Philip Dizack, one of the most sought-after trumpeters in New York these days, plays and writes with rare maturity and clarity. Having recorded several critically-acclaimed albums, Dizack maintains a full schedule of collaborations and commissions. Always thoughtful and aware of his predilections and predispositions, Dizack has been discussing his musical approach for years, as can be seen in this piece by NPR. We caught up on the phone and talked about how he approaches challenges, chips away at musical obstacles, and cultivates collaborations.
The Jazz Gallery: You played on Ben van Gelder’s Among Verticals album release at The Jazz Gallery. That was a great project, do you play with Ben often?
Philip Dizack: Let’s see, the first gig I ever did with Ben was with Melissa Aldana and Glenn Zaleski’s Sextet at The Jazz Gallery. He asked me to do his recording project and CD release. We’ve known about each other for a long time, but I didn’t get to know him personally until this past year. I went to hear him play recently. He’s one of these people where, if I’m not working, I definitely don’t stay at home. I always want to hear my heroes and contemporaries, people I admire greatly, and I always go if I have the opportunity.
TJG: Over the summer you were touring on the west coast and in Europe with a number of different artists—Kyle Poole, Dayna Stephens, Billy Childs, Myron Walden, and so on. How do you manage your busy schedule?
PD: For New York musicians, we’re always trying to have a busy schedule [laughs]. It’s not so much an issue of managing the schedule as it is an issue of managing sleep, dedication, and focus. There’s always a trade-off somewhere, and generally it errs on the side of no sleep [laughs]. For anybody really striving to create something of their own, and to be a part of something they care about, it’s like having your own baby. You have to sacrifice things because you care so much about what you’re doing. The sacrifices aren’t really “sacrifices,” and managing your schedule isn’t really “managing your schedule.” Those things you do are really about striving to have the most beautiful experiences you can as an artist.
TJG: Have you ever struggled with burnout?
PD: In terms of emotional burnout or lack of interest, I think there’s a season for everything. Have I really experienced burnout? No. But I’ve found myself in situations where I didn’t know exactly what my purpose was. Those situations have helped to clarify the things I care about. I’ve never gotten burned out on the overarching goal or passion, but I have experienced indicators of things I may not want to do, and those helped push me in the right direction. It’s not often that you find yourself in a position with consistency, variety, spontaneity, a feeling of importance and connection. When all of those things coalesce, you end up with a feeling of purpose in the moment. Those privileged moments have shaped and revealed who I am.
TJG: You’ve written that the discovery of Miles Davis at a young age was particularly formative for you, as it tends to be for young jazz musicians. What do you think it is about Davis’ language and approach that appeals to developing musicians?
PD: I think what was behind his playing, his story, was most important. His identity as a person and a musical actor was the most prolific thing about him, which is why he experimented and ventured into other art forms. He also paid attention to details which are mostly neglected. Everything he’s doing seems very simple, to the point that so many people can copy it. But to create it for the first time, that’s something. Anyone else just sounds like a copy of Miles. There’s a whole essence that’s missing when you copy it. There’s a depth to who he was as a person and as an artist that manifested itself in anything he did in music. Kind of Blue is a perfect example. Everyone has heard the record a hundred thousand times, bur if you listen to “Blue In Green,” it’s still unbelievable. You’re connected to it every time. He has an emotional connection that most musicians haven’t found. Not that I can claim otherwise, but most musicians have a hard time getting past the laundry list of theoretical and technical hurdles that we have to overcome and work on.
TJG: Those hurdles can be daunting, especially for a young musician learning this art form. There are so many boxes to check if you want to say you’re proficient at your instrument and you know your craft. Do you meet a lot of young musicians who are overwhelmed by the list, and can’t seem to find an authentic voice?
PD: Yeah, I think it’s a tough thing, and musicians in my age group are still insecure or overwhelmed about it. I’ve thought about this a lot: When I was a baby or young child, who told me that I had to know something to express myself? Because when I was young, I didn’t have to know very much. I just expressed myself. We suddenly get to this point, maybe because of school or because music is taught for whatever reason, where you get paralyzed because you think you don’t know enough to express yourself. But when you were three years old, you expressed yourself as authentically and as genuinely and authentically as you ever have in your entire life. It wasn’t until you learned that you had to know something that you stopped expressing yourself freely. It’s a good barometer to check.
Every day, I look at the laundry list of things I have to work on, things I know need extraordinary development. It’s easy for me to get caught up in a place where I don’t feel ready for a recording session or whatever it might be. I think it’s more positive to always know that there are a thousand things that you could work on today, but that there’s a need to be in the present, and to be okay with stopping and expressing who you are in that moment. In an ideal world, that gesture doesn’t define you, but rather is just a representation of your progress. Of course, all of this is easy to say and much harder to do. I’m not saying I’m living in that reality yet, but I’m working on it.
TJG: Regarding End of an Era (2012), All About Jazz called the album “A statement of maturity that is born out of personal life experiences.” What was going on in your life at that time?
PD: I wrote most of that music six or seven years ago—I was going through a long-term relationship ending, and both of my grandparents had recently passed away. I arrived at an age where I was more aware of the social world around me. End of an Era expresses my subjective experience of a period of transition. Hopefully others can relate, though I’m not sure that’s the role of an artist. I don’t think I’m at a place where I think I can do that well, and that’s a block that’s keeping me from recording. But I think the hope is to get outside of yourself so much that you can actually express other people’s stories. I’ve talked about myself enough. Who wants to hear somebody talk about themselves? It’s generally not captivating and more of a spectacle. But if you hear somebody passionately speaking about the people around them, about something dear to your heart, that person becomes very captivating. The great songwriters do that. Sometimes it’s self-indulgent, like a love song, but everyone can relate to it. So I didn’t think End of an Era was self-indulgent per se, but I don’t think it was serving others enough either. It contains common themes of hope, love, and loss, but I think there’s another form of communication that I can explore in my own journey.
TJG: Your piano and bass parts on tunes like “Forest Walker” sound very natural. Do you do a lot of your writing at the piano?
PD: “Forest Walker” I did write at the piano, but every song is different. There’s a song called “Grow” that I wrote in the shower [laughs]. It popped into my head while I was in the shower, and then I got out and wrote it down.
TJG: On Single Soul (Criss Cross, 2014) “Jacob and the Angel” and “Sasha Anne” have devastatingly beautiful melodies. What were you listening to when you were writing a lot of these tunes?
PD: Actually, “Jacob and the Angel” was written by Eden Ladin. I love that song so much, and had played it with him before. It’s beautiful, nothing else to say. He wrote it based on a poem by the same name. “Sasha Anne” was written for my now wife, who I met the year before I recorded the album. It’s a simple, honest song about someone I consider to be my soulmate. You and I were just talking about expressing stories which relate to other people: I think that when I met Sasha, it was all very selfless. I don’t have the same ego with my writing and my relationships that I might have had when I was younger.
TJG: I see you recorded “Book of Stones” on both End Of An Era and Single Soul, taking a pretty different approach on each. What encouraged you to revisit the tune on Single Soul?
PD: I was still attached to that song, and where I was in my development, I was playing it a lot and it was important to me. I wanted to play it with Eric Harland and Joe Sanders. Joe was on End of an Era as well, which is split between Linda Oh and Joe on bass. So Joe played both versions as well, and they’re very different, due in part to Joe and Eric’s interpretations of it.
TJG: What’s it like to work with Ben Wendel on your own music?
PD: Ben is a total professional. He grew up in Los Angeles doing the studio scene. He couldn’t be more efficient. Every take he does sounds incredible, as I’m sure anyone can tell, based on everything he’s ever recorded. I’ve never heard him sound bad. He’s super consistent, and any take on the album that wasn’t kept wasn’t because of anything he played, that’s for sure.
TJG: Do you find that kind of precision to be intimidating or inspiring?
PD: I love it, it’s amazing. If I was going to be intimidated, it would have been by Joe Sanders when we were growing up together [laughs]. Everybody’s incredible, so you can’t come to the scene from that intimidated mindset. It devalues yourself and your work as a musician if you play to those fears.
TJG: So what do you have going on these days?
PD: I’m writing a lot, I’m working on some commissions for a big band project I’m doing in Knoxville in January. I’m writing a lot of quintet music for this Jazz Gallery gig. And in December, I’m playing with a lot of different saxophonists, which is fun. I’ll be at the Gallery a few times as well. I’m trying to work on everything. My writing, my sound, my personal identity, my ability to interpret other people’s music. I’m in a very fruitful time in my development.
TJG: And what would you say your biggest hurdle is right now?
PD: I think I’ve gotten past my biggest hurdle, which was not being in touch with my potential. I wasn’t living in the present moment on and off the bandstand, and now I am. It’s given me limitless returns. I learned what was blocking me, and identified things in my past that I’d been holding onto for years and years. There were things in particular that I’d been holding onto for over twenty years that suddenly hit me as these “well, of course” moments. I traced things back to their roots. And then, I let them go, and created new relationships to certain experiences I’d been having trouble with. It opened up a lot of things. There was a while where I was working really hard, but was never living my potential in the moment. As soon as I let go of certain things and became present, I felt like I suddenly got out of my own way, because I was accepting of every aspect of myself, every aspect of my process of growth.
TJG: Anything you want to add about the upcoming show?
PD: I’m excited to play with some of the young’uns, Immanuel Wilkins, Jeremy Dutton, and Daryl Johns, all of whom I’ve played with before. I have a huge amount of respect for their potential, and the way they inspire me. Of course, I’m excited to play with Aaron Parks again. He was on End of an Era, which may possibly have been the last time I played with him outside of sessions. He’s one of my absolute favorite pianists on the entire planet. But I wanted to mention Daryl, Jeremy, and Immanuel again, I think their potential is huge and I’m excited to make music with them.
Trumpeter Philip Dizack plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, December 8th, 2016. Mr. Dizack will be joined by Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Aaron Parks on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members). Purchase tickets here.