Jazz bass great Gary Peacock is best known for his quarter-century’s worth of work with drummer Jack DeJohnette in pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio.
But he’s also released a long list of intriguing albums as a leader, and such projects as last year’s Insight, a duo project with pianist Marc Copland.
I recently spoke with Peacock for an interview published in Bass Player magazine. Check out the story online here, or read my somewhat extended version, below:
More than 25 years into his collaboration with pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, digging deep into the American Songbook and finding dazzling musical insights in pop chestnuts and jazz standards, and Gary Peacock isn’t so sure that the gig is permanent. “There are no guarantees in that group,” Peacock says from his home in small-town Claryville, in upstate New York, where he relocated from Westchester in 1993. “So every time that we go to play it’s the first time we’re going to play and the last time we’re going to play. We make it so that we can be totally present with the music. I hear their music imbued with the same kind of dedication and same kind of commitment.”
To be sure, the so-called Standards Trio, a critical and commercial success on recordings and concerts around the globe, is likely to go on indefinitely. And the group’s prominence owes in no small measure to Peacock’s penchant for following his muse, his confirmed identity as a musical seeker. That open-mindedness led the Idaho-born musician to drop piano and drums at 21, in 1956, and migrate to bass. Within the year, he had left Army life in Europe and moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly found work with the likes of saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, pianist Paul Bley, and guitarist Barney Kessel.
Peacock’s long and fabled career has encompassed work in mainstream jazz and free jazz, stints with Miles Davis in 1964 and 1965, a self-imposed hiatus from music in the late ’60s, and a string of solo albums. Most recently, he has applied his highly creative soloing, heartbeat-steady walking, and gifts as a composer to trio and duo recordings with pianist Marc Copland. And that long-running gig with Jarrett and DeJohnette? There’s no end in sight.
You live in a rural area. What effect does that have on your playing and your composing?
It’s very, very supportive. It’s quiet. The mind quiets down just because the atmosphere’s quiet. If I need excitement, I can always go into the city. It’s much easier to get into a daily routine here than in the city. The external noise from the car horns was very distracting. Living where it’s quiet, I can sustain concentration.
Do you play bass every day?
Yes, every day. I have a very strict routine. I get up early, at five or six o’clock, and have tea and then sit and do Zazen (meditation). I have yogurt and coffee and then play the bass for an hour and a half or two hours. The morning is very patterned, a real routine. I usually don’t answer the phone until 10 o clock in the morning. And then after that, I do whatever business I have to take care of, answering emails or making calls.
Are there any particular exercises that you play?
I don’t really work out of a book. What I’ve been doing for years is basically trusting my ears and listening and asking myself what’s coming up to work on. It may be an arpeggio, it may be tenthing, or breathing. I spend a lot of time just improvising.
How do you describe your physical relationship with the bass?
There’s the physical aspect, and the intellectual and psychological, emotional aspect and there’s the intuitive aspect of it. There is a physical relationship between the actual performer and the instrument and I mean that literally. It’s the physical relationship that very often is not stressed, is not considered enough.
You’ve talked about approaching each playing experience as if you were a beginner. What do you mean by that?
You’re always at the beginning. That’s an attitude that can be understood intellectually. It’s an attitude that can be conceptualized. If it becomes real, then it does change things. If you’ve come close to death a few times or what you thought was death, you’ve realized there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be alive in the next instant. So my approach to playing is the realization that there are no guarantees anywhere. So where do I want to be, what kind of state to do I want to be in when I’m playing? It helped me to be really focused in a profound way and be really present.
Did you have that feeling the first time you played with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, on your album “Tales of Another” (1977)?
Yes. On that recording, I had written some free pieces. One of the free pieces was “Major Major” and there weren’t any changes, it was just a head. Keith said, “What do you want to do when you finish the melody?” I said, “I’ll just do whatever comes next.” Keith said, “Oh, okay.” It was where that “okay” was coming from that made a difference. He knew what I was talking about. That was a special moment for me because it was very clear that we were on the same page. (When they began playing) it was real clear that he absolutely understood.
Do you feel like you have a different connection with those guys than you have had with other musicians?
My experience with Keith and Jack is unique. The experience I had with Paul Motian and Bill Evans is unique. The experience I had with Paul Motian and Paul Bley is unique. Not the same, and not different. There are musicians that a person has a certain affinity with. It’s kind of like an acre of ground, very very fertile ground, and in that ground there are flowers in all different shapes and color and sizes, and different longevities. And at the same time they come from the same undeniable source, the same ground. That’s as close as I can get to an analogy of the experiences I’ve had with the different bands I’ve worked with.
Is “Insight” a project that you had wanted to do for a while?
We’ve only done a couple of duo performances. It’s something I like to do because of the bare-ass nakedness of it. No other support is going on except for what’s going on with us. I’ve always felt comfortable in duo settings whether with piano or with guitar like Ralph Towner. There are nuances that I would naturally hear that I would play, whereas with drums I probably wouldn’t. It does make a difference. It’s something that we both enjoyed and looked forward to doing.
When you first began playing bass, you made very rapid progress.
I was woodshedding and jamming with people, playing blues in all 12 keys. I had a Simandl method book, boring as hell. I went through that pizzicato, and realized very quickly that what I was really after I wasn’t going to get out of a book. I’d been playing a little less than a year and Bud Shank and Bob Cooper came over for a European tour and they were looking for a bass player and I got the gig. And then I went back to Los Angeles and was there for about five years, working with just about everybody in LA. I realized one morning that I had to go to New York.
Having had a background playing drums and piano, did you come at the bass with some advantages?
I think any bass player should sit down to a set of drums and play drums so they get a sense of it. And for sure they should spend some time at the piano. That’s for ear development, particularly for being able to intuit harmony. The keyboard, the acoustic piano, is the source for hearing any kind of tonal relationships, even if you’re getting into free jazz or stuff where you’re not playing tonal music. The lessons you learn transcend tonality. Years and years ago, just before I moved to New York, Scott LaFaro came in town and we hung out at his place. He put on a record. It was Anton Webern. It was dubbed atonal. What was interesting was that I was into Bartok, particularly the quartets, something that I listened to daily. That I could hear. In Scott’s case it was Webern. It was 15 years before I started listening to Webern again. When I did I said “Whoa, I hear what’s happening.” There are short little melodic fragments – 12-tone rows. I suddenly realized, “This person really deeply understood tonality.”
Was Scott Lafaro one of the players who had a major impact on your jazz conception?
Yes, and Paul Chambers, and Ray Brown — there wasn’t anybody that I wasn’t listening to. When I first started playing, when I got to L.A. I had two books that I made of my own transcriptions — one was transcriptions of Ray Brown, his walking lines and choice of notes. One was Red Mitchell’s solos that I copied from his records. I used those books as etudes. It was something that was real to me I didn’t have any fear at all that I’d become a clone. Doing the transcriptions was wonderful ear development. You really have to put in the time and the energy and the willingness.
Were there others whose music you transcribed, and learned from?
Of course. Miles Davis, just in terms of phrasing and intuition and sound. Stan Getz. Pianists from Horace Silver to Wynton Kelly. Red Garland, then later Bill Evans, and Brubeck for a little while. Russ Freeman. Chet Baker, too.
You’ve said that Miles taught you a lot about the art of listening. How so?
He didn’t miss one thing. He heard everything that was happening all the time. I could hear that he was hearing it. There was that kind of focus, that kind of attention, that kind of commitment to what’s happening. It was a great experience really a great lesson. Miles was a great teacher, without teaching. He didn’t teach everything, or anything, and yet taught everything.
Were there other leaders along the way who had a big impact on your playing?
In terms of listening, that certainly happens with Keith and Jack and it also is an integral aspect of what Mark and I play, although very differently.
Do you have plans for more solo recordings?
I’m looking at a solo recording project for the early part of next year.
Yes. It’s something I’ve been threatening to do for years. I think I’m starting to feel like, “Yeah, I’m ready now.”
Playing completely unaccompanied presents its own challenges and joys.
Oh yeah. It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done in a sense. My whole approach to music and jazz in general was more coming from the standpoint of being a support player. When I got in a band, I wanted to make sure that everyone sounded the best they’ve ever sounded in their life. That was kind of my goal, that I really lit their fire. That’s kind of what I felt with Ray Brown — How could somebody play with Ray Brown and not sound unbelievable? How could you not sound great, with what this guy’s lahying down? For me to go from that to being a soloist, unaccompanied, is daunting, really scary. I think I’ve finally turned that corner. That’s my plan.
Bass: Arnold Schnitzer flatback, 3/4, circa 2005. Until 2008, Peacock favored his British-made Samuel Allen, a 7/8 bass made in 1875. “It sounds like an organ. It was always problematic in large halls. I was looking for a smaller instrument, with the assumption that a flatback would have the opportunity to not be muddy and to be clear and have more of a point on it. It (Schnitzer) has ash for the back and for the ribs, but the deck is maple. It’s clear as a bell, and projects well.”
Strings: Thomastik Spirocore, orchestra gauge
Pickup: Fishman Full Circle
Bow: German-style bow, made by G. Werner “It tends to be on the heavy side, but it balances really well.”
Rig: SWR SM-400 amp; SWR Goliath 410
Heard on: Gary Peacock/Marc Copland, Insight (Pirouet, 2009); Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette, Yesterdays (ECM, 2009), My Foolish Heart: Live at Montreux (ECM, 2007), Setting Standards: New York Sessions (ECM, 2007); Toninho Horta, To Jobim With Love (Resonance, 2008); Bill Carrothers, Home Row (Pirouet, 2008); Marc Copland/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian, New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 2: Voices (Pirouet, 2007); Marc Copland/Gary Peacock/Bill Stewart, New York Trio Recordings, Vol. 1: Modinha (Pirouet, 2006)
Listening to: Works by Shostakovich and Mozart