at the same time. That’s why it was important to grow up here for me and learn music that way.
DM: You’ve been doing more clinics and more interacting with younger musicians.
DM: What have you found that you’re really into sharing with younger musicians? What do you like to talk about?
CS: What I enjoy is that as a young musician, I was always so impatient. I really wanted to move to New York and start gigging with people and be a professional musician, skip all the steps and get there. The more education that I did do, the more practicing, the more listening, the more I realized how beautiful that experience was.
I like sharing that with younger musicians to not be impatient.
Even if the musician was … we’re all students. We’re always going to be students when we play music, so there’s no rush. There is no part of the process that you can skip. I never realized that and it’s these things that older people tell you, “Oh, when you’re older, you’ll all understand.”
They’re fucking right. It’s true. Because the more and more I do this, the more and more I experience, the more and more I go into a teaching setting, the more I realize they’re at that point and I used to be at that point, too. That they’re going to make it. You can hear at a young age, people that have talent.
You can see how someone can develop. I try to be encouraging in the right ways, encourage them and make them understand that what they’re doing is great, but that if they work even harder, they can get to that level, whatever it may be.
DM: I think things are changing in that way that musicians are interacting with society. We’re finding new ways of being involved with the community. What are the ways that you can imagine that musicians will be being a part of the larger community in the future? What are the kinds of connections that you’re hoping that we can make stronger?
CS: That’s a really deep question because … Not to make us sound old but when we were 15, 16 years old, we didn’t have YouTube. We didn’t have Facebook. We didn’t have all of these tools where you can access anything at given moment.
One thing I really want to be careful about is keeping an audience and keeping people aware. We’re talking about the iPhone and how great it is, but for people to put it down and look and experience the music. I hope that that can come back. I get really upset when I go to a concert at The Village Vanguard and I look around and all I see is people standing there, tweeting or talking about where they are and what they’re experiencing but they’re not really experiencing it.
What I try to do in the music that I play and the people I play with and as a leader, as a co-leader of the trio, we’re trying to create a body of music in which can grab people. I think as musicians, what we could do is tell a story throughout the whole set of music that we’re performing. Not just play a one tune like this but it’s a constant dialogue. When someone goes to a play or goes to a film, it’s very hard to text or message someone or very hard to tweet about the movie. You have to watch or you’re going to miss something.
I think that is a good way. To keep the community together is to really focus on creating more music that reaches abroad or audience. When we play in the trio, we can play a song that reaches the older people that love to hear jazz standards but then, we can play something that’s more rhythm be involved and has more modern harmonic ideas. I think that’s one way of doing it. Maybe that doesn’t necessarily answer the question at a whole, but finding a way to reach people and tell them to put the technology away for a while.
DM: That’s great.
CS: I’m guilty of it, too. Sometimes, you get excited and it’s exciting to be able to share your thoughts with the world so quickly now but there’s danger in that. We can’t lose the focus of that moment in time that you can feel something. I hope that we can all work harder on our own projects to convey that and to bring that out of people. I see that in the trio.
When we play together … When I play with people that we have that connection we were talking about, people say thing like,
"You guys are really having fun.
You’re enjoying what you’re doing
You’re smiling and you’re laughing.
I can tell that things are happening that weren’t planned and you’re in the moment.
I couldn’t stop watching it. It’s so exciting to me. It’s not a show. It’s not to impress people.
I think that’s the most important and the easiest way to keep all that focus there in the community, within the people and the musicians, the listeners and the musicians together.
DM: That’s very helpful. What about being a part of the musician community? What do you see that we can be doing to work better together to be on the same team?
CS: There’s a lot of bullshit in New York.
There’s this thing called hustling. In a way you do, you have to stay afloat. You have to work but we need to keep encouraging and going and listening to each other’s music and supporting each other.
There’s this thing in New York where I see so many musicians show up to a concert after it has already ended and go to the musicians and say, “That was beautiful. You guys sounded killing. Hey, can we get together and play sometime?” I think there needs to be more honesty.
What I love about people … The music that I love is bands – people that are friends, people that grew up together, people that love one another, people that know each other and make music together. One thing that happens in New York is that someone will hire a musician that has a big name.
Someone will hire Mark Turner to play in a context in which he’s never been in before. Of course, he sounds amazing but it’s not a band. The music wasn’t rehearsed because Mark was probably on tour and showed up the day at the gig and got handed the charts.
That to me is not supporting one another. It does help to have somebody with a name there to bring more people to be introduced to what you do but I wish there was more honesty.
One thing I’m striving to do is go out and listen to other people about at love and really support them and not always asked to be on the guest list, but to pay cover because the cover hopefully is going to the musicians. I think in New York, there’s a lot of that but I start seeing more and more of this hustle thing where people can try to get in, slither their way into something without knowing what it’s about.
I‘ve been guilty of that before, too. I remember the first time I met Rudresh Mahanthappa. I loved his music and I said, “Can we get together and play?” I didn’t go, “My name is Colin Stranahan and I’m a young student that just moved to New York City and I don’t know a lot about music. I would really love to learn from you. If you ever had time that we could get together and talk about your music and maybe play, that would be great for me.” You get excited, too. I think that the more genuine support that we can have, as far as paying cover or coming to listen and really listen and respond in a positive way, I think that’s going to help us out a lot.
DM: Can you talk a little bit about playing with Fred Hersch?
CS: Yes. I sure can. I don’t know what to say other than … The guy, his life … He’s an incredible human being. Having HIV and being as sick as he is, I just know. I’ve never asked him but I know that every time he sits down the piano, he knows it might be the last time he gets to do that. He always brings everything to the table.
When I was getting to learn a lot about Fred, people would always tell me how hard he was on musicians and how strict he was, but that never happened with us. He might have felt something in his mind or in his heart that didn’t connect well, but he kept in contact with me. He always kept inviting me over and over again. That night we played at Smalls … I don’t say this because it’s me or … It’s not an arrogant statement at all but I’ve never heard him play that well in my entire life.
It’s not because I was playing drums or Matt Penman was playing bass. It’s because it was my heart and my ears that was hearing him. It was daunting to look over and see him playing. It was such an honor and pure happiness to share that moment. It was, again, one of these feelings where the music was effortless. The music was telling me what to play. I wasn’t telling myself or asking myself, “What should I be doing?” It was just … It happened. It was effortless. To me, like I was saying before, that’s what I seek in music. It was magical. I think he felt it, too.
I hope that in the future, we have more time together, musically. I don’t care if it’s a tour or a gig at the Blue Note or in his apartment. As long as we can make music together again, that would be great.
DM: That’s great. Playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel?
CS: Yes. Growing up with you … I don’t know how much I’ve emphasized it but Kurt’s my hero. He really is. He’s the one musician that, growing up, I said, “I really want to play with him.” It’s like Fred but it’s in a different way. Kurt … He’s not a human being. He’s from another planet and I‘ve never been on stage where …
I’ve always felt very emotional but I’ve never been in a situation where I’m on stage with someone and their playing an intro to a song and I’ve cried as much as I have. I remember being on stage in Japan. He played an intro to a monk tune Reflections, and I was bawling. It’s because the connection that he makes, the power of the sound that he has and the command in his instrument and in his heart … I will never forget those experiences.
It was very hard musically because Kurt is very particular about how he wants the drums to be played behind him. I’ve done a few tours with him and it was very emotional, very scary at times and very joyful at times. The fact that … I remember saying as a young man, “I want to work with that guy.”
The music we played together, I’ll always hold on to that. It carries with me every day. I hope I can make an impression on somebody like that someday, the way that he did on me.
DM: You got to do a tour with Herbie Hancock at the Monk Institute. How was it playing with Herbie?
CS: That was a little different. I loved Herbie Hancock and I respect him. I think that’s he an incredible human being, but I learned more about how to be a good person than I did anything musically.
Musically, It was a whole different thing from Fred and Kurt. It was challenging because I didn’t know what to do. I think it’s because of the body of work that he’s created. He’s done so many different things that I didn’t know how to play with him. We definitely got somewhere.
I think he said, before we started playing, “Let’s play Dolphin Dance,” but we never played Dolphin Dance. We started on the vamp but before I knew it, the tune was over. We never played it. That’s all I can say about it. The guy is … He’s deep. He’s very deep. The thing that I would always remember about hanging with him is, I said to him, “How do you do it? How do you become a better musician? How do you get to the level of where you are and the success that you created? You’re looked upon, not only as a great musician, but you’ve done everything. How can we … What can we do to strive for that?” He said, “Man, it’s not about anything other than being a good human being.”
DM: How about Paul Romaine.
CS: Paul Romaine … What can I say? He’s my second father. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am. I don’t think a lot of us would be. I love the man … I love Paul so much and he’s the only guy now that I still get nervous around if I’m playing. If I know that Paul is there, I get nervous because I know he knows me. He taught me so much about playing music that I know he’s hearing what’s happening.
He’s always very complimentary of what it is but there’s something very special about him. We all have our heroes and Paul is … It’s okay to have more than one hero but Paul is a … The only word that comes to mind is he’s a Buddha. He has taken this music and taken the youth, grabbed them with his huge arms, brought them close to his heart and has done something for the community and for the youth that I don’t think happens anywhere else in the way that it does here.
Without him, I wouldn’t be half of the person and musician that I am. I’m forever thankful and grateful. Any time I play, before any time I go on stage, I think about Paul. Paul helps me get into the right mindset to make good music. I always think about, not just Paul, but all of the people I grew up with here. I always think about you guys before I play because it makes me look back quickly before I look forward. That’s very important to me.
November 11, 2011