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Jack Reilly Interview, Part 1

by Jan Stevens

Acclaimed for his solo jazz concerts and trio dates in the US and in Europe, where he has performed in France, Italy, Poland, Ireland, England, Wales and Norway, Jack Reilly is a vibrant exhilarating pianist.

The enthusiastic response to Mr. Reilly's European tour with George Russell's New York Band and his subsequent performance with the band at the Village Vanguard in New York City; his concert at Jordan Hall in Boston with his trio, where he was given a standing ovation; his recordings and books --- three volumes on jazz improvisation entitled SPECIES BLUES and the nationally acclaimed book THE HARMONY OF BILL EVANS -- confirms the scope of Jack 's talents and versatility. He has also worked with vocalist Sheila Jordan, John LaPorta and jazz legend Ben Webster.

Mr. Reilly has an M.A. in music, and was also a student of legendary piansit Lennie Tristano. He has also presented lecture/recitals at numerous schools in North America and in Europe including presentations at the prestigious International Piano Festival and Competition at the University of Maryland. Formerly chairman of the Department of Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, he has served on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music, New York University, The New School, the Berklee School of Music, and as chairman of the Jazz Program at La Musica A Villa Scarsella in Diano Marina, Italy. Known as both a jazz and classical composer, his piano concerto “Orbitals” was performed with symphony orchestra last year in Michigan.

The following interview was conducted by pianist (and BILL EVANS WEBPAGES webmaster) Jan Stevens in the music room of Jack's home in the New Jersey shore area. A beautiful Steinway grand and shelves of manuscripts, classical music collections, CDs and all manner of music books surrounded us as we sat down and talked in September 2003.

The link for PART TWO follows below.

J.S.: Jack, I'm really glad we're finally able to do this interview!

REILLY: Me too!

J.S. So, tell us when you first met Bill Evans, and maybe you can give us a couple of details.

REILLY: Well, I should say I first heard him in '52. I was in the U.S. Navy; he was in the Army. We both were stationed at the Washington D.C. School of Music. That's where you go if you're a musician, and in the service and they teach you music for military functions, dance band stuff, etc. And I just happened to be walking down a hall, and I heard this incredible piano playing coming from a practice room, and I looked through the peep hole in the door, and it's this guy who looked like a librarian playing, sounding like Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, George Shearing. But he had his own linear concept going already and it was cookin' like mad. And it was only solo piano! He was practicing, and I stood there for about 10 minutes or so and wound up getting captain's [unintelligible] for neglecting to go to my class. Of course it was a school, you know, we all had to take classes, except Bill, they just let him do whatever he wanted 'cause he was so advanced at the time.

J.S.: Did you stop in to meet him?

REILLY: So, I said, "This guy I gotta check out." I found out where he was in the school, and I realized he was also playing flute in the orchestra. They had, you know, a practice orchestra and he played flute. And, I grabbed him one day right after a rehearsal and I said, "Bill, hi, my name's Jack Reilly. I heard you playing and it really sounds wonderful, man. Could you, uh, would you listen to me? So that was it. The first face-to-face with him was, "Hi Bill, I'm studying. You know, I'm a jazz pianist, I haven't played much. I studied with Lennie Tristano before I left for the Navy -"

J.S.: You had studied with Lennie before?

REILLY: I studied with Lennie for a whole month before I actually joined. Then I went to boot camp, and then came to Washington, D.C., and then I worked with Bill. And I said, "Could you listen to me play?" He said, "Sure, man." Uh, I think we went right to a practice room and I sat down, and I played "How High the Moon," and "Fine and Dandy" and" I Remember April." And I played a couple choruses each, and he says, "Good man, just keep goin' the way you're going. You're doing the right thing." Then he upped and walked out of the room.That was it. Maybe until I get out of the service, and then I called him and actually saught him out him as a teacher. He said, "Well, I don't teach, but come on up to my apartment sometime."

J.S. This was like what year?

REILLY: This was sixty, umm...wait a minute. Good question.

J.S. It was almost ten years later?

REILLY: Right, ten years later, because I remember I was hanging out at the [Musicians’] union, getting gigs.

J.S.: Having obviously paid close attention to his playing, how would you compare that experience to the first time you heard him professionally on a recording?

REILLY: Okay, four years later I heard the 1956 Riverside debut album ["New Jazz Conceptions"] and it was clearly eight notches above what I had heard, but in a more integrated trio style, and of course the repertoire was different. I don't remember what I was hearing in the room -- the practice room in '52. But the line and the swing was there. And the Riverside album seemed a little bit -- well this is in retrospect -- seemed a little bit stiff. And it seemed like it was worked out --- the improvisations. Of course it wasn’t, but the improvisations were so logical. And they never skidded off, like -- there was always some meaning in every note and every phrase he played. I heard that '52,and I heard it in full bloom in 1956 on the first LP.

J.S.: Yeah, and there's much more of a serious Bud Powell straight-ahead bop feeling
to it also.

REILLY: Right, also Bud Powell! I should have mentioned Bud too. Of course, he was very much a Bud player then. Oh, then at the school in D.C., he would get together with the bass player. He was in the Army with Bill, I can't remember his name, and they would play too. And I would sit outside the practice room and listen. This was after classes, so I wouldn't get caught.

J.S.: Have you heard any of the two releases that, you know, the “Very Early” thing or the "Practice Tape" CDs than Bill's son Evan put out?

REILLY: Yeah, Evan sent me a cassette of that. And it's a while ago since I've heard it.

J.S.: Some of that stuff is from the late '40s.

REILLY: That's right!

J.S.: With Con Atkinson [on bass].

REILLY.: That seemed like a totally different Bill. I wouldn't have necessarily recognized his playing.
J.S.: What I was trying to get at: You obviously remember clearly what he sounded like and it made a major impression on you. How close was that was to the earlier thing?

REILLY: Because there was an independence of hands already there. It seemed it wasn't striding, it wasn't walking the pace, but he never lost the time. And that was true all the way through. And when he played solo he could just play one hand and he would never miss anything else.

J.S.: Yeah, and in fact one critic once said, earlier on (this was during the LP days), if you put the needle on the beginning of a long track of Bill playing solo, count the time and then move up later, the time doesn't change at all. Because it was so solid. So you obviously followed his early recordings and stuff for quite a while. What were you doing at the time professionally, like in the 60s ?

REILLY: Well, from '54 to '58 I was at Manhattan School of Music, and I was studying
classical piano outside and was a composition and theory major. And I was gigging, but it mostly was commercial gigs.

J.S.: But you didn't run into Bill at all there, right? Because he was only there a year.

REILLY: No, well, I used to catch him with Tony Scott downtown, at that club. I was very timid myself. I would never go up and say hi, and of course he didn't talk much either.

J.S.: That's right.

REILLY: And '61 when I went to the Vanguard when he was with Scotty [LaFaro] and Paul [Motian], I went downstairs there and spoke to him, I heard a set the whole night there. And he remembered me. Of course I had already played for him twice at his apartment in the Bronx. I played, then he sat down and played, and that was it. He didn't say, "Work this out, or work that out..."

J.S.: He never did with anyone, not really.

REILLY: Right. I just stood up and watched him play. And I don't remember really getting
anything out of that. I can remember sitting in the gallery at Birdland, watching Bud, and Lennie Tristano, this close, as close as we are. Paid two dollars, under-age, to sit in the gallery. And I got the seat right next to the piano over the railing, and there's Bud! And I was what, 17, and I went home and I remember, for a month, I couldn't get over it.

J.S.: Obviously at this early stage there were no transcriptions available of Bill's music. Were you taking the records at all and just going through things and trying to find out what he was doing?

REILLY: I was listening, and I wasn't trying to transcribe them. Lennie had me learning solos of Charlie Parker, and anyone else I liked, Stan Getz , you know, Chet Baker. And I was learning the tunes that Bill had recorded and trying to play them and trying to get the spirit of what he improvised. And it was later on that I found out that Bill practiced a lot single hand - playing improvisation. And that's what Lennie had you do.

J.S.: Without the left hand?

REILLY: Yeah, no left hand. Just play the tune. Right hand alone. And play the tune, left hand alone. Just melodically. Melody, and then improvise on the changes - whatever you hear.

J.S.: Wow.

REILLY: Yeah, that was so painful when I started that.

J.S. : I bet!

REILLY: Just playing melody one hand. I said, "What am I doing?" I can remember my parents and friends saying, "What's Jackie doing? He sounds like a beginner!" (Laughter.) Hearing one note at a time! But I was convinced that it was going to work, and within a matter of months I could feel the difference, and so could Lennie. And I don't remember what I played for Bill either, in those days.

J.S.: So you went back with Lennie Tristano for a little bit.

REILLY: I went back, right. I went back in '62. When I heard Lenny's solo album came out, The New Tristano, I said it's time to go back and I went back for three months, four months. I could never stay longer than three or four months with Lennie.

J.S.: 'Cause Bill always acknowledged him as a huge influence early on. Him and Nat Cole. In fact, as you recall, Bill subbed for Lennie that one night with Lee Konitz's band, and what was it, Live at the Half Note? There's a recording of that and Bill hardly solos at all.

REILLY: Yeah, I remember that.

J.S.: So you had not at this point recorded any of your own stuff, or were you writing?

REILLY: I was writing. And I had formed a trio on Staten Island and we would play the repertoire.Two years later, what came out: Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and I got that and studied that, listened to that. And I wanted to imitate that feel. That rhythmic and that constant variation in the melodic line. And with Lennie, I started his whole harmonic approach to the left hand. And it seemed like Bill was not doing that, but was doing a modified version of it. In his own way of using the left hand. From Bud and right through, clusters and so on. But the right hand, that always was my first concern, and Bill was to me the leading influence, besides Lennie, and Bud Powell. There was always something that stood way out, as just a singable line, that’s the best way to put it.

J.S.: Jack, you talked about going down to the Vanguard and seeing the trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian . Was it as revolutionary then as we all look at it now? When you were hearing that trio at the time live, did it sound that way to you?

REILLY: Yes it did. The Portrait in Jazz album, that was with Scotty, right. To me that was a major breakthrough for him and it was the beginning of something that he was working on to achieve that freedom and that spontaneity in his own playing, but also as a group effort. I was working in the Village at the time and Max Gordon [the late Village Vanguard proprietor] would let me come into the club whenever I wanted, on my breaks. I'd catch 20 minutes of some group or whoever was there, and then I'd go back two blocks to my gig, play 40 minutes, and come back to the Vanguard. Actually, I did the Monday night subs and that's when they hired the bass player. Steve Swallow was hired then. He was just on the scene. A few other guys I can't remember, but Steve, I remember well, and that's where I met Sheila Jordan. And I was accompanying singers there, and the whole art of accompanying was very important to me and I remember clearly trying to get the rhythmic feel and the complete cushion for a singer that was not in the way -- that enhanced whatever the singer was doing. And Sheila was always, uh, very -- it wasn't set things. I could do it. I was very free with her. And she worked with a trio a lot, and we worked the Vanguard on Sundays for a week or so there. And she always let me do a trio thing.

My whole trio plan was very influenced by Bill at that time. And I didn't record until 1968. And there was always reference to Bill, the influence of Bill, all through my recording career . I never thought it was overt, or that it was there because how could it not be, what with the voicing concept and all. So, I tried to develop my own linear concept of inventing the melodic line within the structure. Not necessarily always running the changes; I never thought of it that way. Like horn players do, they practice that. I probably do that more now. When I transpose tunes I work out patterns within the tune that spells out the changes, so to speak, but always with an ear for where the line wants to end and start down again, and stop in the middle, you know.

You can take one note and play that one note against 88 measures,or whatever, you know -- it's a root and one chord, it's a seventh and another, it's a ninth and so on. And that's how you build tension in your line. You hear the tension in the note, the one pitch that's above the change and all the different places it can go. I heard that in Bill, and he had such a wonderful variety of where they were going. Of course rhythmically it had a propulsion to it that was different.

J.S.: Rhythmic displacement.

REILLY.: Right.

J.S. Even in the early days he was doing it, you know -- when he was talking to Marian
McPartland on the radio show [on Piano Jazz in 1979]-- he said that was something he developed later on, but I hear it happening much earlier in the recordings.

REILLY: Oh, sure. Yeah.

J.S.: This is interesting that you mention this. When we talked to [jazz pianist] Hal Galper, he said that he was not as influenced -- and he listened to a lot of Bill in all the periods and loved him -- but he was not that influenced by his voicings as musch as he was by his melodic concept, which I found a little weird because Bill's known, especially among pianists, for how the inner voicings move, you know. And he was one of the first people to pioneer. like,, playing a nine chord as a flat nine, as a sharp nine, and just the way that might move structurally , maybe adding the sixth in the middle, or how he's gonna get to the next progression. Hal seemed to feel that the melodic concept or content [of Bill's]was more important than even that, at least to him.

REILLY: Hmm. Interesting, yeah. Well, I always, being a student of composition and counterpoint, that was coming out of my written exercises, and four-part harmony and counterpoint , from the Species Blues books I did, right through Bach counterpoint and all that. And I was starting that in the early 60s, concurrent with absorbing whatever Bill was putting out, and whenever I could go hear him play, and also the early work with George Russell and his Lydian concept.

J.S.: Did you study that?

REILLY: I studied that with George, yeah. And it was a way of rethinking linear availabilities above chord changes. I had to relearn the whole numeral system with George, so to speak. And I was a good student, so I would do it, you know? And I didn't forget my Schoenberg figured bass theory. His was almost diametrically opposed to that.

J.S.: Right. But, Russell believes, or did believe then, at least, that F was actually the center of -- well, he felt that F should be middle C in other words.

REILLY: That's right, yeah. And I should give George credit 'cause I did woodshed religiously and diligently, all his lessons. There were six lessons and they were spread out over three months. No, maybe three lessons, spread out over three or four months, because I couldn't afford to do that at the time. And I was studying with Joe Maneri, harmony and counterpoint; I wanted to learn everything!

J.S.: And Joe Maneri is....

REILLY: Joe was known as a great teacher of the Schoenberg theory book. I was a composer all my life, really - when I was a kid, I was writing tunes. And then I knew I wanted to write. I knew I loved to play. It was like all these things I had absorbed. And I focused on the great players of the time. And Oscar Peterson came in too, but I wasn't that thrilled with Oscar because there was too many notes, and even early, when I first listened to Art Tatum there was too many notes. But later on I studied the transcriptions --- the Tatum transcriptions. And, I heard in those the complete future of jazz piano! I heard bebop, I heard Bud Powell in those --- those two books that are out. I studied those a lot and tried to play them. Not as solos, but I just worked various sections of the piece, and tried to hear what he was doing over in the melodic end. The harmonic end was marvelous too, of course.

J.S.: But nobody has those kind of hands, I mean to execute so cleanly with all that speed!

REILLY: No, right. He could whack a twelfth I think. Together!

J.S.: With both hands.

REILLY: And four notes. And with all [kinds of] variations. (Laughter.) And then fly laterally across [the keyboard]. Devastating! And Billy Taylor was a big influence. It's funny, I met Billy Taylor. I used to go hear him a lot.

J.S.: Me too, but it wasn’t until the mid-seventies.

REILLY: I got his books and I was learning his original tunes, and they were nice voicings. They [sic] were big, fat, mood-oriented stuff that was nice to play and I studied that kind of concept. And I loved his linear thing: it was not as rhythmically interesting, perhaps, but he certainly had a fluency about his right hand that had a nice appealing bounce to it.

J.S.: Yes, yes, absolutely. And he really swung....

REILLY: And he still does. He's amazing. He's developed a lot. His solo piano thing came out a few years ago, I even had to write him and tell him. I got to know Billy, almost better than I knew Bill [Evans]. I just sent him my piano concerto a couple months ago.

I was just a little kid for starting out, who when he could, would break away and go to New York and absorb whatever I could. When I started to play of course in the Village, that's when I met a lot of people. John LaPorta I met when I was there. John was a great player and I was with his quartet and that was a big thing for me to play in Newport in '58 with the John LaPorta Quartet. That was a big turn of events for me.

PART TWO with more on Jack's approach to jazz harmony and structure, current jazz pianists, classical music, Bill Evans' influence after his death, and much more.

JACK REILLY ON THE WEB: http://www.jackreillyjazz.com

© Jack Reilly 2003. Cannot be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.

Special thanks to Lisa Vernon (A professional writer and Bill Evans fan) for her excellent transcription from the original tapes and for her assistance in editing -- above and beyond the call of duty!