Here at No Sound Left Behind, we have a special guest ladies and gentlemen. The first time I heard him play was at Pine Tree Elementary in 1978, when he took a solo during a concert when none was planned. Calamity ensued as his band director Mr.Napoli feared he would lose control of an ensemble that had already lost a wheel. The solo was later viewed as a moment of commitment, exuberance and abandon. Here and now in 2017, Lavelle has been pursuing himself through music in New York City for about 25 years.
Matt, first the obvious opening question: why interview yourself?
Well, something I find strange today is that jazz writers seek out people over and over again with the same story. The story goes like this: Somebody fell in love with jazz, graduated from a jazz program, and then started pursuing their music in a city type environment with other musicians. Now they’re releasing their first or tenth album as a leader, and it’s time for everybody to get on board. That’s a noble quest for anybody today, but is it a story? Is the title of your first album “I went to school to study jazz?” One thing I do have is a story, and like Louis Armstrong sang, “they can’t take that away from me.”
Can you tell my readers the gist of your story?
Sure! Thanks for asking Matt. I call myself the bartender’s son because that’s what I am. My father was a bartender for twenty-five years. Sometimes I worked with him. Both creatively and spiritually my model for being human comes from my grandfather Fritz, who was a devout artist and Catholic.
I never had the bread for jazz school, but I ended up getting something far more vital to me – a connection to the source. My first mentor was Sir Hildred Humphries who played saxophone with Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Roy Eldridge. I was in Hump’s band for about five years. My second mentor was Sabir Mateen, another master of sounds. I spent maybe ten years as a sideman with Sab, also known as Ribas. During this time I also joined William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra in which I learned a great deal. After all this time on the bookends of jazz, I ended up in the middle with my third mentor, Ornette Coleman. I’ve written quite a lot about what I call the purge. After my time with OC, I moved into my final sideman position with my dear friend, the late guitar master Bern Nix. Now I stand alone. As Cannonball would preach, I’m standing and walking tall. I try to hold my head high, even though, for every one of the twenty-five years I’ve been playing, I’ve had to have a low playing day gig to survive. I’m a leader now, at forty-seven years old. I have a quartet, oddly enough with all guys older than me that are down with my perspective. I also have an orchestra called the 12 Houses which has done over a hundred concerts in the city.
Maybe Jazz writers just don’t know what to do with you. I would like to hear more about your perspective. What is the message of your music?
Well, admittedly It’s taken me all this time to figure that out. All these years of searching have led me to believe that there are elements which unite everyone in jazz, from Buddy Bolden to Albert Ayler. Those elements are my focus – blues and freedom of expression by any means necessary, with your own sound and language. The feeling and the sound reign supreme over everything for me. It works both ways between in and out playing. Coming from Louis Armstrong, I believe melody is the most important thing in a free jazz context, and when I’m playing more in, I’m looking for that moment when the feeling that you have takes you beyond the so-called rules or laws of swing. I also, almost by default, have turned to jazz as a spiritual practice.
Do you mean with a specific religious practice, or as a way to worship God?
The other day I was reading a thread online where people were dismissing prayer as something that could be done for people whose lives had been torn asunder by the hurricanes. I like to say that I pray in all 12 keys because for me, playing music is joining forces with nature itself. Sometimes I see musicians who need to walk away from the spiritual power of music, perhaps explaining the rampant intellectualism in jazz today. Sometimes, even free jazz musicians and listeners need to discount the spiritual nature of what they’re doing, which to me seems especially odd.
Albert Ayler and John Coltrane tried to make eye contact with God through their music. They climbed mountains with their music. For me personally, if you’re into free jazz, the spiritual nature of it cannot be denied. It’s not just the free cats, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music stands as a pillar – it’s an enormous tribute to the spiritual side of life as seen through Duke’s lens. Albert and Trane stood mostly alone with their core band members, and Duke had his whole orchestra. What if we combined the two?! In the 12 Houses, I have sought a way to go where they went, while charting my own course and path. We have a piece called Hope, and the other day when somebody asked me what I was trying to do with it, I said I was trying to reach up and touch the face of God.
So you’re not practicing a specific religion?
I spend almost ten hours a week playing outside when I can, and I seek out direct contact with the sun. I don’t worship the sun, but I try to touch the power that she contains. The sun has witnessed every event on Earth. You would think she would have given up on us long ago, but yet she shines on. That same sun I felt today shone down on the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids. Acknowledgement of the process of life, and what it means to be a human being is something I’ve pulled from Ornette’s philosophy of harmolodics. We used to talk heavy philosophy, and the question I have for him now is: “Do Atheists fear death?” I know OC would have a response to that one!
The process of life has been relentless and ruthless the last several years. Ornette Coleman, Roy Campbell Jr, Will Connell, Bern Nix. Do you think of them now that they’ve returned to deeper levels of reality?
One thing about all of them that I think about often is how they would respond to the Chump phenomenon. Seeing fear, ignorance, and lies attempting to take over the world psyche is troubling indeed. Roy Campbell would be destroying Chump right now. He had a way of slaying politicians that left them as small piles of ash. The way Tazz went after Bush, I know he would be taking down Trump big time. Ornette would take this whole thing somewhere else. I can’t shake what I think he might have said, which is that Trump speaks to a core problem with humanity itself. That’s the difficult part. If you subscribe to a belief in the potential of the human being, then right now we’re either exorcising our own demons or being forced to look into a mirror that nobody wants to see. Trump is a human being. His base are human beings. That’s difficult for me to even consider. As an artist I feel we have to find a way to reach him, but what if he can’t be reached? What does that say about our deeper reality as human beings? I know Will Connell would break Trump down. He called everyone out once, saying the human race was having the biggest adolescent temper tantrum of all time, and that was during the Bush days. Bern didn’t talk politics much with me, but he would undoubtedly be responding with his guitar.
Getting back to your music, what are you working on today?
I’ve been commissioned by two friends of mine. Charles Waters asked me to co-write a piece and also compose a piece for his saxophone quartet called Zodiac, which may have started in the 12 Houses. Chris Forbes asked me to write a piece called Love to complete a trilogy – I’ve already written Faith and Hope. I tried to start it the other day, but it morphed into the Zodiac piece off of something Ras Moshe and I like to do- play massive perfect 5th’s at the bottom of the tenor and bass clarinet. We have a concert November 5th in Brooklyn.
So what’s up with that trumpet bass clarinet double?
Many times people ask me what I play, and when I say trumpet and bass clarinet, they’re just totally thrown off. Sometimes I’ll just respond flugelhorn or alto clarinet because I don’t feel like explaining it. The truth is, it’s not easy to explain! I played straight-ahead trumpet only as far as 1999. I became disillusioned with the straight ahead scene in New York City and exiled myself. I was also at a dead end with straight-ahead trumpet as my core focus. As far as I could tell, Lee Morgan, Brownie, Freddie, and Miles had that covered for eternity. I needed a way to express different feelings and sounds, and I had always been mad curious about the bass clarinet. I decided that if jazz were risk, I would take the chance of pulling off a double that most people would consider insane. I spent a year not performing and in the shed before I started bringing the new horn out. Coincidentally, I discovered the Vision Festival and an entire scene of more open jazz people, which changed everything for me. I eventually went through a hardcore free playing phase in a trio called Eye Contact, which I miss. I even joined a band impossible to classify, called Stars Like Fleas which I guess was modern and out Americana, and I was the crazy jazz guy.
When was the rise of the alto clarinet?
I listened to Sabir play alto clarinet many times and became fascinated. Following my prime directive of risk, I got one on eBay. Eventually, I encountered problems trying to play all of these horns, and with my bass clarinet in lousy shape, I put it down for several years and focused on the alto. The alto lets me hear myself better; it’s more of my natural range than any of the horns. This horn has virtually no history in jazz. Classical folks have trashed the alto clarinet for years, but why would jazz musicians turn their back on the sound? They are challenging to play and not made very well, but I believe I have found something. A discovery in jazz in 2017 is something to cherish if you ask me. The thing about the horn is that’s it’s an alto and a clarinet. The horn is a way to pursue the legacy of Bird and the Ellington clarinet tradition at the same time. I’m also very dedicated to flugelhorn these days after having an affair with a silver cornet. Roy Campbell believed that flugel was my true voice.
Aren’t you also a student at Rutgers?
Indeed I am. After 25 years of “customer service,” I’ve had enough. My music still tells me that she will take over my survival drama, but while she gets that together, if I have to keep working to survive, then I want to do something that I believe in – teach jazz history. I’m halfway through getting a masters. Rutgers has been so good for me as a musician and as a writer. Lewis Porter is an incredible researcher, author, and pianist. What happened in jazz? Lewis knows how to find out the deeper realities of the deepest mysteries of the music. Kwami Coleman tasked me with backing up my word, doing the work, and having the evidence to make my case. Henry Martin is one of the leading masters of music theory on planet Earth. I transcribed six Duke Ellington small band pieces with Henry as my guide. Maybe the most profound revelation was Duke having a sixteen bar section with no chords and only the name of the soloist, Barney. All Bigard had to do was play himself in regards to the vibe of the piece, free as a bird.
What are your plans recording wise?
Well, I have a big brother named Jack DeSalvo who has a label that is much more than that. Unseen Rain Records is a vision quest on its own, and Jack has put serious blood and sweat into getting music heard. I’ve recorded quite a bit for Jack, and I have never had support from anybody like this in my musical life. Hit up the Unseen Rain website as soon as you can. On deck is a sequel to a project I started called Harmelodic Monk where I play Monk tunes Ornette style. The recording of my 12 Houses orchestra concert at Roulette last year is also coming soon. That concert was years in the making. I also have a record coming out on ESP in January. I recorded a duo with drummer Reggie Sylvester and attempted the sequel to John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space.
Was it your affiliation with Giuseppi Logan that led to an ESP record?
I believe that had something to do with it. I just got Giuseppi a new flute, and his care-taker Dianne said his eyes lit up as soon as he saw it. The last time I talked to G, he was extremely lucid. His light continues to shine. I wrote a piece from the experience called a flute for Giuseppi. Giuseppi brings me back to the beginning of the interview. Did you ever read the Downbeat reviews of his record in the 60’s?
Let me guess.
They destroyed him, basically saying he couldn’t play at all. One of the reviews was by Kenny Dorham! I asked Giuseppi about it, and he said,
“I never had no time for anything like Downbeat. All my energy and time was focused on playing my music and my family’s survival.”
Critics have too much power, or we give them too much power. I just read how Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov used to trash Monk. Who had the last word on that one?
Well, Matt, I think we’re good. On behalf of No sound Left Behind, thanks for your time, and we hope your spaceship takes off soon!
Thanks Matt, and you’ve got a free ticket to ride with me for life. Peace.