There is so much to be said about the various music scenes that inhabit the valley- If you have been reading along up until this point it is very clear that is one of my very favorite topics to explore. Some of the most passionate and hard-hitting is the jazz, funk, and blues scenes. Whether you are witnessing the beautiful culmination of music and community at the Annual Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival, hanging on the balcony for Funk Night at Bishop's Lounge, or stopping in for the Tuesday Night Jazz Sessions in Northampton- it is clear that there is no shortage of killing players if you know where to look. 2019 brings GCA a some incredible Jazz acts and The Duke Ellington Tribute Trio kicks it all off on January 4th. Duke Ellington had a career that lasted over 50 years. In that time he influenced music as we know it through his compositions, piano playing, and band-leading. The Duke Ellington Tribute Trio celebrates his musicianship and spirit with their arrangements and interpretations of the music by this pivotal musician. The trio is made up of Wayne Roberts, Miro Sprague, and Michael Zsoldos. Recently, all three of them took some time to chat with me about their upcoming performance.
Hi there! Thank you all so much for taking some time to talk to me about your music and your upcoming January 4th performance at Gateway City Arts with The Duke Ellington Tribute Trio. How long have you been playing music in the valley?
WAYNE ROBERTS: It’s difficult to nail down a timeline. After living in Brooklyn for thirty years, I started dividing my weeks between Western MA and NYC starting around 2010 and eventually making Easthampton, MA my permanent residence in 2014.
MICHAEL ZSOLDOS: I’ve been playing music with Miro and Wayne since 2011. This Trio has been playing together for about 4-5 years, I think. . .is that right Wayne and Miro?
What led you all to Jazz?
W: When I was ten years old, I came across a Norman Granz, Jazz at the Philharmonic album. This record was a veritable who’s who in jazz featuring Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Flip Philips and Illinois Jacquet. It was recorded at the Chicago Opera House, ironically, one year before my birthday One of the tracks on the record, “Mail Order Blues” I memorized note for note.
I began playing jazz myself as soon as I was able to meet like-minded players.
MIRO SPRAGUE: I grew up in a musical family but it wasn't until I heard Miles Davis' classic album "Kind of Blue" when I was 13 that I was bitten by the jazz "bug". Something about that recording sparked my imagination and inspired me to begin playing the piano. I love how jazz allows each musician to fully express their individuality while contributing to the overall group sound.
MZ: I was drawn to playing jazz when I first heard the Lionel Hampton Big Band when I was 10. That concert blew my mind. The audience called the band out for 7 encores—just incredible energy and powerful playing from everyone. I was hooked after that.The Vermont Jazz Ensemble was also active during that time and offering jazz immersion weekends to high schoolers in the mid-’80’s and that’s how I got into jazz. Also, pop music in the ’70’s and ’80’s had lots of horns, horn sections, and saxophone solos were almost as prevalent as guitar solos. I would credit Junior Walker’s solo on the song “Urgent” from the 1981 album “Foreigner Four” with helping draw me toward the saxophone. That song was played almost hourly on CHOM-FM out of Montreal the year that album came out, which was what I listened to growing up.
What do you feel sets jazz apart from other genres?
W: To me, jazz is a mix of multi cultural influences with a blues backbone which, I think creates a winning combination.
MS: Jazz was born in America and it's a coming together of many musical cultures, African, European, Caribbean and more. It's an improvisational dialogue taking place in the language of music and it requires a very high level of improvisational and technical skill from every musician. When it's done well Jazz can be an ideal microcosm of human interaction where we everyone's individuality shines while together creating a whole that is much more then sum of it's parts.
MZ: Jazz is a music that suggests freedom, but a freedom that is informed by its history. There is a vernacular to playing and phrasing the music and it is informed by the Blues as a genre, as a musical form, and as a source of harmonic and melodic material. The Blues came out of plantation songs, field hollers, and spirituals from African American churches. It is informed by a rhythmic feel that comes from swing, which connects the music back to West Africa and ultimately back to music brought to this part of the world by the Atlantic slave trade. The triplet underlies every beat of most of the music from this part of the world. Those churches inherited Protestant hymns, chord progressions, and instruments from Europe. So it is a folk music and cultural hybrid that is made all the richer from it’s coming through multiple sources.
What is special about this group of musicians and how did you begin playing together?
W: I got a call from a drummer named Alex Snideman to play a trio gig in Northampton. Miro was on keyboard. Soon after, Miro hired me to play bass on his audition recording for the Monk Institute in Los Angeles which he was accepted to participate. Michael was playing saxophone that day. We felt an immediate connection. I feel very fortunate to be able to play jazz with them and never miss an opportunity to hire them for gigs that happen to come my way.
MS: Michael and I have been playing together for many years and have been apart of several different projects and recordings together, Wayne and I met maybe five years ago and the three of us started playing together off and on in different configurations. I think it was Wayne that proposed the Duke Ellington project as he has studied Ellington's music in-depth and done many transcriptions. We all enjoyed playing this great repertoire so we decided to keep it going as a regular trio project.
MZ: I started playing with Miro back in 2003 and feel a very real, almost spiritual connection when we play together. Wayne brings a whole other layer of depth to the mix because he is a life-long scholar/journeying of this music and has been playing it longer than Miro and I, so his contribution is almost a kind of wisdom. The first time I played with Wayne, I recognized him immediately as a fellow-traveler on this life journey and it felt right away that I had known him for years. And that kind of deep connection happens among players in jazz who meet for the first as strangers on the bandstand, because in a sense, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter and many others are all our “elders”, our uncles and aunts. In my mid-twenties, I started feeling like a relative to the elders—that there is no separation between me and the music’s creators—the more deeply I respected the music, and I was no longer in a hurry to “get it,” and I came to the realization that there is no one solution to playing well, but a multitude (more than can be named), and I took a much longer view of the arc of the whole learning process of jazz after that.
You arrange the music for this Duke Ellington Tribute Trio, what kind of elements do you try to incorporate that aren't necessarily straight from Duke Ellington?
W: I direct the Duke Ellington Jazz Workshops at Westfield State University where I transcribed arrangements from the vast library of Ellingtonia spanning 50 years. I thought it would be challenging interpreting these intricate big band arrangements in a trio format. I was certain that Michael and Miro would not only meet the challenge but relish it.
MS: The challenge with arranging for this group is to adapt music that was mostly written for a larger ensemble to the trio format. Even if we keep exactly to Ellington's original arrangements the music inevitably takes on a new life with the trio instrumentation and our own musical personalities.
MZ: Wayne has done the lion’s share of transcribing the arrangements for this group. When we perform, I think we bring elements into our solos from the sum total of our collective experiences from our lives in and out of music.
What do you think is special about the music by Duke Ellington?
W: The answer to this question is threefold.
First, with swinging big band arrangements, symphonic and programmatic works as well numerous songs that have remained timeless classics, Duke Ellington’s music is beyond category.
Second, given the immense diversity of style, he never strays too far from the blues and the music of New Orleans.
Third, would be the prominent role of the bass in Ellington’s orchestration. The bass played such an essential role that he sometimes would hire two bassists!
MS: Duke Ellington is one of the great American composers of the 20th Century. He created a vast range of distinctive music ranging from concise popular songs to extended concert works. He was a master of creating unique tone colors by writing specifically for the members of his orchestra and he forever expanded the possibilities of a jazz big band. His music has wide emotional and textural range, using dissonance and surprising musical effects while still remaining rooted in the blues and swing. Ellington also had a unique piano style that was a great influence on artists like Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston.
MZ: Duke Ellington’s music is timelessly modern and classic at the same time. Timelessly modern in its harmonic vocabulary and classic in its connection to the deep history—the Blues, the Black church, and swing. His melodies are beautiful, often very playful in the uptempo tunes, and always supported by gorgeous chord choices.
I know you also teach workshops with this group, what are those like and where can people find out more information about getting involved with them?
W: As I mentioned earlier, I direct the Duke Ellington Jazz Workshops, adult and youth ensembles at Westfield State University. I am planning on adding the Duke Ellington Jazz Vocal Workshop to my programs this summer. You can find out more information by contacting Brandon Fredette at (413) 572-8033 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MZ: Wayne has really taken the lead in this project. The three of us have taught workshops separately, but I’m sure we would love to teach one together as a Trio. I’m sure that Wayne would help connect us with students who would want such a workshop.
Do you play with other Jazz projects?
W: I am involved in many projects in the New England area playing in a number of styles including classical music. I play in the string section for the Dartmouth Gospel Choir directed by Walt Cunningham. Recently I joined Joe Velez’s Creaciòn Latin Big Band. We perform the first and third Wednesday of the month at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield.
MS: I play with a wide range of musicians on both the east and west coasts. I am vocalist Karrin Allyson's touring pianist and I perform solo piano concerts and lead my own trio and quintet. I also perform with several other vocalists including Samirah Evans, Evelyn Harris, Dominique Eade etc.
MZ: I have played with Miro in his quintet, and I play with Eugene Uman’s Convergence Project, and guitarist Jason Ennis’s quintet.Jason has an album coming out later this Winter or early next Spring.
Do you think that The Valley and Western Mass has good opportunities for aspiring jazz musicians? Do you have any advice for those getting their start in the field? How does it compare to other communities that you may perform within or work with?
W: One thing which attracted me to the Pioneer Valley was the enormous public enthusiasm for jazz. A number of colleges in the area, including Westfield State University provide excellent curriculums in music.
MS: Western Mass has a solid amount of opportunities for young musicians with the variety of great artists that teach at the Five Colleges and programs like Jazz in July and the Northampton Jazz Festival and more. There's also the Tuesday Night Jazz Workshop and Jam Session in Northampton which has been a Valley mainstay for many years now and provided an opportunities for musicians of every age and experience level to play together and also brings in great artists from New York and elsewhere to perform in the Valley. Of course larger cities like New York and Ls Angeles have bigger music scenes more high level musicians but they're also much more expensive to live and can be competitive. For me at this point I prefer to live in a large city but Western MA was a good place to grow up and I've made many important and lasting musical connections here.
MZ: The Valley and Western Mass have tremendous opportunities and outlets for learning, listening, and mentorship. Just to name two, the Northampton Jazz Workshop led by pianist Paul Arsalanian on Tuesday nights at City Sports Grill is a great place to hear world-class headlining jazz musicians and get the opportunity to sit in at the jam session that follows in the 2nd set. Also, not far from the Valley, the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro offers weekly jazz ensemble opportunities for students and adults, and a monthly concert from a major jazz headliner. Those two venues are very nurturing to young talent than the jazz scene used to be, before there was such a thing as “jazz education.”
If you could only listen to one record for the rest of your life, what would it be?
W: That is a question that is next to impossible to answer!However, one record that I returLn to most often is the Unknown Session with the Duke Ellington Octet.
MS: It's hard to pick one but it might have to be the album that inspired me to become a musician, Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue".
MZ: I wouldn’t want to listen to just one record for the rest of my life, but a Duke Ellington album that I find myself returning to lately is “The Complete Louis Armstrong-Duke Ellington sessions.” My 3-year-old loves it, I love it, and Duke’s piano intros are brilliant mini-compositions by themselves!
What should people expect that are coming out on January 4th?
W: Expect what we will expect, the unexpected and plenty of Ellington!
MS: The music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, smartly arranged for a saxophone/bass/piano trio with lots of creative improvisation and group interaction. This is also an opportunity for audiences to hear great compositions by Ellington that they may not have had exposure to before.
MZ: Some joyful playing from all three of us!
What's next for The Duke Ellington Trio?
W: What has been long overdue, to bring the trio into the recording studio.
MS: Because we live in different areas of the country (I'm mostly in LA and NYC, Wayne is in Mass, and Michael's in Vermont) we unfortunately don't get to play together very often. We'll just keep looking for more opportunities to play together!
MZ: Time will tell. . .
Thank you all so much for taking the time, we are looking forward to your performance on January 4th!
To purchase tickets for The Duke Ellington Tribute Trio on Friday, January 4th at 8PM click here.
To RSVP to the Facebook event and stay in touch with the community click here.
Food and Drink will be available for purchase in The Bistro until 10PM.