Part 2, Our interview with pianist Jack Reilly

by Jan Stevens

Make sure you read PART ONE first.
Click here.

Jack Reilly, pianist[CONTINUED FROM PART ONE]
J.S.: Who else was in that group and what they were playing?

REILLY.: Dick Carter was the bass player. He was blind, a black man and he lived on Staten Island and I worked with him. And he would work out nice changes that I was just learning with tunes. And then we formed a trio on Staten Island. We played Sunday afternoon at Birdland when they used to invite groups to play. And Charlie Perry was the drummer with John LaPorta. John was on alto sax -- he only played alto at that time, but he does play clarinet now. He was a clarinet major at Manhattan School of Music -- and a great arranger. And I was in that whole crowd with Marshall Brown and the Newport Youth Band when Eddie Gomez was with that band. And there was a lot of activity in those days.

J.S.: So when you get the late sixties. and rock music starts to take center stage in the culture and begins to influence many of the the jazz players, and we hear the early rumblings of fusion music and all of that, what was going on with you and the state of jazz at the time?

REILLY: I was probably teaching privately more, if I remember correctly, but I was playing all kinds of gigs too. I was playing Radio City Music Hall with the orchestra there. I played in the pit - I was the regular sub. I was doing rehearsals with singers, I was doing demos with singers, I was writing arrangements for singers. I worked with a trumpet quartet and we did a classical concert; lots of things.

J.S.: Okay, Jack, we've talked on the website about the Harmony of Bill Evans book that Hal Leonard Inc., published. What was the earliest period of time where you started really taking Bill's music apart and looking through the voicings and doing your own analysis of them?

REILLY: I would say mid-80s, as far ahead as that, and before that it was just from the recordings and studying the tunes on my own -- mainly the standard tune repertoire he had.

J.S.: But had you done transcriptions of the solos and things for your own use before that ?

REILLY: No, I hadn't done any transcriptions of his solos. I had listened to them so much I could almost play them without writing them down, if that's what you mean. The Letter From Evans newsletter came out, and Win Hinkle [it’s editor, anda fiene bassist] spoke to me, I guess because he knew I was connected with Bill . He knew I played for him and knew him , and sort of played like him. So he contacted me and he said, "Would you like to write an article?" I said, "Sure, I'd love to." It was just a labor of love, there was no pay. But I had decided to start with an early one of Bill’s tunes - Periscope -- and just approach it as a pure compositional analysis. Harmonically, rhythmically, and in terms of melodic development -- how each phrase was a variation of the one before. That's the way I approached it. Three ways: the form of structure, the harmony and the melodic design. Looking at it in terms of key relationships, from the original key and so on.

J.S.: Right. Was that the germ of what became the book?

REILLY: That's right. Most of these articles in the book are from the Letter from Evans. [An all-Evans newsletter from the 1980s] Except I can't quite remember which it is, but I think Time Remembered was not in it. I would take the harmony changes that he did and use them as a basis for explaining some voicing principles that I know Bill worked on in his early stages of study. And I came up with these different categories that you could build on -- certain voicing principles, especially.

J.S.: Right. And for those who don't know, who haven't seen the book, let's take an example like the B Minor Waltz, which is from the album You Must Believe In Spring. What you do here is he take each part out, each phrase: one through four-five, through eight, nine through 12, and he does an analysis of the entire thing, looking through each part of it. And then he also adds what he would call the six-part voicings, which are really as close as possible to the recordings still getting the essence as how the harmonies move, diatonically and otherwise. And having played through them, it's quite a substantial thing. But then he also does sort of the same thing he looking at the modes of each phrase - the modality of each phrase. When you put the three parts together of what each one are doing, you kind of get the full picture harmonically. Also it's a much easier way to approach the improvisation rather than a separate set of chord changes.

REILLY: Right. The whole idea behind treating the modality of just the pure melody without the harmony underneath as you play it, was an attempt to think melodically in the pantonal way, you might say. That the melody can go this way, while the harmony still goes where it's supposed to.

J.S.: Just expand on that for a minute?

REILLY.: The melodic improvisation -- even when you’re composing a piece --the melody does not have to conform to specific notes of the chord. If you play a progression, anyone can learn to play over the chords and make it sound good, but to really invent a melody that's free of the harmony, but yet can be married to it in a way that makes for drama and excitement in the improvised line -- that's what I always tried to develop myself. And I think Bill developed it, in terms of displacement of phrases, but yet his line floated above the changes, but if he would improvise just single lines. like a lot of recordings when he just went in and did the date fast and did almost nothing with his left hand and played single lines, you could still hear changes in the tune. The purpose of presenting this whole concept in the Harmony of Bill Evans book was to present a theory of improvising with the harmony in mind as you play, but with the melody kind of floating above it and maybe getting further out.

There are some contrapuntal concepts in the B Minor Waltz section that I presented --- but in Time Remembered, there's a whole analysis of the melodic design that's totally different if you would think of the harmony that's underneath. And the unique thing about Time Remembered is that there are no dominant sevenths. That’s quite amazing. It's minor thirteenths and major thirteenths. And the phrasing is unique, too. And even the closing phrase where he jumps tri-tones - C minor to F sharp minor, and so on. It has a motion to it ,as if it was some very active dominant seventh chords in. And it's a great study of the Lydian mode and the Dorian modes, with one or two Ionians. And the modal analysis of the melodic design, he'd come up with a whole different tonal gravity to the first phrase when all these changes were going on underneath for eight bars. And you can think of one mode above all that, and still relate it to the harmony, and yet have the melody not be dictated by the harmony, the improvisation, that is. But, the melodic design in the composition dictated that mode, not the harmony. That's what I meant to imply.

J.S.: I see. The way it moves intervalically?

REILLY: Right. And what you do is you have to play the phrase over and over until you hear the tonic and then find the mode that it suggests. It's just an amazing study. The tune is an amazing example of the marriage of the old modes with contemporary jazz, and modern improvising. And the written out piece itself is murder to play, and very on the hands -- you gotta be very careful, how you stretch and so on.

J.S.: Just progressing ahead a little bit: One of the things I always say about Bill is that -- and especially jazz historians are guilty of this: Most of them are really almost unfamiliar with what Bill accomplished after 1978 with the last trio -- Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera. But those of us very attuned to Bill’s career know that that the last trio completely invigorated him. He got much younger guys to work with.
And it also worked in the sense that he had so much freedom that he could go out of time even if he was speeding up, or whatever. You know, some people said that it was due to the cocaine use at the time or whatever. But, the trio always moved with him, whatever he was doing.

REILLY: Right, yeah.

J.S.: But I'm more interested in is, how it was, you could say, kind of the culmination of just about everything he had done before -- he had stretched out in ways he had never stretched out before. His inhibitions were far less. He was playing the entire keyboard. You know, and even though he seemed in the last performances in the last year of his life especially , where he would take a tune like...

REILLY: Umm, like Nardis?

J.S.: Right, or My Foolish Heart or Like Someone in Love -- things that he had played for 25 years or more, and even though he kept true to the spirit of how he originally played it in some ways; it's like he played head arrangements very much the same once he worked it out. In his last two years or so, notably, he expanded that whole vocabulary. Especially rhythmically you almost have to count out loud to see where he's following the beat. But there seems to be a whole explosion going inside of him to get it all out as soon as possible. And I think fewer jazz people are aware of post-1978 Bill Evans in terms of looking at the whole picture; his earlier career etc. They keep talking about the Vanguard stuff and everything else.

REILLY: The Last Waltz CD! When I heard that I heard the explosion. And I could not listen more than 20 minutes. There was so much going on.

J.S.: So intense.

REILLY: So intense. I mean, did he have a premonition that "this was it;" that he's gonna not be around anymore? I don't think so. I think he found a new freedom within the trio, and let's face it, when you play that much and you play almost the same repertoire, and if your approach is so creative and free that each time you play a tune and improvise you are always finding something new within the tune itself, within the linear aspect of connecting the chords, and the way he would connect chords linearly, and there was always a line going on, and rhythmically always so incredibly inventive. He's already a great pianist when he was 21. He played some serious classical stuff to graduate, I mean what a program he had to do. So I think Bill put himself in a closed situation most of his life, and concentrate on mood and the trio and interaction. And then suddenly this whole past came out of him -- his whole experience as a real virtuoso pianist, all his life. And he could do anything he wanted.

J.S.: That's right.

REILLY: I've heard glimpses of that when I went to see him at in the Vanguard when I've said, "Oh my God! Where did that come from?" Suddenly he'd do a whole crazy thing. And it was so virtuoso, and so out of context, almost, and it was, in some ways. And when he'd end the set sometimes he'd throw in some crazy things.

J.S.: Absolutely right. Because there's a recording - it's not that well known, but it's become, you know, a sort landmark in some ways to hardcore Evans fans. But, it's the Birdland stuff from 1960, which was recorded for the radio broadcast, live from Birdland, at the time. And they would announce the phone number and they’d say to come on down right as it was happening live-- and the announcements and all are pretty comical. But it's the same trio as the Vanguard classic stuff, you know, Scott and Paul, but sometimes --- not being aware that he was being recorded I guess, he plays these completely adventurous things out of nowhere.

J.S.: And the ambience of it. They're not as controlled performances as maybe the Sunday at the Village Vanguard album that we know so well. So there's glimpses of that.

REILLY: Yeah! Right. That is a puzzle.

J.S.: So Jack, tell us a little bit about what you've been doing the past few years,and who you've been working with , and what your feelings are about the art of the trio, and what it's come to since Bill is gone. And, do you enjoy trio playing as much as you enjoy solo playing?

REILLY: Well, the last few years have seen a surge in my compositional output and larger works. I wrote a concerto three years ago for jazz trio - a piano concerto for jazz trio and orchestra. And I've always been interested in synthesizing the jazz trio format into larger orchestral formats and compositional structures. And my song output is still, in all humility I say, maybe prolific as it always was. I've written maybe over 50 songs in the last three years -- some that I haven't even practiced myself. I've always wanted to do a quartet, I'm very comfortable with a trio. And it's hard to surpass what Bill did, and Oscar, and people who had great piano trios, where they worked, you know, a long time together. I envy not having that experience of being with a trio a long time. In the 60s, I had Jack Six and Joe Cocuzzo, and that was a great trio because these guys had all the experience and I came in, and we made it like a threesome, but I was the green guy. I wasn't as experienced as those guys were in terms of playing with different jazz players. And I always wanted to get that trio back. If I could have that trio, I would have it back. I've worked with Ronnie Bedford who's a wonderful drummer, and we have with Jack Six on bass. We have a new album coming out that's being reissued from 1981 live at the Jazz Forum. {“November” issued on Progressive Records] So, I'm going back to old tapes that I've made of concerts, and I'm trying to -- I guess, taking inventory, Jan, so to speak, at the "latter part of my life." (Laughter.)

J.S.: So now that you're doing a quartet, you'll be in London.

REILLY: I'm doing a quartet in London in November. I'm gonna go out to California next April for the first time and do a quartet there too. I love the quartet format. I've done it on QXR live with Dave Tofani on sax. I wish I could release that. It's just, you know, not enough time.

J.S.: Dave Tofani has played on many Steely Dan albums. You should ask him about that.

REILLY: Oh, right! Yes! He's a monster, a wonderful, wonderful player! I have a WQXR recording that we did that is roaring, you know? We did Blue Skies, we did a bunch of my songs. And some things for the oratory.

J.S.: Who will you be with in London in November?

REILLY: In London I'll be with the sax player named Bobby Wellins, very well known
over there Dave Green from London, Steve Keogh from London, who's worked with Bill Charlap a lot. Dave works with everybody over there - Dave Green the bass player. And Steve Keogh is the drummer and Bobby is tenor sax, mainly. And, I'm looking forward to that.

J.S.: Now you also worked with [former Evans drummer] Joe LaBarbera recently?

REILLY: Oh, yes! I'm glad you mentioned that.

J.S.: In California?

REILLY: Yeah, last year I premiered a whole suite I wrote while I was undergoing a serious illness. And we premiered out in Los Angeles with Joe LaBarbera and with Tom Warrington, on bass.

J.S.: How was that, working with Joe?

REILLY: That was wonderful! It was very comfortable, and he was very sensitive to the music.

J.S. A very listening player.

REILLY: Right. Very listening. I had a video of the premiere of the Green Spring Suite, I call it. A set of 12 pieces, each one dedicated to a different person that I was involved with at the time of my illness - and as I watched the video, I could see that he was unfamiliar with my style which is totally different now, and with new music, but it was, but the music had some common vocabulary to it .

J.S.: Is the Suite going to be recorded anytime?

REILLY: I hope to do it with the quartet next April out there in California. Pete Christlieb on tenor sax. Wonderful player.

J.S.: Yeah, a fine jazz player-- and also a big Steely Dan alumni. Big time. He plays that signature solo on FM, which is one of their biggest tunes.

REILLY: Oh yeah, wow...

J.S.: 'Cause Becker and Fagen [leaders and founders of the band] heard Christlieb play on The Tonight Show, and they said, "Wow, who is this guy? Let's get him!"

REILLY: Alright! I can't wait to play with Pete.

J.S.: Different. Got a lot of Sonny Rollins in his playing.

REILLY: Yeah, that's what I like. I shy away from the Coltrane influence - soundwise players, because they just not John.

J.S.: Same here. Oh, and there's so many of them too!

REILLY: Right. (Laughter.) I have things in the works. I'm planning a piece for jazz quartet and symphony orchestra called Expectations that may be played here in the New Jersey area, and hope to get a commission from the Garden State Philharmonic for that.

J.S. Wonderful. What about your other works for orchestra and piano, like Orbitals.
REILLY: Well, Orbitals, I hope to record soon, and Milwaukee Symphony's gave me a nod about performing it. Lucas Foss has heard the work and he likes it very much. My colleagues have heard it. Dick Hyman was very impressed by it. But I want to do a fresh recording. I mean, there's several pianists out who could really do a great job on it. Dave Brubeck has heard it and he's quite amazed with it.

J.S.: That'll be great. Who do you like now in terms of today's younger piano players? Anybody making an impression on you these days?

REILLY: Well, I think Bill Charlap is doing some really amazing things.

J.S.: Yes! He was a student of yours...

REILLY: Right. Bill was a student of mine when he was a teenager about two-and-a-half years, three years. And he went through all my books. He's the only one who's done that. (Laughter.) My three books on jazz piano. [See Jack's
website for details] The last one he kind of did on his own. He had already left me. David Hazeltine? Is that his name? Yeah. I think he's got a lot to say.

J.S.: Have you heard Brad Mehldau?

REILLY: Brad Mehldau is very talented. I don't like a lot of his work, but there's some things he did with Joshua Redman which were amazing and wonderful. Really crystal clear and right out of a solid jazz feel. The trio work is a little esoteric, and the solo work is very esoteric. it’s--very hard to get with it. There's one other I wanted to mention. Oh, and Kenny Drew Jr.! Kenny's a wonderful pianist.

J.S.: He did a whole album for Bill.

REILLY: That's right. I have it. It's a marvelous album. I reviewed it for some trade publication. I do articles for Piano Today magazine, that comes out several times a year. And several have been on my own music and voicing concepts that might be of interest to people on the web.

J.S. Well thanks, Jack for your time today. Lots of good music to look forward to. And we’ll be sure to tune in for your appearance on the Marian McPartland “Piano Jazz” show on NPR in March 2004!

REILLY: Oh yeah, we recorded that show a few months ago in New York, she’s just great.
We really had fun doing it too. Yeah, well thanks, Jan. I’ve enjoyed this.

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!