With their recent album Weatherbird, pianist Cory Smythe and trumpeter Peter Evans used “Weather Bird” by Louis Armstrong as a compositional point of departure. The piece, recorded by Armstrong and pianist with Earl Hines in 1928, is something of a landmark in the world of jazz duets. To quote musicologist and Earl Hines scholar Jeffrey Taylor:
“Unmatched in its passion, innovation, and brash sense of fun, “Weather Bird” is perhaps the most famous jazz duet ever recorded… As an intensely focused performance, undertaken without the support or distraction of a rhythm section or any accompanying instruments, it has invited both inquiry into the styles of two of jazz’s greatest artists and a detailed examination of the improvisational process itself.” (Taylor, Jeffrey: Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and “Weather Bird”, American Musics, 1998)
Smythe and Evans grasped the spirit of this seminal recording and ran with it, using the material to build a program of new duets for trumpet and piano. The collaboration began in 2014 as a commission from the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which Evans and Smythe are both members. To celebrate the release of the new album (a mind-bending listen when paired with the original “Weather Bird”), Smythe and Evans will be playing at The Jazz Gallery alongside another duo, vibraphonist Joel Ross and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. We caught up with Evans and Smythe about the original “Weather Bird” and their thoughts on the upcoming collaborative show.
TJG: Weatherbird was released a few days ago, congratulations! For those who haven’t listened yet, what exactly is it? A re-composition, a tribute, a live concert?
Cory Smythe: It’s all three of those things. The project began with a prompt, a commission from ICE, the International Contemporary Ensemble, of which Peter and I are both members. The idea, going back several years now, was to program a concert that was responding in some way to older music. We decided to look at the collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, particularly in this duet “Weather Bird,” and then to spin things out from there in various directions. We distilled the project down to the pieces presented on the recording, which deal with the “Weather Bird” material either head-on or, in the case of a couple of compositions of mine, refracts the material it in different ways. Peter wrote a kind of version of “Basin Street Blues,” and another original piece that’s related in a more abstract way to the underlying material.
TJG: Peter, how did you construct your compositional and musical responses to the piece? What kind of approach did you take?
PE: Many approaches. “Bsnst Bls” in the A section is taking a certain flavor of major triad and dominant chord motion and just going crazy with it, so that the colors change super fast, like a kaleidoscope. The B section contrasts with blues harmony and a really florid, virtuosic melody on top. It’s almost like an improvisation, but notated for the two of us. The piece “bls” was written really intuitively from the skeleton of blues melody, but then taken further and further out until it just became this delicate spiderweb of a line. I then added a totally different changing harmonic colors underneath, I think three or four different types of colors, which were done really fast and intuitively at a piano when we were on tour in Brazil three summers ago.
TJG: Cory, how did you tackle the “Weather Bird” material?
CS: I was just approaching it in the spirit of play. “Weatherbirdhouse” and “Weatherbird Wave” both deal with materials from “Weather Bird” through a kind of prism. I wrote “Weatherbird Wave” by messing around with the recording of “Weather Bird,” processing it, and transcribing it. What’s going on in “Weatherbird Wave” is a stylized exaggeration of what would happen in a warped record. Maybe in that way, it invites that connection because of the age of that recording. Weatherbird itself remains such a startling, refreshing performance. I continue to find inspiration in investigating it.
TJG: This is going back a few years now, but what was it about “Weather Bird” that made you want to approach it that way? And what makes the piece so startling and refreshing?
CS: The piece came to mind when we were thinking about this prompt of reacting to older music, which was given to us through this ICE project. “Weather Bird” is, in some ways, the origin of a certain way of making. On that track, there remain these little twists and turns that are so creative, inventive, virtuosic. The energy and connection between those greats is still palpable.
TJG: Peter, your thoughts on original “Weather Bird” recording with Armstrong and Hines?
PE: The recording is a genius document. Cory and I share an affinity for that period, especially Cory, who has internalized some really interesting aspects of stride and Tatum-esque stuff into his playing. We just thought it would be an interesting germ to develop into a whole program.
TJG: What’s it like coming together as a duo, especially having been in ICE together?
CS: Super exciting for me. Peter is somebody who’s work I’ve really admired. Proximity to him in the context of ICE is part of what has motivated some of my own paths as an improviser. I relish any opportunity to get to play with him, and to try to support and match his energy, virtuosity, and ridiculous creativity.
PE: Though ICE is how we met, our musical relationship initially developed separately. We lived within a few blocks of one another for over a decade. I’d go over to Cory’s house and we’d play every once in awhile. That went on for six or seven years before we even played a concert together.
TJG: So leading up to the Weatherbird project, was the collaborative process quite involved?
CS: It was a fairly long collaboration. Episodic, I’d say: We performed a handful of iterations of the basic program before we got together to make the record. Maybe three or four performances over the course of a year or two. Prior to that, we did some workshopping together, some rehearsals, the usual. Since recording, we’ve done some other duo stuff, moving on into some different terrain. Next week at The Jazz Gallery will be the first time we’re returning to some of this material in two or three years.
TJG: What’s it like to step inside the performance of Armstrong and Hines? They were together around a piano so many years ago, and you and Peter are coming together over the same material, embodying the same space. Does that ever cross your mind while playing?
CS: Yes and no. While I’m actually playing, that’s probably not a conscious thought that I’m capable of having, there’s so much else to think about. There’s a sense in which I hope it’s worthwhile to re-investigate this material, or just treat it as a musical object, or set of musical objects, that can be manipulated and investigated. I’ve loved Earl Hines’ playing for years. I don’t want to suggest in any way that I’m on his level [laughs]. This isn’t about stepping into his identity. It’s a tribute, borne of truly sincere admiration, and time spent trying to learn about his playing, and to use whatever knowledge I acquire in that effort for my own nefarious purposes [laughs].
TJG: Where do Joel Ross and Immanuel Wilkins come into the fold?
CS: Those guys are amazing young artists, and we thought it would be a great opportunity to share the stage with them. We’re each functioning as separate duos. We’re still finalizing the structure of the set, but the hope is that we’ll be, as duos, responding to one another. I believe that they’ve been checking out our Weatherbird record, and are preparing something that’s meant to deal with the material in some way. Whatever they bring to the table will end up informing what Peter and I do.
TJG: How did the link between you guys and Joel and Immanuel come up?
PE: I’ve been playing with Joel a bit, and really like the vibe he and Immanuel have. I don’t think they’ve performed duo, but they certainly play a lot together in general and I thought it would be a nice compliment to Cory and myself. There’s something that resonates with me about their playing. It’s traditional, extremely personal, and futuristic all at once.
CS: All I know is that I’ve heard them play in other contexts and was really blown away. I was glad they were available to join us for this concert.
Peter Evans & Cory Smythe, and Immanuel Wilkins & Joel Ross play The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.