Destined for a life lived prolifically, Jason Palmer grew up in High Point, North Carolina, two houses away from where John Coltrane spent his childhood. From a hometown legacy, the trumpet player/composer gleaned inspiration for his own creativity and output.
Palmer came to Boston in 1997 to study at New England Conservatory, and now teaches down the street at Berklee College of Music. This weekend, Palmer brings his chordless quartet to New York for a live recording of brand new music and previously unrecorded compositions. We caught up with Jason to discuss his work ethic, a moment with Wayne Shorter he’s never forgotten, and the case for leaving space.
The Jazz Gallery: I can barely keep track of how many records you’ve put out as a leader. What’s the current total?
Jason Palmer: I’ve kind of lost track over the years. I have one coming out this month, and I had one come out last month. I did a double live disc at Wally’s, so I think it’s eight. I got two in the can.
TJG: Your rate of releasing album-length material is rigorous. Over the years, you’ve released many inspired recordings including your interpretations of Minnie Riperton’s music and more recently Janelle Monáe’s. Has that degree of output always come naturally to you? Do you ever struggle with the pressure of releasing new music, particularly in the age of streaming?
JP: The whole streaming thing hasn’t really bothered me as much as I think it should. I try not to worry too much; I try to focus more on putting work out there to hopefully inspire people. I don’t necessarily think of it as a revenue generating endeavor as much as other projects that I do—teaching and composing and commissions.
So yes, it’s been easy for me because I’ve written a lot of material I haven’t had a chance to record and put out. I probably have a waiting list of about 100 tunes that I want to eventually record and put out there. And it’s a great opportunity to do it next week [at the Gallery], which is going to be a mix of old tunes I’ve written but haven’t recorded, and I recently composed a set of original music that we’re going to do, as well. I think we’re going to have enough to do a double disc. If all goes well, we’ll have enough takes between the four sets on Friday and Saturday.
TJG: Because you don’t put that revenue-driven pressure on yourself to put out these records, I wonder if that helps the process remain natural for you, year to year.
JP: Yes, and I’m lucky because I’ve been working with Steeplechase for six or seven, maybe eight albums. I have one in the can for them now; we did the music of Anita Baker. I recorded that back in December. And my agreement with them is that I can release one record every year. This year I happened to be able to put out two. So they offer me that commercial platform, and I’m sure if I didn’t have them, I would do it independently, which is what I’m going to do with the new record that’s going to be live at the Gallery.
TJG: Will this be your first independent release?
JP: Yeah it will be. So then I’ll be dealing with the streaming.
TJG: As an artist who’s often in the studio, do you find playing in the studio to be more of a challenge than playing live?
JP: I think it all depends on the construct of the material that’s being recorded. Especially in improvised music, there has to be some sonic cues to let you know to go on to the next section in the tune. If you’re in a recording session in the studio and you don’t have those cite lines to know when that’s going to happen—or if you haven’t played the material enough to have the intuition to know something’s about to happen—then it might not feel as organic as it would in a live recording. So I think it has a lot to do with the material. But for me, the most important difference is the energy you get from recording live, the energy you get from the audience. In the studio, you kind of have to generate that feeling to try to produce how you would play that music live when you’re playing in the studio.
TJG: Have you come up with any physical or mental strategies to help you generate that live energy when you’re in the studio?
JP: I haven’t really thought about it in that way because I always try to play my best whenever I’m playing—bring the music to life. A lot of times I’m either playing someone else’s music, so I’m trying to make their music sound better, or I’m trying to bring life to my own [music]. So I always try to play my best and whatever it’s going to be that day is the snapshot of what it is that day. I try not to worry too much about it.
TJG: It sounds like you have a strong mental awareness. I know you’re passionate about the concept of collective creativity—collaborating in the moment with other artists. And I imagine you often find yourself exploring new directions when you’re on the bandstand with equally creative players. For anecdote’s sake, can you discuss a time in particular when someone else playing with or alongside you unexpectedly opened your ears in a profound way?
JP: This configuration next week is chordless quartet, so it’s going to be saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums. I’ve played in that configurations many times throughout my career, and I think playing with Mark Turner has really opened my ears to a lot of possibilities. The way he plays, he kind of redefines chord structures at times, when I’m playing with him. For chords written as a major chord, he might make it dominant or sus or something, and it’s really opened my ears to improvising in a bigger box than what’s written on the page. So I think the culminating experience of playing and recording with him—I’ve been playing with his quartet for about a year and a half now—and every time I play with him it’s an eye- and ear-opening experience.
But I think the most profound moment I’ve ever experienced is one where I wasn’t on the gig; I was at a gig. I was in France listening to Wayne Shorter’s quartet. He had Danilo [Perez], [John] Patitucci and Brian Blade. There was this one particular moment when Wayne was taking a solo and there was space where he wasn’t playing anything, then all of a sudden he plays this phrase. And Danilo plays the exact same phrase. It was maybe a five—I don’t know, eight-note grouping—a small little melody of something. It wasn’t a quote or anything, it was just this beautiful melody. And they played it exactly in unison. And there was nothing afterwards, either. They just played that little phrase and they both stopped at the same time. I’d never seen two musicians be that in sync with each other to play the exact same thing at the exact same time and have nothing to give any kind of indication as to what that’s going to be right then in that moment. There was nothing leading up to it saying, ‘Okay we’re going to play this phrase right here,’ and nothing after it to let you know, ‘Okay this was in reference to this other tune.’ When I heard it, I screamed. And it stuck with me for years and years.
It happened to me maybe once or twice since then because I’ve tried to get into that vessel of creativity. It’s happened maybe once or twice playing with another horn player or guitar player here at Wally’s, but it wasn’t at all as profound as hearing Wayne Shorter and Danilo do that kind of thing. It was surreal.
TJG: Thanks for sharing that story. Since we’re on the subject of melodies and phrases, you yourself craft these beautiful, very intriguing melodies from what’s happening around you rhythmically and harmonically. Are you ever at a loss for melody when you’re playing, and if yes, how do you resolve that block in the moment?
JP: It doesn’t happen often, probably because I admit I’m kind of long winded on the horn. But I think whenever I get into that space, I always have to remind myself to use space. You know, when you use space and don’t play, you get information from the people you’re playing with, which is something I try to do; it’s something I learned from Mark, too. You use that space and let other people feed you ideas, and then use those ideas as a springboard. So if I overthink, that tends to happen, and I just have to remind myself—and take the initiative to remind myself—to stop, use space, do what Miles would do and play from there.
TJG: For this live recording, you’ve selected some deeply creative players who have very big musical personalities. You talked a little bit about Mark; do you want to talk about the rest of the personnel?
JP: Oh yeah. Matt Brewer is wonderful, amazing—one of the most creative bass players I’ve ever known. We toured in Greg Osby’s band back in the early 2000s. And I taught at a camp in Grand Rapids, Michigan with him and his father every year for about six years. He’s one of the first bass players I’ve ever seen who can really cleanly and articulately play a John Coltrane solo on the acoustic bass. I had never really seen anybody do that until I saw him do it in the early 2000s. There are tons of bass players who could do it, but I’d never seen it in person.
TJG: Was that on Greg’s gig?
JP: We were just at a sound check and he started playing a solo that I already knew, and I was like, ‘Man, that can be played on the bass?’ He really opened my ears up to what the bass can do. And Kendrick Scott, I’ve known him ever since he was a student at Berklee. We’re going back 16 or 17 years. We had a band for a while in Boston; we played at Wally’s and the Wonder Bar. I’m very lucky to get [them both] on this gig for two days.
TJG: What would you hope listeners bring with them to the live recording?
JP: Just an open heart and some open ears. I don’t ask for much—and their hands, because if they clap and cheer, it’s going to be on the record, just like Art Blakey said back in the ’50s.
TJG: Is there anything about the recording you’d like to add?
JP: With these tunes, what I ended up doing is pay homage to the people who have been influencing me lately. So there’s a handful of tunes I ended up taking the chord changes from and transposing them and putting in different time signatures and then creating melodies over those chord changes. It’s kind of an homage to the harmonic minds of some of my favorite artists. So I have one tune that’s inspired by an Alan Hampton tune; I did the same with a Mark Tuner tune, and “August Green” from this new record that came out with Karriem Riggins and the rapper Common. It has a really interesting time signature, so I wrote a tune in that time signature, put the changes of a Herbie Hancock tune to it and wrote a melody. So it’s going to be a mix.
Giant Step Arts presents Jason Palmer Quartet Live Recording at The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, June 15-16, 2018. The group features Jason Palmer on trumpet, Mark Turner on saxophone, Matt Brewer on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.