Interview with Ron Horton about Genius Envy
by Frank Tafuri

Ron Horton.  Photo by Lourdes Delgado.
Photo by Lourdes Delgado

Horton: Right, so everyone has this period of their life when they reexamine something that they poo-pooed a few years earlier.  But I did that for a few years and I examined a lot of music -- and I could probably examine more Duke Ellington or more Louie Armstrong -- but I think I know the periods that were great or the compositions or, in Louie's case, the period that was really great for him and, I'm sorry, "Hello, Dolly!" wasn't one of his great periods.

Tafuri: Yeah, but the "Hot Sevens" and the "Hot Fives."

Horton: It's an interesting session.  I don't think it's the most clear example of Andrew's music.  So, this went on for a few years and I was totally into it.   I saw Andrew in 1984 -- I guess that was the first time I saw him -- and then I missed a few years.  There still is something to me -- even after playing with him and helping him with his music a little bit -- there's still something that Andrew has that nobody else has.  Completely indefinable.  He has that melodic thing that I'm really attracted to.

Tafuri:   So, you were really -- I don't know if "enamored" is the right word -- but you were really into Andrew's music.  Is that maybe the basis for your tune "Genius Envy."

Horton: Not the title, so much, but the bridge of that tune with its counterpoint and the harmony is definitely based on -- I wasn't conscious of it, but after I wrote it I said there's definitely -- a strong Andrew influence there.  ["Genius Envy"] also has two other influences, Interestingly enough, two people that you're very interested in.  The opening riff was based on something I'd heard Tom Varner do ("dh-dh-DUH-duh, dh-dh-DUH-duh, duddl-duddl-duddl-duddl- duddl-duddl-duddl-duddl") either on an album or a live thing and I'm not even sure I consciously took it.  It found it [out] later when he and I were playing "Genius Envy" together and I realized, after hearing Tom play that, that I had derived that [phrase] from something he had played.  It was a real roundabout thing.  And the other person who influenced it was Tony Malaby because Tony and I used to play with Rez Abbasi, the guitar player, and I used to hear Tony warming up.  Nobody warms up in a more melodious, beautiful fashion than Tony Malaby.  I know that's a weird compliment, but a lot of guys when they pull the horn out of the case they start running scales or trumpet players just try to get loud notes, high notes, whatever --

Tafuri: He plays those lonnnng tones --

Horton: Yeah, it's like he's literally warming up the horn.  And that also inspired "Genius Envy."

Tafuri: Okay, but what I was asking is that the title ["Genius Envy"] had nothing to do with being envious of Andrew?

Horton: The title derived from the fact that I felt that when I look around -- and I don't want to get too negative in our conversation here -- if there's one thing that has disturbed me over the last fifteen years is the emphasis on envying geniuses of past years, particularly geniuses who have passed on and can't respond to all this "praise" on them.  It's not just praise.  It's like the more you praise Louie Armstrong, the more you praise Cootie Williams, the more you praise Rex Stewart, the more you praise Duke Ellington (to the hilt), Monk, the more you hammer it home that these were geniuses ('They're geniuses, you gotta play their music'), the more they don't do anything a lot of times, but just play their music verbatim.  And then they say, "Wow, these guys are geniuses, they're geniuses!"

Tafuri: Those players today are recreationists when the geniuses they're emulating, by their very nature, were geniuses at least partly because they were innovators who were trying to move the music to another level.

Horton: And in my mind, in my little fantasy world, Duke Ellington would come back and say "Man, what are you doing playing my music?  You oughta be playing your music."

Tafuri: It's like a joke that Joe Maneri tells.  It would be like if Mozart came back today, heard his own music being played and would exclaim "This is as far as you've gotten?"

Horton: Exactly.  It's like if all these players would come back -- Cootie Williams and Louie -- would be (I don't know what the word would be) aghast.  They'd be like "You gotta be kiddin' me!"  Where on the one hand they'd be thrilled beyond belief that they were being praised like this (because they probably never got that kind of praise in their lifetimes -- well, Duke did and Louie), part of that is this kind of "guilt trip" by the younger generation.  I'll say that when I grew up, Duke Ellington was [thought of by people like myself as] an old fart.  As far as big bands go, I wasn't interested in Duke.  That didn't sound interesting to me at all. "Take the A Train," "Satin Doll" -- that sounded like old fuddy-duddy stuff to me. And I'm sure it did to others as well and the younger generation; I'm sure that when they heard "Doo dah-dah-dah DU-dah" of 'A Train,' I'm sure they thought that was corny shit.  But then you get farther into it and you realize, "Oh, my God, this guy wrote the Far East Suite and all this great music going back to the '30s and '40s."  He wrote great stuff and so you're like "Oh, I didn't know who Duke Ellington was."

Tafuri: Some of the then popular stuff just didn't engage you.

Tafuri: I want to talk a little about where your music comes from.  Your music is very melodic in a lot of ways and it's filled with distinct melodies and tones. It's rarely strictly modal or riff-based, so I'm wondering where that [melodic basis] came from.

Horton: This is hard to formulate into words.  It's not that I listen to any particular composer to get this melodic thing happening.  It's kind of an extension of my playing which developed in a melodic way.  When I was in Berklee, there was an emphasis on everybody learning their chords and their scales and their patterns.  And when I got out of Berklee, I realized that melodically there was a lot to be desired there. So I had spent a lot of time listening to real melodic players like Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Miles and people like that to get a stronger melodic thing going.  It's kind of hard to define.  It's not like I could pull out a melody and say "Oh, that's pretty melody."  I knew there were certain kinds of players who were energy oriented and certain players -- like you were saying -- who were riff-oriented or certain players that could just run changes.  What I wanted to do was find melodies within all those changes, rather than running up and down chords; there're melodies within that.  Like those two players, Chet Baker and Stan Getz, were pretty good examples of people who could play difficult changes, but not run chords.  They would somehow play melodically over it ... and naturally, too.  I don't think they were real analytical about finding melodies within those chords.  I think they were kind of "naturals" that way.  So when I met Frank [Kimbrough], he was already in that vein, thinking very melodically, but he also had a good handle on chords.

Tafuri: I think it's significant that, as a graduate right out of Berklee, you felt the need to "balance" your playing -- what you'd learned there and what you'd gotten out of the experience there.

Horton: When I was in school there was nobody who was teaching anything as far as melodies or playing more melodically.  If you think of it, it would be a hard thing to teach.  You can't teach "Melodic Improvising 101."  It's almost easy to teach 'Here's a C7 chord, these are the notes in the chord, that's the scale that goes along with it, practice, have fun, now you're a jazz improviser.'  I was never really good at that pattern-chord-scale kind of thing.  So I had to find another way that felt better to me and more natural.

Tafuri: And I guess that was the root of my question.  Playing melodically seems something that comes very natural to you, that it's your "comfort zone," something you naturally gravitate toward.

Horton: And it takes a little longer, too, as an improviser.  I can find the notes of a chord and try to run those chords or notes, but it doesn't feel good to me.  I find melodies and it takes a while to do that sometimes.  Sometimes I'll play over a piece for a very long time before I feel like I'm (what Jane [Ira Bloom] used to call) "internalizing" it.  It takes a while to absorb it and then make it your own. And composing is similar for me, so I draw on that melodic sense, but composing usually doesn't come quickly to me.  Some people can ride on a subway or a bus [and get a composition], but I can't.  I really have to take something and play it over and over and over and over and think about it and add a little bit and take away a little bit and shape it. It's a long process for me.

Tafuri: Your compositions sound really well constructed, which is to say I don't mean they sound unnatural.  One of the things I like about your music and your compositions is that you're not just writing "standard" heads.  You don't write a lead sheet and chord changes.  You add harmonies and flourishes and other elements to the music which allows your pieces to be heard in a larger, compositional framework.

Horton: One thing I wanted to tie in between the improvising and the composition, when I realized I was a melodic improviser, was that I was not only drawn to players who played melodically, I was immediately attracted to composers who were melodic.  Frank Kimbrough falls into that category and, when I met Ben [Allison], he was that way.  All the years I listened to Andrew Hill, a lot of people think Andrew's music is really "out" but, you and I both know that there are tons of beautiful melodies; it's almost Romantic music, really.

Tafuri: It's just on a different level...

Horton: It is.   A lot of people get thrown off because it's so dense that they just think it's really far out because rhythmically there's a lot of other shit going on in there.   But, underlying it all, I think Andrew's a really strong melodic composer.   When I started transcribing all of his tunes, I realized that every tune has really strong melodies.  It was pretty enlightening.

Tafuri: I'm a little curious about how you were drawn to the music of Andrew [Hill], because now you play in his ensemble, you have a project in the Jazz Composers Collective -- like the Herbie Nichols Project -- called the Andrew Hill project.

Horton: It goes back a long, long way. I was a fan of Blue Note Records, but I was coming out of Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Dorham -- all the major players who were playing on Blue Note -- and my only introduction to Andrew Hill's music was the most un-Andrew-like tune called "The Rumproller" --

Tafuri: He wrote that?!   You're kidding!  That's on a Lee Morgan album, isn't it?

Horton: Yeah, it's called The Rumproller and it's an Andrew Hill attempt to writing like another "Speedball."  So that was my only introduction to Andrew Hill.  I didn't know him as a player because I don't think he plays on that album and I didn't know any of Andrew's albums on Blue Note.  I just kind of filed [his name away] like, for example, every once in a while you'd see a name like Cal Massey and you wouldn't really know who that person was, but you'd see a tune of theirs every once in a while.  So, I held that thought for a few years.  And then a friend of mine in college had [Andrew Hill's] Point of Departure and that's almost everyone's introduction into Andrew's music, even though he's made 25 or 30 or more albums.  Almost everybody knows that album.  When I first put it on, it was so different.  All the same players -- Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Eric Dolphy -- and yet it was so different that the "Blue Note sound."  It'd had that sound because all the Blue Note albums had that Rudy Van Gelder sound and they're playing on that famous piano, but the voicings, the counterpoint -- it's still mysterious to me.

Tafuri: Like in a parallel universe...

Horton: Exactly.  And it was so different than The Rumproller, obviously, I was " Like, wow!"  And that was around the time I moved to New York, I guess, '82 or something like that.  At the same time, I'd known Frank Kimbrough from a couple of years in Washington.  Frank, at the same time, had Black Fire and a few other [Andrew Hill] albums and was saying "Man, you gotta check this out, this is incredible!"  As a little background to that, when I first met Frank in Washington, he had just seen a concert of Andrew Hill down at DC Space and was totally taken by that.  Frank had also seen, about that time, Paul Bley and others at a concert at the Smithsonian.  Maybe it was Don Pullen and some other people.  But one of the reasons I was attracted to Frank was that everyone I went to Berklee with listened to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, but Frank listened to Paul Bley, Don Pullen, Ornette [Coleman], Andrew Hill, Horace Tapscott, Randy Weston, Abdullah Ibrahim. He listened to all these piano players who I'd only known peripherally.  So, when he was telling me about Andrew, I was totally wide open to it. I was like "Man, you go ahead, lay it on me!" I was totally ready for it.  And then, for the first couple of years we were in New York, you couldn't find those Blue Note albums, you couldn't find Andrew, you couldn't find Smokestack, you couldn't find Judgement -- this is before the CD reissue craze.  So, we would find them in used record stores, one or two in libraries --

Tafuri: So you were really on "the quest"?

Horton: Absolutely.  Almost every month, one of us would find one and say "Like, man, you gotta check this out."  Another one -- Bobby Hutcherson's album Dialogue -- any time Andrew played on another person's album, we were totally finding all that stuff.  And actually years ago now that I think about it, I had the one that was on Arista -- it might have been called Invitation, Spiral or something like that -- that had Lee Konitz, Ted Curson, and a few other people.

Tafuri: I don't think I've never heard that one.

Horton: And even, for Louie, in the '50s when he did the W C Handy album and he did another one (maybe a Fats Waller album), he was still playing his ass off and those albums (to me) still have that fire. "Blueberry Hill," "Mame" -- that doesn't do it.   I'm so annoyed that people are enamored of people in the past that they fail to see that we're surrounded by [geniuses].  I mean, I don't really know what a genius is; I think I do.  But I do know that there are some extremely gifted people all around me. So when we spend all this time praising people of the past, it's almost pointless because I think that the real joy is being immersed in [the music of] people around me.  It means two things.  The full title was supposed to be "Too Much Genius Envy" which meant people are just too much into genius envy.  In a sense, my genius envy is the envy of all the people around me who I think are really the geniuses of our generation and are not necessarily being recognized as that.  I don't mean just high profile people, but people who hardly anybody knows about.

Tafuri: But what you experience is not really "envy" as much as it is "appreciation."

Horton: Yes, that's true.  And one more thing.  My annoyance with people who praise people who are already dead is that the people who have passed on don't have the opportunity to come back from the grave and say the things that we were talking about, like "Man, you're still playing this?"  It was scary when I first did the Andrew [Andrew Hill Project] that -- not only was Andrew still around and alive and performing and also had just moved back to New York and was good friends with Frank Kimbrough -- he was also going [around] to check out music and (I didn't know Andrew at that time) there was a possibility that he could come to the concert.  [That] made me very uneasy because what [would happen] if he didn't like it? I also did a performance up at MoMA (New York's Museum of Modern Art) and Andrew was there and I was scared to death.  Even though I'd known him a little bit at that point, I didn't know how he would take to my interpretation of his music.  It was terrifying, actually.

Tafuri: Well, it seems to me like you always have to "hang it out" there sometime.

Horton: I guess so and he was thrilled.

Tafuri: And now you're in his band, talk about the payoff for being dedicated to someone's music.

Horton: Whew, it's the luckiest thing that's ever happened to me.

Tafuri: So, in addition to your tunes being really enjoyable and really engaging (and I'm a melodist at heart), the titles like "Genius Envy" and some of the others are really interesting.  Like, for instance, there's this tune "Carla Blake."   Now I know who Carla Bley is, but where to you come up with a title like that?

Horton: "Carla Blake" was written almost on the day I did a recording session with Michael Blake and there's a tune of his -- I don't remember the title of it -- which is a real slow, bluesy thing where the chords go "dah dah DAH dah" and, for some reason, that kind of germ was going around in my head.  Also, in the last couple of years, I've been listening a lot to Jimmy Giuffre's Trio [album] that got rereleased on ECM --

Tafuri: -- 1961, the Thesis and Fusion albums --

Horton: -- right, and that tune "Jesus Maria" by Carla Bley is a beautiful tune.  Somehow those two -- Michael Blake and Carla Bley -- came together for that tune like "What if they had collaborated on a tune together?" or something like that.  "Might it be something like this?"

Tafuri: Cool!  That's an interesting combination.  You know what one of my favorite tunes is on the album?   Another one with a fun title: "Claude's Petite Bicyclette."

Horton: That was basically inspired by listening to A Soldier's Tale of Stravinsky, Philip Johnston and Andy Biskin who I think have the funniest, most unique outlook on the world or the world at large, I'm not sure which.  They both have a unique ability to capture something humorous.  I call jazz pieces "miniatures," because they're not like symphonies or operas.  You capture a feeling in a small amount of time.   They both [Johnston and Biskin] both have the ability to do that. They're both wonderful composers. So, it was kind of a humorous piece.  It has A Soldier's Tale kind of French vibe.  I don't know what Soldier's Tale is really about, but it sounds funny to me.

Tafuri: There's another one with kind of a fun title: "Happy and Out of It."

Horton: It's kind of a take off on the Beach Blanket Bingo movies of the '60s with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.  In my mind I visualized that kind of beach fun, kind of an "angular twist."

Tafuri: I heard the "surfing music" influence later.  What I heard first was boogaloo thing.  It was like from someone who had listened to a lot of Blue Note albums over the years.

Horton: And that was what we were talking about earlier with the Lee Morgan and "Speedball" and "Rumproller" -- all that kind of "funky butt" groove from the '60s.  Still, even though its 30 years old, it still sounds really cool to me.  I mean, it doesn't sound dated.   When people listen to James Brown, it still sounds "bad."  Nobody goes, "Oh, that old crap."  It sounds really funky and I still feel that away about things like "Speedball."  That's still sounding pretty funky.

Tafuri: Oh, yeah! Well, it's appropriate for your debut recording as a leader to have the obligatory boogaloo on it.

Horton: Yeah and a tribute to Lee Morgan.  I think Lee was one of the "baddest" trumpet players.  I went through a period where I had to collect every Lee Morgan album.  Had I known -- it was probably in the hundreds, the record dates he did -- I wouldn't have pursued it as much, but I couldn't get enough of him.

Tafuri: And I especially love that stuff he did with Jackie McLean.

Horton: Absolutely.  As a sideman, he was just as strong as a leader.  It's amazing.

Tafuri: You have a couple of other tunes on here that I'm curious about: "Thumbnail Sketch."

Horton: That was inspired by a conversation I had with Ron Kozak.  He's a sax player, composer from Cleveland and a friend of Joe Lovano and other people like that.  He also writes very interesting music.  It came at a period last year when I spending all this time writing tunes that were taking me forever.  I was just agonizing over each tune, I worried about every note and every chord.  And Ron said, "Man, you're not supposed to be doing that.  You're supposed to be writing down as fast as possible and then fill in later because if you worry about every note and every chord, you're going to lose the whole feeling of the tune.  It'll get away from you by the time you get to the second bar."

Tafuri: You lose the muse.

Horton: Exactly and he was right.  So, I consciously sat down in a free-flowing kind of way and imagined what it would be like to write a tune as fast as possible.  And I think that one ["Claude's Petite Bicyclette"] came about quickly -- an hour or two or something like that.  Then I shaped it for a few days afterward.

Tafuri: You have two tunes on the album that have the word "memory" in them: "Long Term Memories" and "Short Term Memory."  Are they related in any way?

Horton: They are related.  The story about "Memory" in general is that for the last few years I've been totally obsessed with the fact that, like all of us, I'm losing my memory.  I perceive that I'm losing it faster than everyone else.  I don't know if that's true or not, but remembering names and remembering faces -- things that seem to be easier for other people -- are becoming harder and harder for me.   So, I don't whether I thought of the title first or the tune first, but there was something [there] about losing memory that came about in ["Long Term Memory"].   "Short Term Memory" came about by taking the coda [of "Long Term Memory"], which came about spontaneously at the rehearsal when we were rehearsing the coda, and somebody in the band said 'You know, that sounds pretty good, slow like that.'   And it reminded me of the recording session I had done with Ben [Allison] a few months earlier where he took a tune of his called "Hot Head" and almost the exact same thing happened.  We were rehearsing a section of "Hot Head" slower and it had this kind of dreamy quality and he called it "Pot Head" on his Third Eye CD.  It's the same thing, but it's done in a totally different way. I think on the album, he put them next to each other. For me with the "memory" theme, I put "Short Term Memory" at the end of the CD, "Long Term Memory" at the beginning and, assuming someone has listened to the CD straight [through],  I don't know whether they'd associate those two things to know that's where that came from.

Tafuri: It's a nice coda to the album, in any event.  And probably people are going to pick up on the "familiarity" of it, even though they might not tie the two melodically together.  They'll kind of say "Ooh, that sounds familiar."  And that's also one of the things I like about your compositions: they all feel familiar.  When I hear them -- even when I was in the studio and I heard a couple of the pieces for the first time -- I felt at home.  They sounded not like something I'd heard before, but they sounded like they were right at home, they felt very comfortable.

Horton: Man, that's great!

Tafuri: There's this tune on here, "Embrace."

Horton: That's dedicated to Reba and it simply captured a feeling I have for her, that we've known each other for so many years -- almost fifteen years -- of capturing that feeling that we still like to give each other a hug once in a while and it still feels (even if we haven't seen each other for all of three hours) as warm and inviting as the first time.  It's amazing.

Tafuri: I particularly like your dedication on here for Tom Chapin.

Horton: Thomas was an amazing player.  I only worked with him in one band and that was Walter Thompson's orchestra.  You know Walter's band a little bit, don't you?

Tafuri: Yeah.

Horton: He always has just a crazy band of Herb Robertson and Frank London and Steve Bernstein -- maybe not all on the same gig -- but wild and crazy guys.  So who can you call a "lead player" and who can you call a "section player" and who's a soloist?  [Trombonist] Steve Swell, a bunch of crazy brass players [like trombonist] Bob Hovey, and then you get over to the saxophone section.  When I started playing with them on a regular basis, it was Thomas Chapin, Michael Blake, Allan Chase, Michael Attias, Dave Casteglione, and Phillip Johnston, and all those guys are really strong individuals.  But Thomas was definitely the section leader.  He had a lead alto sound and he had a lead personality and that saxophone section sounded amazing.  I was just amazed that he had such a beautiful sound that was so glorious (that's the only way I can describe it).  Most of the band sounded kind of ragtag, but he managed to make the section sound like a section in the midst of all this craziness that was going on.

Tafuri: So out of the din, his sound shone forth.

Horton: And how!  It was a beautiful, beautiful sound.  When I heard that he had -- even before someone said leukemia -- I had heard that he had contracted some kind of blood disease when he was in Africa, then I heard leukemia and he just went downhill, then I heard a few stories like Walter had visited him in the hospital.  I was shocked to hear that he was going downhill fast and that somebody who was in his early forties (maybe he was only 43) had passed away.  He struck me as somebody who was really strong.   He'd wear these sleeveless, tanktop kind of t-shirts with bulging biceps.  I still imagine him as a strong person, but when he was reduced to being so weak, the image of that was really striking.

Tafuri: And that's when you wrote the piece?

Horton: Yes, right after I'd heard that he'd passed away.

Tafuri: Well, Ron, on a happier note, how to you feel about finally having an album come out with you as the leader?

Horton: I don't know how quite to put it into words, but I've begun several projects and have put them on the shelf for whatever reason -- mostly my own reasons, just not [being] satisfied. But this is the one project. I mean, a number of factors -- your enthusiasm, the enthusiasm of the people in the band for my writing, and seeing the project through -- was a big boost.  It's hard for me to follow through on a project from beginning to end.  This is the one, I think.  The music, the compositions were finally coming together.  The group sound came together.  So, how I feel is I'm pretty ecstatic, actually.

Tafuri: It sounds to me like you got to the point in your playing and in your composing, in your performance and in your ability to pick a band and pull it together that the time was right.

Horton: I look back and I say "Well, shoot, when you're twenty years old, you wish you could have an album come out."  When you're 23, you wish "Oh, gee, I wish an album would come out" or 25 or 28 or whatever.  So I'm 39 now and I say it's a little late to have something come out, but if I made a recording (which I did) when I was 22 (with Jane [Ira Bloom] and Rich [Rosenzweig] and Ratso Harris), I would have been thrilled at the time, but then looking back on it, I think I would have been embarassed that that had come out.

Tafuri: But now you can feel confident and proud -

Horton: I feel that this [Genius Envy] is the best example of where I'm at now and, I mean, a recording is just a snapshot of where you are at a particular day or week or time or whatever.  I think that this is the best example of who I am and where I'm at. I've been doing the "sideman thing" for so many years and I love that 'cause I love playing other people's music and I love playing with other musicians, but a lot of times I don't get to convey who I am and what I'm about.  This [album] really says who I am as a composer and a player and a "leader."

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