Daily jazz blog, Marlbank

Craig Handy interview

From 2013. The tenor saxophone is at the heart and soul of jazz. It represents spirit, a sense of freedom, and it’s about expression. No finer exponent of the instrument, and the wider tradition in transition, Craig Handy, returned with his first …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 3 years.

From 2013. The tenor saxophone is at the heart and soul of jazz. It represents spirit, a sense of freedom, and it’s about expression. No finer exponent of the instrument, and the wider tradition in transition, Craig Handy, returned with his first album in 13 years, 2nd Line Smith

The saxophone is also a symbol and its best players speak for the music whether they play a classic ballad, the fastest routine imaginable, or trade fours congenially with the rest of the band. They might even cut up another player if they feel like it just, well…, because they can. And when there’s a saxophone in the band whether the leader is a tenorist or not everyone sits up and takes note. The sound takes time to mature to speak beyond the notes and that maturity can come at any age. A tenorist is a tenor player at heart whether that player moves over to alto or any other of the saxophone family or moves across to flute.

California-born 51-year-old Craig Handy is one of the masters of the instrument but yet somehow hasn’t made an album of his own since Flow came out 13 years ago. But it’s not as if he has not been recording, however. Far from it, appearing in the interim with the hard bop supergroup The Cookers on recording projects and touring, captured to considerable effect on record with trombonist Conrad Herwig on The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock; or as a key part of the Mingus Big Band appearing on their albums Live at Jazz Standard, Live in Tokyo, and best of all, Tonight at Noon. But now’s the time for Handy, and it’s not even just about the saxophone, as Handy, the torch handed down to him by James Newton, also plays sinuous flute set against sousaphone and rhythm guitar on the tune ‘Alfredo’, a tune on his major label debut for the Sony-owned OKeh label and his Jimmy Smith-meets-New Orleans album 2nd Line Smith just released.

Handy’s debut for a label practically synonymous with the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, appropriately enough, features another trumpet icon in guest Wynton Marsalis, who Handy goes way back with to the 1980s, and also there's a guest appearance by Dee Dee Bridgewater, the classic jazz singer who Handy has worked with quite extensively over the years.

Joined by New Jersey-born guitarist Matt Chertkoff, particularly expressive on ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’; B3 Hammond organist Kyle Koehler, who’s on the soulful James Hunter 6 album Minute By Minute and a lively presence here on opener ‘Minor Chant’; the joker in the pack and engine of the album is funky sousaphone player Clark Gayton (driving Wes Montgomery’s joyous ‘OGD aka Road Song’); while Dee Dee guests effortlessly in an uncheesy version of ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’, with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drummer Ali Jackson’s rim shots and snare-on syncopating a feature drummers will appreciate. Handy and Jackson also go way back, appearing on Flow, Handy’s fourth and last album as leader the distant predecessor to 2nd Line Smith. You could draw a line from Baby Dodds to Herlin Riley, who’s also on the album (flying here on the “fonky” ‘Ready and Able’), and really feel the fit. Wynton’s brother, another New Orleans connection, Jason Marsalis, is also here on large chunks of the album, and Wynton himself is on a raucous ‘Mojo Workin’ with a lively Dr John-like vocal by bluesman Clarence Spady.

“I was overdue for a solo recording project,” Handy says, speaking on the phone from his home in New Jersey, ahead of returning to the road for dates in London and Ireland. “I was quite comfortable being a sideman over the past 12 or 13 years. I found it difficult to lead my own groups. I was just having trouble as it was hard to get four busy musicians together, so it took a back seat to my being a sideman. My father passed away and I had a reality check. He had been fighting cancer for three years and my sister and I were hoping that he’d make a miraculous recovery but the truth was he was getting worse, heading into remission now and then, but the inevitable finally happened, and I hit a bottom rock, and it was a cold slap in the face. I had been putting my life on hold while he was sick, hoping he would get better. Finally when he passed (I still have my mother), it was a reminder of my own mortality and the blinders got stripped off. There was an adjustment period to come to grips with his passing and figuring out a new recovering therapy.”

Yet 2nd Line Smith, given the grieving that Handy has been through, is a startlingly affirmative affair. “It’s a celebration of life – once I put my father’s passing into perspective it was a case of remembering that people here in the western world have all these wonderful things to distract us but yet not everybody has access to it. Part of it is the realisation that we have a wonderful culture in the western world but there are more people who don’t have the things we have. What it is that we all share is that we all care about common points. We’re all subject to the same laws of physics and one thing we all appreciate is music.”

Handy had a plan, and in the sleeve notes explains: “The roux is to the sauce as dance is to the music. But the roux of the jazz recipe – dance – has been absent in most of jazz for too long.” He picks up the theme in a strong communicative voice: “I was trying to figure out how to bring dance back into jazz. Sometimes there’d be a dance band down the street and jazz in the concert hall with people falling asleep after a hard day’s work. I wanted that missing vibrancy to be part of the album.”

Handy must have also had a notion about the sheer life force of jazz present in years gone by and still there to be witnessed through his work with the revelatory hard bop supergroup The Cookers where he found himself in the remarkable company of Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart. What if The Cookers played the music of 2nd Line Smith, what would that be like? “It would be different and it wouldn’t be,” Handy says enigmatically. “They understand the deep tradition, the origins came from whatever happened in New Orleans and the closer you are to the time period, as the people in The Cookers were [mostly] born in the 30s and 40s, they’re more privy to the early forms. But they would handle it with more confidence. Billy Hart is the first person who’ll tell you he appreciates Baby Dodds.”

Handy attended North Texas State University from 1981-1984, and came to New York in the mid-1980s later touring extensively with Roy Haynes where one of his features would be ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ a ballad he loves to this day. But playing with singer Betty Carter and also pianist Herbie Hancock were also crucial milestones for the Californian. “Betty was fearless,” he says. “She didn’t have any fear of putting forth what she had at any given moment. I learnt not to be afraid, to use that emotion as source for your expression. She was dynamic with the different musicians in the band and she was one of the great schools of the craft to learn the application. If it was a college course it would be a doctorate programme. She would snap you back to the path, stopping the band on the bandstand for not paying attention or being tired. She was never afraid to put everything on the line, or ask the musicians why they are playing the wrong chords. It never happened to me as I was an add-on, not part of the rhythm section, and I was working with her for two years. By the time I came in all the material had been gone over and I knew what I was going to play.”

As for his experience working with Herbie Hancock (taking over from Michael Brecker in The New Standard band on the road in the 1990s) Handy says: “Herbie Hancock is down to earth and a person so full of humanity that he never puts on any airs or graces. But the only thing is he’s on another level from anyone else, and even if you have one working ear you’ll understand that this guy is not your average musician. He’s always respectful to people doing their jobs around him, very mindful of trying to be a human being and to maintain this calm and equanimity that gives you confidence to be able to go forward. If you want to try something he would be there. It’s that cat-like sense.”

At this feline turn in the conversation it would be remiss not to talk about a certain Hammond organ player even if ‘The Cat’ does not feature on 2nd Line Smith but as the hero of the album much else about the Incredible Jimmy Smith is highly pertinent. “We did five or six concerts around New York but didn’t have the drummer and sousaphone player. It was straightahead, and swinging. Having never played with Don Patterson or Jimmy Smith, having never played in a Hammond organist’s band, it was always something I wanted to do, to seek out. That was the impetus to work with the organ. With the first version of the band I realised after the fifth or sixth gig that these Stanley Turrentine/Jimmy Smith/Wes Montgomery tunes were the pinnacle but I’m never going to be as groovin’ as Stanley or Jimmy. I think I hit a wall and I was thinking this has been done before and how am I going to add to the lexicon of this music. And I was thinking about The Cat. What is it that makes those songs? And I realised that it was the drum beats from New Orleans, and this is the way to go. Playing with a sousaphone is something to take advantage of, the rhythm is the most important thing that makes or breaks the feel.”

Handy, whether he’s playing tenor or flute on this record or with the Mingus Big Band, always comes across as if he’s subverting the norm not by doing anything outrageous but just putting in a layer of expression that seems to lift the lid like plain speaking, a certain frisson. And there’s that additional sense of creative flux the Mingus band always seems to be in. They could never be a tux-and-nostalgia outfit coasting along: the spirit of the counterculture is alive and well. But how does Handy feel this febrile heat is retained?

“You have to give credit to Charles Mingus,” he says straight off the bat. “There’s nothing like what he does. He was a virtuoso bass player and an uncelebrated composer in his day yet a very important figure in American music. We have 300 songs of his and we’ve played about 100, and all credit to the musicians: they pick the other musicians. We started with Mingus Dynasty with the guys who played with Mingus, and then there were people like me who didn’t. There’s a strong connection worked in. The creative process is absorbed as if by osmosis and it’s a powerful indoctrination. People are coming in one by one to join, it’s not 10 at a time. Everybody is vibing with Mingus, and Mingus valued self expression to the highest degree.”

One thing that might surprise people who listen to 2nd Line Smith is the sheer fervour and vitality Wynton Marsalis brings to ‘Mojo Workin’’, the eighth track on the album, a song you might think has been done to death but comes across here as box fresh. Handy heard the song first via bluesman Muddy Waters’ version and then Ray Charles. As for Wynton, his take on the song is up there in terms of spirit with 2005’s Live at the House of Tribes, arguably Wynton’s last great showing on an album of his own. “To have Wynton play on a project is a great satisfaction. He’s a great player, one of the great trumpet players, and he came and he burned it down. I was getting goose bumps.” Written by Stephen Graham.


Robert Mitchell interview

First published in 2017. A significant milestone in the pianist and composer’s distinguished career, a work that takes its inspirations in freedom, groove, power, grace, symbiosis, Ubuntu, trust, love and loss ROBERT MITCHELL explains the origins …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 years.

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First published in 2017. A significant milestone in the pianist and composer’s distinguished career, a work that takes its inspirations in freedom, groove, power, grace, symbiosis, Ubuntu, trust, love and loss ROBERT MITCHELL explains the origins and background to his groundbreaking A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace.

The most thought provoking and moving part of the album is the tribute to Debbie Purdy. How did you know Debbie, and why did you decide to write the tribute? I knew her through my long and continued association with the great Omar Puente, her husband. And in a professional sense as a musician who interacted with her as an agent in duo with Omar. Her positivity in spite of such difficult circumstances having long term multiple sclerosis were beyond inspirational. And as we live longer more circumstances will come to light for the UK courts to deal with in the difficult area of ending suffering for such chronic conditions while not criminalising those who are left to potentially make such an important decision. So I think the appreciation of the work she did to highlight the archaic state of the law here will only increase. It was the least I could do.

A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace seems to have powerful liturgical elements couched in a secular language. That’s not an easy thing to do. Do you think people are really in tune with their spiritual side; is that part of the need provided? It is more spiritual than liturgical for me. I mean both from the viewpoint of being vigilant but also its meaning of deeply watching something that is potentially coming to an end. Among many things in these times justice and peace certainly need constant vigilance. I think we are kept distracted from our spirituality by too much news, biased for the needs of whichever corporation is putting it out and by too much technology that is designed to hypnotise and not educate and inspire. I would love to contribute to helping to bring a better balance to this state of affairs in any way I can; and both the album in its inspiration and it being on vinyl (with all its inherent rituals), are a part of that need.

Can you describe where you’re coming from in terms of poetic inspiration and what element of poetry inspires you most when it comes to interpreting it musically as well as separately? I’m thinking of a number of innovations in this area you’re probably familiar with, say Stan Tracey and Michael Horovitz, the poem on A Love Supreme probably the greatest of them all… maybe you’d give an overview of your personal journey with the genre? I am inspired through the prism of lyrics that are poetic and can stand alone, and poems that have been set to music. Obviously we are exposed to a number of poems in school. But my father’s songs were a starting point for me to attempt to express through lyrics. His love of Carmen Jones, Show Boat, Cats, etc. meant I was exposed to his rehearsing of Oscar Hammerstein II, Tim Rice, PG Wodehouse, etc, and through jazz Ira Gershwin, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Billy Strayhorn. Going the other way anything from traditional Haiku, Zuni spiritual poems, to Claudia Rankine and Warsan Shire. For me, the inspiration will spring from rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, and any original approach to imagery that expands the imagination. Poems whose lifeblood is eternal hope striving through trying times.

Tell me about the background of Thami Hlabangana, one of the narrators of the album. New name to me. How did your collaboration come about? Thami was introduced to me by producer Miles Bould. Originally from Zimbabwe he is a brilliant MC and poet and recorded great takes of these poems very quickly. They used to be in a group together a while ago. I would love to perform with him live but he doesn’t do it that often and I am still working on persuading him! In the meantime look out for some videos featuring his great narration.

You go way back with HKB Finn, don’t you? I recall hearing you play Brussels with him at the Jazz Marathon festival too many years ago now to comfortably recall, actually thankfully not that many! How did you first describe the project to HKB and what do you think he brings most to it? Yes I used to be in a band with HKB years ago and he has guested on a previous album of mine The Cusp. I described the background to the album, sent the poem and he came over to record, simples! He brings a great sensitivity, range and lightness of spirit to this project.

How long has your Epiphany trio been around? What is it that you like most about the way you play together? It is a very recent thing for me being born last year. I love the consistent challenge to up the risk-taking, the quality and clarity of improvisational narrative, and moving towards including more pieces of completely improvised music.

Have you worked with producer Miles Bould before? How did he come on board and why choose him in the first place? What do you think he brought most of all to the project? I have worked with Miles Bould in his fantastic band Usonic for a number of years and have taken part in the recording of an earlier project of Yolanda Charles, The Deep Mo, in which he played drums. I asked him to take part as he is a hugely experienced percussionist with the likes of Sting, Robert Palmer and Billy Ocean who also is heavily into fusion and electric jazz. He has worked with numerous brilliant producers and I was led to wonder if he did much himself! He brought a great clarity, levity and a brilliant scrutiny to capturing our sound at the highest quality. I feature on his great new album Tribute and he himself features on a brilliant new ECM album by the superb Dominic Miller.

In terms of the album message it seems you are ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ against the odds for social and political change. That wait/hoping when and how did it begin and how, what needs to happen, will it end? I think it is a frustration that has grown partly through living as a son, and husband of nurses in the NHS. It is of course connected to the way society here is structured and badly imbalanced. That has not happened in isolation and is connected to my parents coming here in the 1950s and 60s: their hopes and fears. And as a parent myself I see opportunities for education, good health and the arts becoming ever harder to access for far too many. What needs to happen is first talking about this as often as possible especially with those who have a different viewpoint from my own and putting our creative energies towards implementing the best ideas. That amazing thing that the Internet is capable of – of being the most incredible forum – is slowly helping great ideals spread globally. We need to take part and contribute via our skills. I don’t think politics can best benefit from just a proportion of a population being active only on polling day. I hope it ends with yes a hard fought but long lasting unity across people, nations, cultures, religions and approaches to living on this one planet we have to share at this present time.

How do you see poetry operating differently to say using a hip-hop style and why does it attract you more for this project? I see it operating in the very same way but just at a different frequency range. It is a shared root love of the power of language, and the need for the words to stand forth without being sung that attracted me this time around. I had not done it before to this degree, and with the nature of the inspiration for this album, the subject matter etc, I thought mostly the solo narrator and the internal rhythm of poetry would be something to explore in a larger way. I wanted the words to stand alone and to have the weight of meaning dictate the direction, and the music to sonically echo the space in which you reflect on the words.

The power in the lyrics seems most expressed in ‘The Migration.’ Is the role of the artist an observer of world events as well as an interpreter of them? Can art take the place of a helplessness as tragic events unfold? I think we need more artists to observe, interpret, reflect and also be involved in the creation of solutions to the challenges that we face. As a descendant of people who were stripped of so many freedoms as slaves – language, religion, family ties etc – art survived and provided a vital help. It has been a lifeblood for many cultures going through an equivalent tragedy throughout history. Culture is the ultimate connector, the eternal therapy, and the clearest mirror in which historical events are passed on. So, yes it can take place of a helplessness. But I do think jazz, music and art in general can definitely play a bigger role in shaping a better future and really ought to contribute much more towards this right now.